Immigration (EAC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 14th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 3:30 pm, 14th November 2008

My Lords, we have debated a crucial subject this afternoon—a subject which I am afraid often generates rather more heat than light. It is rather splendid, and shows how wonderful this Chamber can be, that we have debated it very rationally. It is unfortunate that very often in the past—in fact, for a number a decades—there have not been debates on this subject because it has descended into things that it should not have descended into.

The in some senses very detailed report produced by the committee has been very useful. It has flaws, a number of which have been pointed out by noble Lords this afternoon, not least my noble friend Lord Peston and the noble Lord, Lord Moser, but it has allowed us to have a robust and constructive debate. As we have heard quite clearly in the past few hours, immigration is a highly complex subject. Distilling the vast amount of data and statistics is extremely difficult, and we may not have been as good at doing that as we should have been, partly because there has been this nervousness about getting into a debate.

Noble Lords have spoken with great knowledge and experience, not least about how important the non-economic aspects of immigration are. The report focused on the economic, but it is difficult to disentangle these things. We have had a number of moving and important speeches and it is difficult to narrow them down. My noble friends Lord Paul and Lord Judd and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke very well, but a number of people raised those issues. I thank all noble Lords for their contribution and the committee for its report, which is a useful part of this debate. In particular, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for his service to the Select Committee on Economic Affairs over a number of years. It will not be possible for me to address all the issues raised, but where I err in responding today, I am very happy to respond in writing should any noble Lords consider it necessary.

It is fair to say that the Government, the general public and, to a varying degree, noble Lords throughout the Chamber have all accepted that carefully controlled migration can and does bring economic and many other benefits to our country. The Government certainly believe that the benefits have been considerable. We agree with the committee that GDP per capita growth must be the principal determinant of the economic benefit of migration. It has already been said but is worth reiterating that, since 1997, the United Kingdom has recorded the highest average annual growth rate in GDP per head among the G7 economies. The evidence suggests that immigration has made a very positive contribution to this and not a small contribution.

We also believe that, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, in a global economy with increasing labour mobility, an open economy such as that of the United Kingdom benefits from skilled migrants. To date there is no significant evidence of negative employment effects from recent immigration to the United Kingdom. The Government's view is that immigration has contributed to the success of the United Kingdom economy by helping to meet labour and skills shortages in the public and private sectors. Notwithstanding some figures that have been quoted, we believe that migration leads to an improved match between vacancies and available labour.

Having said all that, we also believe that it is crucial that we have robust systems in place so that it is possible to control who comes here and so that migrants abide by our laws and contribute to our society—indeed, become fully part of our society. Our population, including recent immigrants, demands nothing less than that. It is this need to strike a balance that underpins the Government's revolutionary ongoing overhaul of the immigration system. This is ever more important within the context of the current economic downturn.

Before going further and addressing specific points, it is important to understand in greater detail the magnitude of some of these reforms and how they have proved crucial in striking a balance that will maximise the benefit to the country. I should also like to refer to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. It is worth remembering that our immigration system is not exclusively for economic migration. It also offers humanitarian protection to people requiring sanctuary and fleeing persecution. It welcomes the loved ones of UK citizens and those with permission to be in the UK who want to be reunited with their families. It also attracts those with skills who can make a positive contribution to the United Kingdom through work and study. It is always important to remember those things.

Since April 2008 the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs at the border and UKvisas have all been brought together to form a strong single border force under the umbrella of the UK Border Agency. The number of people securing our borders is therefore at an all time high: about 25,000 staff, including 9,000 warranted customs and immigration officers operating in local communities, at the border and in more than 135 countries worldwide. This new force has been supported by the introduction of electronic fingerprinting for visa applications, ensuring that anyone applying for a visa now has their fingerprints taken before being granted permission to travel. That has already flagged up more than 4,500 attempts of people trying to swap identities. In addition, over the past five years our international network of airline liaison officers has prevented nearly 210,000 people boarding planes without proper documents, a figure which can be equated to approximately two jumbo jets a week. Such efforts to strengthen the country's borders will be enhanced still further by the introduction of electronic border controls and exit checks, which will count 99 per cent of non-EU nationals and 95 per cent of EEA nationals, excluding UK nationals, in and out of the UK by the end of 2010.

This month, we will issue the first compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals as the first stage of the national identity scheme. ID cards will help us to protect against identity fraud and illegal working. They will reduce the use of multiple identities, which are often used by people in organised crime. They will give some help in terms of multiple identities and terrorism. They will certainly help us to crack down on those who try to abuse positions of trust, and they will make it easier for people and individuals to prove they are who they say they are.

Of equal importance to the Government's commitment to exercise control is, as has been mentioned, the new Australian-style points-based system which enables criteria to be set for each of its tiers to ensure that those, and only those, whom the UK needs can come here to work and study. When fully implemented, this will provide controls over close to every three in five non-British migrants seeking to enter the United Kingdom; that is, work-related migrants, students and their dependants. Through this scheme we have already barred low-skilled workers from outside the EU and our estimates are that if tier 2 of the points system for skilled migrants had been in place last year, there would have been approximately 12 per cent fewer people in this category coming here to work through the equivalent work permit route.

It is precisely because the Government will now have the flexibility to raise or lower the bar depending on the needs of the UK—using the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee and the Migration Impacts Forum—that the points system is such a fundamental change to the infrastructure for controlling immigration. The House should be in no doubt of the Government's determination to use these levers where it is necessary.

Similarly, the Government will extend further the controls placed on migrants who want to stay in the UK, especially those seeking British citizenship, through measures planned within the draft Earned Citizenship Bill. Through this, there will no longer be an automatic right to stay in the United Kingdom after five years. Those who do come will need to work, play by the rules and speak English. Indeed, for those migrants and asylum seekers who are no longer entitled to stay or who choose to offend, the Government have renewed their commitment through the doubling of the enforcement budget to seek removal where appropriate. Last year, someone was removed every eight minutes, including more than 4,200 foreign criminals. Equally, for those employers who have chosen to employ illegal workers, fines totalling nearly £10 million have been issued. Such measures do and will provide protection to the many who are here legally and are contributing to the prosperity of the UK, while helping to prevent abuse by those who are not.

Notwithstanding these extensive reforms, a number of speakers today and indeed the committee through its comprehensive report have identified a number of areas where they consider that further improvement is necessary. As we have set out in our formal response, we have already acknowledged and acted to address a number of the issues—and in many cases doing so before they were even raised by the committee. For example, we have already put in place a £12 million radical programme of reform to improve migration statistics. A number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, referred to this. We do not have accurate enough figures, but they are absolutely necessary because we cannot make sensible decisions without them. This investment is important and will ensure that the data on which local government funding is based are as good as possible.

Similarly, by 2010-11 we will be investing over £1 billion in the Train to Gain initiative to elevate the UK into the world's "premier league" for skills by 2020. That may well allay some of the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, about our own people in this country not having had the opportunities they possibly should have had. While I am sure that the House welcomes such investments, I am aware that the major concern among many noble Lords is the Government's central case that net migration— immigration minus emigration—generates significant economic benefits for the country. Some have argued that it is a case made without robust evidence and others that the use of GDP as a measurement of impact is "misleading and irrelevant". As we have already set out within our formal response, and as a number of speakers today have said eloquently in their contributions, we absolutely do not agree with these conclusions in the report.

I turn now to some of the specific points made in the debate. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln on his maiden speech. It was one of great warmth and sincerity, and exemplified the compassion for which I know that he in his office has become known. I was a little worried because I saw in the Church Times that he has urged Synod members in the forthcoming debates not to,

"leave their brains outside the door lest they frighten the horses".

I wondered how what I say might be taken, but perhaps I may say that I agree entirely with his point that while we should debate the important issue of the effects of immigration in local communities such as Lincoln, we should never lose sight of the very welcome contribution that migrants have made to this land. I note that the right reverend Prelate also said that he thought he might have arrived as a Viking; the Vikings were probably less popular immigrants than those we are blessed with today.

The noble Lord, Lord Vallance, touched on the recommendation for a range, not a cap. I am sure that he would agree that the key to successful migration control is flexibility because of the difficulty of forecasting precisely the needs of the economy. It is very tricky to do. The points-based system provides both control and flexibility, ensuring that we allow into the UK only those whom we need. A target range, if strictly enforced, becomes a cap. If, on the other hand, we can constantly vary the range it becomes a more meaningful concept.

The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, raised the issue of the concerns of the education sector with regard to the implementation of tier 4. We are working closely with Universities UK and other members of the Joint Education Taskforce to ensure smooth implementation of the new system.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about the discrepancy between what my honourable friends Phil Woolas and Keith Vaz said was government policy. The best thing to do is to consider the detailed debate of 21 October; it lasted about three and a half hours and many matters were clearly exposed in it. It is all too easy sometimes for people to draw conclusions when they see things in the papers or hear comments. That is often part of the problem in debates such as this because people like to draw the conclusion on which they have already decided and that makes it far too emotive. I am not ducking the question; that is probably the best way of answering it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked what level of net migration we would need to avoid a population of 70 million. Immigration is only one determinate of population growth. There are the issues of births and deaths and a raft of other things that are relevant; it is not as simple as having a net migration level. The ONS report is a projection, not a prediction. It is interesting that our projection in 1965 for 2000 was that we would have 75 million people in this country; we had 56 million. So we have to be extremely wary of projections and the factors that are pushing these figures.

The Government agree without equivocation with the committee's conclusion that migration policy must be informed by an understanding of the economic and social impacts and manage to deliver the best outcome for the UK and its communities. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, referred to this issue. The policy is absolutely right because this is a complex matter and the rationale underpins the programme of immigration reform, the establishment of the points-based system, to which I have referred, the Migration Advisory Committee, the Migration Impacts Forum and the Migration Impacts Fund, which will secure tens of millions of pounds to help services locally to deal with the short-term pressures of migration. That point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Vallance.

When the Home Secretary spoke in another place on 21 October she said:

"When it comes to protecting our border, enforcing the law, selecting what skills we need here and setting high expectations of those who come, the Government will continue to act in Britain's best interests on immigration".—[Hansard, Commons, 21/10/08; col. 199.]

The Government also believe that in a global economy, with increasing labour mobility, an open economy such as the UK benefits from skilled immigrants. Those who have recently come from new EU accession countries have been largely welcomed and have made an important contribution to the British economy.

Indeed, I have some knowledge of this—I declare an interest—because my relatively new son-in-law is Polish; he came here and married my daughter. I have been constantly amazed by how incredibly hard he works and with the amount of overtime he does; how he seems to pick up on faults that he sees in the benefits system; and how he rather too often phones up current affairs programmes, which I find slightly embarrassing. He contributes a huge amount. The noble Lord mentioned the work ethic—which is certainly there—and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned cross-border marriages, of which I have some experience. Certainly the most current available research by the Department for Work and Pensions, published alongside the response to the committee's report, indicates that this has not been to the detriment of British workers. Again, that points out how important real statistics and real knowledge of them are.

However, as we go into an economic downturn, the Government accept that these newly established flexible and evidence-based controls and levers will be crucial in ensuring that Britain is able to respond to the impact of any changes in demand for migrants coming through the system in some sectors.

The House should be left in no doubt about the overall benefit that we feel the United Kingdom has had from its immigrant population. As my noble friend Lord Dubs said, it has actually been, even with the small difficulties we have had, a story of great success. Personally, I think that is a credit to our wonderful nation. But we are a small overcrowded island, and at times there are pressures on social services. We believe that immigration needs to be carefully controlled, and I assure your Lordships that we will use all the levers already mentioned to ensure the maximum benefit for British communities and British business.

We have had a valuable debate. I have certainly learnt a great deal, and I thank the committee for giving us this opportunity.