6 Sep 2012 : Column 402

The Government know that we have a housing crisis, but it is a crisis of their own making. Housing starts fell by 10% last year and affordable housing starts fell by a catastrophic 68%—that was a direct result of the cut in Government funding for affordable housing, which the Secretary of State allowed to happen. The Chancellor has put the economy back into double-dip recession, those who are looking to buy are finding it hard to get mortgages or to raise the deposits needed, and house builders who already have planning permission are not progressing those developments because they do not think that people will buy the houses.

We support measures that will help growth and build more houses—including the debt guarantee—and help first-time buyers. Indeed, we have been urging the Government to bring forward investment in housing. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when he expects that the number of affordable housing starts, which was only 15,000 last year, will match the 54,000 starts achieved in 2009-10 by the last Labour Government? Will he also tell us how many families have benefited to date from the NewBuy scheme?

The fundamental problem is not the planning system and not section 106 agreements, which are very important in providing much-needed affordable housing. The Local Government Association reports that planning permission is already in the system for 400,000 homes—it is the Chancellor’s failed economic plan that is preventing them from being built.

On section 106, how many affordable homes does he anticipate will now not be built because of his proposed changes, given that the National Housing Federation said this morning that section 106 provides 35,000 affordable homes a year? Will any replacement homes that manage to be built be built on the same development sites so that we can have mixed communities?

The Deputy Prime Minister suggested on the radio this morning that at present developers have to wait five years before they can renegotiate section 106 agreements. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those agreements can in fact be renegotiated at any time if the parties agree and that a number of local authorities have been doing exactly that because of the current economic circumstances? What evidence will developers be required to produce to show that a scheme is not viable? Will he clarify whether the proposed changes apply only to existing section 106 agreements or also to new ones, given that only last month he announced that for

“all planning obligations agreed after 6 April 2010, the period will remain at five years”?

This morning, the Secretary of State has also just announced in his written statement—I notice that he did not refer to it in his oral statement—a bombshell that threatens local decision making on planning decisions. The written statement laid before the House this morning states that if an authority

“has a track record of consistently poor performance in the speed or quality of its decisions”—

we must ask who will judge that quality—the Government propose

“to legislate to allow applications to be decided by the Planning Inspectorate”.

Can he explain why, having consistently denounced centralised decision making, he is now proposing a fundamental change? This is not a technical detail, but

6 Sep 2012 : Column 403

a fundamental change in which he proposes to take the power in future to decide whether he thinks that local planning decisions are up to scratch. If he does not, planning power will be taken out of the hands of local people. So much for localism. Does he not realise that that will cause alarm up and down the country, including among those on both sides of the House?

We have read a great deal about the Chancellor’s wish to undermine the green belt, which is much valued by all of us. Will the Secretary of State clarify what is happening? The Chancellor says that it will change, but the Secretary of State says that it will not. Who is right? Why is this shambles occurring?

When does the Secretary of State plan to publish more details on the relaxation of permitted development rights? Will the current height restrictions be maintained? Will he confirm that that will not apply to conservation areas and that where article 4 directions are in place they will remain in place?

Having completed the biggest change in planning policy for a generation earlier this year and trumpeted its success, the Secretary of State, in an extraordinary spectacle, has stood up before the House and, in effect, told us that his planning system is not fit for purpose. When will Ministers stop casting around for somebody and something else to blame, finally admit that it is the Chancellor’s failed economic policy has led to a collapse in house building and change course?

Mr Pickles: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what I think was a partial welcome for these measures. The previous planning Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), had occasion to compare the right hon. Gentleman, whom we all love greatly, to Lady Bracknell. Today, he acceded to Lady Bracknell sucking a wasp.

Given the party the right hon. Gentleman represents, he should remember that under the previous Labour Government the number of social housing units fell by just under 500,000. He wonders why the housing position was so difficult: it was the stewardship of his party that caused the problem.

Let me deal with the various questions that he asked. We will publish the figures on NewBuy very shortly, but I am sure that he will be pleased that it has been welcomed by the sector. That gives people the opportunity to get quality houses that are newly built. On affordable housing, he seems to have missed the point of the statement. We are talking about building additional social houses and will be building up to 15,000. We should celebrate that. The problem with Labour—I say this with lots of respect—is that it seems to think that because a plan has been passed it happens. If social housing is uneconomic and developers build nothing, it does not matter if the ratio for social housing is set at 50%, because 50% of nothing is still nothing. There needs to be a dose of realism.

There seems to be a misunderstanding among Labour Members about section 106. It can be enormously helpful to builders and gives social housing in certain parts of the country where there is high demand a ready and available customer. In some parts of the country, however, there have been unrealistic views about what is

6 Sep 2012 : Column 404

possible and that is holding back development. That is why earlier this year I wrote to local councils and asked them carefully to consider the process of renegotiation. I am very pleased that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, about 40% responded. I commend them for that and they should be regarded as heroes and as part of the process. However, there still remain a significant number of authorities that have refused to accept the economic realities and that regard this as a badge of honour—

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Name them.

Mr Pickles: I will happily name and shame them in due course.

The question of the green belt is very straightforward. I think people forget what the green belt is about. It is there to act as a buffer between the major conurbations. A certain degree of tricksyism occurred under the previous Government, whereby they said that the green belt was growing but essentially pinched the green belt from high-pressure areas where it was needed and redesignated it in places where it was not. We want to make it absolutely clear that the green belt is immensely important, both to London as a green lung and to the wider countryside as part of ensuring that our communities are sustainable. Within the green belt, however, is a lot of land that was previously developed: unused quarry sites and scrap yards, for example. It seems to me to be common sense that we should be able to use this opportunity to swap land—to take a greenfield site that is not in the green belt and to put it in, and to use the former developed land to get development going.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about permitted development rights and I fully recognise that he is a millionaire and an aristocrat, who is probably unused to being able to measure land other than in acres, but speaking as a working class lad who is proud to own a detached house and whose garden is smaller than the right hon. Gentleman’s croquet lawn, I must say that we will clearly retain the rights to ensure that the curtilage of houses is respected. Nobody will be able to build beyond halfway up their garden as a maximum and we will not be building enormously into the sky. All those things are related and we will not be building a big extension on Dove cottage in Grasmere.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for today’s innovative announcement and for the written statement. I particularly welcome the regeneration aspect, which will be led by the community, hand in hand with developers. It is very important to all our constituents that they know that this is not the floodgates opening and that it will be done hand in hand with the community.

Mr Pickles: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course this is about localism; it is about working closely with local authorities. It has been very refreshing to work with local authorities that are willing to renegotiate. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) should feel fairly cheerful, as many of them have been Labour authorities—we work with anybody. We have been very willing to help and be part of the process, because many local authorities perhaps lack the necessary

6 Sep 2012 : Column 405

experience to renegotiate a section 106 agreement. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is about putting the community in control.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): We have heard much talk today about affordable housing and social housing. The reality of social housing in London is that between April and September last year only 56 new social rented homes were started, in a city of 7 million people. Is that acceptable?

Mr Pickles: That is why these measures are necessary and why we will be working hand in glove with London local authorities. Only yesterday I heard a quotation used in the housing debate stating how well things were going with regard to social housing in London and praising Mayor Johnson, indirectly, for that process. The hon. Lady should not be confrontational. She should join us so that we can work together, hand in hand, to increase the amount of social housing and affordable housing. That is certainly our intention and why an additional sum for flexibility, including guarantees on borrowing and the like, will be available to help the process.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and thank him for it. With regard to the conservatory policy, will he give the House an assurance that new technologies will be used so that, if the planning process is fast-tracked, they will not increase the risk of future flooding?

Mr Pickles: One of my more poignant memories of opposition is of being with my hon. Friend in her constituency and looking at the devastation caused by flooding. I pay tribute to her hard work locally on that and am pleased that additional anti-flood measures have been put in place. Clearly that is something we have to consider, but I am sure that she will recognise that the conservatories and extensions will not be freestanding; they will be part of existing dwellings.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): The statement is a continuation of the Government’s attacks on the planning system as being responsible for all our ills. The only difference, of course, is that now the planning system they are attacking is the one the Secretary of State has just created. I wish to ask two simple questions. First, how can it possibly be localist to transfer planning decisions at first instance from elected local councils to the Planning Inspectorate? Secondly, how can we have any assurance that the number of affordable houses being built will increase when there is not a single mention here of the role of local authorities in building homes and when the number of homes built for housing associations will decline as section 106 agreements are revisited?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in these matters, so I am surprised by his reaction, because this is about working hand in hand with local people. There might be a degree of muscular localism about it, but we will work together with good local authorities. It is only those local authorities that have been dragging their feet and being wholly unrealistic, operating in a kind of economy la-la land, that we will be dealing with. He should see this as an act of help and

6 Sep 2012 : Column 406

friendship towards local authorities, many of which have responded magnificently to the process of getting houses built. After all, the Labour party never contemplated anything like the guarantee we are offering on social houses; it was too radical for it. I think that we, the Deputy Prime Minister and our coalition partners have been most bold in taking this decision.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Section 106 agreements have been a really important vehicle for providing affordable housing. If such an agreement is renegotiated for sound and independently assessed reasons, will the council involved be provided with alternative means to provide those much-needed homes?

Mr Pickles: Absolutely. The alternative means will be a touch of realism about the process, which will help. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As well as the process of renegotiation, we are looking at being able to deliver an additional 15,000 affordable homes, on top of what we have already announced. It is a measure of the kind the Opposition would never have dared advocating. I know that she is a keen observer of the media, so she might recall that when the former Prime Minister was interviewed on “Newsnight” he said that the housing market was essentially a private one and that there was a good case for the withdrawal of much of state aid.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): May I draw attention to my interests in the register? Will the Secretary of State tell us the distinction between the doctrine of muscular localism, which he has just announced, and heavy-handed, top-down centralism?

Mr Pickles: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, he represented the heavy hand of centralism and I represent muscular localism.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): The confirmation of green belt protection and the fact that county councils will retain responsibility for it are very welcome. We have thousands of empty homes in Newcastle and Northumberland that are not being utilised, so I welcome the further funding. Will the Secretary of State send forth the message that it is those empty homes that will benefit from the refurbishment money and those brownfield sites that local authorities should be building on, not green-belt rural sites?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend should also remember the new homes bonus, which is available for getting houses back. The place where I lived a quarter of a century ago in Bradford has benefited enormously as a result of getting homes that were previously not occupied back into use. He makes a very reasonable point about the amount of brownfield land that can be developed, and this is a way we can get building going.

Mr Kevan Jones: For small builders in my constituency, such as Simon Smith, who builds conservatories and extensions, planning is not the problem; the problem is the fact that there is no demand in the economy and even those who are in work are shying away from adding extra developments to their houses. He has had to lay three people off as a result. With regard to

6 Sep 2012 : Column 407

extensions and the liberalisation of building on gardens, who will arbitrate in disputes between neighbours? Also, in the last Parliament the Conservative party argued strongly against building on gardens. Is that policy now dead?

Mr Pickles: Clearly the change does not allow the old system of garden grabbing. We will be consulting, so Mr Simon Smith will be able to make a contribution—[Interruption.] Indeed, I think the hon. Gentleman can go back to Mr Smith and say, “I’ve been down to the Commons and I think you might make a bob or two out of this.” I think he should go out with him at the weekend to leaflet places and get some business going for him. With regard to arbitration between neighbours, we are expecting people to operate in a neighbourly fashion, and there are the safeguards on curtilage and for ensuring that no more than half the garden is built on. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly about this, he should consider making representations during our consultation period. He shakes his head, but he is denying the aspirations of ordinary people. He kindly demonstrates that the Labour party is never on the side of those who aspire.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that his statement is not a green light for bad planning? If the glass is full, trying to add another pint will have disastrous consequences for the existing and new populations. I invite him to consider whether building 2,000 houses on the fields of west Mile End, in the fastest growing town in Britain, to be served by a mile-long cul-de-sac, is good planning.

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend has frequently invited me to Colchester, and I think he will concede that I have frequently attended Colchester on his behalf. As he has shown me all these things, I must now exclude myself from the deliberations.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Residents in Walthamstow will be desperately concerned to hear talk of helping developers to overcome local decision making, given that we have spent nine years and four years respectively trying to restore our cinema and our dog track to help our local economy. The Secretary of State talks of wanting to give local communities the power to make such decisions, so will he meet me to discuss what more can be done when the settled will of local people is so clearly in favour of an alternative solution, to help them to make sure that developers are not the roadblock to reform?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady and I have spoken about this in the past, and she has made a number of points about development on Walthamstow dog track. Of course I will meet her again, and it would be good if we could work towards a solution, because she has a very strong interest—I do not mean financially—in getting it right. As someone who spent an evening there when it was a dog track, I recognise how important it is to the local community.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his pragmatic approach. If Labour Members do not think that planning is the problem, I am not sure which world they are living in, because planning is the

6 Sep 2012 : Column 408

problem. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept that permitted development rights are merely an extension of what was there already.

Mr Pickles: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who made an enormous contribution to the national planning policy framework. The truth is that good planning can be the most exciting thing a community can do when it allows people to mould and build things that they are proud of, but not when it becomes a blundering reason for saying no and not really listening to local people or letting them work through their ideas. This proposal will enhance what we are already doing. After all, there is no policy change. Basically, there are a couple of smaller changes—one introduces a three-year extension and the other refers to section 106, which we were already consulting on. The NPPF remains absolutely in place. We promised the House that we would deal with procedural matters, and we are now doing that.

Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recognise that increasing permitted development rights will cause great concern and alarm in many residential areas such as mine? Will this apply to all areas, including conservation areas, or are conservation areas excluded? If they are excluded, then why conservation areas and not others?

Mr Pickles: Conservation areas are excluded.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to focus specifically on his brief reference to major infrastructure projects? The greatest threat to my constituency, in all my years representing it, was the prospect of a huge container port being built on sensitive land on the edge of the New Forest at Dibden bay. That was ruled out after a year-long public inquiry. Is my right hon. Friend saying that in future such decisions will be taken more quickly, but that the bar that has to be crossed to reach agreement will remain as high as it was in the past?

Mr Pickles: Of course the process will remain balanced. We introduced the presumption in favour of sustainable development so that the balance between the environment, business and heritage could be finely drawn. As somebody who sees planning inspectors’ reports reasonably regularly—a joy that my hon. Friends the new Ministers will now have—I know that they are clearly taking very seriously the mechanism of looking at those three pillars of sustainable development.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): How does the Secretary of State propose to prevent developers from using this as another opportunity to build on greenfield land—not green belt, but greenfield—instead of being forced to build on the banks of brownfield land for which they already have planning permission?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady needs to understand that section 106 is about agreed development—it is not about inviting developers to look at other sites but about existing permissions. The Local Government Association helpfully points out that there are about 400,000 permissions for dwellings. That strengthens our case, because a lot of those developments are locked by section 106. We will go about them on a case-by-case

6 Sep 2012 : Column 409

basis, and developers will have to demonstrate that the development is uneconomic in order for the section 106 provision to be renegotiated. We have played a big part in the process with local authorities that have started it, and it works out extremely well in the sense that social housing then starts to be delivered. This package will deliver housing in a more realistic way.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman is clearly still a strong advocate of conservatory values in Government. Does he agree that the case-by-case aspect of his section 106 proposals will be crucial because it will mean that in areas such as mine, which have suffered from plenty of housing being available for second homes but not enough affordable housing being available for local people, those specific circumstances may be taken into account so that the very welcome extra money he has announced for social housing will go as far as it can, along with market housing at the right price for local people?

Mr Pickles: I am delighted to say that from tomorrow we will be open for bids for this, and that the call-in procedures will be implemented as I walk out of the door today. Quite a lot of this is happening over the next few days.

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The House is still not clear about the policy on green-belt land. The Minister has not allayed the fears raised in the Chancellor’s recent statement. He seems to suggest that as long as some replacement land is declared green belt, we can have a free-for-all on the current green belt. Will he categorically assure the House that green belt land will be protected as it always has been?

Mr Pickles: Yes.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Will the Secretary of State clarify the situation in one respect? He says that he is seeking to simplify and increase permitted development for household conservatories. May I ask him to be mindful of the fact that in Somerset, the area I represent, housing is very expensive, which has an impact on rents? In dispersed rural communities, there is a serious danger that when small homes are extended their price becomes out of reach to single people, first-time buyers or people starting new families. Will there be some protection to make sure that small homes do not get lost in the system?

Mr Pickles: There are certain restraints on small homes, which is why the existing policy on permitted development rights was 3 metres for houses. This would extend it to roughly 6 metres, provided it does not extend beyond half the garden. I use the example of conservatories just for shorthand—this is clearly about extensions. We should bear in mind that extensions also fulfil a social need. Often, people want a larger home to take care of an elderly parent, or they may want to take in a member of their extended family. I do not think that we should forget that this will also generate quite a lot of money in the local economy.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State begun to quantify the extent to which relaxing planning regulations on conservatories will stimulate the local economy in real terms? Does he have any figures to demonstrate that?

6 Sep 2012 : Column 410

Mr Pickles: I think I can help. I think that an independent report suggested that, because of the changes we are making to house construction in England, the cost of constructing a similar house in Wales will increase by slightly over £13,500. If we measure that against the cost of Labour bureaucracy, we see that we are taking a £13,500 tax off of building houses.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I should probably declare an interest, because at the weekend I had a conservatory priced for my two-up, two-down terrace, which, sadly, I cannot afford to buy. Will the Secretary of State confirm that nothing in the proposals will affect or water down any of the planning rules or regulations on flood risk and drainage requirements?

Mr Pickles: I hope that my hon. Friend is not trying to outdo me as a working-class hero. Clearly, this does not represent a watering down—it is strengthening what we are doing. Part of the problem, particularly with the green belt, which is there as a quality buffer between conurbations, is the suggestion that this suddenly means that it will be open season on the green belt. That is clearly not the case. The green belt is what makes this country what it is, but not every little bit of it is a beautiful, shining field—some of it is a scrapyard and some of it is a disused quarry. We can see what can be done for quality housing simply by taking a day trip to Kent to look at what we have done in Ebbsfleet.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): Could the Secretary of State clarify whether he is effectively taking all the planning powers away from local authorities and calling in all local decisions? What is the position regarding the right to light and the right to amenities?

Mr Pickles: The right to light and the right to amenities are completely unaffected by this. [Interruption.] That certainly is not the case. All I am seeking to do is align my call-in powers with my recovery powers—to make them identical. I have always had the power to call in large developments by way of recovery.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): The Secretary of State rightly says that the Government support locally led housing developments, and I welcome that. Can I be sure that no top-down decision will be made in respect of the CALA Homes site in my constituency, where the local council, Winchester city council, is doing exactly what the Government want by developing a locally driven and locally accountable local plan?

Mr Pickles: That sounds to me like the kind of world that we would all like to occupy. Obviously, I cannot prejudice any decision that I might make as a planning Minister, but that seems to me to be a happy place to be.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that in areas such as mine, which is under enormous pressure for houses in multiple occupation, his proposals on domestic extensions risk an explosion of unsightly and unneighbourly developments that will degrade residential areas and, to repeat a phrase that he used earlier, the aspirations of those who live there?

6 Sep 2012 : Column 411

Mr Pickles: Well, there speaks the voice of moderate Labour: “If you live in a house, forget about a conservatory. If you live in a small house, forget about an extension. They’re not for the likes of you, my lad—we preserve those things for the toffs.”

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for the boost to the home-owning democracy that this party believes in. Does he agree that we shall take no lessons on top-down interference from a party that introduced targets on non-determination—13-week determinations and 26-week determinations—and then sent in the planning inspectors and chopped off the planning delivery grant when councils did not perform? That was top-down interference.

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend gives a far better answer than I could to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). The reality is that this works with local people and local councils. It is not like sending in the commissioners.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): With starts for social homes down by 97% and those for affordable homes down by 68%, will the Secretary of State now apologise for slashing the affordable homes budget, which has led to swathes of flattened land and boarded-up housing in parts of my constituency?

Mr Pickles: This is my advice to the hon. Lady: do not take a Whip’s question, because invariably the figures are dodgy. [Interruption.] My Whips are a saintly bunch. The level of support that we are offering is not materially different from the previous Chancellor’s planned reductions. The hon. Lady cannot get away from that or from the fact that her party promised not five eco-towns but 10, yet not one foundation has been laid for any building. She should think about that before she takes a Whip’s question.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): The constituency of South Dorset—one of the most beautiful in the land—has always been under pressure from housing. Will our muscular, working-class hero reassure our local councillors that in south Dorset they—and they alone—will have the final say on who builds what where?

Mr Pickles: Provided that they work in partnership with the local community, and provided that they ensure that housing needs are met for future generations of people who want to live and work in and enjoy that beautiful county, and whose children want to be able to stay there, the answer is, of course, yes.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I am not convinced by the Secretary of State’s arguments about the green belt. In many urban areas such as mine, the green belt has been the last buffer protecting open space for urban communities. We have had to fight green-belt encroachment by developers in places such as the Tame valley. Will the Secretary of State explain whether his surplus public land includes playing fields and recreational space?

Mr Pickles: Of course it does not. That hare did not even get off the ground. [Interruption.] I do not know whether Opposition Members are jesting, but a hare is like a large rabbit. We are talking about property owned

6 Sep 2012 : Column 412

by Government and land held by my Department, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can safely assure the hon. Gentleman that, on land transfers, we are not looking at local playing fields—do not be ridiculous.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I welcome almost all of the Secretary of State’s statement, but does he agree that space for growth cannot be infinite, especially in very high-demand areas, and that, despite the statement’s threat of new powers for planning inspectors, a council’s right to designate and protect local green spaces close to urban areas should remain intact under the national planning policy framework?

Mr Pickles: The national planning policy framework has not been changed one jot. This is administrative work to ensure that the decisions envisaged by that document are delivered. I am sure that my hon. Friend and his council will grasp this opportunity positively to enhance the local green belt and to look at any part of it that might reasonably be regarded as redundant.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): If the Secretary of State is keen to accelerate the building of affordable housing, will he comment on the concerns about the speed at which existing funding available through the Homes and Communities Agency for affordable housing is being disbursed? Will he undertake to consider what more can be done to get all that money out in good time, so that building can be completed before the 2014-15 deadline, including in local authorities such as my one of Trafford, which has a high need for affordable housing and could be ready to progress with development quickly?

Mr Pickles: If there is a specific issue with Trafford, I am sure that the new housing Minister will meet the hon. Lady to discuss it. The Homes and Communities Agency did a pretty good job last year and got ahead of its target for the delivery of affordable housing. We should commend it for that.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): In my constituency, Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council is delaying the implementation of a local plan unnecessarily, much to the detriment of many of my constituents, who are effectively seeing planning by default at the Planning Inspectorate. What more can my right hon. Friend do to put pressure on the council to do the right thing by the people of my constituency and take up the responsibility that they have been given to put in place a local plan?

Mr Pickles: Without a local plan, development depends more particularly on each application. That makes the process more difficult, time consuming and complex. By refusing to make reasonable progress towards a local plan, the council is harming the environment rather than aiding it, because it is denying local people the opportunity to mould their environment—their villages or towns—in a way that will enable future generations to remain proud of where they live.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): My constituency was flooded badly in 2007 with surface water. What thought has been given to the flood risk of extending permitted development?

6 Sep 2012 : Column 413

Mr Pickles: With respect to the hon. Lady, I have already answered that question. To reiterate, we are talking about extensions to existing buildings. She makes a reasonable point about surface water, but the effect of the additions that we are talking about will be infinitesimal compared with that of Labour’s neglect of our flood defences.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I urge the Secretary of State, while he is finding more work for planning inspectors at failing councils, to say that planning inspectors should not be allowed to overturn the decision of a well-performing council when it rejects a planning application on reasonable grounds. The thing that most annoys local people is when an application is rejected by their elected councillors on reasonable grounds and the decision is turned aside for no good reason.

Mr Pickles: I do not like the decisions that I make being turned around either, but we must always ensure that people who apply for planning permission are treated fairly and reasonably. That is why we have an appeals system. In my experience, both from taking planning decisions myself and from what might best be described as our mystery shopping exercises on decisions that have been made over the last couple of years, reasonable objections are by and large upheld by planning inspectors, with just one or two exceptions such as those to which my hon. Friend refers, although I am not talking about that specific area.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): There are several brownfield sites in my constituency, including one bordering Stockton town centre that has planning permission for hundreds of homes, but nothing has happened since the Government came to power, thanks to sluggish policy making. The Secretary of State spoke about unblocking such sites, so may I tell my local communities that he will ensure that brownfield sites in the area will be developed soon and that the need for expansion into greenfield sites on Teesside will be reduced?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is a Member of Parliament and a person of influence, so he should get a wiggle on and get things cracking in his local patch. [Interruption.] Not a wig, my dear chum, although you are follicly challenged like me. The new framework gives people who care deeply about their locality, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, an opportunity to work with local councils and local developers to get something going.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): One of the first things that the Secretary of State did when we came into government was to help end the practice of garden grabbing, which was prevalent in my constituency of Solihull and many other constituencies. Will he guarantee that nothing that the Government are introducing will bring back that unpopular practice?

Mr Pickles: One hundred per cent. I give an absolute guarantee. The hon. Lady can hold the Focus leaflets in check.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interests. I have concerns about the conservatory policy, because I think

6 Sep 2012 : Column 414

it will be a lawyers’ charter. Will the Secretary of State confirm that where local communities, working alongside their local councils and using all the powers in the Localism Act 2011, have identified a significant local need for social and affordable housing, the new policy will not allow developers simply to ride roughshod over that, supported by the new centralised powers, and override what the local community says it wants and needs? Government Members are living in dreamland if they do not think that will happen.

Mr Pickles: I think that the hon. Lady had to put that last sentence in to retain her credibility on the Labour Benches. The truth is that this policy is intended precisely to allow local people to get together and look towards the development of social housing. I represent a different kind of constituency from the hon. Lady’s, but I can think of a number of villages in my area that have got together to look for social housing, have gone out of their way to identify sites and have worked with housing associations to bring in that development. That is exactly the kind of development that we are talking about. That is why we are announcing an additional sum to deliver 15,000 more affordable houses on top of what we have promised. If she has a place in mind, she should get cracking with her local council and developers, and get the application in tomorrow.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): If we could please have brief, single questions, I will get all hon. Members in.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend keep pushing for houses to be built on brownfield sites first and keep bringing empty homes back into use? I welcome the £300 million. Given the figures that are being bandied around, will he clarify what number of houses have planning permission and are ready to be built?

Mr Pickles: Clearly, the figure changes almost hourly. It would not be unreasonable to use the figure of 400,000 houses, which has been used by the LGA. It is there or thereabouts. These proposals are necessary to unlock that process and to allow good local authorities to deliver growth.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): Further to the Secretary of State’s answers on the simplification of and increase in the development rights of householders, will he say exactly what redress and legal rights will be given to neighbours who have an objection and find that good will is not the answer?

Mr Pickles: The same as they currently have.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): My constituency has seen unprecedented numbers of new developments over recent years, yet across Leeds 20,000 dwellings remain unbuilt and more than 14,000 are empty. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me and particularly my constituents, who were suspicious of the planning policies effected by the previous Government, that the changes will mean brownfield sites being used first, and that sites such as Kirklees Knowl and Rawdon Billing, which

6 Sep 2012 : Column 415

are as important to my constituents as the Yorkshire dales are to the whole nation, will remain greenfield sites?

Mr Pickles: That is a specific area that I know, and a lot of those spaces around Leeds bring their communities together, which is important. My hon. Friend’s question raises the problems that we have had, because Labour gave planning such a bad name that it has been difficult to regain the British people’s trust in the system over the past two years. I hope that, building on the national planning policy framework, the new measures will lead the British people to understand that planning is on their side.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State said about the green belt, town centres and the temporary waiver of unrealistic section 106 agreements. However, if we have done everything we can to remove developers’ excuses for not developing, why does it make sense to allow them to extend the duration of existing planning permissions?

Mr Pickles: We have recognised that section 106 agreements and existing planning permissions are often part of the same thing, and that it takes a bit of time to get work on big sites together. We are expecting an increase in the number of applications anyway, so it would make no sense to increase the number artificially. We therefore took the decision at the beginning of the summer to extend existing permissions, which was a sensible and pragmatic thing to do.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I am a school governor at Whitefield infant school in Nelson, which is located in the 33rd most deprived ward in the UK and was promised a complete rebuild back in 2009. Since that time a protracted planning process, with obscure objections from a number of unaccountable bodies, has added more than £1 million to the cost of building the school and pushed back the building date by three years from March 2011 to 2014 at the absolute earliest. The objections have been overcome, but the compulsory purchase order for the site is now stuck with the national planning casework team in the DCLG. Will the Secretary

6 Sep 2012 : Column 416

of State agree to meet me to discuss that school building project, which is absolutely critical to housing regeneration in my area?

Mr Pickles: I understand that my hon. Friend wasted no time in lobbying the new planning Minister on the subject, and there are officials in the Box who will have heard his question. On my return to the office, I will be expecting an explanation.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Owing to low incomes and high property values, there is enormous demand for secure-tenancy, regulated-rent housing in the far south-west. How will the Government ensure that that highly localised demand for social housing will be met, and that the new funds that are being made available for social housing will not end up in other areas of the country where demand is less acute?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend should take the advice that I have given to a lot of Members, which is that they should go and see their local authority, talk to developers and get the bids in. One of the things that we have been keenest on has been getting private money into social and affordable housing, which the Labour party was also keen to do. Following the Montague report, we have a real chance to do that. That is why additional money has been made available to pump-prime the system. I hope that all Members will work actively with their local authorities and developers to build things that they can be proud of.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): When the Secretary of State mentioned Grasmere, my thoughts turned to the wonderful Lake District national park on this splendid autumn day. That national park authority, like some others in England, gives planning permission only for local affordable housing. Has he given any thought to how his proposals, which I broadly support, will be implemented in national parks, and has he consulted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on that matter?

Mr Pickles: Special rules apply to national parks. I think I made it absolutely clear that we are not looking at building a big extension to Dove cottage. We do not want artificially to change parts of the country that rely heavily on tourism, with which the nation is familiar and where it spends its leisure time. The nation is rightly proud of buildings in such areas.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 417

Point of Order

1.35 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You may have noticed yesterday, when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) was presenting his ten-minute rule Bill on pre-payment meters and levels of debt, that none of the three Energy and Climate Change Ministers was present on the Treasury Bench. Can you confirm that it is customary for an appropriate Minister to attend when a Bill to do with their Department is being presented? If that is the case, have you received an explanation or apology from any of the DECC Ministers for their non-attendance?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I can confirm that it is a courtesy for a relevant Minister to be present during a ten-minute rule Bill. However, I am sure that the House will want to be a little generous about what was going on yesterday, as there may have been some confusion as to who was doing what in Government Departments. In fact, I think I was the only person not waiting by my telephone yesterday.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Oh no you weren’t!

Mr Deputy Speaker: I see there were a few others. I am sure that normal service will now be resumed.

Bill Presented

Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 50)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Vince Cable, Mr Secretary McLoughlin, Danny Alexander, Greg Clark, Mr David Gauke and Sajid Javid, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the giving of financial assistance in respect of the provision of infrastructure.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 66) with explanatory notes (Bill 66-EN).

6 Sep 2012 : Column 418

Backbench Business


1.37 pm

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to take all necessary steps to reduce immigration to a level that will stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level and, certainly, significantly below 70 million.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for the House to debate this topic, which is of fundamental importance to the future of our country and which badly needs to be addressed on more occasions in this House and the other place. I welcome the new Minister for Immigration, with whom I hope the cross-party group on balanced migration will be able to have as good a relationship as we did with his predecessor.

This debate is in response to a petition launched by Migration Watch UK on the Government’s website last autumn, which acquired more than 100,000 signatures within a week. That clearly indicates the grave public concern about the scale of immigration to this country.

We can, of course, all agree that immigration is a natural and essential part of an open economy. There is absolutely no doubt that many immigrants make a most valuable contribution to our society, and I hope that we can take that as read in this debate. The real issue that must concern the House and all our fellow citizens is the scale of immigration. Heads must come out of the sand.

We are currently experiencing the greatest wave of immigration to our country in nearly 1,000 years. One of the worst of the many appalling legacies that the last Labour Government, in their folly, bequeathed this country was their chaotic, ill thought out and deeply irresponsible policy on immigration, which has led to bogus colleges being allowed to flourish by the hundred; nearly half a million asylum files being found lying around in warehouses; a Home Office that, after a decade of Labour government, was declared by Labour’s own Home Secretary to be “not fit for purpose”; a new so-called points-based system that has turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare; and a fivefold increase in net immigration from 50,000 when Labour came into government to 250,000 when it left.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Nicholas Soames: I will not; I will continue, if I may. The outcome was a total of 3.5 million foreign immigrants, during which time 1 million British citizens left our shores. As the Institute for Public Policy Research put it,

“It is no exaggeration to say that immigration under new Labour has changed the face of the country.”

All that took place in the teeth of public opinion, and without any proper consultation or debate. Public concern—indeed anger—has been mounting, and opinion polls paint an unmistakable and chastening picture. There are, of course, positive aspects. All of us know that immigration has had a positive effect on entrepreneurial

6 Sep 2012 : Column 419

skills, premier league football, film, music, art and literature, as well as on food and restaurants. None of that is in dispute but, as I have said, the issue is one of scale.

The most immediate effect of the wave of immigration has been on our population. The results of the 2011 census show that in the past 10 years, the population increase in England and Wales was the largest for any period since census taking began in 1801. Looking ahead, if net migration continues at 200,000 people a year—the average over the past 10 years—we will find that our population hits 70 million in 15 years’ time.

Let us be clear about what that means. We would see a population increase of 7.7 million people, nearly 5 million of whom would be purely as a result of new immigrants and their children. Numbers of that kind are hard to grasp, so let me put it like this: in the coming 15 years, just for new immigrants and their families, we will have to build the equivalent of eight of the largest cities outside the capital—Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Bristol and Glasgow—together with the associated social infrastructure of schools, roads, hospitals, railways and all the rest. Perhaps those who support the continuation of mass immigration will explain where the money will come from to cope with such numbers, particularly at a time when the Government are borrowing £1 for every £4 they spend.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Nicholas Soames: I will not. There are some who try to wave away those figures on the basis that they are only projections. The fact is, however, that for the past 50 years the Office for National Statistics has been accurate to plus or minus 2.5% on its 20-year projections. The other claim is that Britain is not really crowded. That, of course, is a matter of opinion, and the public are crystal clear on it.

Faced with that chaotic situation, the Government have gone about things in the right way. They have carried out a careful and thorough review of the three major immigration routes: students, economic migration and marriage. I commend my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the former Immigration Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), for their grasp of the issues and their determination to tackle them.

This House should be under no delusion: the public demand and expect the Government of this country to deal with and fix these matters. The most recent numbers are rather disappointing, but it is too early to expect any substantial effect on net immigration. Last week’s figures apply only to the first full year of the coalition Government, and that time was needed to review the complex system that they inherited.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Nicholas Soames: I will not because I have a very short period of time in which to speak. Of course, the rules cannot be changed for those who have already arrived. Numbers will come down, but a renewed effort is needed.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 420

Where should that effort lie? I do not suggest any early changes to the regulations on economic migration. Business needs stability and predictability, as well as a system that works quickly and effectively. The first priority, therefore, must be to reshape the shambolic points-based system that was introduced in the last years of the Labour Government and has resulted in hundreds—about 800—pages of guidance, as well as enormously long forms to be filled in by applicants for visas or work permits. I will be writing to my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister about some particularly disgraceful and inefficient episodes in that regard, concerning distinguished people who need to come to this country and whom the country wishes to welcome.

Instead of relying on the common sense of an experienced immigration officer, we now rely only on a box-ticking exercise, which is emphatically not the right way to proceed. The last straw was the introduction of the hub-and-spoke system where decisions are often taken in a consulate miles away—indeed, frequently in a different country altogether—with none of the local knowledge that is vital in such decisions. The futile attempt to base decisions on so-called objective criteria is, in practice, impossible given the huge variety of circumstances among the 2 million visa applications received every year. Common sense has gone out the window. Bureaucracy has taken over and the Government must deal urgently with the issue and get it fixed.

The Government must now take four steps. First, as I have explained, they must move away from this disastrous experiment and get some rational thought into individual immigration decisions. Secondly, they must greatly expand the number of student interviews to ensure that bogus students are refused. There is clear evidence from the National Audit Office and the Home Office pilot scheme that tens of thousands of bogus students have been admitted to this country in recent years. Thirdly, the Government must reduce the validity of visitor visas to three months, and strengthen the powers of immigration officers so that an element of judgment is reintroduced for visitors as well as students. Finally, they must strengthen the removal system, and especially its link with decisions that visas should not be extended.

That will require further sustained effort over many years. The devil will always be in the detail, but the outcome is of the first and most critical importance for the future and stability of the life of our country. The Prime Minister has given his word that the Government will bring net migration down to tens of thousands. Failure to do so will leave our population rising inexorably, pressure on our already hard-pressed public services building up relentlessly and, as a result, mounting social tension. We must stop that happening. I commend the Government’s actions thus far, but I warn them, and the House, that the stakes are high. There is a long way to go, difficult decisions to take, and the time scales are unforgiving.

We must all seek at every possible occasion to speak candidly about the serious social and policy implications of mass immigration, and continue to search for an effective, humane and fair way ahead that will command the support of the British people.

1.48 pm

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I follow with pleasure my right hon. Friend—in the circumstances of the debate—the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas

6 Sep 2012 : Column 421

Soames). I underscore his introductory remarks, particularly those addressed to the Backbench Business Committee, which responded so quickly to a request for a debate, and the welcome extended to the new Immigration Minister. It is puzzling why such an effective Immigration Minister should have been moved in the reshuffle to some other task, but we do not need to ponder such questions too much.

My main thanks today go to those voters who quickly seized the opportunity to sign a petition to try to trigger this debate. I believe that the numbers passed 100,000 in record time, and before the authorities could take down the petition, another 38,000 had put their names to it. The huge demand out there is clear, and the House of Commons is correct to respond to it, so my thanks go above all to the voters around the country who wanted the debate to take place.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he shows a courtesy that the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) did not. This nasty little motion mentions “all necessary steps”. Does he realise how authoritarian that sounds? The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex mentioned four steps, but what other “necessary steps” would the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) propose?

Mr Field: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s introductory remark, but I gave way because I do not have such a carefully crafted speech as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex had. If the hon. Gentleman can bear with me until I reach the end of my contribution, he will know what steps I would like the Government to take.

I want to raise three issues and to pose three questions for the Government, first on the Olympics, secondly on the mountain we must climb, and thirdly on the action that the Government need to take if they are to fulfil a pledge that is supported not merely by Conservative voters, but by Labour voters.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Field: No—not for a moment anyway.

First, on the Olympics, I am probably the last person to confess that I was disappointed when the announcement that we had won the Olympics was made. I feared that we would not perform well in organising the games, and that they were an opportunity for a terrorist outrage that would indelibly mark our country in the eyes of the world. I am pleased to accept that I was wrong on both counts.

I am also delighted that another success was not only our tally of medals, but the fact that people who won them had come to this country with their families to make a new life. They were so committed to us that they wanted not only to participate, but to win for this country. How does the Immigration Minister interpret those events? So many people come here and are so committed, and yet at the same time some second generation people harbour such terrible thoughts in their hearts about us that, as far as we know, they want to take terrible action against us. How can part of immigration be so successful, and part of it result in those thoughts? That is my first question.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 422

Ms Abbott: As a second-generation migrant, may I ask what possible evidence does my right hon. Friend have that more than a tiny fraction of a fraction of second-generation migrants harbours “terrible thoughts”?

Mr Field: I have no evidence, but a constituent of mine was one of those who had their legs blown off in the London bombing.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Field: No; I have given way on that point.

My second question is on the mountain we must climb. I reiterate the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex made. If the Government are not successful within a 15-year period, if not sooner, our population will go beyond 70 million. As he said, in concrete terms, that means that if we wish to maintain existing living standards rather than see them cut, we must build the equivalent of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Bristol and Glasgow. That must happen during a period when we will experience a more sustained number of years of cuts in public expenditure than we have ever experienced. With those cities must come roads, utilities and the necessary extra schools and health facilities. Does any hon. Member believe that if we are not successful in meeting the Government’s objective, we will meet the objective of housing people on an equivalent basis to how they are currently housed?

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Field: I shall finish this point and then give way.

What will happen if we do not meet the objective? Our constituents, whose wages will probably be falling, will be able to buy far less than hitherto with their wage packets. That is the urgency.

Andrew Percy: I associate myself very much with the right hon. Gentleman’s words. Does he believe that part of the mountain we must climb is opening up the issue of EU immigration, which is completely uncontrollable? There have been massive amounts of such immigration to my constituency, particularly in Goole, which is having a big impact on schooling, health, employment and housing. It is a fallacy for any hon. Member to suggest that we have controlled immigration or could ever have it if we leave EU immigration unaddressed.

Mr Field: The hon. Gentleman makes a point with which many hon. Members will sympathise. During the recession, which will clearly last longer than any since the war, the Government ought to think about what temporary measures they should take to ensure that the country’s labour market is protected for those who, until recently, were working, and for others coming to the labour market who wish to work.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this debate must be balanced and informed by evidence, as well as addressing people’s fears? In that context, and in relation to his remarks on the fiscal situation, what account have he and other hon. Members who support the motion taken of the Office for Budget

6 Sep 2012 : Column 423

Responsibility assessment that shows that sharp cuts in immigration will lower economic growth, worsen the fiscal position and bring about greater austerity, which will hit his constituents as well as mine?

Mr Field: If only the Government knew how to achieve that sharp reduction. There is clearly no possibility of doing so in the near future. The task is proving much more difficult than some Back Benchers and some in the Government would have thought when they made a commitment on it.

Martin Horwood: I am concerned about the tone of some of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks and those of the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). Does the right hon. Member for Birkenhead agree that immigrants can make a positive contribution to our economy and culture, and that we need to take a balanced, evidence-based approach to the debate and not use language that will inflame fears among minority ethnic communities in this country?

Mr Field: I have always underscored those points, but hon. Members who put them to me also need to look at the evidence. What did the House of Lords Committee say about the contribution overall that immigrants make to our economy? It is minuscule. Of course immigrants earn their way and make a contribution, but to think that we are pounds in is mistaken. If hon. Members want to dispute the figures, they will catch your eye, Mr Speaker. I am saying that unlimited migration on the scale that we have seen is not such an economic advantage to this country as some of the proponents of open doors would wish us to believe.

I wish to pose another question to the new Immigration Minister: if he accepts those projections, what measures will he take that make a target limit of 70 million people possible? My third question is about the sources of the growth in immigration. If one looks at the net figures, one finds three major sources: people who have work permits; people who, under the conditions, bring their families here; and students. We know that the work permits that the Government make available are not all taken up, so it is not as if work permits are a main driver of the stubborn level of net migration. On people who bring their immediate family over, the figures show that families do not account for a net migration figure each year of in excess of 200,000.

On students, my question is whether the attempt to meet the Government’s target will mean looking critically and resolutely at the size of the student population that probably stays. We have only one piece of information about students returning home. It was a Home Office survey, which showed that after five years one could account for 20% of students who came here under certain conditions who were still here legitimately to work. We simply do not know what happened to the other 80%.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): No, no.

Mr Field: Let me give way to my hon. Friend on that point.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 424

Chris Bryant: I am afraid that my right hon. Friend is completely wrong in his analysis of those statistics. Even more importantly, his motion refers to population. According to every piece of work that has been done, the vast majority of students go home. Their whole point is to study here and go home, and then hopefully become ambassadors for doing business with Britain in their home country.

Mr Field: Of course, but it will be noticeable to people watching this debate that I gave way and the point was not answered. There were some generalities on all this information. There is one survey, which the Home Office undertook, that showed that after five years we could account for 20% of students who passed through our universities. They were still in this country and had every right to be here: we do not know whether the others went home or not.

Chris Bryant: The 2010 Home Office study “The Migrant Journey”—I think that is the one to which my right hon. Friend refers—showed that 21% of individuals who entered as students in 2004 remained in the UK, which is exactly the opposite of what he is saying. In actual fact, some of them were staying on to study because their courses lasted for more than five years and some of them had changed to a different migration route. The only evidence of people staying illegally in that study was 3%, not the 80% that my right hon. Friend mentions.

Mr Field: I would be grateful if Front Benchers would listen. What I said was that the one survey that we have shows that after that period of time we could account for 20% of the students who come to our universities. They were still in this country—they had every right to be here—and they were pursuing studies or, more likely, working. We do not know from that Home Office study what happened to the other 80%.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about the scale of net migration, although I do not support the wording of the motion. What is his view of the level of net migration that would be necessary to meet the terms of this motion? According to the research done by the Migration Observatory, even if we had no net migration into this country the population would reach more than 66 million in about 20 years.

Mr Field: We are not talking about 66 million in the motion, but about the rate that would push us over 70 million. One of the points in this debate is to ask the new Minister what steps he has taken to prevent that from occurring and to fulfil the Government’s objective to reduce net migration to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.

Gavin Barwell: I support the manifesto on which I stood, but the terms of the motion are very clear that we are seeking to

“stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level and, certainly, significantly below 70 million.”

To achieve that, we would have to end net migration or even have positive emigration.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 425

Mr Field: We will let the Front Benchers arbitrate on that.

If we wish to prevent the population from rising to more than 70 million, net migration must come down from hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. That is what the Government have promised, what the motion is about and why I speak in its support. I shall listen with great interest to the Minister’s reply and whether he reads the situation differently, how he reads the Home Office data and, specifically, what new steps the Government should take to ensure that the 70 million barrier is not crossed.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The time limit is being reduced by one minute, to seven minutes, to accommodate as many Members as possible.

2.5 pm

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I welcome the newly appointed Minister to the post. He was a popular Minister in his last job, but he will now find it easier to have every Conservative Member—and many others—supporting him.

Ever since I became an MP, and indeed since long before, it has been clear to me that we needed to take more seriously people’s views about immigration. However, both the Liberals and the Labour party took exactly the opposite view. They believed that there needed to be complete concealment from the public on this issue, and anyone who believed the contrary was a racist. The fact is, however, that many people were becoming so concerned they were prepared to accept being labelled as racists if the consequence was to do anything good on immigration. The number of migrants allowed into this country was far and away in excess of what we needed for economic growth, and many people in all parts of the country were sickened by it.

Let us go back to the year I was born. We took approximately 3,000 people into the country in 1953. By the 1970s, we admitted an average of 45,000 per year, and that did not include the 27,000 Ugandan Asians from Idi Amin’s genuinely racist regime. In the 1980s and early 1990s, 54,000 were admitted each year, rising again in 1999 to around 97,000. Let us make it absolutely clear. It was the intention of the Labour party to admit far more migrants than ever before. Its aim was to create a rainbow coalition—what it succeeded in doing was creating ghettos in many parts of the country. This is something that had long been suspected by Conservatives and was realised with the Labour party’s draft policy paper in 2001, which was thought to have mentioned “social objectives” within its overall migration strategy.

Kate Green: I do not recognise the history that the hon. Gentleman portrays, but does he recognise that many of my constituents, who arrived as migrants or are now second and third generation migrant families, will be incredibly hurt and offended by the way in which he characterises them as somehow undesirable in our society?

Mr Turner: If the hon. Lady would indicate what is wrong with what I have said, I will change it if necessary.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 426

In the period between 1997 and 2010, we admitted 200,000 people per year. That is the same as creating a new city the size of Birmingham every five years, not including illegal immigrants as we had no idea where they were. When Lord Howard of Lympne led the party in the election in 2005, we were called racists for wanting to impose effective limits on migration. It was the first real attempt by even the Conservative party to stand up for the people who live here.

Labour, under the then Prime Minister, began to see the truth after many years of attack on a small minority of politicians, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and, even more so, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) for leading the debate. But even during the last election campaign, the then Prime Minister called a pensioner and lifelong Labour supporter a bigot for questioning the scale of migration.

In the 2010 election, we Conservatives promised to reduce the number of migrants to 100,000 per year by 2015. The question is whether we are doing enough, and the answer is clearly no. Our policy is not to offer free health care except in emergencies, to migrants from outside the EU, but there is no effective system in place to enforce that. The same goes for migrants from within the EU. Spain, unlike us, has this system under control, and migrants from the EU cannot get health care unless they produce the right papers. Migrants who intend to live in Spain for more than three months have to produce a job contract or evidence of their ability to support themselves, otherwise their requests will now be denied. We need answers.

There are other points that we need to press more strongly. First, there are still no controls on people coming from the EU. Quite clearly, we must effect such controls. Secondly, there are students. Some of them are false, and we congratulate the Government on how, even this week, they have been reducing their number. On the other hand, however, we do not intend to keep genuine students away. They must fill in the visa forms, and we must make it clear that they are welcome. Thirdly, there are the illegals. We must keep working at them in order to reduce their number, but the law is not 100% behind the Government in this area, and a change from the judges would be much welcomed. Finally, there must be genuine help for those who wish to return to their country of origin.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My hon. Friend identifies a number of things that need to be tackled. I wonder whether he agrees with me that although we have heard tough words on immigration from both sides of the House, both since the election and before it, what we really need are not only tough words but tough action. That is what we have not seen, but what we need to see from the new Minister.

Mr Turner: I am 100% behind my hon. and learned Friend. I must say that the actions of the Minister’s predecessor were very welcome, and I am sure that his own actions will be welcome too.

I was moving on to the question of what to do about those who live here but wish to go home. Europe provides money to pay for some people to get home, and we need to make that clearer, more broadly available and simpler to those who want the help.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 427

Chris Bryant: Repatriation?

Mr Turner: Yes, that is the word.

Chris Bryant: Repatriation?

Mr Turner: Yes, that is the word and that is what it means. If someone chooses to go home, we may help them, and if possible that should be determined by our own Government, not the Europeans.

We are working through the system, but it appears to be a case of taking two steps forward and one step back, and it is one of the few areas where I would welcome more progress.

2.12 pm

Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): The questions of how many people we need in the UK to sustain the standards of living we all want and of what role immigration can play in answering that question have been taboo subjects for much too long. The reason is that ever since Enoch Powell made his infamous speech in Birmingham back in 1968, most politicians from mainstream parties, with a few exceptions, some of whom have been brave, some foolish and some both, have steered clear of the subject for fear of saying something that would be called politically incorrect and thus being labelled as racist or anti-immigrant by the media. Because mainstream parties and politicians have not debated these issues and the effect that immigration might have—I say “might”—on jobs, wages and public services, we have left the field wide open to those racist and xenophobic parties that want to talk only about immigration and put their own particular spin on it.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to hear the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. It is such an important point. If the House does not debate these issues sensibly, calmly and rationally, we cede the field to the extremist parties, which none of us wants. Does he agree that the most important people in this debate are the hundreds of thousands of British people, of all races, who are looking for work at this moment but are in strong competition with large numbers of immigrants? They are the people whom we must keep in mind. They are of all races and they are British.

Mr Godsiff: I was going to come to that issue later, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for making his point.

As has been said, this silence on the questions of how large a population the UK should have and of how much more immigration we should allow is not shared by the wider electorate, who want the issue debated, as is confirmed by opinion polls, all of which list immigration as one of the electorate’s top concerns. For politicians here to ignore this fact while continuing to peddle the simplistic free-market mantra that immigration always benefits the economy and raises living standards, that immigration, together with the free movement of people and economic globalisation, is wonderful, and that the trickle-down effect benefits everybody, is not only an insult to the people of this country but ignores the pressures that an increasing population puts on public services, particularly housing, health and education, in areas such as mine, which is one of the most multiracial

6 Sep 2012 : Column 428

constituencies in the country. It does a great disservice to the cause of good community relations in our multicultural society.

I want to say a little more about the myth that immigration brings growth. This myth is peddled usually by elements of big business that do not want the responsibility of training young British school leavers and graduates—do not forget that 1 million of them are unemployed and cannot get jobs. Instead, these elements want as big a pool of labour as possible, from anywhere in the world, to hire and fire so that they can push down wages and increase profits, shareholder value and, of course, their bonuses. As much research has shown, the reality is that immigration can add a small percentage increase to gross domestic product, but there is no evidence that it benefits per capita GDP or individual living standards for the vast majority of people. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the population see their wages fall and have to face increased competition for social housing, education and health facilities.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. Given that he represents a very multiracial constituency, does he agree that some of the strongest advocates of a mature debate on immigration come not from the white British community but from communities of second and third-generation migrants?

Mr Godsiff: The people who visit my surgeries and constituency meetings come from all different backgrounds, including, as the hon. Lady says, many who came to the country in the 1950s, who put down roots and who have contributed enormously to the vitality and well-being of the great city I live in and to the benefit of the country. They are just as concerned as everybody else about the argument over how many people we need in the country to sustain their living standards.

I do not want to talk about how the UK manages the 1 million-plus visitors and students who come to the UK every year, other than to say that I welcome genuine visitors and students, provided, of course, that like everybody else they comply with the terms of their visas. They should return at the end of their visas. As an aside, however, I wish to refer to something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said about the number of people entering and leaving the country. Every year in the 1990s, I consistently used to ask, “How many people come to this country on short-term visas issued by the Government?” The answer I got back—every country was always listed—usually said that the figure was something like 950,000 to 1 million. That was very illustrative. However, the second part of my question was: “How many went back?” The answer was two lines: “We don’t keep that information.” That was absolute nonsense; indeed, it was ridiculous. We need to put back in place a system whereby we count people in and count them out.

The UK is one of the most crowded countries in Europe. It is not me who said that; it is the European Commission. It estimated that over the next 50 years the figure in the UK would rise by 16 million. Those are not my figures; they are the European Union’s figures. It predicted that Britain would become the most populous country in Europe by that time.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 429

I represent one of the most diverse and multicultural constituencies in the country. As I said to the hon. Lady, the multicultural make-up of my constituency has added hugely to the vitality of the great city of Birmingham. Immigration into the United Kingdom since the first immigrants came in after the second world war has added enormously to the life of the United Kingdom. I welcome that, but we have to address the issue of how many people we need in the United Kingdom to sustain our standard of living. If we do not, I fear that the good community relationships that have been built up in my city and many others will be threatened. I do not want to see that happen.

2.21 pm

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): What a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff), who made a remarkable speech.

I, too, want to focus on numbers, as the motion does. It is a strange thing that from the early part of the 19th century until past the middle of the last century it was almost universally accepted that overcrowding and over-population was a major driver of poverty. Indeed, in one scheme alone, between 1922 and 1935, more than 400,000 people received Government assistance to emigrate, principally to Canada and Australia. The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2004 that we would have 67 million people by 2031. Six years later, that figure had gone up to 72 million, or 5 million more. Yet there is widespread concern among reputable statistical agencies—I mention the Bank of England as just one that has gone public—that the ONS has lost count. Indeed, if we look at the detailed way in which it calculates the figures—in particular, its assumptions about birth rates, which make no adjustment at all for a changing composition—we find good grounds for thinking that its projections might not be accurate. All are on the same side of the equation—that is, in every case there are grounds for thinking that the ONS’s projections are too low, rather than too high.

There is a further issue, which people are very reluctant to address. I hope nobody is going to accuse me of being a racist—if they do, I am not going to dignify the comment with an answer—but we have to look at the detail and accept two facts. The first is that the phrase “net migration” is misleading. To take the age profile of the people coming in and those going out, it is perfectly absurd in demographic terms to equate pensioners retiring to the sun with young people coming in who have not yet started families.

The second point is that many of those coming in are from areas that have historically had much higher birth rates than the indigenous group. The trend in every country in the world is that birth rates among incoming communities tend to trend towards the national average of the country that they are joining, with one important exception: if those groups do not become absorbed into the wider body. Over the last few years, we have for the first time begun to see the very unsettling picture, to which the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) referred, of some groups not assimilating.

Over the last few weeks, we have rightly felt enormous national pride at the performance of our Olympics team. Nobody needs me to say that the racial mixture—the original ethnic origins—of the people who won all

6 Sep 2012 : Column 430

those medals for Britain, and in many cases of those who did very well but did not get medals, covers the full spectrum of people here. What was much less widely discussed, however—and what has started to come out only recently—was a whole string of violent acts by people living round the area against service personnel. Those acts were not only against personnel responsible for guarding the area, but in one case against naval personnel from a visiting ship, to such an extent that I understand that instructions were given out towards the end not to be seen, if possible, in uniform too far from the site.

I mention that not because I would dream for one second of denying the colossal contribution that so many immigrants have made to this country, nor because I am a racist—I am incredibly proud of the fact that my grandfather was a member of the Indian army, the largest volunteer force ever raised in the history of this country and drawn from every conceivable religious background and an awful lot of different racial backgrounds in India—but because we must recognise the important warnings that the right hon. Gentleman gave. We are now starting to attract some groups that do not feel British.

Let me spend the last couple of minutes on a few more statistics that should worry us all. We all believe that every family needs a decent home. I know of no other country, except possibly Japan, where average house prices are seven times earnings despite the recession. House prices here are certainly much higher than in America or Germany, two other prosperous countries where the figures are 4.5 and 4. In London, there is not a single borough left in which one can rent a two-bedroom dwelling for less than 35% of the median earnings, and there are a relatively small number left where the figure is less than a half. We have housing shortages on a scale that is completely unprecedented in the modern era. We have heard a lot of references to infrastructure as well.

I want to end with students. I am proud of the fact that I represent the area with the largest concentration of students in the country, with four universities wholly or partly in my constituency. I am immensely proud of what we do, taking in foreign students, who bring money to this country and provide us with good will. However, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who speaks for the Opposition, was quite wrong in his intervention on his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. I have a copy of that study, “The Migrant Journey”, with the note from the Library confirming that it was a purely paper exercise. Although the study shows that 21% had a reason to stay in the country, together with thousands of dependants, nothing is known about where the other 79% went.

Chris Bryant: Because they had left.

Mr Brazier: No, there is no evidence for that at all.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): They were not here.

Mr Brazier: The study did not investigate that.

Let me end by echoing my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), who said at the beginning that this is one of the great issues facing us. We must address it. The British people demand it of us.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 431

2.29 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I congratulate the right hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) on bringing this issue to our attention, if not on their contributions. I also welcome the Minister to his new Front-Bench responsibilities. I can just see him going into the office and breathing a sigh of relief at no longer having to account to the Deputy Prime Minister.

This is a nasty, silly, ridiculous little motion. It could almost have come from some shady authoritarian regime. Imagine a motion including the words:

“take all necessary steps to reduce immigration”.

We have already heard what some of those necessary steps might be. We have heard about “repatriation” from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner). What is next? Is there going to be internment? This motion might be suitable for the Daily Mail, the Daily Express or some other right-wing rag, but it should not be passed by the House and I urge Members to reject it. It is not worthy of our attention or of our passing it. I will certainly try to divide the House to ensure that it is not passed.

As for the substance of the debate, we have heard the usual stuff from right hon. and hon. Members. What always gets me is that those who are opposed to immigration always tell us, as the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) did, just how much they value immigration and how much it has enhanced their communities and their societies. If it is such a good thing, if they value immigration so much, why do they not want more of it?

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): No one on this side, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), has said that they oppose immigration. My right hon. Friend said that he opposes uncontrolled immigration because it is unsustainable. That is the point. The hon. Gentleman is misinterpreting it.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Abbott: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: Yes, for the last time.

Ms Abbott: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I have been a Member of Parliament for 25 years? Year on year, I deal with thousands of immigration cases. There has never been a point in my time in the House when we have had uncontrolled immigration. That is mythology.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and to the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), because that is exactly the point. The idea that immigration is out of control is nonsense. We know that the Government’s ambition is to reduce immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. It is not going to happen. What the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex and Members on the Government Benches fail to appreciate is that we live in an interconnected and globalised world where knowledge, ideas, creativity and talent are an international commodity. That of necessity

6 Sep 2012 : Column 432

means a transfer of people across continents and countries, and that is good for the global economy; it is good for our economy.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I will not give way any more because I have not got any more time.

We are in the fantastic city of London, the most dynamic and prosperous city in the world. A third of the people who live and work in London come from outwith the UK. It is like in Monty Python—“What has immigration done for us?” It has made London into a fantastic, dynamic, prosperous city.

Conservative Members talk about the Olympics. What I saw was a fantastic celebration of multicultural Britain. I saw the little tweet of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and how he got a Twitter monstering for what he said—deservedly so. He could not have been further from the national mood when it came to how we see what immigration and multiculturalism brings to our country and our nation. It is something that is welcome and is celebrated, and so it should be.

I do not go along with this 100,000 Daily Mail petition that we are now debating. There is a mood change in this country and people are coming to accept and celebrate what we have and see that immigration is a good thing. That should be welcomed—not this nasty, authoritarian little motion.

I will come now to Scotland. I am sorry if I am boring people by restating that Scotland occupies just over a third of the land mass of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but has only 8.4% of the population—less than a tenth. Our issue is not immigration throughout the decades and centuries, it is emigration. We lose people instead of attracting them. Scotland is not full up; Scotland is one of the most under-populated parts of western Europe. Yet we are asked to accept an immigration policy that could almost be designed to be the opposite and contrary to what we require.

Henry Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman; I have no more time left.

Scotland’s population currently stands at a record 5.2 million. For years we feared that our population would sink below the iconic 5 million mark for the first time since the mid-20th century, but we now have 5.2 million, which is good. What distinguishes Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom is that the Scottish Government issued a press release welcoming the fact that our population was at a record high. Can we imagine even the new Minister issuing a press release welcoming the fact that the UK population was at an all-time high? We have to put up with an immigration policy that is designed not for us but for another country. Thank goodness that in a few years we will have an immigration system in line with our own requirements.

Our requirements are huge. We have an ageing population with an ever smaller active work force. We need to address that. We need to attract the best and the brightest to fill our skills gap. Current immigration policy is

6 Sep 2012 : Column 433

creating havoc with our education sector. In Scotland we are reliant on overseas students. About 19% of the total student body in Scotland comes from overseas, and that is worth about £500 million to the Scottish economy. Almost 10% of all the teaching staff come from overseas, too, because we have three universities in the top 100. People want to come to Scotland because we have a culture, history and heritage of invention and creativity. The Scots practically invented the modern world so of course overseas students want to come to Scotland to study.

Students observe what is happening at the London Metropolitan college and think, “If I go to the UK there is a good chance that some Minister will decide that my college is not worthy of status and I will not get a course.” The Government’s policies are putting people off coming to our universities and colleges, and I urge the Minister to stop them now because they are harming our universities and higher education institutions.

In Scotland we need our own immigration service that will address our needs. We do not need harsher immigration policies. I bet the Minister that he will never get to these suggested levels of immigration. This is the world we live in, and there is no point in trying to address it. The Migration Observatory wrote to every Member of Parliament to give its view, and even it could not agree with the right hon. Members who have proposed the motion. It pointed to variations throughout the United Kingdom in people’s perception of immigration. I am proud that we in Scotland do not perceive immigration as a dreadful, negative thing as so many Conservative Members seem to do.

I, like the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), would like to come to debates such as this to have a proper discussion about immigration. Hon. Members always protest that we do not discuss it properly, but when they get to their feet all we ever hear is that immigration must be curbed or stopped, that it is not a good thing, that it must be reversed.

We have a new Minister in his place, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I hope that we will have a better understanding of the issues than the previous Minister because what we are observing just now is not positive or good. As a Scottish National party member, I hope that he will understand that Scotland’s immigration requirements are different. I do not know if he will acknowledge that, but just a cursory recognition that Scotland is lumbered with a system that is not appropriate for our needs would be welcome and then we could make some progress in how we address this. I live in hope that that might happen, but I have my doubts. Scotland would reject this silly, authoritarian and nonsensical motion, and I hope that the House does too.

2.38 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I should like to start by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) for their courage, conviction and determination in tabling the motion. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that the debate was held today; it is a debate that the vast majority of people in this country want us to have.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 434

I have been involved in local politics and parliamentary politics for some years. My constituency of Crawley is multi-ethnic, and one of the most important issues that people raise with me—regardless of their ethnic background, although it is often raised by people from an ethnic minority—is the concern about the sheer number of people coming into this country over the past decade or so. If people continue to enter the country in those numbers, the situation will be unsustainable. A population in excess of 70 million would certainly be unsustainable.

It is worth repeating that, for far too long, the main political parties and the political establishment in this country have not addressed people’s concerns about the sheer level of immigration, particularly over the past decade or so. As a result, reasonable people who are not prejudiced or racist have found themselves supporting racist organisations and parties such as the British National party and the so-called English Defence League. That is a great shame, in a country that has traditionally been—and still is—one of the most tolerant nations anywhere in the world. It is appalling that our lack of willingness to address the situation has led to those thoughts being held by reasonable people.

Immigration has played a big part in the history of this nation. There have been various waves of immigration, but we are now, for the first time in a millennium, seeing unsustainable numbers. Some estimates mention 3 million people, but the important point is that we do not actually know the figure because the numbers of people coming to this country are not properly recorded. That has put enormous pressure on our infrastructure. That is evident in my constituency, where the pressure on housing is immense. Areas that were originally designated for commercial development have had to be re-designated as residential development to support the numbers of people coming to live there. That results in pressure on infrastructure—not just the physical infrastructure such as the highways, but, perhaps most acutely, the schools. Many have had to expand their classroom capacity in quite difficult circumstances to accommodate the numbers.

Mention was made earlier of the pressure that immigration has been putting on the national health service. Next Tuesday, I am pleased to be presenting a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue, which will seek to require a proper audit to be carried out in order to recover reciprocal costs incurred in the treatment of foreign nationals by the national health service. At the moment, the figures are not properly recorded or monitored, but they suggest that the health service is paying more than £1 billion a year on supporting foreign nationals who would otherwise not be entitled to free care.

Kate Green: I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the use of the national health service, but does he also recognise the substantial contribution made by immigrants who are employees of the NHS? How does he think the NHS would manage if we were unable to attract migrants to come here and do that work?

Henry Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for using the word “manage”. That is what has been missing from our immigration system up to now. My wife was an immigrant to this country, and she used to work in the national health service. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that the NHS has relied on people coming to this country to support it.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 435

However, we need an immigration system in which we know who is coming into and leaving the country, and in which those who come in use a fair and lawful route. When the so-called accession eight countries became part of the European Union in 2004, only the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Sweden did not exercise their right to a period of controlled immigration. As we were the largest country not exercising the right to control immigration, and as we are an English-speaking country, we saw millions of people coming here in a rapid and unsustainable way. That has resulted in many pressures in communities up and down the country.

Let me start to conclude by congratulating the Government on the work they have already started to do. I very much welcome the new Minister to his post, and I am sure he will continue the excellent work of his predecessor over the past two and a half years. I am encouraged that the number of net migrants to this country has come down, as recently reported, from more than 250,000 to just over 200,000—but we still have to go much further. I congratulate the Minister’s predecessor—I know that this good work will continue—in closing down the sham marriage route and the illegal routes to entering this country through bogus college courses. Again, the action we have seen over the past week is to be welcomed, but we need to continue our pressure and our determination to get a grip on this situation. As we heard earlier, it would need eight cities to be built outside London over the next 15 years to accommodate the projected rise in population as a result of immigration, which is clearly unsustainable. I echo other hon. Members in saying that we have a duty to the British people to ensure that we address this issue for our future harmony and prosperity as a nation.

2.46 pm

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): In opening the debate, the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) talked about the need for honesty and open and candid discussion. I regret that many of the contributions so far have, I think, thrown more darkness than light on the subject. I want to concentrate on one specific thing, which I believe unites many Members on both sides of the House—the way we address the issue of students. We need to recognise the important role of UK higher education. I welcome the new Minister to his post and hope he will bring an open mind to this issue. I am sure he will be lobbied by Government Members as much as by Opposition Members.

As we were reminded by the Minister for Universities and Science in this morning’s Business, Innovation and Skills questions, UK higher education is a major export earner. It contributes something like £7.9 billion to our economy annually. It is not just about money—we recruit some of the best and the brightest to our universities and they add to the intellectual rigour and to the overall educational experience of UK students, as well as play a vital role in research and innovation, which is greatly recognised by British business—but the direct financial contribution is significant. The money spent through tuition fees is matched by the money spent in local economies. In all our major towns and cities across the country, tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on

6 Sep 2012 : Column 436

international students. In the city I represent, Sheffield, they are worth about £180 million to the local economy and involve more than 2,000 jobs. It is a major success story, but it could be even better.

Driven by the world’s growing economies, international demand for university education is expanding rapidly, and BIS estimated that we could double the number of international students in this country by 2025. That would mean another couple of thousand jobs in Sheffield and tens of thousands across the UK. With the world’s strongest higher education offer after the United States, we should be seeing huge growth, but we are losing market share. The reason for it is the message we have been sending out to prospective students around the world as a result of changes to the student visa system. The Home Office’s own impact assessment of the student visa changes, published just over a year ago, estimated that its proposal would cost our economy a massive £2.6 billion.

At a time when we need growth and should be encouraging our major export earners, I have to say that the situation has been made worse by the handling of the London Metropolitan university issue. Clearly, we need to act if universities are failing in their obligations, but we need to act appropriately and proportionately. How this has been handled, however, has done huge damage. A Google search reveals something like 700 stories in the international media about this issue, and a deeply damaging message is being sent out. They are saying “You can come to the UK, you can comply with visa requirements, you can pay thousands of pounds for your course and contribute to the local economy, you can be making a success of your studies, and, through no fault of your own, you can still be deported at any time on the whim of Government.” What would a prospective international student choose to do when confronted with that situation?

Henry Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that enabling overseas students who are investing considerable sums to come here to feel confident that they are coming to a college or higher education institution that is complying with the law is fairer to them than the random, haphazard system that has existed up to now, which can leave genuine overseas students vulnerable?

Paul Blomfield: I think that genuine overseas students were left vulnerable by bogus colleges that were recruiting them to fairly bogus courses, but London Metropolitan university is not one of those. There may have been failings in its processes and systems—the situation is still being investigated—but the issue is that bona fide students who are succeeding in their courses are being threatened with deportation at a critical stage of the academic cycle.

We should bear in mind the message that that sends to prospective students around the world who are considering their options. They will say to themselves, “Shall I go to the UK? Thanks, but no thanks. I shall go to the United States”—or Canada, or Australia—“because I shall not be deported from that country on the whim of Government.”

Mr Frank Field: Does my hon. Friend agree that, while it is proper for the system to be policed, the way in which the rules are being applied to students who are

6 Sep 2012 : Column 437

here legitimately and have paid their way is appalling? Does he agree that the one thing we want the Government to do is distinguish between how we behave to institutions that break the rules and how we behave to people who have every right to be here pursuing their courses?

Paul Blomfield: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who has made his point very well.

What worries me is the wider reputational damage to the higher education sector. Losing out in that market is not just about short-term financial loss. Those who study in the UK develop a great affection for the country. When they have returned home and have risen to prominent positions in business and politics, and are making decisions about trade and investment, they often turn first to the country where they studied. Every one of our universities is full of examples of alumni who have contributed to this country on the basis of that relationship.

Mr Brazier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Blomfield: No, I will not. I have given way twice, and I am running out of time.

What can we do to return to our historic position as the destination of choice for the world’s students? The answer came this morning in the report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, echoing the reports from the Home Affairs Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. All those Committees, and Members on both sides of the House, have said that we should remove students from the net migration targets, but it is not just their view. The case was made recently by the director general of the Institute of Directors, who said:

“International students should not be treated as migrants for the purposes of the government’s net migration figures”.

He said that a

“simple statistical change has the potential to neutralise what competitor countries see as a spectacular own goal.”

Treating students as migrants damages our universities, but it also distorts the immigration debate because it leads policy makers away from the real issues of concern. Australia—one of our competitors which is winning the game, building a growing share of the international student market—has undertaken an instructive journey on immigration. Political concerns led the Australians to tighten student visa rules in 2010. A fall in the number of student applications then led them to commission the Knight review, which recommended changes that have reopened opportunities for international students. In the United States, restrictions imposed after 9/11 have been loosened. The US Department of Homeland Security does not include international students in its numbers for migration policy purposes; it treats them, rightly, in the same way as it treats business visitors and tourists—as “nonimmigrant admissions”.

As I have said, while the Government are right to tackle the problem of bogus students and colleges, we need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Taking students out of our net migration targets would enable us to look again at the changes that have been introduced by the Home Office. It could, for example, provide a basis for reviewing the restrictive rules on post-study work, which is a key issue as many prospective

6 Sep 2012 : Column 438

students are keen to consolidate their learning in the country of their study. That also has a huge amount to offer our economy. Barack Obama has learned that lesson in the United States. Addressing this debate in the context of his country, he said, “This is crazy. We’re taking the best minds from around the world. We’re bringing them to this country. We’re giving them the skills to apply in a whole range of areas—to develop business, to develop the economy—and then we’re kicking them out.” The post-study work route is an important issue, and such work makes an important contribution to the economy.

Taking students out of the net migration targets would, above all, send a positive message at a time when we have been sending nothing but negative messages, by saying, “You’re welcome in the UK.”

2.55 pm

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): May I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) for introducing this debate on what is a hugely important subject? I am surprised that none of my Liberal Democrat coalition partners are present to discuss it. The tone in which the subject is addressed is very important, however. I was thrilled that he emphasised the positive impact migration has made to this country, while also explaining why he felt we needed to reduce net migration significantly. I absolutely agree with him about the issue of scale, too; I support the manifesto on which I stood for election. I do not support the terms of this motion, however, and I want to explain why.

My right hon. Friend rightly said that in the past 10 years the scale of population growth has been greater than at any time since the census process began. It is important to note that the pace of change is not that different from throughout much of the 20th century. The point is that the scale is greater, however, because we are starting from a higher baseline, and Members can reasonably argue that that is harder to accommodate because the population is larger.

I have four concerns about the motion. First, we have never had a formal population target, and I do not believe it would be right to have one. That is in part because of my second reason for not supporting the motion, which is that the population growth over the last 10 years is not solely due to net migration. Office for National Statistics and census data show that about 55% of the population increase is down to migration and about 45% is due to people living longer and also to increased fertility rates—which is an interesting phenomenon as many other western European countries are not experiencing it, and there is not yet a clear understanding as to why it is happening. If the country were to adopt a formal population target, the Government might have to look at addressing policies such as the number of children that families are allowed to have, and I would be completely opposed to that.

My third, and most substantive, objection, however, is the costs that would result from the levels of reduction in net migration that this motion would entail. I tried to make that point in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). I admire him greatly, but in order to attain the terms of the motion, which talks about

6 Sep 2012 : Column 439

“population as close as possible to its present level and, certainly, significantly below 70 million”,

the Migration Observatory evidence shows that we would probably need to have either zero net migration or possibly even net emigration from the country. If we take a net migration figure of 100,000, which would be at the top end of the Government target, the population would be just under 70 million in 2035. This motion is not just calling for the Government to achieve their manifesto commitment, therefore; it is arguing for measures that go well beyond that, and they will have consequences.

The Office for Budget Responsibility model that we now all work on assumes that each reduction of 50,000 in migration will result in a 0.1% reduction in economic growth. When the OBR was mentioned earlier, several of my colleagues questioned the reference to it from a sedentary position. I am not an economist or an expert in these matters, but I do know that every Chancellor of the Exchequer must now base their Budget decisions on the figures the independent OBR produces.

Mr Brazier: The key point is not the overall size of the economy, but GDP per capita.

Gavin Barwell: I was about to deal with that, so I am grateful for the intervention. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) had it right in his speech—

Pete Wishart rose

Gavin Barwell: This is an important point and I want to develop it. As I was saying, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green had it right, because there is clear evidence that migration does have an effect on economic growth, but there is no clear evidence that it has an impact on GDP per head. Those things are both important. GDP per head is important in terms of individual living standards, but if we are passionate about reducing the deficit, the level of economic growth is crucial. It affects tax receipts, the number of people out of work and the income coming into the Treasury—

Mr Brazier rose

Gavin Barwell: I am going to give my hon. Friend a full answer to his question. I strongly recommend that he reads the OBR’s fiscal sustainability report published in July, which looks not at what will happen over the next five years but at the longer-term consequences of an ageing population. It compares what might happen under its central estimate of 140,000 net migration, which is higher than I would like to see, with what might happen if zero net migration were to occur. It finds that over a 20 or 30-year period zero net migration would mean an extra 8.2% of GDP of fiscal tightening. In other words, very significant spending cuts or tax increases would be involved if that is the road we wish to go down as a country. We need to have this debate, because there is a balance to be struck. A policy of unlimited migration has benefits for our fiscal position, but it has real consequences for our public services, the level of housing we require and development in this country.

6 Sep 2012 : Column 440

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution, which is unusual from a Conservative Member on the subject of immigration, and he is right to oppose the motion. The motion makes a sinister reference to taking “all necessary steps”. Does he agree that that would require more than has been explained and defined by the supporters of the motion? We heard something about repatriation earlier. Does he appreciate that they will probably have to go much further if they are to achieve these ambitions?

Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman is being very unfair to my colleagues. What they have done in this debate is, rightly, set out the widespread concerns that exist across this country. I am trying to talk about what the consequences of further steps would be, as those are where my concerns lie. I represent part of this great city, with its very diverse population. All the electorate in my constituency want a reduction in net migration and in population growth, but they do not want to see the economic consequences of taking that policy too far. This is a question of striking the right balance.

I wish to make a couple of other quick points. Some question whether there is a correlation between population growth and economic growth, but if they examine the parts of the country that have seen the most significant population growth in recent years, they will see a correlation with the areas that are performing best economically. A sort of chicken and egg situation applies, because an area that is doing well economically tends to encourage people to move there because they think they can find work there. There does seem to be a correlation at a local level within our country.

I briefly wish to pick up on what the Prime Minister said in relation to the reshuffle. He said that every Department should be actively

“involved in the effort to get the deficit down and get the economy moving.”

I agree that that is the central test. The Government must deliver the manifesto commitment on net migration. Equally importantly, we must give people confidence that the system is working and that the people coming into the country are those who are doing so legally through a properly run immigration system. We must also not lose sight of the clear economic benefits that a well managed migration system can bring.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) made an excellent point about the pressure on public services, but he also kindly acknowledged a good intervention—the British Medical Association has sent all Members a briefing on this—on the contribution that migrants make in delivering many of our public services. So, again, there is a balance to be struck.

For many of the things that the public are really concerned about, other solutions are available alongside a reduction in net migration. One of the real issues we have with the pressure on land for development is the significant reduction in household size. If, across this House, we could develop policies to try to prevent the level of family breakdown, that would reduce the pressure on housing. Another issue that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) raised was the regional imbalance around the UK. Parts of this country are very heavily populated, with real density, and they are often the areas that are seeing the biggest increases in population, but that is not the case uniformly

6 Sep 2012 : Column 441

across the UK. Half of all the population growth in the past 10 years was in London, the south-east and the east of England.

We could make much more of a national effort on infrastructure. Personally, I would have liked to see more cuts in current spending and more investment in infrastructure on the capital side.

Finally, if we are serious about this issue, we should consider not only non-EU immigration but migration from within the EU. The debate is a bit more complicated, in my opinion, than the motion makes out.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gavin Barwell: I cannot, I am afraid.

Although I support the principle of delivering our manifesto commitment, I cannot support the specific wording of the motion.

3.5 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who I thought made one of the most thoughtful speeches from his side of the House in this debate.

I have never shied away from debates about immigration. In fact, I find it odd to hear from people who think that it is very brave to argue, as this motion does, for a cut in immigration, as though those of us who have argued for immigrants’ rights over decades have had it easy. My experience has been completely to the contrary: those of us who have argued for immigrants’ rights have been those who have been most likely to be pilloried.

I have an interest in this debate as I have a brother, a sister and two uncles who are migrants. They have gone to the Bahamas, Canada and the USA, they have married people from third countries, and they have brought millions into those countries’ economies and added to their artistic and intellectual lives. They are an example, as are many of my constituents, of the positive impact of migration around the world.

Ms Abbott: Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not immigrants’ rights but the need to have a fair and transparent immigration system based on the facts and not on urban myth? Does she agree that the response to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) about who will pay for the houses and hospitals the immigrants need is quite simple? It will be hard-working immigrants who do so, through taxation.

Fiona Mactaggart: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. What I object to most about the motion is its focus on numbers and its failure to focus on the lives of human beings. That is the issue. If we are thinking about migration policy, the first thing we need to do is think about who the migrants are, what they are here for and what the benefits are to them, their families, the communities they come to and the country as a whole.

Frankly, there is a serious consequence of not starting from the question of the lives of human beings, and we saw it in the decision on London Metropolitan university, where there has been a collective punishment of perfectly legitimate students for the failure of the institution at

6 Sep 2012 : Column 442

which they registered in all good faith. I am not saying that every student was necessarily legitimate, but we know that those students who are and who fulfil all the requirements have been collectively punished, absolutely contrary to British traditions, for the failure of the institution in which they work. That is a consequence of trying to decide immigration policy not on its human consequences, but on some abstract numerical basis.

Some of the attempts that the Government have made to date to reduce immigration policy have had serious consequences. I want to take the opportunity of the new Minister’s presence in this debate to highlight some of them and to ask him to consider whether things are going in the right direction. A large group of migrants in my constituency have come here as family members of people who are already in this country. Recently, the immigration rules have been changed to require that if a family is to be united in such a way they need to earn, if they have one child, for example, £22,500. That is above the average wage of people who live in Slough. More than half of my constituents, if they marry someone from overseas, will be unable to be united with their spouse. That is cruel. It is unfair to have a means test on the right to a family life.

Mr Brazier: Will the hon. Lady address this point? I represent a constituency where housing is extremely expensive and rents are high. If the person bringing in the family members cannot afford to support or house them, who is to pay for that?

Fiona Mactaggart: Before the regulations were changed, they had an absolute requirement that someone coming in had to be able to show that there would be no recourse to public funds, and I certainly support that. I have never objected to a requirement that a family trying to be reunited in this country should not depend on a public subsidy to do so and must be able to show that they can afford to house themselves and so on. That is perfectly right, but I do not see why ordinary, hard-working, low-paid workers in my constituency should be barred from being reunited with the families, which has been the case since the rule change.

A second change that I would like the Minister to address is the growing Home Office practice—one designed to look tough but not necessarily be tough—of insisting on more temporary steps before someone can become a permanent resident of this country. As a result, people are given three or five years’ leave and then must apply at a later time to become a permanent resident, with additional costs for them, and then of course they must be here for longer to acquire British citizenship. I have no problem with people having to be here for a substantial amount of time before they can acquire citizenship, but what I know is that the Home Office cannot administer these applications and is grotesquely inefficient.