I last initiated a debate on immigration matters in this House on
"tolerant, spirited and full of humour."
We often forget that Britain is a successful and largely good-natured society despite having to absorb 2 million or more people from scores of countries around the world over the last 10 years.
He went on to state:
"If you ever wanted to see the accumulated virtue of British culture you might start with the humour, consideration, tolerance, generosity and all-round nous to be found in any mixed gathering anywhere in these islands."
We should all rejoice at that, but ahead lie some dangerous shoals that could threaten the harmony. The issues must be dealt with and debated more regularly, in a calm and sensible manner.
There have been many debates about asylum but it is no longer the main issue. The principle of asylum for genuine cases is not disputed in this House. In any case, those numbers are now, thankfully, coming down: asylum now accounts for only some 6 per cent. of net foreign immigration. Nor is the debate about our existing legal immigrant communities. They are a valued part of our society, and they have enriched and often greatly enhanced it.
The serious issue for this House and for our country is the sheer scale of immigration that is now taking place. It is utterly misleading to claim, as some do, that people became used to immigration in the past and will do so again. The present scale of immigration is absolutely without precedent in our history. There have been only two major waves of immigration since the Norman conquest in 1066: the Huguenots in the late 17th century, and the Jewish refugees in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both those migrations were spread over 50 years, and both amounted to less than 1 per cent. of the population of Britain at the time. With foreign immigration currently running at 300,000 a year, we are now receiving an additional 1 per cent. of our population every two years. In other words, annual net foreign immigration is now 25 times higher than it has ever been in the past, even at the two peaks.
Talk of Britain as a nation of immigrants is absurd. It would be much more accurate to describe us as a nation of emigrants. Indeed, the number of emigrants exceeded the number of immigrants until the 1980s. Net immigration is a new phenomenon and initially was quite small. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, it hardly exceeded 50,000 a year. Since 1997, however, it has quadrupled to some 200,000 a year. Even that number makes little allowance for immigration from eastern Europe. In 2005, it was assessed as a net inflow of 64,000—a figure that today looks remarkably low. None of those numbers include any allowance for illegal immigrants, who are believed to comprise at least half a million people.
The sharp increase in immigration is no accident. To suggest, as Ministers do, that it is all a result of the fall of communism or of globalisation is, frankly, bizarre. The numbers point clearly to a massive increase since the present Government came to power in 1997. Part of the increase is due to their failure during their first five years in office to get a grip on asylum claims, of which more than 60 per cent. were eventually judged to be unfounded. Another part is due to their decision to allow a massive increase in work permits, which have trebled since 1997. At the same time, their decision in June 1997 to abolish the primary purpose rule has led to the number of spouses admitted to Britain doubling from 20,000 to 40,000 a year.
Those policy shifts have had a substantial impact on our population. Just over 1 million people have been granted British citizenship in the past 10 years. Net foreign immigration during that period was more than 2 million people, or 600 a day. That rate of immigration cannot be sustained without the most profound changes occurring in our society.
My hon. Friend has raised an important subject in a calm and considered manner. I am delighted that he has recognised the importance and value of immigrants. Is he aware that since I came into Parliament—
The first time. We have an additional 300,000 immigrants each year. At the same time, we have a Government who are paying to keep out of employment about 17 per cent. of the potential work force, and we have a critical housing shortage. Does my hon. Friend link those matters together, and does he think that policy should control them?
I am always grateful to my hon. Friend for his interventions, but, if I may, I shall come to those matters in my own time.
Looking ahead, the Government's projections anticipate that we will add 1 million to our population every five years. Of that increase, 83 per cent. will be due to new immigrants and their descendants. Even that forecast is based on the cautious assumption that immigration will fall by about 30 per cent. from its present level and remain flat. It is still too early to judge how many east Europeans will turn out to be temporary visitors and how many will stay on as immigrants. However, it is at least possible that they will sharply increase the pressure on our population.
If proof were needed, consider the Prime Minister's speech to the House last week. After 10 years in government, he has discovered that there is a housing crisis, particularly in respect of affordable homes. Why? Because for years, demand has outstripped supply. The Government have permitted—indeed, encouraged—the arrival of 2 million immigrants since 1997, but have completely failed to build the necessary houses or the wider social infrastructure that is so vital. They have not even built enough social housing to match the number of grants that they have made of asylum and other forms of protection. All those people qualify for social housing and many, but not all, will take it up.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. I wonder whether he heard the Prime Minister interviewed by John Humphrys on the "Today" programme last week. The Prime Minister said that he recognised that demand was outstripping supply, but completely ignored Mr. Humphrys when he suggested that immigration may have played some part in that. Does my hon. Friend think that the Prime Minister is in denial in respect of the points that he so rightly raises?
I do not know whether the Prime Minister is in denial, but it is a fact that the Government persistently refuse to discuss the matter in public. They adopt what I understand is called in America the "ostrich" defence.
Looking ahead, the Prime Minister trumpets his plan to build 3 million houses by 2020. Many of them will have to be on greenfield sites. What he omitted to mention was that 1 million of them will be not for existing immigrants, who are now a valuable part of our community, but for new immigrants, and that even that vast number depends on the Government's assumption that immigration will fall by 30 per cent. from present levels, and stay flat thereafter.
Housing is vital to the future of every family in this country. It is now unaffordable for key workers in many parts of the country, and millions of young people are unable to get on the housing ladder. The Government's record on housing is a miserable tale of incompetence and is a complete failure of joined-up government. That record has largely resulted from their failure to face up to the practical consequences of mass immigration, but it is also a result of the failure of Members to talk about key national issues in the House in a sensitive and intelligent manner. That failure is reflected in the media, including the BBC, which reported the proposal to build 3 million houses without even mentioning the I-word. The BBC's present work on impartiality should lead it to ensure that the basic facts about immigration are clearly and accurately set out. Dodging sensitive issues is simply not good enough, either for the BBC or for us.
The infrastructure of schools, hospitals and roads must also be considered because immigration levels mean that we are committing ourselves to building a city the size of Birmingham every five years. International migration flows are predominantly to England—the most densely populated part of the United Kingdom—which is already four times as crowded as France and 12 times as crowded as the United States. Pressure on public services will also inevitably grow. The health service is facing additional strain, not only because of numbers and the need for interpretation services, but because some of our new arrivals require major treatment. Immigrants have certainly contributed a great deal to our health service. However, although the flow of indigenous doctors and nurses has improved, they now have difficulty securing entry-level positions because they have been filled by immigrants.
The pressure on our education system has also increased, not only because of the numbers of immigrants, but because many pupils arrive with no English. Clearly, the local authorities most affected must be helped to deal with those problems. However, it has become abundantly clear that our statistical information is completely inadequate to trace the flow of migrants around the country. Indeed, the Minister and I have been in protracted correspondence about the Government's absolute failure to formulate any idea of how many people fail to turn up after they have been granted temporary admission, and then fail to show again. In any case, the only effect of central Government subsidy is that the taxpayer, rather than the ratepayer, pays. The costs still fall on our society.
Understandably, there is also major concern about, and question mark over, social cohesion. Migrants now arrive at a rate of nearly one a minute. All those people need to be integrated into our society, and it is clearly impossible to achieve that at the present rate and in the current situation. Indeed, some immigrants choose, for entirely understandable reasons, to join people of their own origin. Unfortunately, that leads to the development of parallel lives. In September 2005, Trevor Phillips, when he was head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said that we are "sleepwalking into segregation". He has since warned that the degree of segregation in parts of our country is wholly unacceptable.
The follow-up report on Oldham, which was written five years after the riots in that town, expressed similar anxieties. Its key finding was:
"A major factor in building community cohesion in Oldham over the next two decades will be projected population change within the Borough and, in particular, the relative growth in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage population. The potential risk is that pace of change in building community cohesion may be overtaken by the potential for population change to generate division and conflict."
What lies behind that is that, in the next 15 years, the Pakistani heritage population is expected to increase by 50 per cent. and the Bangladeshi population by 70 per cent. Meanwhile,the white population will decline slightly. That is just one example of the pressure building up in some of our cities
The Government claim that massive levels of immigration are justified by the economic benefits. Certainly, there are some benefits: wage inflation has been held down, interest rates are lower than they might have been, and economic growth is slightly faster. However, most of the benefit goes to immigrants themselves. The benefit to the native British population in terms of gross domestic product per head is extremely small, even according to the Government's own calculations. They keep changing their story, but they now claim that immigration adds 15 to 20 per cent. of trend growth which, in turn, is now 2.75 per cent. The arithmetic shows that that amounts annually to around 73p per head per week, at the most. Similar results have been found in major studies in the US, Canada and Holland. I challenge the Government to produce any evidence that immigration makes a significant difference to GDP per head, and therefore to the indigenous population.
As I have said, the reality is that most of the economic benefit goes to the immigrants themselves, which is, of course, why they come. The Government persistently duck the central issue of benefit to our own community. There are, of course, benefits that cannot be measured, such as those of a social and cultural nature, and perhaps a greater propensity for people to innovate. Social costs are becoming more widely understood, and a survey that the Institute of Directors conducted of its members in February this year noted that 85 per cent. agreed that immigration policy should take account of the impact on public services and housing. Some 80 per cent. agreed that it should also take account of the effect on social cohesion.
It is often argued that immigration fills skills gaps and thus contributes to the smooth running of companies and the economy. There is something in that, but in the long term, immigration cannot be the answer to skills shortages. As the Confederation of British Industry recognises, the key must lie in training and retraining our own work force, which consists of some 30 million people. Only recently, on
"skilled, work hungry migrants are masking the tragic lack of skills so many of our school leavers have."
Other arguments put forward by the Government are simply false. The suggestion that immigration is of any significant help in paying our pensions was dismissed out of hand by the Turner commission, which reported that:
"Only high immigration can produce more than a trivial reduction in the projected dependency ratio over the next 50 years. It is important to realise that this would only be a temporary effect unless still higher levels of immigration continued in later years."
The public sense that there are falsehoods in the Government's arguments. Two thirds of people simply do not believe them, and 75 per cent. want an annual limit on immigration. That is the point to which I shall now turn. I believe that an annual limit is the key to restoring public confidence in our immigration system, which is now at rock bottom. My first proposal is that the level of net foreign immigration be managed downwards until it is close to the level of British emigration, which is running at about 100,000 a year and has doubled under this Government. Such a policy would mean that we were no longer adding to our population through immigration, and would relieve the pressure on our infrastructure and public services. That would require a reduction in the number of work permits, a tightening of the regulations on family reunion and much stronger efforts to remove failed asylum seekers.
It is important to recognise that limits cannot be applied to citizens of the European Union—which is not, as some allege, a matter of racism, but a consequence of treaties signed by British Governments of all political persuasions. The tough immigration policies that I advocate are not a matter of race. They would, for example, apply in the same way to Ukrainians and Ugandans, and to Americans and Indonesians. Fortunately, the omission of EU citizens from a new immigration regime would not be too serious. Migration to and from the EU14 is pretty well in balance. There was a blip when Spain, Portugal and Greece joined, but the numbers have now declined to a mere 22,000 a year. In the longer term, we can expect migration to and from the 10 new EU members to come into balance as their economies approximate to ours. Long-term pressure on immigration will come from the third world, where populations are rapidly expanding and employment opportunities for the young are sadly lagging well behind those in the EU. One measure of that is that visa applications have increased by 50 per cent. in the past five years.
Any immigration system is only as good as its ability to remove. We now find that the international human rights framework, which was established half a century ago and was brought into domestic legislation by the Human Rights Act 1998 nearly 10 years ago, has many serious unintended consequences. For example, it is making it extremely difficult for the authorities to remove from Britain people who have no right to be here and who, frankly, are abusing the hospitality and good will of our country. My second suggestion, therefore, is that a fundamental review of our membership of the European Court of Human Rights must be part of a new approach to immigration control.
My third proposal concerns the entitlement of non-EU citizens to welfare benefits. Under the transitional arrangements for the accession of eight EU countries, the Government sharply curtailed access to the welfare state for the first 12 months, but that will fall by the wayside at the end of the seven-year transition period, if not before. However, I believe that we should adapt this principle for wider use. We should deny full benefits to anyone who has not become a British citizen, or who has not worked in the UK for five years and been granted indefinite leave to remain. In other words, to enjoy the full benefits of the welfare state, a migrant would have to contribute significantly to the welfare state before being entitled to all its benefits, and/or have shown a commitment to becoming a British citizen by learning English and passing the citizenship test. Such a regime would go some way toward defusing the very strong sense of unfairness felt by those who have paid into the system for many years, but seen others benefit more or less on arrival.
To sum up, we need a fundamental rethink of our immigration system. Muddling on as we are will only add to the pressures building up in our society. I have made three proposals: an annual limit to immigration close to the level of emigration, a fundamental review of our membership of the ECHR, and a restriction of welfare benefits for those who have not contributed for five years. Finally and very importantly, we need more of an effort in this House and more widely in Britain, and we need to have a cool, sustained and serious debate on immigration, which has been long-promised but is long overdue.
I congratulate Mr. Soames on calling this debate. I am pleased that this Minister will be replying because he is by far and away the most impressive Minister on immigration, and shows all the signs of attempting to turn around this huge oil tanker, although those who navigate such ships tell me that it takes time.
I shall begin on a slightly discordant note. The debate on immigration is rated by constituents as one of the most important. And yet look! Although I am grateful that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is being supported by three Back-Bench Conservative Members, no Liberal Democrat Member is here to support their spokesman, Mr. Clegg. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, will be frog-marched into contributing to this debate, but no other Labour Member, besides the Minister, is present. Yet this is, for our constituents, one of the key issues that we are facing, and they think that we should represent their views more adequately.
I disagree also with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex on his very firmly fixing the culture of blame to the Government. I would throw the net wider, although he would reply, "Well, he would say that". However, I believe also that we are fighting, in the political classes, a frame of mind that is unwilling, perhaps, to suggest that it might have been mistaken in what it has prattled about for the last 30 years. Indeed, perhaps the Minister would take a message back to his Cabinet colleagues. In the statements of relief that the last bombing episode had not wrought the evil on innocent people that had been intended, Cabinet Ministers told us to be vigilant. The report back from my constituents in Birkenhead market was: "What a damned cheek that they should lecture us on vigilance!" If the political class had been a little more vigilant in the past, and responded to their regular doubts and worries about the level of immigration, we might not, they said, be listening to such statements from Cabinet Ministers. So a little less from the political leadership about those on the receiving end of that lack of vigilance from the political class would be much welcomed.
While the right hon. Gentleman is talking about political leadership, there is the small matter of deportation, which relates to immigration control. I believe that he was in the Chamber when the Home Secretary told me that, over the last two years, only nine people had been deported from this country on national security grounds. Was the right hon. Gentleman astounded by that? Does he think that that shows a failure of political leadership, given that currently almost 2,000 people are under surveillance in this country for possible terrorist activity, and that so many leave our prisons each year?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I was in the Chamber at that time, because I asked whether we would track those leaving this country to go to terror camps abroad, and prevent their re-emergence in this country. The Home Secretary's view was that the Government had not yet contemplated such a move, which I think suggested a lack of urgency that might haunt her as time goes on. But if I may, I shall return to that matter.
I am grateful, for another reason, to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex for calling this debate. I wanted to present the information that he did—I shall not repeat it—in a slightly different context. We need a debate on both our national identity and, linked to that in a horrible way, our national security. I represent a seat little affected by those early waves of Commonwealth immigration. However, it includes many vulnerable people, and many others who are not vulnerable, who feel that without any debate or consultation with them, what it means to be English and to have an English identity in this country is changing. As a political class we can of course pretend that that is not happening below the surface, but we must not be surprised if, at the end of the day, events overtake us the consequences of which might shock us. The charge against all of us, not only this one Government, is that we have remained so confident about our national identity that we feel that it does not need to be renewed.
That is the case on a macro level, but we have done the same on a micro level. We have taken it for granted that just because in the past this country was very successful in nurturing children, we do not really have to pay much attention to it in the future. Well, we jolly well need to pay attention to how we nurture children, so that they become first-class citizens and contribute to the community. Likewise, we need to think much more carefully about the very nature of Englishness or, as the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons, would prefer us to call it, "Britishness"—although most people are not fooled by that and insist on Englishness, because after all we are still the majority in this country, despite figures that we have heard.
My constituents are appalled by the way that we treat citizenship: our lack of regard, our failure to think that citizenship should be treasured and nurtured. They reject totally the dominant view among the political classes that have ruled this country for 30 or 40 years that citizenship is like a trip round the supermarket—the idea that we can pick up the bits that we want and reject those that we do not like. That is not to condemn any of those who have behaved in that way. The condemnation is against us, in that we could have acted otherwise but failed to do so. I am sometimes shocked when I hear colleagues criticising groups that have arrived here more recently for their behaviour. Given that in the past we did not care tuppence how they behaved, it seems a bit rich that we should now be getting upset about some of the ways that they present themselves visibly in our community. The debate is of course about numbers, but it is also about what it means to create and maintain a community. If the Government do not change track very smartly on this issue, the sense of national identity might be lost, and then we are in totally new territory. None of us knows what it will be like to try to govern, or what the consequences of failing to be able to govern will be.
I thought that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was modest in the figures that he gave—they do not tally with the figures that I have tried to compute in this area—but he is right to say that we are at a loss to know the precise numbers of people coming and going. One would have thought that that would be a first requirement of those who have a duty to defend our borders. The rate is certainly speeding up, as the hon. Gentleman said. In the last three years for which we have data, the number of people coming to this country is about 2 million and the number leaving is about 1 million. I do not subtract one from the other and say, "Oh, there is a net increase of only this sum." Those figures are changing the stock of people in this country. Therefore, one has to bear in mind both those forces.
In these circumstances, what might the Government do? I return to the intervention by Bob Spink: we need to regain control over our borders on a much sharper timetable than the one that the Government have announced for action on this front. We should do so with the sense of urgency that most of our constituents have. I look forward very much to hearing what the Minister says on that.
I do not exclude, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex did in opening the debate, movements from eastern Europe. I beg him to look at those figures again and not merely to mock those clever people who told us that when we opened the borders only 13,000 people would come from Poland and other countries. Poland has an honourable history of supporting us in times of need and I am not one to disregard that lightly, but with all those who do not have to register for work because they are self-employed and those who are bringing families here, we may have had, from that first wave of immigration when we opened our borders, about 1 million people coming from eastern Europe. I do not believe that is sustainable, nor do I believe the line that the apologists trot out that most people are going home, because we now know that most people are not going home. Of course, it is a huge compliment to this country that people want to come here, want to stay and want to contribute. I do not doubt any of their motives or their good intent, but I return to the question whether it is sustainable at this level.
Of course the Government could say, as the hon. Gentleman did, that we signed treaties, but we signed treaties about the free movement of people in a single market when the countries with which we were signing those treaties had similar standards of living to our own. We have now extended our borders, for good reasons but also political reasons, and it is not sustainable to have those open borders within Europe when some countries will not begin to approach our current living standards until a time when all hon. Members who contribute to this debate have long since ceased to exist in this world. The Government have to begin a conversation with our partners in Europe about whether they think, along the same lines as some of us in this debate, that the future of the European Union is an unsure one if we continue blindly to turn our eyes away from what is now a mass movement of people within Europe, as well as what the hon. Gentleman talked about, which was people coming from beyond the European borders.
That is my first plea, which links to the point that in a sense the hon. Member for Castle Point allowed me to make as a result of his intervention. We need, as a matter of urgency, to be able to trace people from this country into Europe and from Europe to the terror training camps, which are largely but not exclusively in Pakistan. Not to do so now, given the number of warnings that we have had, will reflect—let me put it euphemistically—very badly on the Government who are in power. That is my second point.
My third proposal is that we should insist that anyone coming here should speak English; that should be one of the requirements. I say that because I believe that it is crucial that people participate and, unless we do that, we are allowing people to be subjected to all sorts of evil forces to which they should not be subjected. People who cannot speak English find it very difficult indeed to escape oppression once they are here if they are also restricted not by evil people, but by a different language.
I was waiting for the right hon. Gentleman to clarify what he meant by a requirement to speak English for those coming here. Would that cover people who came here temporarily as well, or is he talking only about those who seek to settle here permanently? If he is talking about the latter, I totally agree with him. I wonder whether it is realistic to suggest that anyone who comes through the terminals of Heathrow airport should speak English.
No, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, there are different categories here and we do have a group of people who—let us put it kindly—come here for a temporary stay and decide that it is so nice that they want to stay longer than that. Of course we do not want to test people who come into Heathrow and are to leave in a few days' time, but insisting on an English language test would show how important our national identity is and is also important in terms of the way in which we wish to welcome people and our wish that they should be fully integrated into our community.
Fourthly, will the Government please become real about how immigration undermines other aspects of their policy? The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex touched on some of them. We all know that in our constituencies there are large numbers of people who, unless we radically change our approach to housing, will never, ever, ever have a decent home—and they scale down all the time what they mean by decent, given the terms of trade under which they have to barter. It is absurd for the Government to say that they are trying to increase significantly the amount of affordable housing for people here if we have an open-doors policy and are adding significantly to the number of people who, naturally, want to live in decent circumstances and whom we would wish to live in decent circumstances. There is clearly a conflict there.
There is also a conflict with the totally proper wish of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Prime Minister to take this country's skills base upmarket. If only employers would behave differently. If there is an endless supply of cheap labour—although the labour may in the workers' own countries be deemed skilled—there is no incentive whatever to try to raise the skills base in this country and match that new skills base with an increase in the capital formation. If we do not do that, this country's long-term future is doomed. There is no way that most of our younger constituents will find work over the coming decades if we do not significantly raise our game, but there will be no pressure to do so if employers have an endless supply of willing and hard-working cheap labour.
My last proposal, which takes us back to one that has already been made, is that we should be much more serious about welfare, not because we want to crack down or be unpleasant to people, but because the feeling of having contributed to the building up of certain institutions and provisions and, therefore, the feeling of owning them are part of being English, Welsh or Scottish. We are undermining one of the cornerstones of our society by allowing Tom, Dick and Harry to qualify under certain conditions—perhaps for the best reasons in the world—when others believe that one should first make a significant contribution to the community and that they have done so either as individuals or through their families. Not requiring people to make a contribution strikes against other people's sense of fairness. In the long run, those with sharper elbows will not defend the institutions that are crucial to the poorest members of our society if they feel that those who come to this country are getting as good a deal as, or a better deal than, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people who have been resident here for a long time and who—either as individuals or through their families—have contributed to those institutions.
I am grateful that we have had this debate, but I end on the note on which I began—
Before the right hon. Gentleman finishes, will he allow me to make one more point? I was waiting for him to raise one more issue, but he has not. Unless the Government and the House address the implications of immigration issues, we will see the rise of fundamentalist parties, which will fill the vacuum. [Interruption.]That would be an extremely bad thing, not only for our society, but for the excellent immigrants who come here.
Clearly, the hon. Gentleman was being prompted, but he responded very well.
I end by saying that I am appalled that the Chamber is not so full of people demanding to speak that there is standing room only. One advantage of that would have been that we would more adequately have reflected our constituents' worries and concerns, but it would also have meant that I would have had to speak much more briefly.
I, too, heartily congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Soames on securing the debate. Migration is, of course, a sign of economic success. It is also of great benefit to migrants themselves, as a recent World Bank report underlined.
As a London Member of Parliament, it is important that I contribute to the debate because London receives more than double the total amount of inward migration into the rest of the UK. It is particularly important that I contribute because the Border and Immigration Agency and the Electric house reporting centre for migrants are based in my constituency. Indeed, 40 per cent. of my casework relates to migration, and I am extremely grateful for the Minister's assiduous responses to the cases that I raise with him.
It is important that Parliament should debate this issue. In other places, the approach has been weak and pusillanimous. Colleagues will know that I am also a member of the London assembly, and it is a great criticism of that organisation that it has felt unable during its seven years to conduct a proper investigation into what is such an important issue for London and that it has decided to have only a watching brief on it.
Migration and human trafficking are also important to me as a Croydon Member of Parliament, because Croydon Community Against Trafficking is a strong campaigner in my locality on the issues of human trafficking and the local sex industry, which is driven by human trafficking. The group has done good work to identify just how high a proportion of women in Croydon's brothels are trafficked from overseas, and the figure is, indeed, 84 per cent. It also does important campaigning to raise awareness of the issue with the police and other public bodies. In addition, it is strongly campaigning to encourage the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian to remove adverts based on the sex industry and human trafficking. It is unacceptable that those newspaper groups should secure profits on the back of such activity.
Important points have been made in the debate about the implications of migration policy for housing and worklessness. Worklessness among London's indigenous population is an important issue. Where borders are relatively open in terms of migration, the combination of benefits payments and poor training among the indigenous population means that it is almost economically logical for others to be drawn into the London economy to provide the skills that are not available. That can lead to those in areas of great under-privilege becoming significantly resentful of the approach taken by those of us in the political classes, as Mr. Field stated, and there is a great danger that we will be unable to engage properly on this issue or to give voice to it.
As a candidate in the last general election, I referred to the London plan and the recognition that housing pressures exist as a result of migration. I was concerned that that should have resulted in a complaint by my political opponent and that I should be spoken to by the local police service about the matter. When authorities make such directions to prevent mainstream politicians from having a reasonable, studied and careful debate about migration, that is an invitation to electors to support parties of the far right. That is why it is so useful and such good news that my hon. Friend has secured this debate.
Obviously, it is important for us to work with our European partners to deal with migration. It is good news that the European Union tries to discourage migration from outside the EU by opening up our markets to those in, for example, the Maghreb. In that way, we are likely to be able to ensure that incentives to migrate to the EU are reduced. It is also good news that there are EU initiatives on education and work and on encouraging the return of illegal migrants to outside the EU. However, I am glad that the Government are sceptical about giving up unilateral control over our own borders.
It is also important to recognise the significance of English, which my hon. Friend Bob Spink raised in his intervention. There are real concerns about the effective integration of migrants into British society, given that support for English language training is being reduced for speakers of other languages. Such reductions are entirely counterintuitive, although I understand just how strong the demands on the service are. None the less, those reductions are themselves a reflection of the way in which there has been a loss of control over the numbers coming into the UK.
I strongly agree that it is time for us to consider constructively reducing the flows of migrants into the United Kingdom. Perhaps what is happening is the result of economic success; but economies go up and down, and it is quite reasonable for us, in our national interest, to be able to feel that we have some control over the amount of immigration into our country, and that that should be in the interest of our constituents.
More than a third of the present population of London were born outside the United Kingdom. It strikes me that the Government should have a view on what the percentage should be: does the Minister take the view that it should be the majority? The question whether the majority of residents of our capital city should have been born outside the UK strikes me as a fundamental aspect of public policy. It is important for us to regain control over our borders and reduce the rate of migration into the United Kingdom.
I congratulate Mr. Soames on securing the debate. He may be surprised to learn that I agree with quite a lot of his analysis, although I do not share some of his conclusions. To highlight the fact that there has been a quantitative shift in the scale of immigration into the United Kingdom, with massive knock-on effects on the public policy debate, seems to me to be stating the obvious. Other right hon. and hon. Members have claimed that the political class as a whole has been living in denial of that fact, and I certainly join them in that view and acknowledge that when the facts around us change as radically as they have done a political response is required.
I shall repeat some of the facts that underline my point: global migration has increased dramatically in the past 20 years and there are now 191 million people living in a country other than the one where they were born; 7.5 per cent. of the British population were born abroad; net immigration has risen exponentially since the mid-1990s to reach about 185,000 in 2005 alone, which is the equivalent of about 500 more people a day; we have heard figures suggesting that up to 600,000 workers have come from the new EU member states, although we do not yet know quite how many have returned; and just over 32 million overseas visitors came to Britain in the year to April 2007, which is twice as many as 20 years ago. Infamously, the Home Office has estimated that there are anything between 300,000 and about 600,000 irregular or illegal immigrants living in the United Kingdom. The sheer scale of what I have described is striking and new and has had a dramatic effect on public opinion. We know, from one opinion poll after another, that the salience of the issue of immigration is now far greater than it has been for a generation.
I accept, therefore, that a major public policy challenge exists. However, I do not share the three-point conclusions that the hon. Gentleman reached. I have never heard anyone explain—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleague will do so—how to turn immigration on and off like a tap and pull up the drawbridge for the nth new immigrant who arrives beyond the quotas unilaterally set by the Government of the day. I simply do not see how that is practicable. Equally, I understand that the perceived constraints placed by the European convention on human rights on the deportation of a very small number of individuals to countries where, let us remember, the relevant concern is that they will be tortured, is a raging preoccupation for many Conservative Members; however, given that the constraint applies, if at all, to a tiny handful of people, it is irrelevant to the issue of large-scale economic immigration to the United Kingdom.
There is a good and legitimate debate to be had about the restriction of benefits; as to some of the premises of that debate, about making distinctions between the benefits for those who have contributed to the system over a lifetime, and the benefits for those who have not, the issue may develop into how to determine the appropriate period of time to qualify a person for full benefits. It should be borne in mind—the Minister may be able to elaborate on this point—that qualification for or entitlement to benefits is already much more restricted than many people, I think, imagine, certainly for non-EU citizens.
Having said all that, it is worth recalling that there are still more British citizens living abroad than non-UK nationals living in this country. If people with second homes who spend a significant part of every year abroad are taken into account we are talking about nearly one in 10 of the British population living abroad permanently or for part of the time; it is a two-way process. One of the dangers of the kind of political debate that we could have about this subject, framed purely in terms of the threat that large-scale immigration poses, is that we may remain oblivious to the fact that British citizens benefit enormously from the mobility that now exists, particularly in the European Union. We would not want to deprive British citizens of that freedom, so we should not lightly deprive others of it.
The hon. Gentleman is noted for having an optimistic view of events; I have a slightly pessimistic one. Does he not also think that the growing number of people leaving these shores to live abroad are doing so because they are appalled by what is happening to their mother country?
No. I do not share for a minute the idea that a Victor Meldrew-style disgust is leading to that outflow of people. It has been much to our credit that we are a people who have for decades—for centuries—travelled and lived abroad. We are an outward-looking, travelling and explorative nation, and that is a good thing. Perhaps issues such as climate weigh heavily with the large numbers of pensioners who seek sunnier climes in their retirement. I do not subscribe to the right hon. Gentleman's enormously pessimistic view, but I have sympathy with him as a sufferer from it.
Perhaps I may take up a specific point with the right hon. Gentleman. He talked, and I agree, about the need for a debate about what it is to be British, or, more specifically, English. I could not agree more and I think that the challenges posed by large-scale immigration also throw up important questions about identity and integration and the values around which identity and integration are organised. I still happen to think, however, that openness to the outside world, tolerance towards others, acceptance of diversity, and an acknowledgement of the economic benefits brought about by economic immigration are part and parcel of a liberal identity that I cherish. It would be a crying shame if in our response to the new facts we were to throw the baby out with the bath water and not acknowledge that a liberal attitude to immigration is integral to what it is to be British.
Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I want to probe further. Does he believe that that identity itself might lose out, given the current scale of immigration? Is it his view that we can and should do nothing to try to restrict it; that our means may be feeble but we should at least show the political will to do so; or that it is totally unimportant?
No, I do not believe that it is a process of policy neglect or that the response should be a throwing up of the hands and to take a laissez-faire approach. I do not suggest that we should simply allow large-scale immigration to take its natural course in an unmanaged fashion—quite the reverse. If any kind of halting consensus is emerging in this political debate, it is that, given the sheer scale of inward immigration, we must ensure that it is managed. I freely acknowledge that unmanaged immigration can have negative consequences, not only for the immigrants, who may be subject to illegal trafficking, criminality and discrimination, but to the anxieties, fears and, sometimes, prejudices, of the host nation. That brings me to the latter part of my comments and some of my questions for the Minister. How should we manage the process and ensure that immigration on that scale is a positive and managed process and not an uncontrolled, unmanaged and negative process?
I thought that we were agreeing, but then the hon. Gentleman tucked into his last sentence his acceptance of immigration on that scale. Does he believe that we should try to reduce the current scale of immigration or not?
There are perfectly legitimate circumstances in which we should refuse to allow certain people into this country for stated reasons. If I am a pessimist, it is in this respect: I have not yet heard of a system that is sufficient in its watertight rigour to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests and somehow set an arbitrary limit and then pull up the drawbridge at the Dover coast. I challenge him to explain exactly how he would do that. We are dealing with a global phenomenon of a mass movement of people across borders, which is altogether more complex, but that process can be managed if we have an efficient, fair and effective system. My criticism of the Government is to ask why it has taken them 10 years to introduce a points-based system and the Border and Immigration Agency—steps that I welcome. Why do they propose not to reintroduce the exit controls that were abolished in 1994, so that we at least know who comes in and goes out, until 2014? That seems a lackadaisical approach.
May I finish these points before we descend into a bilateral debate?
Why do the Government still refuse to accept the case that has been made by both Opposition parties for a properly resourced and integrated border force? The Minister and I have argued across the Floor of the House many times about the virtues and vices of identity cards. Does he seriously believe that they will provide a panacea to all our ills when it comes to managing immigration? Does he accept that if there are, by his own estimation, up to 600,000 people living illegally in this country, even if we had the best controls and the tightest identity checks on the planet, we would risk driving an increasing number of people out of sight and out of mind altogether?
I come to a point that the hon. Gentleman made: if we are to manage the process properly, we need to plan for the effects of inward immigration. Much has rightly been said about the foot-dragging with which the Government have responded to the massive housing crisis, and I am curious to hear the Minister's responses to the points that have been put to him about whether the new Prime Minister's latest plans will be sufficient to deal with the long-term demand for housing.
I return to the legacy of the large numbers of people living invisibly and illegally in this country. What are we to do about them? The Conservative proposal that we should somehow deport those 600,000 people is utterly fanciful. Is it not time for us all to accept that as part of a more honest, candid and straightforward management of the process, we must find some way of creating a route, not an amnesty, by which earned regularisation is introduced? Will the Government consider urgently what local authorities tell us—that in areas with large numbers of new immigrants, the Government funding formula for local government simply does not reflect their particular needs? Indeed, there is a time lag of about three years between such demands being placed on local authorities and the resources being provided to them by the Government.
I know that others wish to speak, so I shall make my final points. The issue of how to promote integration as well as immigration is all important. I agree with much that has been said about the need to tighten the requirements on proficiency in the English language. As Mr. Pelling said, it is clearly contradictory to advocate that at the same time as cutting resources for English language learning. It might be time to revisit the "Life in the United Kingdom" test that is applied to people who seek to settle permanently in this country. Perhaps it should be extended to those who apply for long-term visas. The test could be made more practical so that those people are given more practical guidance on how to live in this country rather than being stuffed full of historical facts that might not be relevant to their everyday needs.
Finally, will the Minister reconsider the way in which the money raised from work permit fees is used? Perhaps it could be recycled to provide training to British workers who feel that their sectors are under particular pressure from an influx of workers from elsewhere. I understand that a UK work permit currently costs the employer £200 in comparison with the cost in the United States of just under $2,000. Does the Minister think that there is a case for increasing the cost of work permits, so that a fund can be created to retrain those who might be economically affected by the scale of inward economic immigration?
My hon. Friend Mr. Soames should be congratulated not only in the conventional manner on securing the debate, but on the tone in which he addressed the serious issues that he raised. Those few of us who are present agree on the importance of this issue and, I am sure, agree that mainstream politicians need to address it in a tone that is calm, moderate and fact-based. Two extremes too often intrude on this debate—hysteria, bordering on racism, and sentimentality— neither of which gives rise to good policy, so the tone is important, as is content.
My hon. Friend's remarks were full of interesting content, much of which I completely agreed with, and parts of which I did not. I shall address all those points, but first I shall address the comments by Mr. Field about the importance of the debate, on which he was half right. Where he was wrong gives rise to an important lesson. He was right to say that the issue is hugely important and that there is a feeling out there that mainstream politicians do not address it enough, but he was wrong to say that for a generation—I think he said 30 or 40 years—it has not been addressed as much as people would have liked. There have been periods in which immigration has been hugely salient as a political issue, of which now is one, and periods when it has not. It was hugely salient in the '60s and early '70s, but not in the '80s and '90s, because the general public thought that immigration was under control in those years and was therefore a problem at least temporarily parked if not solved. Therefore, people did not have the anxiety about it in the '80s and '90s that they had in the '50s, '60s and '70s and have now.
That brings me to my first point—numbers matter. One of the most absurd things that the Minister's predecessor did was to accuse me, in my early months of shadowing his job, of playing the numbers game. Immigration is essentially a numbers game; numbers absolutely matter in this field as much as they do in welfare and economic policy. That kind of unthinking response to the debate on immigration has given rise to a lack of public confidence. Therefore, Conservatives seek proper control of the numbers as the absolute basis for restoring public confidence in the immigration system. That confidence has been completely lost.
The Minister made a good point earlier this year when he said that immigration makes Britain richer, but that it has also unsettled the country. He went on to say:
"The political risk for any government is that if you fail to solve this paradox you could lose your job."
My contention is that the Government have failed to solve the paradox, but the Minister is still in post. I am sure that delights him—at least it means that we have somebody sensible tackling this paradox.
I will now turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex. The rate of change matters. Changes in the global economy—or globalisation as we glibly call it—have had some effect, but what is often not addressed is how many of those changes will stay. There is an intellectual current growing that says that most of the people who are coming to the UK, particularly from other parts of the European Union, are coming for a short time. The truth is that we do not know whether that is the case.
The evidence is that an increasing proportion of those people are deciding to stay. In the early months of the arrival of those from the A8 countries, particularly from Poland, about 20 per cent. of them said that they intended to stay permanently. If the same question was asked now, the figure would have gone up to about 25 per cent. That is intuitively plausible; as people live here, they will form relationships, come to like this country and will say, "Perhaps I will spend much of my life here." We must presume that a smaller proportion will go home than the Government assumed.
We need to look at some of the knock-on effects. The head of the national organisation of Poles in this country has told me that it is now impossible to get a Polish plumber in Warsaw. There are now so many in western Europe that when someone calls for a plumber in Warsaw, they end up with a Romanian, Bulgarian or Ukrainian. Therefore, we must look at our wider obligations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex did not just talk about the issue—he gave policy suggestions. He talked about benefits. I will leave the Minister to answer that issue in detail. The important point is that the public at large have very little understanding of the difference between contributory and non-contributory benefits. If people think that large numbers are gaining access to benefits that they feel they receive because they have been contributing to them for many years, a sense of unfairness will arise. That in itself would be very damaging for community cohesion, so it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that that sense of unfairness is mitigated in every way possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex talked about the European Court of Human Rights. He will be aware, and I am happy to confirm, that my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron has said that he seeks a reappraisal of human rights legislation. The Conservative party is considering whether a British Bill of Rights might be a more appropriate way to proceed in a world that has changed in the half a century since the ECHR was created. We seek no diminution in what all of us would recognise as human rights. We would like those rights set in a more appropriate context for a vastly different and fast-changing world in the 21st century.
Mr. Clegg said he thought that that was irrelevant to mass immigration because it affected only a very few people. It may affect only a few people, but some of those people may be very important in the life of this country—they may be serious terrorists. Even if one person whom the British authorities regard as a threat to the safety of life in this country cannot be deported, that would cause a huge lack of confidence in the immigration system more widely and the system that surrounds it. That is why the issue is important, even if the numbers affected are not very large.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said that he effectively wanted to manage this down to zero net immigration, but I must part company with him as I do not see the magic in that. If the economy benefits from immigration, rationally we should seek a level of immigration that maximises the benefit. At the same time, we should recognise that there will be strains on infrastructure and so on—he mentioned that—and thus we should seek an optimal level. It is not clear that the optimal level will be zero every year. There may be perverse periods—for example, if the economy went into recession for several years—that might increase the amount of emigration. At such a stage, it would seem perverse if that in itself permitted a higher degree of immigration when the labour market would be least able to provide jobs for new immigrants.
Although I do not agree on the zero net figure, I agree with my hon. Friend that we need an explicit limit. He, like other hon. Members, will be aware that the Conservative party advocates an explicit limit. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said that he does not see how that could work—I can suggest only that he gets out more, because it works in other countries. Many other countries have such a system and it works perfectly well. There is a greater level of public confidence in their immigration systems than exists in this country. Our proposition is that there should be an explicit limit every year, taking into account the social and cohesion factors, the ability of the public infrastructure to cope and the needs of the economy at the time.
We would expect the current limit to be substantially less than the present level of immigration, because we observe all the strains and stresses that have been mentioned today and see that in certain parts of the country the public infrastructure simply cannot cope. We advocate extending the Government's points-based system so that we are trying to accept only people who are economically beneficial. On top of that there needs to be an explicit limit, because without one the points-based system will be meaningless; it will not increase public confidence or do what is necessary to ensure the radical change that we need.
All the points that colleagues from all parties have made about better enforcement are true. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that we need proper border police. As he knows, we have a commission examining that. It is chaired by one of the Government's own security advisers, so we hope that eventually we shall tease the Government on to our ground on that matter.
In conclusion, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex that there is a better way than the current system. It entails more control, better border policing and tighter criteria. It will mean not only a more manageable immigration system, but greater community cohesion, as the capacity to absorb new arrivals in this country is taken seriously for the first time. He will have to wait for its introduction, but I promise him that it will arrive one day.
This may be the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and it is a privilege to do so. I echo the congratulations given by hon. Members from all parties to Mr. Soames on securing this debate. Its content and tenor illustrate that this House can debate this in an intellectually sensible and important way. I back his call for more of this kind of debate in the House. My right hon. Friend Mr. Field put it well: this is an extremely important matter for our constituents and it needs to be debated more. I understand that immigration is not on Steve Hilton's prescribed list of topics for general debate by Conservative Members and realise that that has led to a bit of a vacuum, so I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has sought to step into the breach. I want to sketch out a few points of agreement and a few points where a little more debate may be needed. On a large amount of the policy, there is now a degree of consensus that we have not had before..
I shall start by reflecting on numbers, because that is precisely where the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex started and it is the right place for the debate to begin. It is true that the level of immigration to this country has changed over the past 10 years, and that European economic area nationals have increased—there were around 145,000 in 2005. The number of work permit holders has doubled, rather than tripled, up to 137,000. The point is that underneath that movement of people there is a degree of consensus that is worth sketching out. We agree that we should phase out low-skilled migration from outside Europe. We have introduced controls on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals coming to this country, and for the lifetime of that policy we shall phase out low-skilled migration from outside Europe. That is a matter on which we agree.
There is now a degree of consensus on refugees. In 2005, the Conservative party said:
"We will set an overall annual limit on the numbers coming to Britain, including a fixed quota for the number of asylum seekers we accept."
"We will be looking at that again, and seeing what controls on asylum seekers are needed."
There is a degree of consensus on the level of EU migration. It does not include my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, but the position that both sides of the House have settled on is that we should accept free movement of people inside Europe. When the free movement of persons directive was laid on
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex referred to work permits. There has been an increase in the number issued, but 25 per cent. were for those in the health and medical services and 17 per cent. for IT workers. There is a sense that the increase in the number of work permits has been driven by changing patterns of economic growth. When we tightened some of the rules on work permits, there was a debate because many people thought that that was wrong. The hon. Member for Ashford wrote to me on
As a courtesy to other hon. Members, I will not give way because of the number of points to which I must respond.
There was one disappointment in what was otherwise an excellent peroration by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. He was absolutely right to put the debate in an historical context, but it was not set in the context of changes in the world today. That point was picked up by Mr. Clegg. When there are sharp bursts of increased independence, as during the past 200 years of economic change, there are big movements of people. That was true in the late 19th century and it has been true since the 1980s. The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that global migration has doubled since the 1960s. The annual rate of change began to increase sharply from the late 1980s but, crucially, it was at the beginning of the 1990s that, for the first time, the majority of global migrants moved to developed countries rather than to developing countries. That has affected not just the United Kingdom, but all industrial economies around the world.
Between 1990 and 2005, the United States gained 15 million migrants, and Spain and Germany both gained around 4 million migrants. That is in sharp contrast with the 1.6 migrants who have moved in and out of the UK. Italy's net immigration rate today is around three times higher than that in the UK. The pattern of the debate has changed over the past decade, but that is because the world is changing.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex for making, for the first time, some practical proposals for how an immigration limit could be introduced. That has been talked about on the Opposition Benches for some time and finally we have heard one practical way of doing that. There was a degree of support, and difference of opinion, in the Chamber this morning, but finally we have had a practical solution. I do not think the hon. Gentleman proposes a cap on the number of refugees as part of that limit, which is a change on the Conservative Benches. If the cap does not include EU migration, it may not be the cap that he thinks because around 48 per cent. of the UK's net migration is from within Europe. However, it was good to hear some practical proposals at last.
Our proposals are obviously different, and we are beginning the countdown to the points system, under which only people whom Britain needs will be able to come to work and study in this country. The system will be introduced in the new year, but with any new points system the important question is, "How many points should someone need to be able to work and study in the UK?" I have said repeatedly that we need a far more open and intelligent debate about what immigration is good for Britain and what is not. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that the media must be part of that debate. I am sure that many hon. Members have had debates with colleagues in the media and—dare I say it?—the BBC where there is a sense that the matter is difficult to talk about and that it would be better not to. That attitude must go, and we must debate the matter more openly. It is not racist to talk about immigration, because this is the real world.
When we set the number of points that people need to come to Britain, we should have a debate that includes a much more open discussion of the evidence, which is why we propose to set up the migration advisory committee. It will be in place at the end of the year, and will advise transparently on where immigration is needed in the economy, and where it is not needed. Alongside that, it is not sufficient to set immigration policy simply with an eye on the economy. We must consider what is going on in Britain as a whole, and we are establishing the migration impact forum to take account of the wider evidence of social and other impacts of immigration on British life before setting the points threshold. I am grateful to members of the forum, which met for the first time a few weeks ago and will meet again to begin discussion in earnest after the recess.
When that policy is set, it will be critical that it is enforced effectively. I reject the calls of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for regularisation, which would be an amnesty in any other name and would put illegal immigrants at the front of the jobs queue when they should leave the country. It would send the wrong signal, and we should reject it.
We have set out measures with which to increase enforcement of the rules. That includes establishing stronger border controls not just in this country, but abroad to keep the problem of illegal immigration as far from our shores as possible. That is why we are introducing systems that will track people in and out. We shall count the majority of passengers in and out by 2009, but the same systems will allow us to increase screening of migrants before they get on a plane, train or boat and before they come anywhere near our shores.
The technology that we have put in place is already beginning to work. We have made progress with biometric visas, and have already found 4,000 people who had applied for a visa to come to Britain but who were misleading us about their identity. Passenger screening systems have found around 1,000 people who were subsequently arrested at airports. That sort of technology will be vital in strengthening future border security. It must be used alongside the new powers in the UK Borders Bill which will be important in strengthening future enforcement.
I want to reflect on Britishness. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex that we must have that debate in earnest in the months to come. There must be a stronger relationship between what new citizens get and what they give. Exploring whether English should be required before permanent entry is important, and I hope that when we publish that consultation it will receive wide support.