I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, and I congratulate Mr Field on introducing it. Like him, I welcome the change in tone that has occurred in raising and debating the subject of immigration. In 2005, I wrote a pamphlet on the subject entitled, "Too much of a good thing? Towards a balanced approach to immigration". I was immediately assailed by my political opponents in my constituency and accused in the local press of being racist. That was before they had read anything that I had said. In those days, simply raising the subject was deemed to be racist, but I am happy to say that when they read what I had said they withdrew their remarks, because I was manifestly not racist. I am glad that we have moved on, and that we can now discuss such matters.
For much of my adult life-this is probably not true of most hon. Members in the Chamber-I have lived in parts of London that have strong immigrant populations, and cheek by jowl with people who had emigrated to this country. As a result, I knew from working with people of immigrant origin, and from knowing them as friends and neighbours and worshipping in the same churches, that the caricature of immigrants often portrayed in the media is often the very reverse of the truth. Far from being scroungers, criminals and a threat to society, the majority of them are decent, hard-working, law-abiding people who want to make a positive contribution to the community.
So I began with a bias in favour of immigration. I became involved in the subject and was prompted to write the pamphlet only because I was investigating the housing issue in Hertfordshire. I was intrigued as to why housing targets were constantly raised. When I inquired why, I was told by the great and the good and by the officials in local authorities and planning authorities that there were two reasons that we needed constantly to build more houses. The first was declining household size, and that was true. On average, if there were an unchanged population in Hertfordshire, we would need 0.5% more houses every year because household sizes are declining by 0.5% each year.
The second reason I was given was that there was an inflow into the south-east from the rest of the country. I looked into that, and I found it to be untrue. It was what we would call, in places other than this, a lie. In fact, there was a net outflow of people from the south-east of England to the rest of the United Kingdom. There was, however, a net inflow into London, particularly, from abroad. In 17 statements to the House on housing made by the previous Government, the impact of international migration on demand for housing was never once mentioned. That was the nature of our debate. We were pretending that the phenomenon was not happening, even though everyone could observe that it was.
As far as my constituency was concerned, people were moving to London from abroad and occupying houses-because they were allocated them, because they had bought them or because they had rented them-that would otherwise have been occupied by the people already resident in London. Those people therefore moved out to Hertfordshire and the rest of the home counties, and we had to build houses for them.
When I looked into the matter further, I found that 80% of the expected population growth and more than 40% of new household formation in this country was the result of net immigration from abroad. That is why we have a housing crisis in this country. That is why housing waiting lists have increased so dramatically over the past 10 or 15 years. That is also why so many of our constituents link housing with immigration. They do not dislike immigrants. Like me, they probably know them and live with them-we are all human beings; we are all children of the same God and I hope that we all get on with each other-but they know that if there is a net inflow into the country and we are not building as many houses as there are people coming in, that will result in a housing crisis and the people who are already here will have to bear the brunt of it in due course. I therefore wrote about that and thought about it purely in those terms.
I went on to look at the economic benefits that were alleged to result from large-scale immigration into this country. I found that the debate on those supposed benefits was depressingly superficial. It consisted of slogans rather than analysis. When I looked at the analysis that had been seriously carried out into the economic benefits that flow from immigration, I could find no major study that believed there to be any substantial net gain to an economy from large-scale net immigration. Martin Horwood, who is no longer in his place, mentioned certain publications by the Institute for Public Policy Research that were in favour of immigration, but I shall quote from a document that the institute published entitled "The Politics of Migration". It contains an essay by Mark Kleinman, in which he states:
"There is not a compelling long-term case for increased immigration purely in terms of economic benefits."
I could quote from many other studies that reached the same conclusion. According to some, there might be a mild economic benefit if we ignore all the housing and infrastructure problems, or according to others, there might be a small net loss. The idea that we can substantially improve the well-being of this country through large-scale immigration is simply unsubstantiated by any major study.
This does not mean that we should have no immigration. My analogy is that immigration is much more like a lubricant than a fuel. Without lubrication, a car would suffer severe damage, but once it has enough lubrication, adding more will not make it go better; it might even cause problems. Likewise, stopping all immigration would damage the economy, but encouraging more immigration beyond a certain point will not make those already here any better off. I challenge anyone to rebut that basic thesis. We need a modest amount of to-and-fro among people, with some moving here, others returning or moving elsewhere, but we do not need a substantial net increase in our population through immigration.
I shall deal with just one economic argument-the issue of skilled workers. The debate in this area is particularly superficial. It is widely assumed that allowing any skilled workers into the country must always be beneficial to the well-being of those already here, but that is not necessarily so. The only way to raise the living standards of our existing population over time is to increase the level of skills and the proportion of our population that has those skills, expertise and experience. Importing skills from abroad is often a substitute for doing that and discourages it. This is not the only reason, but it has contributed to the fact that this country has a less skilled population than many of our competitors, including Germany, France, Japan and America. A smaller proportion of our population has qualifications below degree level than almost any of our competitors.
We pretend that we can make do by importing skilled people instead, thereby simply leaving large swathes of our population unskilled, with reduced incentives to acquire skills, depression of the wages of people with skills and reduction of the differentials that can be gained from acquiring a skill. That cannot be right. Employers might say, "Ah, I would like to employ some skilled workers from abroad," but we should be wary of saying that this is a good thing. Employers always like to employ cheap labour. They would like to get cheaper accountants from abroad, cheaper lawyers from abroad, cheaper journalists from abroad-