Immigration — [Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee 3:13 pm, 9th July 2015

It is a huge pleasure after all these years to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Alan, given that we were elected to the House together and that we both represent the east midlands.

As I said in my intervention, I congratulate Mr Turner on securing the debate. It is extremely important that the House discusses immigration. We should not be afraid to do so and we should do it openly and transparently. It was good to hear his thoughts about this important subject. After the economy, immigration is the second or third most important issue in all the opinion polls. If we do not discuss it openly and transparently in the House, others will discuss it outside and accuse us of being afraid to do so.

Let me also say how pleased I am that some things never change. Before the election, the Minister was the Minister for Immigration; the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Hanson, was the shadow Minister for Immigration; and I was the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee—it seems that nothing changes in this place. I congratulate both on their reappointments, and particularly the Minister, who has been the Immigration Minister for five years. It is rare that an Immigration Minister comes back after a general election, but he was obviously doing something that impressed the Prime Minister, so congratulations to him on being back.

Among other colleagues, I am also pleased to see Stuart C. McDonald, who is the newest member of the Home Affairs Committee. His membership is just a few hours old, because the names of the Committee’s members went through the House only at 7 pm last night. As a former immigration solicitor, he will, I am sure, make a huge contribution to the Committee’s work.

I wanted to take part in the debate to remind the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, and the House, that the Committee takes a keen interest in immigration. Even though immigration policy is a hot and controversial subject, we have made it our business to ensure that at least a quarter of our work looks at it. Given the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised, I want briefly to set out those we intend to look at, and I hope he will be pleased to hear that Parliament, through the Committee, is eager to explore them all carefully.

Indeed, the Committee’s first evidence session will take place next Tuesday, even though the names of its members went before the House only yesterday. Our first star and principal witness is the Minister for Immigration. One issue we will look at immediately is Calais. I was there last Saturday, when I saw for myself the sense of crisis gripping the town. During my trip, I also saw the worry that is felt by many people, including those who run Eurotunnel, those involved in the road haulage industry, the police and the people of Kent.

My sympathy is also with the people of Calais. They did not ask to have a large number of migrants, but those migrants are there, and they have just one ambition: to cross the channel and to live and work in the United Kingdom. Nobody mentioned the Isle of Wight to me, so the hon. Gentleman does not need to be quite so worried. However, all the migrants said they were in Calais to come to this country. The authorities there believe they are coming here to participate in our generous benefits system, so, in the few conversations I had with migrants, I told them they were in for a shock—and that, of course, was before yesterday’s Budget.

These are important issues. Illegal migration is partly to do with economic migration, but it is also to do with people being desperate to escape the conflicts in the middle east. A week before going to Calais, I was in Rome because another issue that will confront the Committee, and into which we will shortly announce an inquiry, is the migration crisis gripping the Mediterranean. People are prepared to risk dying in the Mediterranean to get from north Africa to mainland Europe, but the members of the European Union seem unable to act together to deal with this serious problem.

In the migrants’ camp in Rome, which is just near the main railway station, I met Ali, who told me he had paid $5,000 to a person who trafficked him from Eritrea right across north Africa to Libya, where he was put on a boat at gunpoint. Even though he had paid the money, he did not want to get into that particular boat, but he was forced. The boat went to Lampedusa, and Ali eventually ended up in Rome. Criminal gangs operating in north Africa are forcing people at gunpoint to put their lives at risk. People have a choice: they either try to cross the Mediterranean, and perhaps die there, or they stay in north Africa and get shot by the people traffickers. What they are clear about is that they do not want to stay in their countries, because their countries are ravaged by war.

There is not a simple answer to the question how we are to deal with the issue. It is not as simple as saying, “We just don’t let them in,” because the fact is once they arrive at Calais people will do everything they can to get to Britain. I saw the footage of 150 migrants who ran across the tracks to get into freight lorries as they set out at the channel tunnel. I heard, as I am sure other Members of the House did, about the young man who died only two days ago while jumping on to a freight train as it left Coquelles. I heard about the 14 individuals found in a refrigerated container, who had made the journey from Somalia—some had come from Nigeria and some from Afghanistan. They were about to set off from Calais when someone shouted “Hurray!” because they heard the train moving. It was stopped and the container was opened, and those 14 people were found. They had been given a few coats, but some of them clearly would not have made it through their journey across the channel because it was so cold in there.

Those are true stories, about real people. Parliament, with our commitment to a fair and firm immigration policy, but also with our international obligations, needs to find the right balance, and those with the responsibility to stop illegal migration need to take on that responsibility. I firmly believe that we can do that only with the support of the countries of the Maghreb. The Home Secretary announced a taskforce. When I was in Rome, I was informed that that would begin only in November, because several agencies were being brought together. By the time it is put together I am afraid the people traffickers—the criminal gangs—will have found another way. According to the Greek authorities the passage for Syrians is through the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos into mainland Greece. The United Nations gave me the figure that 60% of those who travel from Syria into Kos have university education. They pay to go there because they want to flee the dangers of Syria.

We also need to realise that we should be careful with our foreign policy. We are very good at phase 1 but pretty awful at phase 2. Phase 1 was to get rid of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. However, 92% of the people who cross the Mediterranean—there were 170,000 last year—crossed through Libya. There is no stable Government there, so applications cannot even be processed before people leave. I know that people require simple answers to the humanitarian crisis and the immigration system. We would all like simple answers but it is very complicated.

The solutions that UKIP comes forward with are simplistic and in many cases nonsense. They cannot be put into effect.

The second area that the Select Committee will look at is legal migration. One of the issues is that we try to stop illegals coming in, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. I do not know whether the Mayor of London has changed his view since giving his estimates when he last spoke on the subject, but he said that half a million illegal migrants were working and living in London and he was in favour—a few years ago—of an amnesty to allow them the right to remain in this country. However, when legal routes are cut off, people tend to come here illegally. Mark Field has been open, transparent and articulate in talking about the importance of legal migration to this country.

The Committee will consider skills shortages. If the hon. Member for Isle of Wight goes to his high street and speaks to the owners of south Asian restaurants, he will hear complaints about their inability to get specialist chefs into the country. At the conference of the Royal College of Nursing there were complaints that, because of the Government’s policy on skills and the tiers of the immigration rules, nurses would not be able to come. The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the people who have come to contribute to this country as my parents and the parents of other first-generation immigrants did. The fact is that cutting off the legal route and making it more difficult leads to people finding other routes to come in. I am all for ensuring that the legal routes are robust, but they should also be fair.

That is relevant to our policy on students. The Minister will say that we always attract the best and brightest, but all Ministers say that. Why would we want people who were not? Why would we want to encourage people who were stupid, and who were not the best—who were the worst? All Ministers have said the same for my 28 years in the House. I am afraid that as a result of the student policy, the number of students coming from India has declined considerably, even though the number of Chinese students has increased.