Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 14th November 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 3:20 pm, 14th November 2008

My Lords, I thank the chairman of the committee, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, for bringing this important report by the Economic Affairs Committee to the attention of the House this afternoon. I do not think it was ever going to be non-controversial or produce a bland debate, and it has not. However, I think we have all taken a great deal of note of it.

It is barely six months since the report was completed, yet in that time we have seen dramatic changes to our economy and to the prospects of the current population, which includes immigrants, and those who might wish to come here. It is also worth stressing, as the noble Lord, Lord Vallance of Tummel, said, that the report was about immigration, managed or otherwise, and not asylum. They are two different matters and, if we are not careful, we get them muddled. My reading of this report was that it is about immigration.

We had some notable speeches this afternoon. I shall not try to refer to all of them, but I shall mention the maiden speech by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. I am sorry he could not be controversial. It was correct for him to draw to our attention the human aspect of immigration. I long for him to be controversial in future, and we look forward to many sharper speeches.

I thank my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach for his contribution not only to the debate but to the Select Committee that produced this report. He brought the debate back to the burden of the report and reminded the House that it is not about cultural and ethical issues related to immigration but the narrow subject—we can debate whether that narrowness was correct—of the economic impact of migration and whether it is beneficial. I do not know whether his two teachers thought that he did a good job, but it was encouraging to notice how the generations in this House affect each other.

Many noble Lords said that immigration has been an important part of life in Britain. Over the years, waves of immigrants provided the skills, hard work, economic benefit and cultural stimulation that created the British nation and its diversity. However, at a time when net migration has reached pretty well unprecedented levels in the United Kingdom, it is important to understand,

"whether additional immigration from elsewhere carries benefits or disadvantages".

We all understand that movement within the European Union is not immigration but the free movement of labour so, by and large, we are talking about immigration from outside the European economic area.

My noble friend Lord Griffiths said that the main impact of future immigration is on the growth of population. We have had lots of figures today, but I am going to give the House another lot, and mine are right. The Office for National Statistics predicts that the population will increase by 4.4 million to 65 million by 2016 and will reach 71 million—I think everybody is more or less agreed about this—by 2031. Immigration is expected to contribute some 47 per cent of that growth. With zero net immigration or balanced immigration, it is suggested that the growth by 2081 would be about 3.1 million on today's figures.

Any figures are suspect. The Governor of the Bank of England is quoted in the report as saying:

"We just do not know how big the population of the United Kingdom is".

Some of the reason for that must lie in the laxity of the Government in dealing with illegal migration. By their own estimates, the Government believe that there are 570,000 illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom at the moment, and it is clear that that number is going to rise. That demonstrates the manifest failure of control.

One of the most important things the report uncovered was the great confusion surrounding immigration, population, what contribution immigration makes and will make to the overall size of the population and the impact on employment, housing, education and social welfare if it is not controlled.

Several noble Lords referred to that, but the Minister for Immigration, Phil Woolas, however great his experience, did not help the situation when he was interviewed by the Times by saying that the Government were not going to allow the population to go up to 70 million—a pretty rash statement at any time. He then declared that any notion that there should be a cap to be a lot of nonsense; then he climbed all the way back down and said that he was not claiming that there would be a limit at all. However, he would not be the first member of the Government to seem to support virtually unlimited immigration. As noble Lords have said, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, justified virtually unlimited immigration by the fact that there were half a million vacancies in the job market and that strong economic growth needed migration to fill them. We may wonder whether that situation still obtains.

As other noble Lords have said, the overwhelming evidence found by the Economic Affairs Committee shows that it is flawed to believe that migration can fill those vacancies because it expands the economy, creating more vacancies—or, I add, it did until our recent catastrophic economic situation. The Government state that they are,

"committed to continually examining available labour market statistics to assess the extent to which immigration is having a deleterious impact on job opportunities for domestic labour".

An important omission from the report was an assessment of what would happen if the Government found that there was a deleterious impact. Have any measures been put in place to deal with that situation, should it arise? Is there any evidence to show that such measures are necessary, or are working?

The Government may cite the new points system as an attempt to take control of the situation. We do not argue that it has no merit. Indeed, the report endorses, and we agree,

"the use of a points-based system for regulating the immigration of highly skilled immigrants from outside", the European economic area. As shown in Australia, a points-based system can function effectively, but the success of the Australian system rests on the fact that it operates within a cap. In Britain, it will not. As my honourable friend Damian Green pointed out in the other place, that constitutes more of a mild improvement than a radical overhaul of the immigration system.

As the chairman, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, said, the committee came to the conclusion that it found,

"no evidence for the argument, made by the Government ... that net immigration ... generates significant economic benefits for the existing ... population".

Clearly that has been one of the more controversial aspects, because it has been addressed pretty frequently this afternoon. As my honourable friend Damian Green argued in debate in the other place, that has not stopped the Government basing their immigration policy for the past 10 years on the assumption that there is a benefit to this country.

My party has made clear that we believe that the benefits of immigration will be felt only if it is kept under control and people know that there is a limit, whether an arranged limit or a cap limit; there will be no sudden surges in immigration—we cannot say that about asylum—there is confidence in the authority being competent to deal with illegal immigration and enforcing removal, which is not very good at the moment; public services can cope with the numbers; and immigration policy aims to attract new people who will be of considerable benefit to our economy and wider society. The Government must also accept that the points-based system in place at the moment does not yet ensure these factors, because clearly it is not completely implemented.

It is refreshing to be able to look at both sides of the impact of immigration on our society and to be able to debate it rationally, one hopes without shouts of xenophobia and racism. If we cannot do that, we really cannot look clearly at our population and the future of our country. It is clear that the country, practically and culturally, benefits substantially in many ways from immigration, but that there are dark sides to unlimited numbers coming to this country on a permanent basis. Now that the economy is busting rather than booming, the attraction—particularly to those from the EEC countries who have come to work in, for example, the building trade, which has been referred to—may now be far less. Indeed, there are already reports of many people from eastern Europe and the Baltic states going away again, having come here on a rush of euphoria that there would be work for evermore. I am bound to say that I saw in the newspaper today that the same Baltic states citizens seem to be rushing into Newham to sign up to work on the Olympic site, so perhaps it is not completely over. I suppose it is also arguable that those from outside the EEC who might have wished to come here in our better days may well not see this country as such a joyful place to come in the future.

Our misfortunes have come about very rapidly and beyond the timescale of the report, but that does not deny the value and relevance of the report, which has plainly put the limitations of immigration into context, placed the onus of responsibility on the Government for what has happened on their watch, and raised many questions which the Government have addressed and will address in the future. It is important that this is done so that there is confidence in the immigration system and, most importantly, support and welcome for those who are here and for those who will be admitted in the future under the various schemes now in place. As many other speakers have said, they make a significant contribution to the life and well-being of this country.