Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:39 pm on 14th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords (Communities), Department for Communities and Local Government 12:39 pm, 14th November 2008

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 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 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.