Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

There are, broadly speaking, three responses you can make to net immigration on that scale: bury your head in the sand and deny that there is a problem; invest the resources to deal with it in time; or exercise a level of constraint over the numbers arriving from those immigrant groups over which you have some control. It seems from the recent statements by the new Minister for immigration that the Government may be moving swiftly from the first to the third of those options. That brings me, finally, to the new points-based system, to which I said I would return.

The five tiers of that system are, in effect, inlet valves for five different categories of immigrant and are no doubt intended to regulate the flows of immigrants into the UK to some purpose. We can see that happening already. For example, tier 3—the unskilled category—is to be suspended for the foreseeable future, thus ensuring that the only unskilled immigrants into the UK will be from Europe, together with some dependants and, perhaps, asylum seekers. What we do not know, yet, is the net impact of the expected numbers of immigrants coming in via the other tiers, which are all in operation. As I said earlier, scale matters here if you are going to plan to deal with a significant net increase in numbers in an orderly fashion. It matters particularly to local authorities and other public service providers at the sharp end, so it would seem sensible for Government to have a broad, quantified intention in mind when they operate the inlet valves of their new, much vaunted system.

Let me reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has said on this point. What our report recommended was that:

“The Government should have an explicit and reasoned indicative target range for net immigration, and adjust its immigration policies in line with that broad objective".

That was simply a call for a rough, quantitative explanation of what the Government were intending to achieve with their new system in terms of the net flow of immigrants, as they will no doubt operate those inlet valves with something in mind and not just at random. There is no excuse for confusing our recommendation with a call for a cap on gross immigration, which is a different kettle of fish altogether, and one which to my mind is neither necessary nor desirable.

Yet the Government's response to the recommendation seems to have confused net with gross and a reasoned indicative target range with an arbitrary cap. I quote paragraph 4.50 of the Government's reply to our report:

“We believe that an arbitrary cap on numbers picked out of thin air simply risks denying Britain access to skills and ideas as and when they are needed - thereby damaging the ability of the economy, the labour market and business to function in a flexible way".

I could not agree more, but it is of no real relevance to our report's recommendation. I wonder whether, today, the Minister would care to respond to the recommendation we made, rather than to a fabrication that we did not make.



14 Nov 2008 : Column 872

12.39 pm

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I welcome the report of the Select Committee on the economic impact of immigration, but that admission should not mean that it can be taken for granted that I agree with most of its conclusions.

The report deals with a small but significant aspect of key features of migration and its impact on the economy of the United Kingdom. The debate is important for two reasons. First, it gives us an opportunity to comment on the most emotive issue, which is immigration to the United Kingdom. Secondly, it gives us the opportunity to look at other aspects beyond economics that impinge on immigration policies.

What are the other aspects of immigration? We offer humanitarian protection to people suffering persecution, a point well made by my noble friend Lord Vallance. The 1951 UN convention on the status of refugees places that obligation on us. We offer the right to a family life; for example, the right to be united with one's family, which is enshrined in the human rights convention. In a highly globalised world, we encourage those with skills to come to the United Kingdom to help to build our economy. No one disputes that immigration policies must protect and promote our national interest. We must accept that such interests cannot remain static when substantial changes are taking place throughout the world.

To have a rational debate about immigration becomes difficult because the subject has been a political battleground since the first Commonwealth immigration Act was introduced in 1962. We know that the combined issues of race, religion, asylum and immigration have increased in importance during the past three general elections. The press coverage of immigration issues was greater in the latest election than it had been in the previous two. In UK media coverage of the 2005 election, those issues were the fourth highest theme recorded.

There are four reasons for that. First, there is the unending discussion about numbers, now focused on the others coming from eastern Europe and the media panics about bogus asylum seekers. Secondly, there is a worry about our national borders and our borders within what has been called “Fortress Europe”. Thirdly, there are questions about our role in the international community: do we face towards Europe, the United States, or both? Lastly, we worry about what is our national identity, which a focus on immigration leads us to believe is insecure and therefore must be better defined. What is it and who can be members within this single identity?

It is right that in a free and democratic society, there is a sensible discussion and debate about such issues. It is for this reason that I say that I welcome the publication of the report. The media publicity concentrated on which indicators were appropriate in measuring the impacts on the labour market and the macro economy, but the Government reply published last June received scant mention in any of the newspapers. There remains a major disagreement between the Government and the Select Committee about GDP, which the Select Committee considers “irrelevant and

14 Nov 2008 : Column 873

misleading”. The committee prefers GDP per capita. The Government subscribe to GDP per capita and conclude that since 1997, the UK has recorded the highest average annual growth rate in GDP per head among the G7 economies, and that migration has made a positive contribution to the strong recorded growth in GDP per head in the United Kingdom. The Government also indicated, and independent research continues to confirm, that they find no significant evidence of negative employment effects from immigration.

I am not an economist and I would not wish to be drawn into that argument, but I have no doubt that the disagreement between the Select Committee and the Home Office will run and run for a very long time. What no one can dispute is that our economy is part of a global system, and that international migration is a central feature of this system. There are potentially huge economic benefits in attracting the best talents. Just look at the City of London, which has the most diverse and international workforce. The consideration is how we protect and manage immigration when we are heading for a deep recession.

I do not dispute that a fair, effective and transparent policy must be at the centre of such considerations. We must never lose sight of the fact that many immigrants from all over the world have brought economic benefits to Britain. Last Tuesday, I was invited to a major function arranged by the Asian Media Marketing Group to make awards to Asian traders for their contribution to this country. The noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, spoke at the gathering and informed us that Asian businesses in this country contribute to the tune of more than £20 billion. That figure varies considerably from that cited by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. I do not want to get involved in the figures; all I know is that Asian businesses were wise enough not to buy a British bank with that money.

The benefits of migration have never been fully explained. There are four factors that we often miss out, to which I draw the House’s attention. The first is the economic factor, which plays a major role in the process of migration. Let us not forget that these factors also determine the level of migration to this country. Going back to the early 1960s, when figures were first published by the Home Office, more migrants came to the United Kingdom during economic prosperity. During economic depression, fewer migrants entered this country. So the economy is a great leveller in the process of migration.

The second point, which I hope that the Minister will explain, is that census figures demonstrate that most migrants who entered in the 1950s and 1960s were economically active, and women who entered at that time were of childbearing age. We are therefore talking of second and third generations of people born in this country. Where did we take note of that factor in our analysis? Do they fit into the overall, predominantly white population or do we still regard them as migrants after two or three generations? That point needs to be clarified when we talk about GDP.

Thirdly, migrants make a major contribution to supporting their communities back home. Research in various other countries has clearly demonstrated

14 Nov 2008 : Column 874

that the prosperity of many of our developing nations is built on the support that they receive from people who send money back home.

Finally, we must never forget the soft diplomacy of the democratic values that many of them take back home.

As the president of the Liberal Democrat Party, I travelled the length and breadth of this country during the previous two general elections. I was amazed that some political leaders would sing the praise of foreign migrant communities in areas in which they lived and settled; yet the same politicians in predominantly white suburbs would advance the total curtailment of immigration to this country. That is sheer hypocrisy. It is clear that economically driven migration has brought substantial benefits for growth and the economy.

Given our membership of the European Community, we cannot regulate the number or selection of nationals of the European Economic Area. Most EEA nationals have the automatic right to work in the UK. We praised the Poles when they came here in large numbers and provided the workforce in our construction industries. So large was the drain of Polish workers from Poland to the UK that the Polish Prime Minister contacted the Prime Minister of India to see whether he would encourage the migration of Indians to Poland to balance the workforce drain felt in his country.

Government statistics on the impact of demographic changes show that our society is ageing. Indeed, we simply have to look around. By 2050, almost 23 per cent of Britons—14.7 million—will be over 65. Some commentators suggest that by 2040, each person of working age will support twice as many pensioners as they do today. There will be a considerable impact on health, welfare and social services in this country. Whether we like it or not, attracting a migrant workforce is one of the options that we shall have to consider.

The current debate about the points system has not been very helpful. We need to monitor the impact of such measures. In the mean time, will the Minister say which of the following views will prevail? The chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr Keith Vaz, said that it was totally untrue that Labour would seek to restrict foreign workers, as suggested by the Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas. We then have Mr Woolas saying that government policy should reflect the need for an upper limit on Britain’s population. It would be very helpful to have the Government’s formal position on these conflicting views.

12.50 pm

Baroness Valentine: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for securing this pertinent debate. Given the current implementation of the Government’s new five-tiered points system, it is indeed worth reflecting on what we want from our immigration policy.

As the leader of a London business organisation, I can tell noble Lords that immigration is critical to business. I start from the premise that business must be able to recruit the best people from wherever they are. Indeed, the competitiveness of London and the United Kingdom depends on it. However, the challenge is ensuring that as many of the best people as possible—the

14 Nov 2008 : Column 875

most suitably skilled and able—are found from within the UK. It is not the net immigration target range that will deliver this; equipping more UK residents with the right motivation and skills will reduce our reliance on immigration.

This is not British jobs for British workers. Our manufacturing sector was not well served by protectionism in the 1970s. British Leyland made cars that were less and less competitive in world markets. The skills challenge for the UK is not to limit immigration by regulation, but to ensure that British workers can compete with the best in the world in all fields. All else being equal, most employers would prefer to fill most jobs with locally based staff.

The report of the Economic Affairs Committee raises concerns, which I share with earlier speakers, over the issue of considering overall GDP as opposed to GDP per head of population. The total size of an economy is not an index of prosperity; increasing prosperity for each individual should be our goal. This is helped by maximising every individual’s potential to contribute economically. We must improve employability, but business must also retain the ability to recruit internationally. Especially in these uncertain economic times, we must not handcuff business; we must support it. This is what will ensure prosperity for each individual in the long run.

Secondly, the report rightly draws attention to the absolute paucity and unreliability of migration data. I am wary of giving too much weight to the conclusion of this or any other report on the effects of immigration while the statistics on which it depends are so fragile, so I cannot accept uncritically the assertion that GDP per head is not benefited by immigration. Indeed, a recent report by Think London—London’s inward investment agency—highlighted that the presence of staff from around the world actually boosted productivity in companies.

Every effort must be made to improve the statistical evidence. I know that a number of London boroughs have resorted to collecting their own immigration data to support their claims for central government funding, based on a suspicion, which I share, that current data are out of date and underestimate their immigrant populations. Conflicting sets of data are not helpful. We need one set of statistics that is well researched and trusted.

The same principle applies to the work of the Border and Immigration Agency at our major ports. I welcome the first ever service level agreement between the Home Office and Heathrow to shorten immigration queues at the UK’s principal business airport. But a prerequisite to such an agreement is reliable and comparable data, which we do not yet have.

However, we are where we are. Coming into play is the Government’s five-tiered points system, which will create a much more meritocratic and effective way of ensuring that immigration does not spiral, but that suitably, necessarily skilled immigrants will enter our workforce. The implementation of the system is critical. In a recent London First survey of its members, only 3 per cent believe that the Border and Immigration Agency is in a position to implement the new system.



14 Nov 2008 : Column 876

International students, who are on tier 4, are a case in point. In 2005-06, these students in London contributed £1.5 billion to GDP and helped to support 44,000 jobs. However, specific practical issues—for example, the certification process for the sponsoring universities, compliance costs, management of students’ cash deposits, incompatibilities between the Home Office and university IT systems, the fact that overseas university researchers are not covered by the system and the lack of overall management information—remain unresolved. We must take time to implement a system that works. The university sector puts forward a strong case for deferring implementation of tier 4 from spring to autumn 2009 to give time to address these issues.

This report asks the right questions and I agree with some of its conclusions. Undoubtedly, we must have better and more meaningful data if we are fully to understand the positive and negative implications that immigration has on our country. London is a leading world city and brings enormous benefit to the UK as a whole. Tourists come to the capital to experience the huge cultural diversity we have to offer. Whether it is the cuisine of our internationally experienced chefs or listening to a Havana band in a Cuban nightclub, we must play to our strengths. Other countries and cities have access to the world’s best talent. So must we. Our challenge is to ensure that the best talent is found in, and keeps coming to, the UK.

Allowing British businesses to recruit globally does not open the doors to an unstoppable influx of immigrants if education and training systems equip British workers to compete. I should like UK workers to win on merit, not because we have changed the rules to prevent the best from competing at all. Finally, I look forward very much to hearing the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln’s first contribution to this House.

12.57 pm

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords for their welcome to the House and for the careful way in which they ensure that new Members are able to find their way around the maze of corridors and the myriad of customs, conventions and standing orders that seem to govern the way we do business around here. I am grateful for the graciousness and patience of all noble Lords. I am particularly indebted to one of the attendants who, when I made my second visit to the House and my third trip across the Peers’ Lobby in my shirt sleeves, accosted me and said, “My Lord Bishop, if you ever feel the need of a jacket, you will let me know, won’t you?”. That reminds me of Henry Thoreau’s suggestion that we should always beware of any enterprises that require us to wear strange clothes.

In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for this report and for the way in which he has introduced it. I am very conscious of the fact that maiden speeches should be non-controversial. I would love to be able to indulge myself and challenge some of the data, conclusions and assumptions in the report, particularly as they relate to the immigration trends and economic realities with which I am most familiar in those parts of Lincolnshire where industries are dependent on migrant labour and guest workers in order to conduct

14 Nov 2008 : Column 877

their agricultural and food processing businesses effectively. But I must restrain myself to being non-controversial.

Therefore, I offer the most non-controversial contribution to this debate; namely, that immigrants are people, human beings, each made in the image of God as much as any of us here. Towards the end of his magisterial account of immigration into Britain, entitled, Bloody Foreigners, Robert Winder concludes:

“It is unsettling that these groups are discussed as if they are things rather than people”.

In other words, and in relation to this debate, immigrants are people rather than mere economic units. This is not in any way to imply that those noble Lords who have worked so hard on this report are anything other than highly sensitive to the human stories, passions and values that characterise immigrants as much as they do the rest of us. But I wonder whether the problem lies in asking colleagues to undertake a merely economic evaluation of any human activity, whether it is a pastime like potholing or painting, an occupation like banking or baking, or a vocation like teaching or nursing or, dare I say it, whether it is the activities of this House. When we seek to evaluate any human activity on purely economic grounds, we run the risk at least of dehumanising those whose humanity we share. Not everything that counts can be counted, not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is valuable can be valued at a price.

The report does what it says on the tin: it addresses the economic impact of immigration, and its authors are at pains to point out that quotation. The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, reiterated it in his introduction by saying:

“Non-economic considerations such as impacts on cultural diversity and social cohesion are important, but these are outside the scope of this inquiry”.

Yet even so, the disclaimer is difficult to sustain as the human face of immigration persists in breaking through. They have families, says the report, and possibly children. They live to grow old, says the report, and they like to socialise with their compatriots. All these are indications of their humanity, but because the remit of the report is restricted to economic considerations, whenever these human characteristics are mentioned, it seems to be in rather negative terms. Why is that? It is because the disclaimer has dictated in advance that for the purposes of this report, immigrants are economic units to be evaluated using a cost-benefit analysis, and that inevitably tends towards their humanity being seen as a problem to be solved rather than something to be celebrated.

We must take seriously, of course, the extent to which the humanity of the resident population is affected by the arrival, often in large numbers as in parts of the diocese of Lincoln, of men, women and children from other parts of the European Union as well as further afield. Sometimes the effects are disturbing, as the ebb and flow of human interaction creates friction, leading to antagonism and abuse both verbal and physical. Sometimes at the root of this are deep-seated fears about jobs, housing and benefits, and it takes a prodigious amount of myth-busting to dispel those fears. I welcome the report as a contribution towards ensuring that reality rather than rhetoric drives the

14 Nov 2008 : Column 878

priorities of both national and local government when it comes to providing full, fair and appropriately targeted funding to communities so that they can flourish rather than flounder in the face of demographic change and increasing social diversity. All this underlines the importance of economic analysis and accurate statistical data, but my point is simply this: how easy it is for the humanity behind a statistic to be obscured when that statistic is pressed into the service of purely economic considerations.

Lincolnshire County Council has a well-developed strategy for welcoming new arrivals. It is based on recent research and a wide variation of data sets. It concludes:

“Despite the tensions outlined above, recent research suggests that 75% of the indigenous population did not mind migrant workers living locally. There appears to be a growing understanding that new cultures, fresh perspectives and hardworking people are a good thing for Lincolnshire”.

This is all the more remarkable given the hysterical headlines that so often accompany newspaper coverage of immigration and its impact on our communities. A recently published welcome to Lincolnshire booklet, available in all our key languages, has done a great deal to ensure that new arrivals know themselves to be valued for their all-round contribution and that, of course, inevitably leads to added value economically, as well as in other ways.

Way back in the mists of time my forebears came to these shores, possibly as Viking invaders but more likely as Anglo-Saxon settlers. They might or might not have left their mark on the economic landscape of this green and pleasant land. But I like to think that, over time, they experienced hospitality rather than hostility as their distinctive humanity was allowed to enrich the local population in ways that were more than merely economic.

Immigrants and émigrés are human beings. As befits a maiden speech, that is pretty non-controversial. But in a debate predicated on the bottom line being money rather than humanity, perhaps it needs saying.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page