Part of Backbench Business — [9th allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 18 November 2010.

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Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Conservative, Croydon Central 4:41, 18 November 2010

I, too, congratulate Mr Field, my hon. Friend Nicholas Soames and the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. Many of my constituents, including many in black and minority ethnic communities, are highly concerned about current immigration levels. It is essential that their concerns are addressed on the Floor of the House and by the mainstream political parties, because if they are not extremists will exploit the issue.

There have been a number of high-quality speeches today. I hope that my hon. Friends sitting around me will forgive my singling out the speeches of my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley and Heidi Alexander, who is not in her place but who had the courage to approach the issue from a different perspective.

I start by talking about my home town. It is predicted that at the time of the next census, 42% of Croydon's population will be from black and minority ethnic communities. Within that figure, there will be significant black Caribbean, black African, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other communities, and it will be the 11th-highest among local authorities in the country. My constituency is fairly representative of the borough as a whole, which is predicted to have a BME population of just over 40% at that time. I suspect that that figure will be the highest among Government Members.

It is important to note that people generally get on very well in my area. The recent Place survey showed that 77% think that people in Croydon from different backgrounds get on well together. That figure is higher than the London average and the national average and it has improved on the figure from two years ago, which is in sharp contrast with the situation in many other parts of the country.

There is a significant UK Border Agency presence in my constituency. The previous Government decided that anyone who wants to claim asylum has to do so in person in my constituency-the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I shall return to that point later-and as a result, immigration and asylum issues dominate my casework. There are three groups of people who contact me. First, there are those who are concerned about the pace of change in Croydon. Secondly, there are the thousands of people going through the immigration and asylum system who are concerned about their future prospects. Thirdly, several thousand of my constituents work for the UKBA and are both frustrated by the rules and processes that they have to go through and, given the Government's decisions on public expenditure, concerned about their future job prospects. Although those three groups of people appear to approach the issues from different perspectives, they share a lot more common ground than they suppose. Before I explain that, however, I shall describe my own perspective.

I am very lucky to be a Member of Parliament who represents his home town. I have lived there all my life and believe very passionately that Croydon's diversity is one of its greatest strengths. It makes the area a vibrant and cosmopolitan place to live, and in today's globalised world the fact that many Croydonians have connections with other countries is a huge asset to the town. Immigration has brought entrepreneurs who have set up new businesses and created new jobs and people who work in our public services, and it has also enriched our culture. My close friends, neighbours, former council colleagues and almost every voluntary group with which I interact as an MP include people from black and minority ethnic communities.

A number of Members referred to the British sense of fair play and to this country's tolerance, and, although I know their good intentions in making that point, I always think that "tolerance" is not the right word to describe the situation. I do not tolerate the fact that people from all over the world have made their homes in Croydon, I celebrate it. I am proud of the fact that they have chosen to make my home town their home.

It is possible to have "too much of a good thing", however, and I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden refer to a pamphlet that he published with that very title. I have not read it, but I certainly will now. My constituents undoubtedly think that we have had too much of a good thing in recent years, and I shall run through their concerns.

Most people are concerned not about race or skin colour, but about population growth, jobs and the pressure on local public services. Many of those issues have been addressed today so I shall keep my comments brief. On population growth, the latest projections from 2008, which are based on the assumption of net migration to this country of 180,000 people a year, predict that the population will increase to 71.6 million by 2033, an increase of 10.2 million people. Of those 10.2 million people, about 7 million will be accounted for by net migration.

My right hon. Friend referred to housing projections in Hertfordshire, and I am sure that every Member can tell a similar story. My local authority is a growth area under the London plan, but the plans for significant housing growth cause real concern. Bizarrely, very few people live in our town centre, so there is an opportunity to build significantly more housing there, but large parts of my constituency have suffered in recent years from overdevelopment, which has changed the character of residential areas. There has been lot of backbone development, with detached or semi-detached houses replaced by blocks of flats, and that has caused real concerns for constituents. Indeed, the pattern of net migration has driven much of that change.

On jobs, the figures from the Office for National Statistics' labour force survey show that between April to June 1997 and April to June 2010, the employment of people who were born in the United Kingdom rose from 24.5 million to 25.1 million, while the employment of people born outside the UK rose from 2 million to 3.8 million. We should not be so simplistic as to say that, if there had been no net migration, exactly the same number of jobs would have been created, because the situation is much more complicated; but, during the previous Labour Government, a period of relatively sustained economic growth, about three quarters to four fifths of the jobs created definitely went to people who were not born in the UK. An opportunity was missed to get a large number of people in this country who had been off work for a considerable period back into work. As I said, we should not be simplistic about those figures or take them at face value, because the picture is more complicated than that, but it is undeniable that during the last economic boom we missed the opportunity to get long-term unemployed people back into the labour market.

On public services, I sat briefly in the Chamber yesterday for the Opposition day debate on education, when the shadow Secretary of State referred to our debate about the need for capital investment in our schools, and to the requirement for a needs-based investment policy. I was rather staggered to hear him say that what he meant by "needs-based" was that funding should go en bloc to local authorities in areas where there was low education attainment. When I think of "needs-based" in relation to investment in education capital, I think about the state of individual school buildings and about the parts of the country that are experiencing significant population growth among young people and have a need for additional school places.

I do not want to open up the issue of the Building Schools for the Future programme in this debate, but one of my real concerns was that whereas other authorities received huge sums-I am sure that they put them to good use-my authority got not a penny, despite the fact that there has been a large expansion in the number of primary school children and there is an urgent need to provide new primary school places. When I talk to my residents, I learn that one of their concerns is the lack of investment in areas experiencing the effects of net migration to provide increased capacity in public services.

The hon. Member for Lewisham East referred to social housing allocation policy-an issue that comes up time and again. There is a widespread belief in my constituency that the system is biased in favour of people who have just come into the country. That belief is wrong: each year, the council does an assessment to demonstrate that it is allocating its housing on a proportionate basis. However, it is very important to explain why the belief is wrong, because people's perception is perfectly reasonable from their point of view.

At the moment in my borough, just under 40% of the population are from the BME communities. As we still exist in a society where people from those communities are disproportionately likely to be stuck in poverty, a higher proportion of that community-about 60%-is on the housing waiting list in Croydon. If the council was allocating its housing fairly, we would expect about 60% of the allocations each year to go to those communities. However, the pattern of settlement in Croydon is very mixed, and a large proportion of our social housing stock is in a town called New Addington, where the prevalence of the BME communities is much lower. So a New Addington resident on the social housing waiting list with children will see 60% of the properties coming up there going to people from a BME background and they will think that their children are being discriminated against. We need to do a much better job of explaining to people how the system works and, perhaps, looking at the detail of housing allocation policy to counter some of those concerns.

The issue of numbers, highlighted by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead at the start, is very important and the Government are right to consider that and all the different channels-not just economic migration from outside the EU, but students and family channels, to which other Members have referred. However, it follows from the points that I have made, and from people's concerns about access to public services, council housing and jobs, that the issue is not just about how many, but who.

I have heard the Minister for Immigration say that Home Office research demonstrates that one third of those who came into the country on tier 1 visas are not working in highly skilled jobs at the moment. We need to make sure that the tiers are applied properly. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, we also need to look at some particular small-scale exemptions in certain areas of the economy, where there is a case for bringing people in.

I have heard it rumoured that the Government are considering an exemption for footballers. Personally, I would place a higher priority on highly skilled research scientists and people of that kind. I support what the Government are doing and I think that the cap is right, but we need to look at the detail to make sure that there is flexibility for particular areas of the economy, where it is in our national interest to bring in people with the highest level of skills, or entrepreneurs with a proven record who are going to create jobs and boost economic growth. All Members will have been lobbied by organisations such as the British Medical Association, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Cancer Research UK on those points.

As I said, for the vast majority of my constituents who are concerned about immigration, the issue is not skin colour or race but jobs, housing and access to public services. However, we should recognise that race is an issue for some people. This is a sensitive subject, but if we are going to have this debate in the House, we need to address it. A small number of people are motivated by hate. Four years ago in my constituency, we came very close to a BNP councillor being elected. Over the past four years, the Labour and Conservative parties have together worked very hard on that, and we saw significant progress at the council elections that were held on the same day as the general election.

There is a wider group of people who do not necessarily have friends, colleagues or neighbours from the BME community with whom they socialise. When I knock on their doors, they say to me that they go to Croydon town centre, for example, and feel that it is not their town any more-that it has changed. This view is, of course, nonsense. Many black and minority ethnic people in Croydon were born there and have lived there all their lives-they are as British as I am. Those who were not born there have uprooted their families, travelled halfway across the world, and chosen to be British. One of the most moving things that I did as a parliamentary candidate, before I had the privilege of entering this House, was to attend a citizenship ceremony and see the pride of new immigrants in attaining British citizenship.

I used to be a councillor before I came to this House, and my responsibility in the immediate period before that related to public safety and the rather nebulous concept that is referred to in local government as community cohesion. One of the things that my council did was to organise events to celebrate the major religious festivals to promote an interfaith dialogue. Perhaps the only thing I did that surpassed attending the citizenship ceremony was to go to an event to mark the festival of Eid, where two young Muslim women, Ruhina Cockar and Joanne Kheder, one dressed in western clothing and one wearing the hijab, spoke about what it meant to them to be British Muslims. I passionately wish that every single resident of Croydon had been there to listen to what they had to say about their gratitude for the opportunity that British citizenship has given them and their determination to repay that debt to society. A single quote does not do justice to their words, but here is a short extract from Ruhina's speech:

"I'm a Croydon girl through and through. I was born in Mayday hospital...My beliefs are entirely compatible with being British...I have thrived in British society...and I am proud to call myself a British citizen".

There is currently a bit of a backlash against multiculturalism; some Members have referred to that. To the extent that multiculturalism meant focusing on what divides us rather than what unites us, that backlash is a good thing. However, at the risk of stating the obvious, Britishness-a collective identity for the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish-is by definition multicultural, in the literal sense of the word. That is a good thing. We should not force people to choose between being British and having pride in their roots and their origins.

I should like to end by touching on a parochial issue that affects my constituents in Croydon. I mentioned the widespread concern regarding the previous Government's decision that all in-country asylum applications should be made in Croydon. That concern has two roots. First, there is a financial impact on the council. The council receives funding from the Home Office to pay for the costs that it has to meet in relation to these issues, but that funding does not adequately compensate council tax payers. It does not cover any of the legal costs, and significant numbers of applicants appeal if they are denied leave to remain. While they are appealing, the council has an ongoing obligation to them, and those costs, and the council's legal costs, are not covered.

Secondly, the funding does not cover costs in relation to certain people who have no access to public funds but to whom the council has an ongoing duty in relation to providing destitution support, nor does it cover many of the indirect costs. The council is supporting significant numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who do not have English as a second language and require additional support in schools.