The Challenges Of Immigration And The Skills Deficit

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Naturally, the essence of any Queen?s Speech is to identify challenges and attempt, through legislation, to address the issues of the day. Casual conversation and my constituency postbag alike convince me that demographic change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our nation. The requirement for a substantial increase in house building, which was discussed earlier, for a much-vaunted educational opportunity Bill and for the further promotion of local transport initiatives has, to a great degree, been dictated by the impact of largely unchecked immigration to these shores since the beginning of the decade. 

It is essential that immigration is assessed with a clear vision of the type of country in which we should like to live over the next 20 to 30 years. It is an uncomfortable truth that the British people have never been consulted, or honestly informed, about the scale of demographic change in this country over recent decades. We now need a long-term strategy that will both promote our economic welfare and enhance the quality of life and social cohesion for all. 

The mainstream political consensus over the past decade or so has been that the UK should play a full part in a free-market, free-trade global economy. I subscribe to that consensus along, I suspect, with many hon. Members. Given our history of political stability, our culture of openness and the benefits that arise from world business adopting our mother tongue as its lingua franca, ours is also a country to which many people seeking asylum from political turmoil will come. As a result, the political decision has been made enthusiastically to embrace skilled and hard-working people wishing to settle here from both outside and within the European Union. 

There has been a gradual realisation of increasing disquiet about the numbers of immigrants coming into the country. For sure, much of this unease is articulated by recent immigrants themselves, who have most to lose from any social unrest. Political leaders have traditionally shied away from addressing this contentious issue, but now we hear the adoption of slogans such as ?Immigration is too high and must be cut? or ?British jobs for British people?. 

Such superficially attractive solutions are not grounded in reality. For example, I believe that taking the easiest option to reduce the overall number of immigrants would be the most ill-advised route. Yes, we could substantially cut the number of immigrants by stopping all those who reside outside the EU coming to these shores, but we should consider the five main categories of people coming to live and often, but not always, to work here. 

The first category is the ever-expanding number of non-EU nationals, especially those working in highly skilled global industries such as financial services, the creative industries or IT and technology, where UK industry boasts such a leading position. No one could seriously suggest that a drastic reduction in that group would be advisable or desirable, whether in IT specialists from India and China, US investment bankers, or folk from Australia and New Zealand who work in the creative industries. 

Similarly, we might relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming to study here, or prevent them from staying on to work here for a year post graduation, which was a Labour Government initiative that I wholly supported. Indeed, I would prefer to see rights for graduates from abroad to work here after studying extended. International students?especially those from India and China, the big economic superpowers of the future?will be more likely to return to their homeland as great ambassadors for this country if they have had the chance to study and to work here. It should be our strategy for the higher and further education that our educational establishments provide to students from across the globe to remain one of our greatest and most successful export industries. 

The third category comprises the dependants and relatives of previous immigrants who often arrive with relatively few skills and little understanding of the English language. I accept that that issue continues to be sensitive. As someone who represents an inner-city seat, I deal with dozens of such cases. I support dealing more robustly with those who rely on family and marital ties, irrespective of their likely contribution to this country, but there are strong practical reasons why many of those immigrants will continue to come to these shores. 

Fourthly, we could stop or drastically reduce the number of asylum seekers who continue to come here as political refugees. They amounted to some 25,000 last year, for example. I speak as someone whose mother was twice a refugee by the age of 15, so I do not intend to be harsh. We are, rightly, signatories to several international agreements and, short of withdrawing from those treaties, we need to recognise that genuine asylum seekers will continue to come and often remain here. 

Finally, as other hon. Members have pointed out, the other major immigration influx has come in the past three and a half years since the enlargement of the EU, from Poland, the Baltic states and more recently?albeit with some tighter restrictions, which I support?from Romania and Bulgaria. Vast underestimates were made as to the numbers from EU accession states who would come to live and work in this country after May 2004. Yet there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it, because we are fully signed up to the concept of free movement of people within the EU. 

Today with the large numbers of new immigrants from Europe, Africa and beyond we have little cheap housing and our health service, transport and educational infrastructures are under increasing strain, as we have gathered from contributions from Members on both sides of the House. Nor is it exclusively a problem in London. The disquiet about immigration, as was the case in the 1950s, is from everyday folk who feel that their quality of life is being badly affected by the increased need for housing, school places and other local services. 

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that the NHS in London would fall apart were it not for immigrants from many countries, including some of those he has mentioned? 

Mr. Field: I very much accept that. One of the difficulties that a nationalised health service has, as a monopoly employer, is that it is able to drive wage rates down to levels that make jobs less acceptable to too many of the indigenous population. The hon. Lady is right, and I recognise what she says in both the hospitals in my constituency, Barts and St. Mary?s, Paddington. It would be impossible to run those hospitals without significant amounts of immigrant labour. 

We seem to be at a loss as to what to do now. Over recent months, we have heard several slogans. Many argue that we should provide public services only to those new arrivals to these shores who have already made a financial contribution. Our public sector ethos?to which the hon. Lady referred?makes such a hard-and-fast rule unenforceable. None the less, the originators of our national health service never expected it to become the ?free at the point of need? international health service. One statistic shows that the

UK spent some £42 million this year on treating HIV-infected folk from abroad, even though some NHS trusts have massive deficits. Those deficits are not as big as they have been in previous years, but the point remains. At my local hospital?St. Mary?s, Paddington?it is estimated that more than £3 million was lost to NHS tourism last year. I am afraid that that sum represents a deterioration in the quality of health care offered to my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). 

Demographic change, especially at the pace of the past half decade, is a problem. I worry that what should be a great national debate on the potential benefits and drawbacks of immigration is likely to degenerate into a blizzard of statistics. Alongside that, I think that there will be a political imperative to set and reach annual targets of maximum quotas. In my view, that will lead to a distortion of statistics, priorities and our economic needs. 

It came as no surprise to me that last week the Government recalibrated sharply upwards the numbers of immigrants working here. Within days, the total rose from 800,000 to 1.1 million and then to 1.5 million. No doubt the highest figure will be used as the baseline from which to measure success in bringing totals down in the years ahead, but I believe that that approach is entirely wrong. Our goal should be to encourage and reward hard work and the development of marketable skills among those brought up and living here. Equally, we should make it ever harder for people who are not prepared to contribute fully to our communities to come to, and remain in, the UK. 

In that regard, business has an important role to play. Too often, businesses both large and small have ignored their broader responsibilities in respect of immigration. For sure, there is an ever expanding pool of willing immigrant labour that helps to drive down wage levels, along the lines that I set out earlier, with the result that business may have all too little incentive to look at some of the downsides of unchecked immigration. Many commercial concerns are only too happy to employ foreign labour without regard to the effects that that may have on the provision of health, education and transport in their community, but at the same time we condemn so many of our indigenous, home- grown youngsters to lives without jobs, practical education or training. 

The operation of our benefits system has also helped to make it far less attractive for some British people to work full time. All too often, those people prefer to rely on tax credits or other benefits. Housing benefit in particular means that people, especially in the capital, need to earn considerably more than the minimum wage to make working worth their while. That cannot be right. 

The unemployment rate in central London is 8.5 per cent., yet there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, from central Europe and beyond, working in this city of ours. We all know that it is impossible to get served in a bar or restaurant without meeting a Pole or a Lithuanian, or the like. It is all well and good for the Government to boast about having increased the number of jobs in the country, and all the statistics suggest that they have done exactly that. However, in all too many cases, they have failed to ensure that Britons have the skills, application and aptitude to take up many of the new opportunities offered by the modern world. That failure is evident even after every pupil in this country has been through a dozen years of compulsory education. It is a shameful and disgraceful legacy. 

The general economic picture has remained rosy, but we have turned a blind eye to the failure to educate an unacceptably large cohort of the younger generation. Today?s employment opportunities may well be snapped up by eager young men and women from central Europe, and economic growth may continue apace, but soon?perhaps very soon?there will be a reckoning. We now have millions of young British men and women growing up and leading perhaps chaotic lifestyles who are unable to offer the basic capabilities and aptitudes needed even in unskilled labour. If the UK wishes to remain a high-wage nation, we need all our people to have commensurately high skills. 

The relatively clement economic picture has allowed us to turn a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described, but the refusal to arrest our educational failings has the makings of a long-term dysfunction in our society. The challenge may not be immediately apparent today, but I fear that in the years ahead we shall repent the fact that the first decade of the 21st century was very much the best of times. Our failure to respond to the deeper, long-term malaise that I have set out will haunt us in the decades to come.