One of my early speeches when I was a new Member of Parliament was made during a debate on immigration, facilitated by Frank Field and my right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames. You may well have been in the Chair at the time, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wanted to speak in that debate because immigration had been prevalent in the run-up to, and during, my 2010 election campaign, and it continues to be of interest today.
In that speech, just over eight years ago, I focused on the fact that our British sense of tolerance and generous manner, which had welcomed many to our country for hundreds of years, had been overstretched and taken for granted during uncontrolled immigration under the last Labour Government. I referred to the impact of mass eastern European immigration in my own constituency—particularly in the two most deprived wards, where at the time tensions ran high and social divisions deep. The years since have passed with highs and lows, but, although integration is undoubtedly better, there remain enormous challenges, including the stretching of public services, the sudden change in population, and the perceived unfairness that free movement bought entitlement to welfare and housing structures that others did not have.
However, the debate, then as now, was balanced and constructive. There was overwhelming warmth towards, and appreciation of, the hundreds of thousands who come to the UK from across the European Union and the rest of the world to work in all sectors, including our health and social care services. I think of the phenomenally hard-working staff at my two local hospitals in Maidstone and Medway, the seasonal agricultural workers at the Chapel Down vineyards in Aylesford, and the workforces in the manufacturing, construction and warehouse hubs around Larkfield, to name but a few.
There are many settled European citizens in my constituency who have paid their taxes, worked hard, contributed to society in a variety of ways and brought up their children, and are now supporting grandchildren; it is for them in particular that I welcome the Government’s decision to scrap the fee for those seeking settled status. It is a symbolic but important announcement, which shows that we appreciate them and what they have brought to our country.
I support the Bill because it will enable us to deliver a future immigration system that is right for our country, not one that suits the political ambitions of the European Union. Although the Bill itself will not set out the specifics, the immigration rules will. The Government have rightly noted that they need to command the confidence of the public and reflect the wider economic, social and political context of immigration.
I think that we are all to blame for the public’s loss of faith in the immigration system. I shall try to put this as sensitively as possible, but we have allowed asylum seekers and refugees to be confused with economic migrants: we have allowed people to think that they are one and the same. We must have a grown-up conversation, one that is sensitive but sets a respectful tone, and one that discusses what our population should be in the future and what constitutes a balanced migration approach. I am confident that the immigration rules will enable that to happen.
I absolutely respect the fact that there are very important matters to be covered this evening. What has been said so far has demonstrated the breadth and depth of the issues surrounding immigration. I thank all the organisations that have sent us briefings for the debate, and I hope to be able to sweet-talk the Whips so that I can sit on the Bill Committee and have a chance to consider some of those issues in more detail. To be honest, I did not expect to be the first Back Bencher to be called, and I assumed that all the important points would have been made earlier. I do not want people to think that I am being shallow in raising one rather niche issue relating to immigration. We talk about talent. Given that you can take the girl out of the sports Ministry but cannot take the sports Ministry out of the girl, I am sure many Members will not be surprised to learn that I want to make a brief point about the connection between the future immigration rules and football.
Because we are friends, and because I have no doubt bored the Immigration Minister to tears with sports stuff over the years, I know she understands that football is not just about people running around on a pitch kicking a ball; I know she “gets” the fact that the Premier League and the English Football League bring a phenomenal amount of money to our economy. That success depends largely on Premier League clubs’ having the access that they require to world-class talent both on the pitch and in the dugout, while allowing our home-grown talent the opportunity to play with and for the world’s best, day in, day out. The impact of that is clear from England’s most recent World cup results—and ours was the only national team 100% of whose players came from their home league.
Other European leagues are licking their lips in the belief that Brexit will present them with a recruitment and competitive advantage over the Premier League, and that, post-Brexit, the Premier League will have to work within an immigration system that presents hurdles to the recruitment of the world’s best talent, both within the EU and outside it. The last thing that Brexit should be is a gift to leagues that, despite already having far fewer visa requirements for players, have so far been unable to match the popularity of the Premier League on equal terms. I recognise that those principles can be applied to any employer in any sector, but I hope that the House will generously forgive me for raising that issue here, given I am no longer in a position to do so behind the scenes as a Minister.
This important Bill takes forward the will of the people as set out in the referendum result on