[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair] — Population and Immigration

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:46 am on 2nd February 2010.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 9:46 am, 2nd February 2010

I am grateful for all interventions, but particularly for the one just made by my hon. Friend. By allowing large numbers of unskilled labourers into this country, our immigration policy has fed the habit and weakness of British industry, which as a result has not taken labour upmarket and has not put a premium on high skills. All those crucial decisions for our economic future were put off because there was an endless supply of people; that not only meant low wages, but helped to beat down wages. It is those at the very bottom of the pile, who have had to bear the brunt of this wonderful, open competition, whom I wish to champion in this debate-to some extent, at least; it is not only they who concern me.

The third failure caused by our not getting to grips earlier with the number of people wishing to come here to work is that welfare reform was made even more difficult to accomplish; indeed, one might say that it was made impossible. Since 1997, more than 3 million additional jobs have been created, but the number of workless people of working age has fallen only from 5.6 million to 5.2 million. Given how the economy was expanding, it could not have been a better time to have pushed through welfare reform with a process of tough love, but we failed to grasp the opportunity; it was impossible to grasp it because of our immigration policy.

I hope that we shall hear what the political parties wish to put in their manifestos. The all-party group on balanced migration believes that it is necessary for all three parties to subscribe to two main proposals if we are to reassure the electorate that, late in the day, we are getting a grip on the number of people coming here. The first is that we need not only a cap, and some idea of the numbers that we think can come here to work and be assimilated, but a points system-the Government have decided to use one-as a way of rationing who should fill those places.

The second proposal is to break the link between coming here to work and almost automatically becoming citizens. In other words, we should welcome the proposals now being considered by the Government that people can come here perhaps for four years and then return home. That would be an advantage to them and certainly to the British economy. The idea that working here should automatically lead to citizenship has led to the long-term growth in population, as have the changes in the birth rate mentioned by my friend, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex.

My last point is not to do with the all-party group on balanced migration. I wish to speak about something that I believe will come to dominate the next Parliament-the free movement of labour in Europe. We are now seeing the limits of and the strains caused by the free movement of capital. Perhaps before the general election, we will see the inner cabinet of Europe having to preserve their currency by taking over the main negotiations on Greek debt.

We are in an age that was never envisaged by those who told us that it would be good for us to sign up to the single currency. I pose a question. We hear all sorts of soft talk about countries such as Turkey gaining admittance to the European Community. Having free movement of labour among a group of western European countries that, generally speaking, have the same standard of living is a totally different proposition from having free movement of labour in a European Union where the standards of living are hugely different-so diverse that it is difficult to put the matter in arithmetical terms.

Although we would not expect the matter to feature in the coming election campaign, those who are lucky enough to be returned by the voters will need seriously to consider it. We should not do so under the guise of trying to attack the EU. Those who are sceptical-and those who are friends of the EU-need to look at whether a policy of endlessly increasing the borders of Europe will allow the free movement of labour that was envisaged in those early days, when there were only six core countries with similar standards of living.

Let me end by reading out the results of an immigration survey that is to be released tomorrow by the Townswomen's Guild, which has become concerned about the issue. Members will know that Townswomen's Guilds were established to reach those parts of the country that the Women's Institute did not touch, although now both organisations have much more of a joint membership.

The Townswomen's Guild asked its members what the levels of immigration should be in this country. I have to confess to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex that the results do not totally support the position of the all-party group on balanced migration, which is anxious to get policy commitments from all three parties that will prevent the population rising above 70 million. Only 17 per cent. of a record number of members of the Townswomen's Guild who responded to the questionnaire thought that that was a satisfactory position. Nearly 80 per cent. sought a much greater reduction. More than 50 per cent. wanted no net migration and nearly 29 per cent. wanted no immigration whatever.

The membership of the Townswomen's Guilds are part of the backbone of England. If we, as politicians who have represented such groups during this Parliament and hope to do so in the next Parliament, do not take seriously such a message, the game is well and truly up for democracy.