My Lords, I have not spoken in previous Brexit debates. I do so now to introduce some new and different material into the debate, and because I believe that a key aspect of it is going very badly wrong. Indeed, it could well inflict yet further damage to public confidence in our entire political system.
I refer to the scale of immigration—a matter of real importance to the general public that is not often mentioned in your Lordships’ House. In raising this matter, I speak for some 38 million of our fellow citizens who broadly share my concerns. In doing so, I declare an interest as the chairman, on a voluntary basis, of Migration Watch. It is not in question that control of our borders was a major factor in the outcome of the referendum: nor is there any doubt that immigration remains a major issue and will be a key measure by which the public will judge the outcome of Brexit.
My noble friend Lord Armstrong suggested that we look for issues that could be remedied in order for us to remain a member of the EU, and this must surely be a candidate. I accept that there is some evidence that concern about immigration has fallen away since the referendum. The refugee crisis in Europe is less acute, many assume that Brexit is now in train and will deal with it, there is much less coverage in the press of the issue, and, finally, net EU migration has fallen sharply. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, drew our attention to an interesting recent poll. It asked whether immigration had been generally negative or positive for the UK. It found that 48% of people said that it had had a positive effect, which was much higher than the 35% at the time of the referendum. That, of course, is very good news, and I welcome it.
However, the real problem is not immigration—none of us has ever said that that was a problem—but the scale of immigration. If you ask about that, you get an entirely different view. A Channel 4 Deltapoll poll conducted last June found that 73% of respondents supported what was then the Government’s commitment to reduce net migration to fewer than 100,000. Given that the population of the UK over the age of 18 is currently 52.4 million, arithmetic will give you the 38 million people to whom I referred earlier. Of course, they do not all vote—it might be a good idea if they did. The poll also indicated support by a majority of Labour and Lib Dem supporters and remain voters as well as a majority of 18 to 24 year-olds, so it is a very widespread view. I might mention that among Conservatives it was 88%.
Unfortunately, this very strong and important public opinion was ignored in the recent White Paper on immigration policy. The effect of the proposals set out in that paper would be to open between 2 million and 5 million UK jobs to worldwide competition, depending on the salary threshold that is decided. Not only that, but the present 4 million jobs already exposed to worldwide competition would be further exposed by the removal of the cap and the labour market test. Our analysis suggests that there will be very little reduction in net migration. Indeed, there could even be an increase back towards, and maybe surpassing, the record level of one-third of a million a year. If so, a British Government would yet again be seriously underestimating the immigration pressures on our country, just as we saw in 1998 and 2004. We could find ourselves sleepwalking into another wave of immigration.
The public may not be well versed in the technicalities, but they are well aware of the pressures of population, and its impact on housing, public services and the nature and scale of our society more generally. To take just one example, between 2001 and 2016, immigration added 1 million to our population every three years. That is the population of Birmingham every three years. These are astonishing figures. They are simply not being paid sufficient attention.
Before I conclude, I will say a word about the so-called Norway solution, which was mentioned by one or two noble Lords. In theory, Norway can take migration safeguard measures unilaterally. However, in practice, the EU-EEA treaty severely limits the scope of the Norwegians to take such action. The measures are permitted only in response to problems of a sectoral or regional nature, they are restricted in scope and duration and the measures have to be reviewed by a joint committee every three months. Most importantly, such action might expose the state in question to retaliatory measures by the EU—and that is a reason that Norwegian officials have given to explain why they have never gone down this road. So if you hear any more about the Norwegian solution, bear in mind that it would have serious implications for one of the most sensitive issues in the whole debate.
To conclude, immigration remains a major public concern. That concern is justified and the public want it tackled. Failure to do so post Brexit, when it was, and is, such a major public concern, would result in further and very serious damage to public confidence in our country’s political system—confidence that is already at an extremely low level.