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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:39 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Horam Lord Horam Conservative 4:39 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, this particular section of the Queen’s Speech is always a bit of a pot-pourri of issues because of the extensive responsibilities of the Home Office, the other home departments and the Justice Department. I extend my sympathies to my noble friend Lady Williams, who must contend with responding to 50 speeches on a wide range of subjects. I am afraid that I am about to add to her difficulties, for which I apologise, by raising yet another subject that has not been discussed much so far: the contentious issue of immigration. I do so because it is my view that no Government—neither the present Government, nor the coalition Government or the Labour Government that preceded them—have handled this issue well in recent times. They have handled it so badly that it has contributed to the distrust of the political and constitutional system that has been much commented on in the course of our debate.

However, with Brexit, there is an opportunity to reset our policies in this area to ones that are more sensible and command greater public support. This can be done in a number of ways. First, the Government should look not just at immigration per se but population trends as a whole—in short, the entire demographic picture of the country. The fact is that we are a very crowded country. For example, England is twice as heavily populated as Germany and three and a half times as heavily populated as France.

Moreover, the population of the UK is growing at its fastest rate in more than a century. The central forecast of the Office for National Statistics is that, if this growth continues, we will over the next 10 years add the equivalent of the populations of Greater Manchester and Birmingham to existing populations. I recommend to the House my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’s excellent pamphlet, Britain’s Demographic Challenge, which spells out some of the consequences of this extraordinary prospective increase in population. I accept that this is just a forecast, of course, but it is the central forecast of the main government forecasting body. Is this what we want? Is this what the public want? Not according to surveys of public opinion. The latest ones on this subject indicate that three-quarters of our present population think that the country is already overcrowded, and more than 70% think that the net immigration figure should be reduced to tens of thousands a year.

Secondly, we need to pay much more attention to the questions of social cohesion and quality of life, as opposed to the economic aspects of immigration. For example, the main body that the Government consult on immigration issues—it is referenced throughout the White Paper on immigration, produced in December last year—is the Migration Advisory Committee. However, with one exception, all the committee members are university economists. I am a graduate of the dismal science, so I am not likely to underestimate the value of good economic advice, but, frankly, that is ridiculous. The committee needs some social scientists, a local authority representative, a geographer—perhaps even someone from Population Matters, the organisation headed by Jonathon Porritt and Sir David Attenborough, because population is also a climate change issue. Certainly, a more holistic approach to this issue, rather than a purely economic one, is required.

Thirdly, in the course of their discussions on immigration, the Government have mentioned the example of Australia. Australia’s points system is actually not dissimilar to our own, but it has something that we do not have: an immigration planning programme and system, which sets out the number of permanent visas in a budget every year. The total is broken down into various categories—skilled workers, unskilled workers, families, et cetera—and there is some flexibility for trade between the various components. Canada, another country with extensive immigration experience, does much the same. It seems to me that we should learn from these countries with real experience in immigration of a kind that, until recently, we did not have.

Finally, all of these countries make a point of presenting the annual immigration plan to their Parliaments for an annual debate. I would prefer, as I have suggested, to look at the demographic picture as a whole rather than purely just immigration, but whichever way it is done, the idea of a kind of Budget statement and debate with parliamentarians, whatever their views on the subject, being able to dissect government policy, the reasons for their approach, and to come to conclusions. If this policy framework or even something like it was set up, we would have a system that was more accountable and transparent. In my view, it would give us a chance to have more sensible and sustainable population and immigration policies with a better balance between economic, social and environmental concerns. It might also reduce the distrust of ordinary people of government which, as I have mentioned, is now so evident. It would, in short, be good government—and, my heavens, we need some good government today.