Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:20 pm on 14th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord Macdonald of Tradeston Lord Macdonald of Tradeston Labour 2:20 pm, 14th November 2008

My Lords, on a point raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs, when we first took evidence on the economic impact of immigration back in 2007, it is worth recalling that the opinion polls reported that the subject of greatest concern to the British public was immigration. Today it may well be rivalled by the fear of recession, and the two issues taken together in these bleak and unsettling times surely make this debate all the more timely. Like my noble friend, I trust that our report will help to clarify some of the issues and at least sharpen the focus on other key areas of this sensitive subject.

One of the witnesses to our committee inquiry was Liam Byrne MP, Minister for immigration until the recent reshuffle, who claimed that his surveys show that almost all voters, 98.8 per cent, say it is important that politicians talk openly about the issues raised by immigration. Our committee sought to do that and to be constructive. Our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is particularly to be congratulated on bringing together Members from all three parties as well as our Cross-Benchers and coming to what were unanimous conclusions. I will not repeat too many of the important points made by my committee colleagues, but I also welcome the emphasis put by the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, on the need to improve the skills of our existing and potential workforce. Indeed, it was the subject of our previous committee report.

Our report was completed eight long months ago, but since then I am pleased to see that the Government have been moving purposefully to sort out some of the problems in this complex area of policy. For instance, in their response to the report the Government say that they are now,

"crystal clear that GDP per capita growth must be the principal determinant", in estimating the economic impact of immigration. This will be welcomed by those of us who expressed concern about the Government's previous economic justification. While I will gladly leave the economists to argue about the costs here and the benefits there, and heeding the caution of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, I still anticipate that consensus will emerge around the conclusion of our report that the economic effect of immigration on GDP per capita is not that significant either way, and perhaps even less so now when set against the vast sums of money being consumed by our deepening economic crisis.

On another related matter, one that has been mentioned only briefly, we had the good fortune to have on our committee and as a witness the noble Lord, Lord Turner, now chairman of the Financial Services Authority and recently the Government's guru on pensions. The received wisdom that young immigrants are necessary to ensure the pensions of ageing natives was dismissed by the noble Lord, Lord Turner, at his most magisterial, and is of course reflected in our findings. As a former Minister responsible for monitoring the delivery of public sector reform for Prime Minister Blair, I am acutely aware of the huge challenges faced by the Home Office in asylum and immigration policy. It is a daunting task in a globalising economy where the increasingly free flow of goods is matched by the movement of workers, tourists and students, and those just desperate for a better life. But I also recall with embarrassment the miscalculation in Whitehall of the number of migrants we might expect from the enlarged European Union. However, we probably all accept that population prediction is and will remain a notoriously inexact science. Thankfully, our communities have absorbed those hundreds of thousands of unexpected east Europeans with remarkably little rancour, and it is a credit to those hardworking Poles and others that they have been seen to make such a positive contribution to our economy. That has also been the experience of most immigrants from countries outside the European Union.

Our report highlights the valuable contribution those immigrants make to the UK. That is not in doubt and I applaud the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, as indeed would the children and grandchildren of immigrants in my own family. However, after a decade of rising population growth largely driven by increased immigration, the issues are future scale and the costs incurred in expanding the social and physical infrastructure, particularly when times are hard. Sadly, we were hampered in our consideration of costs and benefits by the lack of statistical evidence in many relevant areas. At the local level we heard of the pressures on housing, education, health services and policing, particularly in certain areas of London and in southern and eastern England. I pay tribute to the constructive way in which local authorities have adapted budgets and coped.

Help from the centre seems to be on its way through an impressive number of government initiatives which have been launched or announced in the months since we reported. I look forward to hearing from the Minister more about the economic impact of these initiatives and a further rationale on initiatives such as the UK Borders Agency, which was created to increase our security against illegal immigration, and to hearing his views on the new points system and the economic impact it will have as it is introduced with its panel of independent economists to advise on labour market skills shortages. This initiative may be calculated to reduce the number of unskilled immigrants who are competing with native workers at the bottom of the labour market as unemployment rises during what we hope will be a limited recession. I shall be interested in the Minister's view on that.

We have an obligation—certainly on these Benches—to do all that we can to protect and support our poorest and most vulnerable communities in their search for work. Government action will be stepped up against employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, often exploiting them, as we heard from our trade union witnesses. For those communities under stress, there is now a Migration Impacts Forum which can monitor areas such as health, social care, employment and skills, housing and crime and disorder. I trust that this will help to improve the evidence base required by policy makers. The Minister may care to say more about that.

The new Minister for Immigration at the Home Office, Phil Woolas, knows the dangers to social cohesion better than most. As the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, he has seen violence in the streets and has a proud record of fighting racism all his political life. Like our committee, Mr Woolas has addressed the question of how best to find the appropriate balance between the number of people coming into and the number of people leaving Britain. As with our report, Mr Woolas has also been misrepresented as calling for a cap on immigration. This, apparently, is Conservative policy and the cap story was wrongly slapped on our heads too. Let me say in passing that, in all our months of deliberations, I failed to see any alternative political options that were thought through or specific enough to influence our conclusions.

As noble Lords have heard, our report concluded that the Government should have an explicit and reasoned indicative target range and adjust their immigration policies in line with that broad objective. Given the cost to the public purse of accommodating population increases of the kind predicted, that is common sense. I assume, therefore, that the Government, despite their negative response to parts of our report, will come to share our ambition and adopt our eminently reasonable recommendation.