[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair] — Immigration

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:36 am on 17th July 2007.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:36 am, 17th July 2007

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.