HC Deb 18 March 2003 vol 401 cc912-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Sutcliffe.]

10.29 pm
Mr.Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)


Hon. Members

Speak for England!

Mr. Soames

I shall try.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to return to a matter of great domestic importance. I want to start by making three points absolutely clear. First, I have nothing whatever against genuine refugees and immigrants, many of whom have greatly enriched and enhanced our national life. They deserve to be welcomed and given shelter. Unfortunately, our ability to welcome them is hampered by large numbers of applicants whose cases do not succeed—to put it mildly. Last year, nearly 100,000 people were refused both asylum and exceptional leave to remain, yet there were only 11,500 removals, or so-called voluntary returns. I shall go back to that point later on.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that the debate is, above all, not a question of race but of realism. The number of immigrants to Britain is now so great as to have a profoundly major impact on our society, especially in the south-east. Schools, housing and hospitals are coming under intense pressure. Indeed, that is acknowledged by the Government.

Thirdly, I want to make it plain to the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, that I have no history or form on this matter. Indeed, I consider myself to be a largely tolerant, compassionate, old-fashioned, one-nation Tory. I always have been and I always will be. However, like many others, I am truly concerned about the lack of proper information on an issue of the first importance. The conspiracy of silence about immigration, which has lasted for a generation, must end. It is my ambition that immigration should become as respectable a subject for debate as any other.

I make no apology for focusing on numbers. This is in no sense a game; it is deadly serious and we need proper, accurate and truthful figures. The sheer scale of immigration, which has more than doubled under the Labour Government, causes widespread and understandable concern throughout the country. Of course, numbers are not everything. Each statistic is a human story—sometimes a tragic one. We constantly ask the British people to be both tolerant and inclusive, but it is high time that we told them what they are being asked to tolerate and include.

I want to consider first the overall picture on immigration and then the related question of asylum seekers, who may make up half the total. My starting point is a letter to me from the official statistician dated 27 January 2003, which gives net non-European Union immigration for the past 10 years, revised in the light of the recent census. The number given for 2001 is 178,000. The rate of increase is alarming. Net non-EU immigration has more than doubled under the Government; it has gone up by no less than five times in the past 10 years.

If present trends continue, the number will be at least 2 million over the next 10 years. Furthermore, there is no end in sight, as the existing immigrant community brings in wives and relatives from overseas. If that number is wrong, the Government need to tell us why.

Will the number fall or could it even rise? Three decisions taken by the Government suggest that it will rise substantially. First, the abolition of the primary purpose rule has already resulted in a significant increase in the acceptance for settlement of husbands and wives. In 2001, that amounted to 46 per cent. of all settlement. There is also an important matter of longer-term significance. The abolition of that apparently obscure rule means that we face the prospect of unlimited secondary immigration.

Secondly, the Government have announced a massive increase in work permits, from about 30,000 a year in the 1980s and early '90s to a target of 200,000 in the coming year. That will add substantially to the immigration total, as workers coming to the end of their permit apply for settlement. A recent study by Migration Watch UK suggests that the increase in work permits alone could lead to additional settlement of up to 70,000 workers a year in four years' time.

Thirdly, the Government's decision—alone among the major EU states—to open our labour market to workers from eastern Europe immediately on their accession to the EU is bound to lead to a significant additional flow.

I want to turn now to one of the major components of immigration—asylum seekers. Only rough estimates are possible. If the Home Office had proper statistics, we could be more accurate, but the order of magnitude is as clear as a bell. That makes nonsense of our border controls and is, of course, a major pull factor in drawing yet more asylum seekers to Britain. It is therefore no surprise that they are arriving in record numbers—110,700 last year, up 20 per cent. on the previous year. In the same year, Holland achieved a 42 per cent. reduction and Denmark 51 per cent.

Lastly, I want to turn to illegal immigration, which, as the Home Secretary recognises, is additional to the totals that I have mentioned so far. One significant source is students and visitors who overstay. Of course most of them go back, but the numbers involved are very large indeed. Roughly 3.5 million students and visitors come to this country every year just from eastern Europe and the third world. If only 1 per cent. of them were to stay behind, it would amount to 35,000 a year. The evidence is only anecdotal, but it is certainly abundant. If that number is too high, let the Government make their own estimate and let us know.

One major loophole, regrettably created by our Government, is the absence of embarkation controls for non-EU citizens leaving the country. That is an invitation for all comers to overstay. I understand that the Minister is considering reinstating the recording of departures of non-EU citizens. That is now a matter of urgency. The Government must press ahead and get that matter dealt with.

A further source of illegal immigrants is clandestine arrival, often by truck and sometimes with the most tragic and often very regrettable results. They immediately claim asylum and, as I have described, have every chance of remaining in Britain, legally or otherwise. Again, what is the Government's estimate for clandestine arrivals? Without such an estimate, we cannot even guess at the total figures. It follows from what I have said that the best estimate of total non-EU foreign immigration over the next decade is of the order of 2 million, and probably more in subsequent decades.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

My hon. Friend may not have noticed, but the Minister just shook her head. Does he not agree that it is absolutely vital that we have accurate statistics? If the Government cannot provide us with estimates of the numbers of overstayers and illegal entrants, it will be impossible to get to that accurate number, without which it is difficult to have a debate. Will he join me in asking the Minister not to shake her head, but perhaps to promise to provide some estimates, so that we can have some figures on which to have a reasonable debate?

Mr. Soames

I will indeed, and I wholly endorse the point that my hon. Friend makes. I congratulate the work that he and others who serve on the Select Committee on Home Affairs have done on this matter.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I can assure my hon. Friend that, at a seminar that I attended in Oxford addressed by Baroness Scotland, the figure of 2 million for settlement over the next 10 years was the one that she herself proposed on behalf of the Government.

Mr. Soames

That is very helpful, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said, we require confirmation and firm figures to be able to have a proper and sensible debate about this sensitive but very important matter. There may be some argument about the detail, but there is hardly any scope to deny that we face massive immigration on a scale never before seen in this country.

The pressure on public services, schools, housing, transport and the health service is already intense, particularly in the south-east, where the infrastructure is already dangerously overstretched. In my view, that pressure cannot be allowed to continue without a full and serious debate about the consequences for our society. The decisions to be taken may well be difficult, but doing nothing is simply not an option. Public confidence in the asylum and immigration system is at an all-time low. That is a matter that I, and the Minister, will deeply regret. It is therefore essential that we have clear and accurate information on which we can base a sensible debate.

Specifically, I invite the Minister—I know that she will write to me, as I do not expect her to be able to answer these questions immediately—to answer the following points. What is the Government's latest estimate of net non-EU foreign immigration in each of the last 10 years? What are her predictions for the future? What is the Government's estimate of the size of the illegal work force in Britain? What is their estimate of the scale of illegal immigration into Britain every year? What is their most recent estimate of the population of the UK in 2020 and 2050, and on what level of immigration is that based?

A Home Office research paper, R DS No. 82, has recently admitted that 1.5 million migrants arrived in Britain over the last decade. The nature of our society is clearly changing before our eyes. In a recent MORI poll, 57 per cent. expressed concern that Britain is losing its culture. I do not believe that those concerns can be tossed aside lightly. The British people have a right to be told how many more immigrants are expected to arrive over the next 10 years, and how the Government propose to deal with them.

For my part, I call on the Government to take serious measures to bring the situation under control. For a start, they should redouble their present feeble efforts to remove failed asylum seekers. Secondly, they should reintroduce embarkation controls for non-EU citizens. Thirdly, they should cut back on the huge number of work permits now being issued with only the flimsiest of controls. Fourthly, they should review the controls concerning marriage and immigration, which are now wide open to abuse. Fifthly, they should conduct a fundamental review of the legal framework that is preventing us from dealing with asylum seekers swiftly, and, therefore, humanely.

Above all, the Government need a policy a policy that can be explained to the British people. They are seeking simultaneously to halve asylum seekers and to more than quadruple work permits. They are spending millions to keep economic migrants out while opening our labour market immediately on accession to the east Europeans. The Home Office apparently claims that it has no view on the desirable level of immigration. It is time that they took such a view. Will the Minister say how many people the Government want in this country overall?

To conclude, importantly, I want to emphasise that I am not anti-immigration. Every modern economy will have quite high levels of both immigration and emigration. My concern is that a pattern seems to be developing of a significant net migration into this country. We do not seem to be able to have accurate and proper figures, however, and public anxiety continues to mount. My message to the Government is simple: give us the real figures, let us have an honourable and frank debate, let us discuss the matter with our constituents in an open, frank and sensible way, and then let us try to come to a settled view of what should be the right level of immigration. That is not an unreasonable request, and I look forward to a considered reply from the Minister.

10.43 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes)

I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) will agree—I think that his basic premise accepts this-that any responsible Government positioning their country for economic growth and prosperity must consider their policy on migration with a view to maximising the considerable benefits that migration offers, while, at the same time, minimising the challenges that that presents. We are trying to implement a fair and balanced immigration policy that aims first—I make no apologies for this—to open up routes for regulated migration to support our economic needs; secondly, to do more both domestically and internationally to help refugees; and thirdly, to tackle abuse in the asylum system and illegal immigration.

The hon. Gentleman spoke to me briefly before the debate and said that his main concern was to get accurate figures, but having heard his comments I find it hard to accept that that is his basic premise. He seemed to say that immigration is a bad thing. [Interruption.] If hon. Members read the Official Report tomorrow, they will see that his speech was almost wholly concerned with his view that the scale of immigration is too high. He criticised the extension of work permits, a method of entry that is determined not by the Government, but by employers who apply for them when they cannot employ people from the indigenous population. He also criticised our decision to allow people from accession countries to come here to work even though they are not dependent on the state. Indeed, he criticised anyone who might come here to support our economy.

The Government recognise that migration is part and parcel of the modern world. We need to welcome its considerable benefits but, at the same time, be determined to manage it effectively, and to safeguard national security and the economic and social well-being of this country. [Interruption.] With respect to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I disagree with him about the main message delivered by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. He may dress it up another way, but that is not what his hon. Friend said.

Migrants contribute to our culture and society. They bring a range of backgrounds, cultures and faiths, which is one of the positive hallmarks of life in Britain in the 21st century. We are determined to pursue a balanced immigration policy. Part of that is about having sensible, appropriate ways for people to come here to work legally in ways that boost our economy. That is not an alternative to developing the skills and employment opportunities of our existing population, but rather a complement to ongoing work to achieve that.

International migration is likely to continue now and in the longer term. It will have important social and economic impacts—I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about that—including on work force size and composition, the demand for housing and education, and the provision of social services. I agree that statistics on international migration are important. It is important that they are as accurate as possible. He knows that the statistics on international migration are produced by the Office for National Statistics, and statistics on the control of immigration and asylum produced by the Home Office need to be as accurate and comprehensible as possible both to inform policy and decision making, and the general public and the debate that needs to take place.

The hon. Gentleman obliquely criticised the accuracy of the statistics and their availability. International migration contributes significantly to total population growth in the UK, but I hope that he accepts that it is the most difficult component of population change to estimate because it has to rely on data sources that cannot match the accuracy and completeness of birth and death registrations.

Since the early 1960s, the main source of statistics on migration flows in and out of the UK has been the international passenger survey, supplemented by administrative data from the research department of the Home Office. The ONS and the Home Office continue to work together to try to ensure that the best use is made of all available data in the compilation of estimates of international migration.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Office for National Statistics is undertaking a national statistics quality review on international migration, the main aim of which is to make recommendations on how far the existing process should continue or how far changes to current data methods and outputs of UK international migration statistics need to change. A number of options are being considered, including the uses of other sources of information on international migration. It is anticipated that that report, including its recommendations, will go to the national statistician in April and be made public soon after.

This is an important issue. The statistics need to be as accurate as possible, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there has been no attempt on the part of the ONS or the research department of the Home Office not to proceed with that endeavour as fast and as well as we can. We want those statistics for ourselves, as well as for public debate.

The ONS, in consultation with the Home Office, is undertaking further work on a number of international migration issues in the light of the results of the 2001 census, and in due course the findings of that review will be published.

The statistics on migration produced by the ONS and the research and statistics directorate of the Home Office are part of national statistics, and their compilation and publication are covered by the national statistics code of practice. That means that they are free from political interference and are produced to high professional principles and standards. The ONS operates completely independently in producing the figures on international migration. It receives statistics and advice from other Government Departments, including the Home Office, but decides independently on how to produce those international migration statistics.

One problem with the figures, which the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will recollect I raised recently at a meeting of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, is the way in which information was traditionally collected during the course of the Conservative Government's 18 years in office, which I should like to see changed. At the moment, the figures describe the number of claims, outcomes of initial decisions and appeals, and the number of removals. We do not yet have a comprehensive picture of the way in which those populations move through the system—in other words, a cohort-based analysis of the statistics, so that we can say how many of any given cohort of people applying for asylum at a particular point in time receive an acceptance, go to appeal, are refused and then removed. That is something that we need, but it is complicated. New technology is now coming on line as a result of this Government's investment, and I hope that we shall shortly move to that position.

The asylum statistics are an important part of the debate on immigration and asylum and they are an integral part of managing the end-to-end asylum process. During the past year and a half, we have consistently improved the way in which the asylum statistics are presented and published to try to ensure that the messages provided by those statistics are accurate, informative and comprehensive. They are more accurate because they are now produced more slowly, allowing late reported cases to be included, and they are more informative because the quarterly figures are a better guide to trends than the monthly ones, and because the bulletin gives more detailed data about the asylum system. They are also more comprehensive because the statistics now include information on the removal of asylum seekers; supported asylum seekers, by location—local authority—and type of support; asylum seekers in detention; an estimate, shortly to be an accurate figure, of the number of dependents of principal asylum claimants; international comparisons, and progress against the public service agreement targets, for example on the speed of decision making. We want to develop those statistics about the control of immigration and asylum further, to reflect improvements in administrative data sources and the implementation of the policy changes.

The work required to assess the number of illegal migrants in the UK is important and it is being done. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex will appreciate that it is a difficult task to estimate their number and claim significant reliability and validity for the number that one produces; obviously it is difficult to estimate the number of people who are here illegally. As I mentioned, the Home Office has its own sources of information on immigration, which comes from the administration of the immigration and asylum process, but that information is collected for the purpose of monitoring the process, not migration.

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, only the flow of people into the UK is currently recorded, and that only of those who enter lawfully or who are discovered to have entered illegally. There is no corresponding record of those leaving the country. I told the Home Affairs Committee recently that the Home Secretary has asked for work to be done to examine both the feasibility and the cost of reinstating embarkation control, which, as I think the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, the Conservative Administration abolished some years ago. Without both an embarkation control and a robust and secure mechanism to identify people in this country, and with only a record of those coming into the country, it is extremely difficult to estimate accurately the number of illegal migrants present at any one time. However, we have commissioned research into the methods used by other countries to estimate illegal migration, and based on that information and the likely sources of UK information, we will consider how to develop that estimate.

Mr Cameron

Given that the Government are still trying to work out the exact level of immigration and get the statistics right, can the Minister explain why they have already decided to increase massively the number of work permits? When will she publish estimates on illegal over-stayers and illegal entrants? Without those two figures, a total is not possible.

Beverley Hughes

As I explained, the number of work permits is determined largely by demand. There is a rigorous process in which an employer has to establish that he or she has not been able to employ a member of the indigenous population; only then can they apply for a work permit to employ someone from abroad. In that sense, the system is established to fulfil the needs of employers in our economy, subject to their being able to show that they have not been able to employ someone who is already in the country. I will address the other questions raised about figures in a moment.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

Has the Minister considered a system similar to the German Gastarbeiter system, whereby guest workers enter the country to do a job, and leave when the job is finished? Has she done any research into the implications for housing of 100,000 new immigrants every year?

Beverley Hughes

Work is ongoing within government to estimate the impact on a range of public services, including housing, health and education, of increasing people's ability to come here and work. That is an important question and it would irresponsible of us not to consider it.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex mentioned the estimate produced by Migration Watch UK that a net inflow of at least 2 million non-EU citizens will come to this country per decade. I find slightly puzzling the constant emphasis on non-EU citizens of Migration Watch UK and some Opposition Members, but I leave that for them to ponder. We do not accept Migration Watch UK's immigration projections as accurate—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute to Eleven o'clock.

Back to