Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:50 pm on 14th November 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Valentine Baroness Valentine Crossbench 12:50 pm, 14th November 2008

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for securing this pertinent debate. Given the current implementation of the Government's new five-tiered points system, it is indeed worth reflecting on what we want from our immigration policy.

As the leader of a London business organisation, I can tell noble Lords that immigration is critical to business. I start from the premise that business must be able to recruit the best people from wherever they are. Indeed, the competitiveness of London and the United Kingdom depends on it. However, the challenge is ensuring that as many of the best people as possible—the most suitably skilled and able—are found from within the UK. It is not the net immigration target range that will deliver this; equipping more UK residents with the right motivation and skills will reduce our reliance on immigration.

This is not British jobs for British workers. Our manufacturing sector was not well served by protectionism in the 1970s. British Leyland made cars that were less and less competitive in world markets. The skills challenge for the UK is not to limit immigration by regulation, but to ensure that British workers can compete with the best in the world in all fields. All else being equal, most employers would prefer to fill most jobs with locally based staff.

The report of the Economic Affairs Committee raises concerns, which I share with earlier speakers, over the issue of considering overall GDP as opposed to GDP per head of population. The total size of an economy is not an index of prosperity; increasing prosperity for each individual should be our goal. This is helped by maximising every individual's potential to contribute economically. We must improve employability, but business must also retain the ability to recruit internationally. Especially in these uncertain economic times, we must not handcuff business; we must support it. This is what will ensure prosperity for each individual in the long run.

Secondly, the report rightly draws attention to the absolute paucity and unreliability of migration data. I am wary of giving too much weight to the conclusion of this or any other report on the effects of immigration while the statistics on which it depends are so fragile, so I cannot accept uncritically the assertion that GDP per head is not benefited by immigration. Indeed, a recent report by Think London—London's inward investment agency—highlighted that the presence of staff from around the world actually boosted productivity in companies.

Every effort must be made to improve the statistical evidence. I know that a number of London boroughs have resorted to collecting their own immigration data to support their claims for central government funding, based on a suspicion, which I share, that current data are out of date and underestimate their immigrant populations. Conflicting sets of data are not helpful. We need one set of statistics that is well researched and trusted.

The same principle applies to the work of the Border and Immigration Agency at our major ports. I welcome the first ever service level agreement between the Home Office and Heathrow to shorten immigration queues at the UK's principal business airport. But a prerequisite to such an agreement is reliable and comparable data, which we do not yet have.

However, we are where we are. Coming into play is the Government's five-tiered points system, which will create a much more meritocratic and effective way of ensuring that immigration does not spiral, but that suitably, necessarily skilled immigrants will enter our workforce. The implementation of the system is critical. In a recent London First survey of its members, only 3 per cent believe that the Border and Immigration Agency is in a position to implement the new system.

International students, who are on tier 4, are a case in point. In 2005-06, these students in London contributed £1.5 billion to GDP and helped to support 44,000 jobs. However, specific practical issues—for example, the certification process for the sponsoring universities, compliance costs, management of students' cash deposits, incompatibilities between the Home Office and university IT systems, the fact that overseas university researchers are not covered by the system and the lack of overall management information—remain unresolved. We must take time to implement a system that works. The university sector puts forward a strong case for deferring implementation of tier 4 from spring to autumn 2009 to give time to address these issues.

This report asks the right questions and I agree with some of its conclusions. Undoubtedly, we must have better and more meaningful data if we are fully to understand the positive and negative implications that immigration has on our country. London is a leading world city and brings enormous benefit to the UK as a whole. Tourists come to the capital to experience the huge cultural diversity we have to offer. Whether it is the cuisine of our internationally experienced chefs or listening to a Havana band in a Cuban nightclub, we must play to our strengths. Other countries and cities have access to the world's best talent. So must we. Our challenge is to ensure that the best talent is found in, and keeps coming to, the UK.

Allowing British businesses to recruit globally does not open the doors to an unstoppable influx of immigrants if education and training systems equip British workers to compete. I should like UK workers to win on merit, not because we have changed the rules to prevent the best from competing at all. Finally, I look forward very much to hearing the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln's first contribution to this House.