24 April 2008
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I have paid tribute to the fact that the Minister has been all over the country meeting communities. What message has he received from them about the points-based system?
Mr. Byrne: My right hon. Friend knows that I have the privilege of representing a constituency whose population is about 50 per cent. Pakistani. The messages that I have received in my meetings all over the country are very similar to those that I have received from my constituents for some time. That message is that people want the immigration system to change and our border security system to be toughened. However, people do not want us to cut ourselves adrift from the rest of the world and somehow seal the borders.
People think that immigration has a vital contribution to make to our economy and future place in the world, but they want the system to be carefully controlled and carefully balanced. People want us to put an analysis of migration’s impact on wider public services alongside the economic benefits that immigration can have, and to strike the right balance. However, we should be absolutely clear that theory and evidence both point to the positive contribution of migration to wealth, including wealth per capita.
Keith Vaz: I asked the hon. Gentleman this yesterday in a different forum, but will he tell the House what exactly is the level of the cap that the Conservative party is suggesting?
Damian Green: The Minister has been making that point repeatedly, and it took particular chutzpah for him to do so again today in the same speech that he refused to commit himself about whether he would let in any restaurant chefs—or, if so, what number. He must take that decision in the next few months after proper analysis, yet he and the right hon. Gentleman are asking me to say what our cap would be in, I assume, 2010. Of course, we will need to do the analysis before then. It would be ridiculous to give a figure now.
The number will be substantially lower than the net figure of about 200,000, which has subsisted for the past five years. Since the Minister will not give us a figure for a small sector of the economy, about which he must decide in the next two months, he in particular has no right to ask questions about a number that will be two years out of date. That is the equivalent of asking people to give Budget figures two years beforehand
Keith Vaz: As the hon. Gentleman is citing reports, I wonder whether he has had a chance to examine the Work Foundation report published this morning, which points to the success of migration and to the fact that high levels of immigration have helped our economy, and have kept interest rates and inflation down. Those facts were not analysed sufficiently by the House of Lords Committee.
Damian Green: We can all reach for our favourite ports, but I am quite happy to be on the same side as Professor Richard Layard, Adair Turner, Lord Moonie and many others, some of whom are right hon. and hon. colleagues of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz).
I shall make my position and that of the Conservative party clear to the right hon. Gentleman: immigration has benefited and does benefit this country, both economically and culturally. To ensure that we capture the benefits of immigration for those who are already here and for those who wish to come here, we need to ensure that the immigration system is under proper control and that immigration is at a level at which the population and our public services can be comfortable. It is wrong that the Government have failed to do that for the past 10 years.
Keith Vaz: I am pleased to hear that. Whatever the kitchen, we do not have a problem. I invite the Minister to come to hear the language of the kitchen, whether Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, Lebanese—I cannot go through the whole list. I simply encourage him to go somewhere to see what it is like.
The highly skilled migrant programme victory was the right decision. I do not say that simply because it was made by a distinguished High Court judge, Sir George Newman. I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford that retrospective law is not good law. I do not know whether the Government will appeal against the decision, but I have many constituents, as do several other hon. Members—I note that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who intervened earlier, had a similar problem with a constituent—who are affected.
The Minister conducted a meeting with me last year at which he heard concerns about the 49,000 people who came here on the highly skilled migrant programme. We understand why the Government have to intervene in immigration law—we live on a small island and we cannot have unlimited immigration—but such intervention should always be fair and just, and not retrospective. I have been a Member of Parliament for 21 years. Every year, there has been an immigration Bill and new immigration rules. I know that the Minister grasps the issues—more than others do, to be frank. The key is not to keep changing the law and creating uncertainty. Let us consider the consequences.
Like the hon. Member for Ashford, I accept the points-based system in principle, subject to the inquiry that the Select Committee will tackle. However, the Minister should know that, last year, a delegation went to see his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who invented the points-based system—I do not blame the Minister for that—and pointed out precisely what would happen. We now have a chance to re-examine the process. I hope very much that the Minister will use this debate in his deliberations. I recognise his sincerity and the integrity with which he has held office. However, I urge him not to pass laws just because they help the Government’s case with the tabloid press, but to pass good and just laws that will not have an effect on the very communities on whom we, the settled community, rely and whose livelihoods are now at stake.
Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). He made a number of good points and reminded the House, for the first time in this debate, of the rather shameful anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and of how, because of the tolerance in this country, he was comprehensively wrong about the results of the policy about which he was complaining. He was also right on enforcement and absolutely right to remind the Minister of the importance of rights of appeal and due process, which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches thoroughly support.
We broadly welcome the points-based immigration system, as it will simplify the mess of different immigration schemes, which is all to the good. We also hope—although we do not yet trust—that the system will dramatically improve what can only be described as the chaos of the current arrangements. The increased public concern over immigration reflects a lack of confidence that the Government know what they want, understand what they are doing or are delivering what people in this country need.
The most damning example of that chaos was the decision, made also by Ireland and Sweden, to allow immigration from the new member states of the European Union after 2004. The Liberal Democrats supported that decision on the basis of the Government’s projections that immigration would be 13,000 people a year. In other words, on the Government’s projections, immigration from the eight accession states would total some 52,000 to the end of last year. However, we now know that actual immigration has totalled 766,000.
Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is a Member whom I respect on such issues, but I urge him not to play the numbers game. So what if 700,000 people have come here? Have they not contributed to our country?
Chris Huhne: We should always be careful about the numbers game, and the right hon. Gentleman is correct to make that point. However, when an important projection that, after all, has so many consequences, which I shall describe later, is so wrong, the House and the Government have to take that into account.
Frankly, the scale of the error is breathtaking. Actual immigration was 1,373 per cent. higher than the forecast. In years of scrutinising Government projections, which I have to own up to as a former economist—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) is not here, as she is a great expert in the effect that differences between large numbers can have—I cannot remember another projection, even for difficult objectives such as borrowing, that was wrong by such an order of magnitude. As we know, Christopher Columbus thought that he had discovered India, when in fact he was in America. By comparison with the Home Office, he was a practitioner of pinpoint navigation.
Mr. Bone: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Is not one of the problems with the points-based system that it applies only to non-EEA countries and that huge influxes from the European Union therefore distort everything that we are trying to achieve?
Chris Huhne: The chances of our having a huge influx from the European Union in normal years are minimal. However, I shall come to that point later, when the hon. Gentleman will perhaps want to intervene on me if he disagrees.
It is bizarre that even when it became clear that the estimates for EU immigration were wildly wrong, the Government did not take rapid countervailing measures. Clearly they could not do much to affect the flow from the accession states; nor would it have been right to do so. We in this country benefit enormously from the free movement of people in the European Union. Indeed, more British people live in other member states than other member states’ nationals live here. That might have something to do with the sunshine or with other factors. Whatever the reason, pulling up the drawbridge on other EU nationals could cause a wholesale repatriation of British pensioners from Spain and Portugal, for example, which would be disastrous for our own public services and would deprive many of our citizens of an option that they clearly prefer.
However, it would be wise to use immigration flows from non-EU countries, over which we have some control, as a balancing factor. The Government have not done that. Therefore, net immigration—immigration minus emigration from the UK—of non-British people trebled from fewer than 100,000 a year in the early 1990s to more than 300,000 in 2006. That is a large, completely unplanned and unforeseen increase.
As I have said, the British people are a tolerant lot. We have been open to waves of immigration on a greater scale throughout our history than almost any other European country, and we have benefited enormously from that. Far from being an island fastness, our easy access to the sea means that we have always been more open than many other countries. However, one thing that the British people will rightly not tolerate is incompetence from their Government, but that is what we have seen in the mismanagement of immigration over the past 10 years.
Nor can the official Opposition escape responsibility in this regard, as it was the last Conservative Government who took leave of their senses and began the process of dismantling exit controls. Perhaps they thought that we did not need to worry about anyone leaving. However, their action ignored the disastrous consequence that we were no longer able to check whether non-EU visitors had overstayed their visas. An essential element of control was lost, and that is why the Liberal Democrats have argued that the Government must get a grip on the management of immigration through a national border force—an idea that has now been taken up elsewhere in the House—and the reintroduction of exit controls.
The results of the recent mismanagement were detailed by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). They include local authorities not having the resources to tackle the needs of new communities, health authorities being unable to plan for the needs of their populations, and police services being stretched because population projections have been so far out. There have also been parts of the country in which particular trades have been hard hit. It is not easy for a trained brickie to find that their skills now earn only a fraction of what they got a couple of years ago. If the points-based system gives us a better grip on these random impacts of immigration, that will be all to the good, and a balancing factor between EU and non-EU immigration seems to be an essential part of that, alongside a greater effort to predict and respond to local impacts and to ensure that local authorities have the means to make the necessary adjustments.
The official Opposition have called for a national cap on immigration, which suggests that they have forgotten their other commitment, to the market economy. The needs of market economies are not always easy to forecast, and they are certainly impossible to plan. There has to be a flexibility, which a rigid cap would belie. With great respect to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who intervened to give us instruction on what it means to respect market economics and the price level, I have to tell him that when I was employing people in the City, there were occasions on which I needed to hire someone with particularly unusual skills that I could find only in New York or elsewhere. The idea that there was going to be a sudden market clearing because the price would go up was absolute nonsense, because it takes a number of years to train someone and to equip them with an economics PhD, let alone some of the other qualifications required. If the official Opposition’s policy had been operating at that time, the impact on my business could have been devastating. We must not use excessively blunt policy instruments to score cheap hits in the tabloid headlines.