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2 Feb 2010 : Column 19WH—continued

That is the significant shift that we want to achieve because, as has been expressed many times, what has happened over the past 10 years has been unprecedented
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in our history. Let us consider the gross figures of people coming in-512,000 people came to the UK as immigrants in the year to 2008, which is little change from the 527,000 in the year to December 2007. So the recession has had less effect than one might think, and it seems that the underlying trend is a stronger factor than even the catastrophic economic situation in which this country now finds itself.

I turn to the challenge of what needs to be done, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). A Conservative Government would take a number of steps to manage migration directly, based on four different policy strands. I very much accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex that there is no single magic bullet and that we must concentrate on the matter across the board to reduce the numbers. We would control economic migration through an annual limit on non-EU immigration, and promote integration-a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)-through an English-language test for marriage visas. We would prevent abuse of the student visa system with tough reforms and we would tackle illegal immigration with a national border police force.

Mr. Pelling: The hon. Gentleman can freely attack me for being naive in asking this, but what would happen when the limit was hit, say, nine months into the year?

Damian Green: We are discussing that issue with business. We would put in place a quarterly release system, unlike the American system where there is just an annual release, which causes problems. Our system would mean flexibility within the year and the overall limit. I spend a lot of my time talking to business about how such a scheme would operate.

Let me deal with the issues in turn. I shall start with the matter of limits. There would be an annual limit on the numbers of people from outside the European Union allowed to come here to work. That limit would take into consideration the effects of a rising population on our public services, as well as the needs of business. Instead of ripping up the system and starting again-that would be disastrous in terms of the sheer administrative capacity, which has also been mentioned-we would build on the points-based system. That system is designed to make sure that people who are beneficial to this country come here.

We would add a second stage to the system. It would control numbers with regard to the wider effects of immigration on society. The figure would be calculated after an annual consultation exercise with a number of bodies-obviously including business, but also including the providers of those public services that are so directly affected, including local authorities. A further step that we could and would take to control immigration directly is the imposition of transitional controls for new EU entrants. Other countries applied them in 2004 and had fewer of the stresses and strains that we did, even in relation to that cohort of extremely hard working and, by and large, respectable and good people who came here from eastern Europe. We would apply transitional controls on any further expansion of the EU.

Of course, as well as having a better controlled immigration system, we need welfare reform and improved skills training, so that we are not simply ignoring millions
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of British workers who do not have the appropriate skills. I pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in that field. That needs to be the other side of the coin.

However, economic migration is only part of the story. A significant amount of immigration results from those coming to the UK for family reasons. In 2007, more than 42,000 spouses and fiancés came to the UK, of whom two thirds were female. Approximately 40 per cent. of those wives and fiancées came from the Indian sub-continent. Although we must, of course, recognise an individual's right to marry anyone they choose, we have considerable concern about the importation of young women, who are often from rural backgrounds and do not speak any English at all. Those women cannot play a full role in British society when they come here. They need and deserve better protection.

The Government's Commission on Integration and Cohesion's interim report found that:

We all know that the inability to speak English affects not only the individual themselves, but their children. Everyone coming to this country must be ready to embrace the core values of British society and become part of their local community. A Conservative Government would introduce new measures for those coming to the UK as spouses, including an English language test to ensure that only those whose command of English allows them to play a full part in British life were able to settle in the UK.

For years, the Government have ignored warnings from me and my Conservative colleagues about abuses of the student visa system for immigration purposes. The Minister has taken some action on that but, as we know from the emergency action that the Government had to take over the weekend on suspending visas from the subcontinent, it is clear that the system is still in complete chaos. The Minister has been saying for a year that he is being tough on that issue, but almost every month he has to come up with new measures, because the system has failed and is continuing to fail.

We have suggested a range of measures that would lead to more effective control of the system, including a demand that those coming to institutions that we are not convinced are respectable should pay an up-front bond, which will be paid back only when that student leaves the country at the end of their course. That would be much more effective than the Government's action.

The fourth measure on preventing illegal immigration would be the introduction of a specialist border police force. Experience has taught us that the specialisation of police services is the most effective way of fighting new types of crime, and of all the specialist policing skills that this country needs, a specialist border police is needed more than any other. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex and other hon. Members across the House that a Conservative Government would make significant, radical changes in how this country deals with immigration and unsustainable population growth.

I want to say just a few words on extremism. People have said that we need to talk about immigration more to stop the growth of extremism. I think that it is
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action, not words, that will stop the rise of extremism; I mean a change in policies. The measures that I have outlined-an annual limit, a national border police force and an English language requirement-will reduce net immigration significantly and therefore have a significant and permanent effect on population growth in this country.

10.50 am

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): This has been a terrific debate, and I think that we all endorse the tribute paid to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). He is absolutely right that we must not only debate the matter, but have policy action on it. I commend him for that. I like to think that, as Immigration Minister and ever since I was elected to the House, I have shared his point of view; I have never accused a colleague or anyone outside the House of racism for raising the issue of immigration. Indeed, I believe that it is racist not to raise the issue, because that is patronising. Anyone who represents a constituency such as mine will recognise the truth of that statement.

I strongly agree, as do the Government, on the point made about the English language. Indeed, it was in a conversation with the then Home Secretary during the riots in my constituency that I was able to influence the Government to change our policy in that regard. It is the right thing to do by the immigrants-it helps them get on in life, which is what immigrants, on the whole, want to do.

It is also right to address the issue of extremist parties. We must not only debate the issue of immigration; the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) made an intelligent point on that. I also agree with the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) that showing the British public that migration policy is managed will enable us to talk better about how we can diminish discrimination.

Discrimination against immigrants is often fuelled by the perception-and in some cases, the reality-of a lack of managed migration, so if we are to achieve our goal we must do what we are doing. I sympathise with those Members who say that they have been attacked as racist for raising the matter, because that happens to me by the hour-and not just in liberal forums, but in communications from members of the public. That is the nasty underbelly of the debate.

I turn to points of policy. The Government agree that a population of 70 million is not desirable, but let me just pour some calm on that figure and examine where it comes from. The definition of an immigrant used by the Office for National Statistics, whose independence I respect, is, in my personal view, the wrong definition to use, particularly from the point of view of balanced migration, because its definition of an immigrant is someone who is coming to this country for 12 months or more. Therefore, the 512,000 figure to which the hon. Member for Ashford referred includes all the students who are coming here temporarily.

The largest group of immigrants, according to the ONS definition, are the British people returning home, who numbered 85,000 last year, and we must bear that fact in mind. We must get exactly to the heart of the policy of the all-party group on balanced migration to
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address that fear, and we must do that by breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration. We need to do that, and our policies are driving towards that point, hence the two points-based systems and the changes to the route to citizenship. Surely it is right to measure immigration in those categories of temporary and permanent.

Mr. Brazier: Surely the Minister must recognise that his own Government's human rights legislation has driven a coach and horses through that otherwise laudable policy. The breach is just not there if the courts can say that even an overstaying student has his right to family life breached by being told to go home.

Mr. Woolas: I do not think that you would allow me to go into human rights, Mr. O'Hara, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at our policy, the challenges and how we are addressing the issue, he will see that that is part of the policy equation. However, his own party must come up with answers on that point as well. I will make another point to allay the fear about 70 million.

Mr. Frank Field: I want to underscore the importance of having a second stage and of cutting the link between coming here to work and then being a citizen. Until we establish that, is it not proper that the ONS definition should rule, because that is what actually happens now?

Mr. Woolas: I will move on to that definition. People talk about a projection. The ONS is not making a forecast on the population of this country. Indeed, in 1960 it projected that the UK population would be 76 million by the year 2000. Those figures come about because the ONS and the statisticians take the figures for the previous three years and project them forward over the next 20 years. Therefore, if we had a big influx of Poles over the 2006 to 2008 period, the projection is bound to go up. As the Poles are going back, that projection is now coming back down; interestingly, that is expressed by the year 2029, as opposed to 2028. It is true that previous projections have not been borne out. That is not to say that fears over population growth and the impact of immigration are unfounded; those two statements are not logically contradictory. That is why the policy proposals that we have put in place are already working.

The Opposition's policy is confused. They talk about a cap on net migration, but one cannot cap net migration without restricting the movement of the British people going overseas. Around 700,000 of us live in Spain, and around 500,000 of us live and work in Germany, so the net migration figure is a function of people moving out
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and people moving back. The cap on migration that they talk about, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) pointed out, is in reality only a cap on tier 1 and tier 2, which makes up one seventh of immigration-and they are the very people whom the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) needs in his constituency to fuel British commerce. Therefore, that policy is based on a false premise.

Mr. Pelling: In all practicality, is there really that much difference between the two main parties' migration policies? Will the Minister also refer to my earlier point about the asylum seeker centre in Croydon?

Mr. Woolas: The difference between the policies is that ours is workable. That is the reality. The introduction of electronic border controls and the foreign national ID card has done more, and the numbers are coming down. The significant increases in migration to this country followed the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1961 and the Immigration Act 1971. The people in the ghettos to whom the hon. Member for Kettering referred were not brought into the country by this Government. They were brought into my constituency by the 1961 Act and 1971 Act and the failure of the British Nationality Act 1981, so the problem is not a party political one in reality.

The workings of our policy can be evidenced by what is happening in Croydon. I shut the Liverpool office so that new applications would be dealt with in Croydon while fresh applications, which in my view are sometimes not robust, would be dealt with in Liverpool. The asylum intake is an important part of net migration to this country, and asylum applications are now at their lowest level- [Hon. Members: "It was tiny!"] It was not tiny. It was 29,000 10 years ago. It is now at the lowest level since 1993. It is not tiny. It is actually just under the total level of tier 1, which is the only thing the proposed cap would address.

I agree with the analysis of the hon. Member for Ashford on the numbers of family members, although they also tried in 1961 to put a cap on the immigration from the Indian subcontinent. It is easy to say that, but one has to have a policy to do it. The English language test for spouses, which I proposed, is coming in, as is the use of English for visa applications.

As for the point on students, as we clamp down on students and close the 2,000 bogus institutes, of course organised and disorganised people will try to get around things through scams, which is why I have closed those visa offices. It is because we have the new system that I can.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. We must now turn our attention to the Thameslink programme.

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11 am

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate about planned major improvements to a transport route that is of considerable importance not only to many of my constituents in Bedford and Kempston but to hundreds of thousands of other people along the route and those who use its many connections. It is also crucial to the economy of London and a wide area north and south of the capital.

Since I first sought this debate, we have unfortunately experienced the serious deterioration of the rail service operated by First Capital Connect. Therefore, before completing my presentation, it would be entirely remiss of me not to take the opportunity to raise some points about that, not only to reflect the inconvenience suffered by my constituents and others but because what has happened raises some legitimate questions about capability to deliver the much improved service to passengers promised by the Thameslink programme. I shall return to those matters later.

I am pleased to see many hon. Members present for this debate, especially fellow members of the all-party Thameslink route group-my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam)-and others such as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton). I apologise for not referring to the others who are here. I do not think that they have signed up to the all-party group, but they can do so later.

Some of us have benefited from opportunities to inspect aspects of the Thameslink programme works, for which we are grateful to Network Rail, First Capital Connect and various construction companies. The Thameslink service has become such an accepted part of the transport infrastructure of south-east England that it is easy to forget how relatively recently it came about. The electrification of the midlands suburban route between St. Pancras, Moorgate and Bedford had already been started by a previous Labour Government in the late 1970s, when the idea of joining it up with what was then known as the Southern region began to be discussed.

British Rail engineers devised a plan to reopen the Snow Hill tunnel route between Farringdon and Holborn Viaduct stations, a route that had not seen a passenger train since Lloyd George was in Downing street, and from which the last freight service had been withdrawn in 1970. The plan initially was for some kind of shuttle between West Hampstead and south London, but the project eventually grew to become Thameslink: a full-blown network of services linking Bedford and Luton in the north with Gatwick and Brighton in the south via the City of London, with an additional loop serving Wimbledon.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I apologise that I am not a member of the hon. Gentleman's all-party Thameslink route group. Someone who represents East Croydon station should definitely be a member of such a group. Would he agree that the small public sector investment in that station was important because it ended up relieving a great deal of stress and strain in
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terms of cross-London passenger traffic? Does that not emphasise how important it is for the Government to continue to be supportive of such initiatives? Huge amounts of money are being proposed for Crossrail, but north-south movements are just as important as east-west movements in the whole south-east and London area.

Patrick Hall: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my comments, although I shall not speak against any other project. Crossrail is important as well, but I agree with the fundamental point that we must commit to this programme, and I will say so later on.

I shall give a little of the history, because it is sometimes helpful to put things in that context. A special fleet of dual-voltage trains was ordered from British Rail Engineering which were able to draw electrical power from overhead cables north of Snow Hill and from the third rail to the south of it. Full service was introduced in 1988 and became an immediate success. Indeed, we all recognise that it quickly became the victim of its own success: overcrowding and standing room only became the norm at peak times. I would have liked to illustrate that with passenger numbers for 1988, when the service started, for 2000 and for last year, but, unfortunately and unacceptably, I have been informed that the Department for Transport will not release such figures on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Whether overcrowding is official or not, commuters on the Thameslink route certainly have good reason to feel that they endure unacceptably overcrowded conditions at peak times. The Bedford to Brighton line features in the top 10 most crowded in every survey. Indeed, some research by Network Rail has revealed that 50 per cent. of regular peak-time Thameslink users claim that sometimes the train is so full that they cannot get on it at all. [Interruption.] Like London underground.

Overcrowding was recognised by British Rail, which sought to address it and to widen the scope of the Thameslink service through the Thameslink 2000 programme, which, unfortunately, became mired in the fallout from the chaotic privatisation of the railways and also the complexity of dealing with issues around the Town and Country Planning Acts, especially in south-east London. But, eventually, thanks to the hard work and determination of many, mostly in the public sector, and the robustness of the business case itself, in 2007 the Government were able to give the go-ahead for the Thameslink programme.

The main part of the Thameslink route covers 140 miles of railway and 50 stations between Bedford and Brighton. It interchanges with major rail hubs at St. Pancras and London Bridge, plus international airports at Luton and Gatwick. The core section, from St. Pancras to Blackfriars, carries more passengers than Heathrow airport every day. The Thameslink programme aims to deliver a massive increase in rail capacity through longer trains and high-frequency services, and, in so doing, should indirectly help to tackle overcrowding on other railway lines and parts of the London underground.

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