Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:08 pm on 14th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 2:08 pm, 14th November 2008

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for giving us an opportunity to debate the report. Whatever we say, immigration is an important issue, although I am bound to add that it has not been centre stage politically for some time and I should have thought that, on the whole, this country has managed its immigration pretty well. Of course there have been difficulties but, taken overall, it has not been a story of disaster; it has been much more a story of success.

I should declare an interest in that I am an immigrant. I should also mention that I am chair of a committee of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, as it was then called, which has recently looked at the integration of newly arrived migrants into Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We did this because we could not cover the whole of the United Kingdom in the time, but some of the conclusions to which I shall refer are relevant to the economic basis of migration.

I understand that the Select Committee report was written in a different economic climate and that some of the conclusions will not apply quite so much in the present circumstances, but I am disappointed by it, especially by its tone. Whatever the intentions of its authors, the anti-immigration lobby had a field-day when it was published. It may have been misunderstood by the people on the anti-immigration side. They may be wrong, but they drew some comfort from its conclusions and I hope that the debate will go some way towards addressing that.

I am not an economist, but I am still sceptical about the economic basis of the report's conclusions. Inevitably, I am influenced by the views of two such eminent economists as my noble friend Lord Peston and the noble Lord, Lord Moser. One must give them credit for the economic basis on which they have approached this, and indeed for the breadth of economic experience that underlies their conclusions. I am also influenced by the Government's response to the report, which by and large I welcome. Again, one must give the Government credit; they have looked at this pretty carefully and have come to conclusions that differ in important respects from those of the report.

I have long believed that immigration has been of benefit to Britain in economic terms. We can talk about social terms on another day, but it has also been of benefit there. It is hard to relate the report's conclusions to practical experience. I have talked to employers who have told me that they are grateful for immigrants; they could not keep their taxis or their businesses going without people who have migrated to Britain, particularly in recent years. It is difficult to believe that any of us could be in hospital without benefiting from the medical care and other hospital services that are provided by immigrants. Dare I suggest that if every immigrant left Britain tomorrow, this House could not function on Monday because so many of the staff who support the Palace of Westminster are immigrants? Those views, which I do not think can be challenged, are difficult to stack up against the report's conclusions. I will come to that in a moment.

I concede that, although there are firm economic benefits from immigration, there have been difficulties in certain areas. The benefits have been seen more widely across the economy, whereas some of the pressures of arrivals have been in particular communities and localities to which migrants have been attracted by the availability of work. The challenge to government is to ensure that the overall benefits to the country are used, in part at least, to help areas in which more migrants have arrived recently and which need help with educational provision, housing and so on.

This country's attractiveness to immigrants has been a function of our economic success. Countries that are economic failures do not attract immigrants, almost by definition. If the job market is buoyant, there must be a need for labour. We have already seen reports in the newspapers of farmers in the fruit-picking sector who have not been able to collect the fruit due to the return of some of the recently arrived migrants. It has rotted, simply because there has not been the labour to pick it. I suppose the economic theory underlying the report will be, "Oh well, we can import the fruit instead". Of course we can, but maybe that is not the best way forward. If we have in this country people who have come from elsewhere and who do these things, that is surely of benefit.

I have read the Government's response to the report and have still not heard an answer to their conclusion that the,

"GDP per capita increased by an average of 2.4 per cent per annum between 1997 and 2006", during which we had the,

"highest ... growth rate ... amongst the G7 economies".

They also said that the contribution by immigrants to that was "0.15 per cent" per annum, which is "not an insignificant amount", given the numbers about which we are talking. It is a positive contribution, even if some of your Lordships challenge the other conclusion that there has been a £6 billion gain to the economy over the period. I still believe that that is useful and helpful.

The main argument of the committee seems to be that if job vacancies are filled by migrants, they generate income, which demands more goods and services and, consequently, creates more job vacancies—I think that that is the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, put his argument. But all successful economies have job vacancies. It is in the nature of a successful economy and does not mean that not filling some job vacancies is a good thing: it is not a good thing.

The Government's response is clear when they quote the IPPR study that in 2003-04 immigrants contributed 10 per cent to Exchequer revenues and drew down 9.1 per cent of expenditure. I have no reason to doubt the IPPR figures because it is a reputable organisation. Does it not make sense that immigrants on the whole are of working age and will contribute more taxable income than they will be a burden—I do not like to use that word—and cost us more in expenditure? Quite a few of them have not brought children. They are not as ill as older people. Therefore, there is a benefit to the Exchequer.

As regards the ageing population, the committee said that the present situation will not last for long because immigrants will get older. Of course they will, but it is helpful that at present we have young, working immigrants contributing to the economy, which enables some of us to draw our pensions. There is also evidence that some immigrants are now leaving because of the situation in the job market here. That is also believed to have a cushioning effect on our unemployment levels. If people who have arrived recently go back to, say, Poland, that prevents British unemployment rising as much as it might in the present difficult economic circumstances.

Earlier, I mentioned the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. Certainly, our conclusions agree with the committee that there is a need for more data, particularly so that the Government and local authorities can plan services better and meet needs. Another important conclusion is that some of the people who have come to this country are poorly protected in terms of their rights. We have evidence that trade unions in Wales do not always have easy access to the factories in which migrants work. They cannot therefore intervene to protect pay and conditions; for example, the national minimum wage, which should be the bottom line. Therefore, one of our conclusions, which I hope will be widely accepted, is that it is important for the Government to look at the rights of people to ensure that they are properly protected. In that way, there will not be an adverse effect on British workers because there would be more of a level playing field. It is desirable on both counts.

Furthermore, another of our conclusions is that in order for immigrants to make a proper contribution at work and socially in this country, it is important that they have access to English language teaching. It was clearly put to us that the lack of English language holds them back, and prevents them from exercising their rights, working effectively and having as good an access to the job market as they might.

I believe that the report is useful in that it has generated interest. I hope that this debate will receive some of the publicity that the report received initially. Of course, as a country we must act in British interests when we are dealing with immigration policy. I would argue that British interests have been well served by people coming to this country and contributing to it. To conclude, this country has given me fantastic opportunities. I only hope that other people can benefit from them as well as I have.