– in the House of Commons at 10:34 am on 25th May 2023.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on net migration figures.
Net migration to the United Kingdom is far too high. That was already clear from the previous set of official data. The Office for National Statistics has today amended its previous published estimate of net migration for the year ending June 2022 to 606,000. The statistics published today indicate that net migration has flatlined since then. In the year ending December 2022, it estimates that net migration remained at 606,000. These particularly high figures are in large part due to temporary and exceptional factors, such as the UK’s Ukraine and Hong Kong British nationals overseas schemes. Last year, more than 200,000 Ukrainians and 150,000 Hong Kong British nationals overseas made use of the routes to life or time in the United Kingdom. Those schemes command broad support from the British public, and we were right to introduce them.
The Government remain committed to reducing overall net migration to sustainable levels. That is a solemn promise that we made to the British public in our manifesto, and we are unwavering in our determination to deliver it. This week, we announced steps to tackle the substantial rise in the number of student dependants coming to the UK. The package of measures will ensure that we can reduce migration while continuing to benefit from the skills and resources our economy needs, because universities should be in the education business, not the immigration business. We expect this package to have a tangible impact on net migration. Taken together with the easing of temporary factors, such as our exceptional humanitarian offers, we expect net migration to fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.
The public rightly expect us to control our borders, whether that is stopping the boats and addressing illegal migration or ensuring that levels of legal migration do not place undue pressure on public services, housing supply or integration. The Government are taking decisive action on both counts. Under the points-based system that we introduced post Brexit, we can control immigration, we must control immigration, and we will.
Today’s extraordinary figures, including the doubling of the number of work visas since the pandemic, show that the Conservatives have no plan and no grip on immigration. They show the chaos in this Government. Work visas are up 119% since before the pandemic. The Conservatives have totally failed to tackle endemic skills shortages and get people back to work. Net migration is more than twice the level that Ministers were aiming for and considerably more than the Home Secretary’s claimed aims. The asylum backlog is at a record high—the opposite of the Prime Minister’s promise to clear the backlog this year. Less than 1% of last year’s small boat arrivals have had a decision. Where is the Home Secretary, who is in charge of these policies? She has gone to ground. There are reports that she is not even going to do media. She has not come to this House. She is in internal meetings—presumably, more private courses arranged by civil servants. What is the point of her?
Net migration should come down and we would expect it to do so, but the continued gap between the Government’s rhetoric and the reality is very damaging. Rightly, the UK has given support to Ukraine and to Hongkongers. Rightly, we welcome international students who bring substantial benefits, but changes on family are sensible. International recruitment will always be important so that we get the skills and talent we need, but we have a major increase in employers turning to overseas recruitment, and the Government have no plan to increase training or to properly tackle those skills shortages here at home.
On health and social care, one of the biggest areas, why will the Minister not agree to Labour’s plan to increase the training for nurses and doctors in the UK, paid for by getting rid of the non-doms exemption? Will he ditch the unfair 20% wage discount that means that shortage occupations can undercut and pay below the going rate, making it even harder to get the training, skills and fair recruitment we need? Everyone should be paid the going rate.
There has been no action at all to address the huge backlog in the asylum system and to make sure that claims are properly processed. Immigration is important to this country, and we need a system that works, but it has to be properly controlled and managed, rather than the chaos that the Government have created.
The Labour party feigns interest in cutting net migration, but I can assure the right hon. Lady that nobody is buying it. Last week, the chair of the Labour party, Anneliese Dodds, said that under Labour net migration would go up in the short term. The leader of the Labour party stood on a campaign pledge to defend freedom of movement if the UK remained outside the EU. He has said that there is a
“racist undercurrent which permeates all immigration law”.
Does the shadow Home Secretary agree with that?
At every possible opportunity, Labour Members have voted against every measure this Government have brought forward to control migration. They voted against ending free movement and, at every turn, they voted against measures to tackle illegal migration. Just recently, they voted against the Illegal Migration Bill. The truth is that the Labour party has no interest in controlled and orderly migration. The Conservative party is taking tangible steps to bring down net migration. Yesterday, we took a decisive step to clamp down on student dependants, because universities should be selling education, not immigration. Belatedly, the shadow Home Secretary says she agrees with that. The Conservative party made a solemn promise to the British public to reduce net migration. Thanks to Brexit, we now have the tools at our disposal to do that. We can and we must deliver.
I call the Father of the House.
I am sorry that, while my right hon. Friend was replying to those questions, four of the Labour Front Benchers were talking at the same time. I think that was to disguise the fact that their spokesperson appeared to agree with virtually every sensible element of the Government’s immigration control policy.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me about this? Beyond the admission order office, there is the memorial plaque for the Kindertransport. Some of those who feel most strongly against immigration now feel proud of what we did then. We have to remember that there were then and there are now tens of millions of people around the world suffering because of violence in their own countries, and there are others with bad Governments who stop them having economic success where they are. Can I say that, as well as having a good immigration policy, we ought to do all we can around the world to have better governance and a flexible economic system, so that people can be happy living where they are, not feeling that they have to come here for refuge?
I strongly agree with the Father of the House. We have made two very significant interventions in the last two years. The first was to provide sanctuary here in the United Kingdom for Hong Kong BNOs, to whom we have a moral and historical obligation, to enable them to escape creeping authoritarianism in Hong Kong and make a new life here in the UK. We are proud of that, and I expect that, in the years to come, that scheme will be looked back on as a great success for this country. Secondly, the Ukraine schemes have now led to 200,000 Ukrainians coming to the UK and seeking sanctuary here, with hundreds of thousands of British people opening up their homes to support them. Those were great schemes.
We want to ensure schemes such as those can continue, and that the UK can be an even greater force for good in the world. That does not mean, however, that we should go slow on further measures to bring down net migration, because net migration does place very significant burdens on communities in respect of housing, public services and our ability to integrate people. That is why we made further interventions this week, and we will consider further ones in the future.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
Can I start by recognising the amazing contribution of all those who have come to make the UK their home, whether they are refugees or students, care workers, nurses, hospitality workers or anything else? We on the SNP Benches say thank you. Of course, it was right to welcome Ukrainians and BNOs from Hong Kong in 2022, and we welcome that as well. I really hope that British politics will not descend back into a horrible competition about who is going to be toughest on immigration.
Ministers often give us a nice soundbite about how they want a migration system that works for the whole of the UK. We say that is fine, but it does not mean that precisely the same policies need to apply everywhere. In Scotland, we have no need or desire for policies that are going to put international students off, keep families apart or make it harder to recruit the workers we need. Does the Minister have anything to say about the unique challenges faced by different parts of the UK and how those shape immigration policy? Will he even look again at the remote areas pilot scheme, which was recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee, and sought and voted for by the Scottish Parliament?
I was not expecting a question today arguing that net migration was too low—that seems to be the position of the SNP—but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point; we need a pragmatic approach to particular sectors that are facing skills shortages, and we need to think about regional disparities across the whole United Kingdom. We do not believe that there should be separate immigration systems for the nations of the UK, and the evidence bears that out: there is no material difference in either unemployment or economic inactivity between Scotland and the United Kingdom average. We do take account, through the shortage occupation list, of particular sectors that are facing challenges, and some are of course more focused in some parts of the UK than in others. Earlier in the week, for example, we decided to add further fishing occupations to the shortage occupation list in order to support the offshore fishing industry, which I hope will be supported by the hon. Gentleman and fellow Scottish MPs who have connections with the industry.
Some people in the Treasury seem to think that a good way to grow the economy is to fill the country with ever more people, but that is bad for productivity and bad for British workers, who are being undercut by mass migration from all over the world. Why is it that under the points-based system we allow into the country people earning only £26,000 a year, while the median UK salary is £33,000? Is not an obvious solution to insist that everybody who comes in is skilled and earns the median UK salary, as then we can boost productivity and get British people back to work?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which he has made in the past and with which I have a lot of sympathy. We both believe that we need a controlled migration system and that net migration has a number of impacts on communities, including further pressure on public services and housing supply and making it more difficult to integrate people into our country and maintain community cohesion. In some instances, high levels of net migration also put downward pressure on wages for the domestic economy and enable some employers to reach for the easy lever of importing foreign labour rather than training up their own British workforce. It is for those reasons what we created the points-based system that has a salary threshold—a freedom we only have as a result of leaving the European Union—and if further changes to that system are necessary in the future, we will make them.
Local residents in my constituency are rightly shocked and concerned to hear that the Minister’s Department is planning to house 300 asylum seekers in the Stradey Park hotel, a totally disproportionate number for the village of Furnace and local services. Will the Minister meet me to hear about local concerns, and what is he doing to prevent the need to commandeer the Stradey Park hotel and to clear the Home Office backlog of 160,000 undetermined claims so that those from safe countries can be returned and those who are genuine refugees can move out of hotels and be integrated in small numbers into suitable communities?
I am delighted to hear that the Government have just chalked up another vote for the Illegal Migration Bill, because Members cannot say they want open borders, with unlimited numbers of individuals coming into this country, whether legally or illegally, but they do not want them in their own constituency—it is an inconsistent approach. If the hon. Lady feels so strongly and is getting such strong representations from her constituents, she should support the Government’s efforts to clamp down on illegal migration.
When they take effect, what estimate has the Minister got for the impact of the measures that the Government announced yesterday?
We believe that the measures we announced yesterday with regard to student dependants will have a tangible effect on the number of student dependants coming into the country, which, as the figures published by the Office for National Statistics show, is currently very considerable. It is not right that universities are in some cases in the immigration business rather than the teaching and education one. We are clamping down on those practices and that will help us bring down net migration in the medium term. But let me be abundantly clear to my right hon. Friend: net migration is far too high and we need to take measures to bring it down. We are not complacent; we want to make good on our promise to the British public.
The Immigration Minister seems to be making a very good case for increased wage inflation. I wonder what his Treasury colleagues make of the overall impact of that on the economy. Sector after sector, whether agriculture, hospitality, fishing or care services, tell us that they all need access to more skilled staff, and they simply do not have that access at the moment. He stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about adding fishing to the shortage occupation list, but he completely ignores the fact that his and the Home Secretary’s refusal to lower the standard of English language skills required renders that absolutely meaningless for the fishing industry and, as a result of his decision, fishing boats in my constituency and right around the coast are tied up today. When will he start listening to business? When did the Conservative party stop doing that?
The case I was making was that we sustainably increase productivity by encouraging our employers to invest in their workforce and in technology, rather than simply by reaching for the easy lever of further international labour. With respect to the fishing sector, this measure that we have made this week has been broadly welcomed by the fishing sector. I fundamentally disagree with the right hon. Gentleman if his contention is that we should allow people who cannot speak or write in English into the United Kingdom on visas that have a route to settlement. That is wrong. The standard of English that we maintain is a low standard, and we need it for health and safety at the workplace, to prevent exploitation and to ensure that people can integrate into our communities. That is absolutely the right approach.
People who come to this country and want to work here and add value are welcome. Clearly the concern is the illegal migration figures, which have continued to grow. Given that the net migration figures have almost flatlined, will my right hon. Friend lay out what has happened over that period of time and what his plans are for the future to ensure that the total comes down?
The ONS has changed its methodology and increased the estimate it made in the middle of last year, to say that net migration was 606,000 at that point, when it previously published its data, and it sees no evidence that it has increased since then, which suggests that numbers are now flatlining. There are reasons to believe that the number of individuals coming on our humanitarian schemes from Hong Kong and Ukraine will reduce over the course of the year, although it is difficult to predict that with certainty, particularly with respect to Ukraine. The measures that we have taken this week with respect to student dependants will have a material impact, so it is reasonable to assume that numbers will now be on a downward trajectory. But I do not want to give any impression of complacency, because there is clearly a great deal more to be done. If we need to make further interventions, we will.
The Government have clearly lost control of all aspects of immigration and migration. Labour voted against the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Bill because we said that they would not work, and the figures show that they have not worked. Will the Minister explain why fewer than 1% of the people who arrived on small boats last year have had their asylum claims determined, and why the figure is so low?
The hon. Gentleman and his party have voted against every measure that the Government have brought forward to control migration, whether legal or illegal migration, so his contention that Labour would get control of migration is laughable. It is important that we bring the backlog of cases down. That is why the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I have set out a clear plan to do that. We see the dividends of that, and we expect the legacy backlog to be cleared over the course of the year, as we promised. It is not correct, however, to suggest that if illegal migrants’ claims are processed faster, that will reduce the number of people coming into the country. In all likelihood, that would lead to an increase.
The anger and frustration of my constituents has been focused on illegal migration up until now, but that anger and frustration will grow when they consider these legal migration figures. We are creating, roughly speaking, eight new parliamentary constituencies with this number. If that continues, it is clearly unsustainable. The Minister spoke about medium-term plans to reduce the numbers, but what my constituents want to know is what short-term plans there are. Other than those that have been announced recently, what else is the Department considering?
My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. I think few Members of this House have argued more consistently than I have that we need to build more homes and that there needs to be a proper join-up between the numbers coming in and the way we accommodate them. There are, I am afraid, intolerable pressures placed on the country’s public services and housing supply by sustained very high levels of net migration. That is one of the reasons why we need to take action. We announced a package of measures this week, which includes changes to the rules with respect to student dependants and increased enforcement activity to clamp down on egregious abuse of the system by education agents. As I said in answer to earlier questions, if we need to make more changes, we will do so.
There is a huge gap between the Government’s rhetoric and reality. The Minister just said that the net migration figure would return to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term, so can he please say what his assessment is for the net migration figure for the year ahead?
As I said in answer to earlier questions, we expect numbers to reduce. We are taking further steps this week, which we think will make a material difference. If we need to do more, we will, because net migration is far too high. I hope the hon. Gentleman, by his question, agrees with me in that regard, and that he will support the measures we take to bring numbers down.
If it were possible for everyone who crosses the channel illegally in a small boat to be returned to France, that would be not only in our interests but in the interests of France, because we would stop people buffering on its north-east coast to try to get into this country. I know it is very difficult, but what are the chances that that could happen, because it would solve the problem?
We are making considerable efforts to deepen our relationship with the French Government. In fact, next week I will be in Paris to meet our counterparts in the French Interior Ministry. The Prime Minister achieved, in short succession, two significant deals that are leading to an increase in activity on the beaches, increased joint working on counter-organised immigration crime, and a new joint working centre in Lille that I will be visiting shortly. If there was a possibility of a readmissions agreement with France, that is certainly something the Government would welcome and we have made that clear. In our conversations with both President Macron and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, we offered a range of solutions that could lead to that.
I would just say, however, that the previous readmissions agreement—Dublin—which operated during our time in the European Union, was not successful. In the last years of its operation, more people were being brought from France to the United Kingdom than were sent from the UK to France, so this is not a panacea. But if there are ways in which we can take this forward, we will.
The Tories on the Government Benches and the Tory-lite Labour party would have the public believe that a rise in net migration is something to fear. That could not be further from the truth. Immigrants across all four nations make a contribution to society, politically, economically and socially, from running small local businesses in our high streets to developing groundbreaking technology and working in the NHS—they are integral to society. In my maiden speech, I called for immigration to be devolved. Scotland wants immigration and our needs are different. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for immigration to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady. As I have already said in answer to other questions, there is a limit to the number of individuals who can come into any country, regardless of the benefits they might bring, because we have finite resources, for example in housing and access to public services. Independent advisers, including the Migration Advisory Committee, have said that there is a range of reasons why in some cases migrants choose to come to other parts of the UK over Scotland. There is a role for the Scottish Government in tackling those issues.
Unsustainable levels of migration continue to have a significant impact on housing in the south-east. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do all we can to reach sustainable levels of migration? On illegal migration and processing of asylum claims, we must ensure that the Home Office cracks down on the people smugglers while ensuring that the likes of Scotland take its fair share of people, rather than continuing to turn up here and virtue signal.
I strongly agree. It is critical that we take action to bring down net migration. My hon. Friend represents a community where there is intense pressure on housing, and it is a struggle for many young people and those on lower incomes to get on the housing ladder. We must be cognisant of that when setting our migration policies. He is right on the SNP; it is a party of humanitarian nimbys. Its Members come here and preach, but their words are always greater than their actions.
Somewhat unusually, this morning we seem to have learned something new from the Dispatch Box: the Home Office’s inability to process applications, resulting in many people living in hotels across the country—including in Bristol—means that the holding pattern will remain for some time. In fact, that may be a deliberate policy, as the Minister said that if they were processed, there would be more. That is what he said—he can clarify. How long are people expected to live in hotels in cities across the country? What support is being given to local authorities, as my hon. Friend Dame Nia Griffith just asked, and what is the Government’s ultimate plan for these people?
I did not say that. The hon. Lady should check the record after this urgent question. I said that the Labour party’s approach, as I understand it, is to let more people in and to process their claims faster. I gently pointed out that that is very unlikely to result in fewer illegal migrants crossing the channel. We need to suffuse our entire system with deterrence. That is why we are bringing forward new sites, such as the large sites and barges, and the Illegal Migration Bill. We want to clear the backlog, but above all we want to stop people coming in the first place. The sustainable answer to that is to break the business model of the people smugglers and back the Illegal Migration Bill.
Today’s figures are too high, and my constituents will expect to see them fall. I welcome what the Office for National Statistics has said about them flatlining, and I welcome, again, what my right hon. Friend announced yesterday about student dependant visas, which will help them to fall. Does he agree that my constituency will not buy the line from the shadow Home Secretary, because the Opposition is led by an arch remainer who favours freedom of movement, and it has voted against every single measure that we have brought to control legal and illegal migration, including our Bill to stop the boats?
My hon. Friend is right. Nobody believes the position of the Labour party because time and again, when it is offered the opportunity to vote for legislation to tighten control of migration, whether legal or illegal, it always votes against it. We all know that our borders would be open under a future Labour Government. That is why we need to take the steps that we have, and why his constituents should continue to back him and the Conservative party.
The number of people waiting for asylum applications to be processed for more than six months has risen by 10,000 to 128,000. The Minister suggested that reducing the backlog, which is a Government objective, will not make any difference. Can he tell us whether he does want to reduce it, whether he thinks it will not make any difference and on what basis he is making that assessment?
I have been clear that we want to reduce the backlog, as part of our 10-point plan to tackle illegal migration. We have put in place a series of measures to reduce bureaucracy, to streamline the process and to double the number of asylum decision makers. Those investments are already paying dividends. We are confident that the legacy backlog will be cleared over the course of the year.
The point I was making, which I am happy to reiterate, is that the faster the process, the more pull factor there is to the United Kingdom. That is not a reason to maintain an inefficient process, but we need a process where deterrence is suffused through every element, else we will never break the business model of the people smugglers.
My old home state of Western Australia has just announced even further investment in additional support for international students, saying:
“It is important we provide international students…with a safe and welcoming environment for them to flourish in”.
Education is a global market, so can the Minister explain why it is a good thing that international students simply take their money, skills and enthusiasm elsewhere, deterred by this crackdown on their families and the support they offer, rather than choose the UK, where life for them is made ever more difficult?
I presume the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the Government have met their target of 600,000 international students coming to the UK every year—as set by our international education strategy— 10 years early. Last year, 605,000 international students came, and I suspect the number this year will be higher still. There is absolutely no sense that the Government are reneging on those commitments or creating an environment that is unwelcoming to international students. We want universities to focus on teaching, and not inadvertently create a backdoor to immigration status here in the UK. That is why we have made the changes we have made this week, which have been broadly welcomed by both the public and the sector.
The Office for National Statistics has this morning published the record net migration figure of 606,000, including 114,000 long-term arrivals from Ukraine and 52,000 from Hong Kong, so well below 170,000 in total. We all remember a previous Conservative Prime Minister falsely promising the British people that he would bring net migration down to the tens of thousands, and the last-but-one Prime Minister promising that he would bring net migration figures to below 250,000, although he also failed miserably. I will not mention the previous Prime Minister, because she did not even last two months before crashing the economy. The last Conservative party manifesto pledged that
“overall numbers will come down”.
How is that going? What went wrong?
We would not have the tools to tackle net migration had we taken the hon. Gentleman’s advice and remained within the European Union. It is only as a result of our new freedoms that we can control our immigration system. He has voted against every possible opportunity to tackle either legal or illegal migration, so on this argument he has no foot to stand on.
In reviewing the net migration numbers, has the Minister had time to review the number of missing unaccompanied migrant children in the United Kingdom? The figure last week stood at over 200. If he has not had time to review that, will he come back to the House to tell us how many of those missing children have been found and what his Government are doing to make sure the situation never happens again?
I have looked into the issue in great detail. I have spent time with officials from the Home Office and local authorities where we have hotels for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, speaking privately to the social workers and support staff who care for them, to ensure that we have the right processes in place. I am confident that we do. The hotels have a range of very considerable support around them. When a young person goes missing from a hotel, all the same processes are followed as for any other missing person, whether that be a child of a migrant or our own children.
The shadow Secretary of State raised very important questions about work visas that the Minister has not yet addressed. The number of work visas has doubled since the pandemic. Are the Government satisfied with that increase?
We want a system that enables businesses to bring in foreign workers where there are sustained skills shortages, but we want British employers to focus, in the first instance, on training British workers to fill those vacancies, because there are large numbers of people who are economically inactive. The first duty of employers and the Government is to help those people back into the workforce.
Immigrants make an invaluable contribution to our economy and enrich our communities. International students, in particular, are needed and valued, especially in this post-Brexit labour shortage era. The reactionary and hostile plans that this Government are determined to put in place, as well as the Minister’s tone in the Chamber today, speak clearly of a desire to impede our ability to make the right arrangements for Scotland. Does he recognise how out of tune his Government are with the views of people in Scotland and with the needs of the Scottish economy? Does he not appreciate that it is absolutely essential that we have the powers to make the right immigration arrangements for Scotland, in order that our economy can thrive?
The hon. Lady’s argument is not borne out by any available evidence. There is no material difference in unemployment and economic activity between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The reports produced by the Migration Advisory Committee raise a number of questions for the Scottish Government about the policies that they could implement to make Scotland a more attractive destination for migrants and, indeed, workers from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
There are now 172,758 people in the growing asylum backlog. I have met asylum seekers in my constituency who have been housed for well over a year in overcrowded hotel rooms, many of them with small children who have nowhere to play. Will the Government finally admit that their illegal Illegal Migration Bill will make the backlog, and those people’s traumatic wait, worse rather than better?
The hon. Lady is entirely wrong about that. The Illegal Migration Bill creates a fast and simple scheme whereby those who come here illegally, in small boats or otherwise, will have their claims processed not in months or years but in days or weeks, and will either be returned home to a safe country such as Albania or sent to a safe third country such as Rwanda. That will break the business model of the people smugglers by infusing the system with deterrence, and will bring about a substantial reduction in the numbers entering the country in this manner.
In Bath the hospitality sector is a big driver of the local economy, but many of our wonderful hotels, restaurants, bars and pubs struggle to find enough staff, and there is the danger of closure or reduced working hours, which are bad for the economy. The Government’s chaotic approach of making and breaking headline-grabbing immigration targets has completely eroded public trust, including that of employers. When will they come clean with the public, acknowledge that legal migration is driven by the labour market, and listen to employers and others in Bath’s hospitality sector?
The hon. Lady seems to be arguing for significantly higher levels of legal migration than those that we have today. Given that 235,000 work-related visas were issued last year, which is a substantial number, I do not think it wise to advocate a significant further increase. We want to see the numbers coming down.
The Minister has already accepted that we need immigration in this country to fill the skills gaps. Over the last 15 years, we have heard a number of vague promises about bringing immigration down—for instance, as we were reminded by my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, the former Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to bring it down to the tens of thousands—but that has clearly not been achieved. I am not trying to score political points, but may I ask the Minister what level of migration he considers to be right for this country, whether he can give a specific figure, and whether it is achievable in the next decade?
We have made a clear manifesto commitment to see numbers falling sustainably, and this week we are taking action that will have a material impact. As I have said a number of times this morning, net migration is far too high, and I worry that that is placing intolerable pressure on public services, on housing supply and on our ability in this country to integrate new arrivals. Those are the reasons why we need to take action, and if we need to take further steps we will do so.
I think the Minister needs to get his story straight on the asylum backlog. Is he saying that he wants to get it down—in which case he is not doing a very good job, because it is up to 172,000—or is he saying that he is keeping it high, with all the attendant costs and misery, in order to deter fresh claims?
I have made it very clear that we want to get the backlog down, but I have also pointed out that Labour’s only policy in respect of illegal migration is to clear the backlog faster. Open borders, faster processing —that is not going to work.
The Minister and I will clearly never agree on whether immigration is too high, but we might be able to agree that it is too low when it comes to rural areas and the need for seasonal workers in the agrifood sector, given that a shortage of such workers left millions of pounds of fresh produce to rot in the fields. The Scottish Government have called for a bespoke rural visa scheme to help bring the labour that is needed to Scotland. Will the Minister agree to meet me so that we can tease out some of these issues, perhaps free from the pressures to generate headlines in tomorrow’s press?
I would be happy to discuss that issue in the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman has raised it today. I am not persuaded that it is practical to create an immigration system whereby we have visas specific to certain parts of the United Kingdom or to rural as opposed to urban areas. We have a seasonal agricultural workers scheme; we recently announced that that will continue next year, and offered to increase it to 55,000 people a year. Last year, the scheme was capped at 45,000 and we had fewer applications than that, so it seems to be operating at the correct level, but we have to be careful about abuse, and last year, I am afraid, we saw a rise in the number of people who came across on that scheme and either were exploited by gangmasters or put in asylum claims. It would not be right to create a system that led to an increase in either of those activities.
The Minister knows that I believe strongly that we have a moral obligation to help widows, children and orphans. That is why I believe we must have a robust immigration and asylum system that allows the vulnerable and the needy to find their new home. A constituent of mine, a hard-working young man, is seeking to bring his brother and his daughter to Northern Ireland—to my town of Newtownards, by the way—after losing all the rest of their family in the Turkish earthquake, yet we are at an impasse, which I find quite frustrating. What changes can be made to prevent an influx of unmarried young man but instead to focus on allowing in these devastated lone parents and their families?
I would be happy to look at that specific case, if the hon. Gentleman wishes. We do have schemes for dependants of migrants into the UK, and the figures published by the Office for National Statistics today show significant numbers of migrants’ dependants or family members of British citizens entering the country.
On the broader point that the hon. Gentleman regularly champions, which is that the UK is a force for good in the world in welcoming people for humanitarian purposes, the numbers published today show that the UK is one of the world’s leading countries for humanitarian visa routes. We should be proud of that and not accept anyone saying otherwise.