Yesterday Mark contributed to a Westminster Hall debate tabled by Priti Patel MP on immigration. Pasted below are his speech and interventions as well as Immigration Minister, Mark Harper’s response to Mark’s speech. Mark focused on the problems in our constituency of Roma encampments, business perceptions in the City of London over the visa system, and the impact of student visa changes on our world-beating higher education sector. He also spoke about health tourism in Central London and the burden it places on overstretched public services.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

It says much about 21st-century Britain that my hon. Friend Priti Patel should have introduced this debate. Although I am a proud Englishman, that is only part of my story. My late mother was twice a refugee by age 15, having been born during the early months of the war in Breslau, or Wroclaw, in what was then Germany and is now Poland. By age 15 she ended up in West Germany, where a few years later she met my father, who was serving in the British Army. Immigration has had an impact on me, given that one of my parents was an immigrant to this country, and both my hon. Friend’s parents were immigrants to this country. We love this country and the opportunities that it has given us. Despite much of what she said, we do not necessarily see immigration simply as a problem; it has some very positive sides. It is important that those elements are put on the record from time to time as well, and I shall endeavour to do so in my contribution.

We are going to hear the mantra that net migration has been cut by a third. It has become a key campaigning tool in recent months for the Conservative party, and it will no doubt be heralded as one of the Government’s central achievements as we approach the 2015 general election. Undoubtedly, important work has been done to crack down on some obvious immigration abuses, and rightly, as trust in the whole immigration system has reached an all-time low among our fellow Britons.

The Government should be applauded for the work that they have done to clamp down on bogus colleges, sham marriages, fake students, health tourists and the like. I noticed only this morning that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health rightly announced that we should not become an international health service. We should be proud that the NHS is free at the point of delivery. I have been an MP for central London for the past 12 years, and I have no doubt that health tourism has become increasingly acute in some areas, such as Paddington in my constituency. My constituents are suffering, and hard-working individuals’ taxes are not being used for their own purposes.

The Government have also been striving to address some of the pull factors that have hitherto made the UK such an appealing destination for those who wish to abuse generous western welfare and benefit systems. Nevertheless, we should be wary of the notion that the imposition of a cap alone and a broader clampdown mean job done on immigration. For all the talk about the squeeze on numbers, all too many Britons experience a different daily reality on the streets where they live and read a different story in their newspapers. Meanwhile, precisely the type of person whom we seek to attract to our nation—successful business people, entrepreneurs, investors, the highly skilled, top students and high-spending tourists—have encountered great difficulties entering the UK, just as we have been rightly discussing the need to compete in the global race. I fear that the disparity between the headline figures and reality is breeding ever more cynicism while doing economic damage.

I appreciate that time is relatively tight in this popular debate, so I will focus on three key concerns of mine. The first is the entry of business people into the UK, which as one might imagine is an acute day-to-day constituency issue for me as the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. The second is student visas and the third is the specific downsides in my central London constituency of the EU migration to which my hon. Friend referred in her speech.

Let me start with EU migration. As long ago as January 2007, I led a debate in the House of Commons on the possible impact on London of the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union. In particular, I sought to increase funding to Westminster City council, which was, even at that stage, being overburdened by the significant increase in rough sleeping, crime and antisocial behaviour following the 2004 accession of the so-called A8 countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

Unfortunately, the things of which I warned at the time have come to pass as Romania and Bulgaria edged closer to fully fledged EU membership. Many of us have seen at first hand the Roma gypsy encampments that have sprung up around Marble Arch; others appeared in the vicinity of Victoria station during last year’s Olympics. Some of the people living in those encampments were part of an organised begging operation, deliberately targeting the lucrative west end tourist market in the Marble Arch area. That encampment has since become merely the most visible example of a growing problem, with similar camps appearing outside the Imperial War museum—south of the river, near the constituency of Kate Hoey—and around the 9/11 memorial in Grosvenor square, to name just two sites here in central London.

Meanwhile I am receiving, and continue to receive, weekly reports from exasperated constituents who find spontaneous bedrooms in the doorways of their homes, as well as litter, excrement and worse in garden squares. There is also the issue of constituents and tourists who come into central London being harassed by aggressive beggars daily. Some local residents have even witnessed such issues in broad daylight. The people living in those eyesore encampments have, in my view, no intention of legally exercising their treaty rights to be here. Nevertheless, due to international treaties, particularly the EU-related treaties, they are incredibly difficult to remove, as the Minister is well aware.

Westminster City council and our local borough policing teams are now diverting vast resources into street cleaning operations, translation services and operations to tackle begging and organised crime. They are even spending vast sums of taxpayer’s money on transport to send problem migrants back to their countries of origin. Of course, little can be done if those individuals, within a matter of days, decide to return to the UK.

It is mostly local taxpayers who are paying the financial cost of national policy decisions. Until such problems are tackled, and until we find a way of stemming the vast tide of people coming from the EU, I am afraid that many of the Government’s declarations to have got a grip on immigration will mean precious little to average Britons. We therefore risk introducing a whole lot of cynicism into the system.

A number of constituents have written to alert me to schemes in ailing southern European economies to give non-EU migrants a fast track to citizenship if they invest in their nations. They know that a prize such as citizenship is enticing because it gives the applicant the potential prospect of moving to any country in the European Union.

It is terrible. Day in, day out, we see awfully desperate people from war-torn parts of northern Africa crossing the Mediterranean. We have seen the particular tragedies, which I suspect are only the tip of the iceberg, around the coast of Italy and Malta in recent weeks. The truth, however, is that many such individuals are able to make their way into the European Union. As a result, they could end up on these shores as well as in other parts of the Union within a matter of weeks or months. That provides yet another example of how difficult it will be to keep headline net migration numbers under control without resorting to the clampdown that we have seen in the past on highly skilled people from non-EU nations.

That brings me to my other concerns. I continue to be lobbied by business people and those in the education sector about the coalition’s visa regime, which continues to deter the highly skilled from engaging with the UK. I am aware that the Chancellor has made it clear in China that he sees that to be a problem, and that he wants to try to smooth it out.

Since the coalition took office in 2010, it has rightly made building the United Kingdom’s trade and export sector a core part of its economic strategy. That must be the case. We must have a sustainable recovery, which will not be built on ultra-low interest rates and a further boost in the housing market. It will have to be through investment from abroad in the globalised world in which we live, as well as ensuring that the export sector goes from strength to strength, particularly among small and medium-sized enterprises. It is a matter of some national shame that when it comes to China and India, two countries with which we have had long-standing connections, it is the Germans and, to a large extent, even the French who are teaching us some lessons. We need to ensure that we provide export credit guarantees that make it easier for our SMEs to thrive.

Foreign investment into the UK must and will continue to remain a hugely important source of financing, helping to support infrastructure development, employment and economic growth. However, those who wish to do business in the UK currently face a series of unnecessary obstacles, despite the Government’s best intentions. Such barriers include the perceived complexity of the UK visa system. I know that we will get some improvements, but there will still be that perception about time lags. It deters high-value business investors, visitors and workers. Along with resourcing issues at the UK’s borders and within certain embassies overseas, and the perceived lack of capacity at UK airports, that issue is potentially problematic.

I am not suggesting that we should just make life easy for tourists who come to this country, but there are some high net worth individuals—global citizens—living in somewhere like China who will come to London and spend £40,000 or £50,000 in one afternoon at Selfridges or Harrods. It seems madness that we are saying, “Don’t come here. Go and spend that in the salons of Milan, Rome or Paris.” That is the message that has hitherto gone out. I know that there are some improvements, which the Minister will no doubt tell us about in his contribution.

The City of London corporation, in my constituency, regularly receives complaints from business. It believes that there are practical steps that could be taken to improve the first interaction with our visa system. They include availability of own-language application forms and Schengen equivalence. The City corporation welcomes the announcement on the latter following the Chancellor’s recent visit to China, but the ambiguity of the Home Office’s subsequent statement has also been noted. The Government must work swiftly and clearly to make that announcement a reality.

Currently, Chinese applicants may have to travel up to 500 miles to appear in person at a visa-processing centre. Even after April 2013, applicants have had to submit to fingerprinting and face a non-refundable charge of £70. They have also had to supply a letter from their employer to prove that they have leave from work to travel. It is again perhaps not surprising that one study found that nearly a third of Chinese potential visitors abandon the UK visa process and instead visit other destinations, many of which may be in Europe.

The future is not just about China. There are anecdotal reports that, in countries like Brazil, applicants are faced with taking several days off work to get visas processed. Anyone who needs to travel regularly is understandably reluctant to hand over their passport for what might be an unspecified period. The City corporation has been told that in some centres, passports can be surrendered for up to three to six months without feedback from the UK Border Agency as to when to expect a return of documents. While I would not say that that is an acute problem, as Member of Parliament for this constituency, that issue is not entirely unknown to me.

In contrast with the UK, key competitor countries have, since 2010, sought to simplify their procedures. For example, a visa for Australia can generally be processed in just 24 hours. The United States, which has been widely criticised for its visa bureaucracy, particularly in the aftermath of the terrible events of September 2001, has also overhauled its systems since President Obama gave the State Department 60 days to reassess its visa regimes for Brazil and China.

Before I turn to student visas, I must declare an interest as I have, for the past eight and a half years, been a member of the advisory board of the London School of Commerce, which is a private higher education establishment.

Britain’s world-beating education sector draws fee-paying students from across the globe, which we should be incredibly proud of. The standards and the way in which we have a high regard for our exam system mean that a British degree is regarded highly across the globe. Many of the young students who come to study will be in this country for only a short time—a year or two, and perhaps staying for a year after graduating to embark on their first taste of employment. They will return to their home nations as tremendous ambassadors for the UK for decades to come as they build wealth in their homelands. A 2011 Home Affairs Committee report suggested that no fewer than 27 contemporary foreign Heads of State were educated in the UK.

Our universities have hitherto been exceptionally good at tapping that ever-growing market, with a 9.9% market share in 2009 and export earnings calculated at about £7.9 billion. The overall value of international students to London as well as the UK, on the Government’s own figures, is believed to exceed £20 billion, and there is huge potential for that to grow.

I accept that there is no cap on international student numbers, but the Government’s explicit objective has been to reduce student numbers to bring net migration below 100,000 by the next election in May 2015. The treatment of student and post-study work visas has become a regular complaint among top universities in my constituency, not just in relation to any of the bucket shop language schools or sham colleges. At one élite central London institution in my constituency, the numbers of applications from Indian and Pakistani students for postgraduate taught programmes are down by 14% and 11% respectively, since future employment prospects are a key motivator in those markets.

Another institution faces recruitment difficulties in disciplines such as accounting, economics, finance, management and law, and is finding it increasingly difficult to obtain transfers for high-level researchers to maintain an academic staff of the highest international repute and pedigree. Prospective overseas staff now perceive that it is more difficult to get a visa for the UK, and prefer to move to the US or Australia instead. There are other complaints about what is regarded as a very bureaucratic system, with enormous forms to be completed, and extortionate visa fees, which compare unfavourably with our western competitors.

We should not underestimate our global talent. One reason why our universities are so strong is that some of the finest and best academics work here. They should not just be regarded as overseas employees, because the reality is that many academics have to spend time abroad. They may have a visa to come to this country, but they need to go to a range of different events abroad to lecture and to find out more, and the sheer bureaucracy that administrative departments of our universities have to go through, daily marking where academics are at any one time, is an increasingly strong disincentive.

Julian Huppert (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is raising some real concerns, but is he also aware that academics find other processes frustrating, such as the fact that to be paid a couple of hundred pounds to examine a PhD viva somewhere, they have to go through the bureaucracy of proving their immigration status? That is completely disproportionate, because nobody comes to this country to get rich examining PhDs.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I sincerely hope that that is not the case. The hon. Gentleman, who represents a prime university town, will be well aware of such concerns. I am sure that such matters give the impression that we are not open for business in the way that we should be if we are to appeal to the brightest and best across the globe. It has to be said that many fledgling but highly reputable universities across the world are looking to attract some of the brightest talent in this country with absolutely open arms, and they would certainly not provide the evidence of reciprocal negativity that we see in elements of a bureaucratic, tick-box culture in the UKBA and the Home Office. It is a cliché to say that a reputation may take many years to build up but can be lost in an instant, but there is a real risk that the UK will lose its hard-won reputation as a country that welcomes trade, investment and the most talented students from across the world, at a time when the need for that international expertise and capital is very high.

To conclude, I believe that there is a need for a change of rhetoric, because misconceptions are as damaging as actual practical barriers. The Government rightly wish to ensure that the UK is open for business. A passionate restatement of that goal both here this morning and in the main Chamber this afternoon, combined with some practical improvements to the visa process and the operation of our borders, should help to generate significant trade, investment and diplomatic benefits.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman will have gathered from my own contribution that I am relatively liberal on matters of immigration. However, there is also no doubt in my mind, after 12 years as a constituency MP, that the abuse by immigration lawyers and others in the legal system is nothing short of a national disgrace. The idea of streamlining this system should be wholly welcomed across the House.

David Hanson (Delyn, Labour)

We will look very carefully at that issue of appeals. Part 2 of the Immigration Bill, which will be considered today, proposes ending appeals, apart from administrative reviews, for a number of categories of immigration. We must look carefully at that issue, because I want to ensure that we speedily remove people who should not be here, and that we do not speedily allow in people who should not be here. However, we must also ensure that people have an opportunity to receive a fair hearing.

Mark Harper (Forest of Dean, Conservative)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about the importance of welcoming people who contribute. That is absolutely right. Ministers are always clear, although this is not always reflected in what is reported, about achieving a balance. We want the best and the brightest to come to Britain and we want people to contribute. The Queen’s Speech referred to an immigration Bill and it was clear that it would have two purposes. One was to attract those who wanted to come and to contribute, and the other was to deter those who did not. We must get both parts of that story right; I will touch on the detail in a moment.

My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Witham talked about issues with EU nationals and where we need to tighten up on those who abuse free movement, particularly when there is criminality. There are some real issues of criminality in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. Immigration enforcement officers are working closely with his local authority and the Metropolitan police to deal with those involved in what we tend to call low-level criminality, but which has a real impact on UK nationals and visitors who want to come and spend money in our country. We have taken significant steps.

The real issue with EU nationals is that although we can remove them from the country and we have had some successful operations—for example, we removed a significant number of Romanian nationals from Hendon—they can come back. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster should be aware that we are looking closely at the legal scope to take a tougher approach, and I hope that he will welcome that.

My hon. Friend should also be aware that because of pressure from the Home Secretary at EU level, we finally got the message home. At the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 7 and 8 October, the Commission accepted for the first time that there is an issue with abuse of free movement rights. Commissioner Reding stated that free movement is a fundamental achievement, with which I agree, but the Commission also noted that free movement rights are weakened by abuse and that it would support member states to use existing EU tools—including sanctions such as expulsion and re-entry bans in certain circumstances, with the appropriate safeguards—to fight such abuse. That is very welcome.

The Home Secretary raised those issues with the Commission and with colleagues from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and we have started to build a sense that there is a problem to solve. If we solve that problem and the problems of abuse, we will strengthen the benefits of free movement across the EU, from which many British citizens benefit, and make Britain a more attractive home for inward investment. I can give my hon. Friends the Members for Witham and for Cities of London and Westminster some comfort that we are addressing that situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will also be familiar with Operation Nexus, on which we are working with the Metropolitan police to identify foreign nationals at the point of arrest and to consider where we have immigration powers that may be used alongside criminal justice interventions to remove people from the country who should not be here and who are potentially involved in criminality.

Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)

Operation Nexus is a campaign run by Scotland Yard, which I understand has indicated that it is seeking more resources so that it can do its job better. I understand that Scotland Yard is seeking resources from Europe, too. Have those resources been allocated? If so, are they allocated from Government funds or through European funding?

Mark Harper (Forest of Dean, Conservative)

On resources—I mean to present this in a balanced way—it is not surprising that about a third of criminals in London are foreign nationals, but that is not a hysterical point; it is a very understandable point, because broadly a third of the population of London are foreign nationals.The Metropolitan police’s core job of addressing criminality involves dealing with a significant number of foreign national criminals. The number is not disproportionate; the proportion is about what would be expected, given that there are significant numbers of foreign nationals in London. The tools we are able to give to the Metropolitan police, working with our immigration enforcement officers, means that it can do that job more effectively. We have seen significant success, and we have started to roll out those resources in the west midlands, for example, and increasingly in other police forces across the United Kingdom. I think that will be helpful.

The Home Office is also leading work with the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to address foreign national offenders. We have 16 priority countries—not 10, as my hon. Friend Jim Shannon said—including two EU member states, Portugal and Romania, which we are supporting in the use of the EU prisoner transfer agreement. We are working closely with colleagues in Romania to consider the effectiveness of Romanian criminals arrested in the UK being able to serve their sentences in Romanian prisons.

As the right hon. Member for Delyn said, we are working closely with the Nigerian Government. That work is not just the agreement, in which he rightly said that the previous Government had a role; the agreement had to be translated into Nigerian law, which has now been done. We have just signed a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania.

Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Harper (Forest of Dean, Conservative)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to address some of the points raised earlier in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about the importance of being open for business, and I draw his attention to an excellent one-page guide circulated yesterday by Mr Field and my right hon. Friend Nicholas Soames, who ran the all-party group on balanced migration. The document is an excellent quick guide showing some important statistics on Britain being open for business, the number of business visitors and how easy it is to get a job here after university.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster is right that there are issues, although, largely, they are not issues of perception, but that does not mean the issues are not important. Of course, part of the job that the Chancellor and the Mayor of London were doing last week in China was to ensure that perceptions catch up with reality. For example, in China the average time for a business visitor to get a visa to Britain is some eight days, and we are looking to make that even faster for high-value visitors. I am not pretending that there are no real issues on the business side, because there are, but, certainly for overseas visitors, we have seen very strong growth.

There are many perception issues, which is why we have to be clear about what we are doing. I regularly meet universities and businesses, and I have met the City of London corporation. We are incrementally improving the system, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is important for Britain.

My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to health issues and the pressure on St Mary’s hospital, Paddington, in his constituency. He will have seen today that the Health Secretary has published a significant independent audit, which has been peer-reviewed and shows that the NHS is failing to recover some £500 million of income that it should be getting from the foreign nationals that it treats. Frankly, I find it extraordinary that the Labour party, or at least its health spokesman—I do not know whether he talked to the right hon. Member for Delyn—has said that it will not support our proposals on that. I do not know whether that is connected to the Unite union’s opposition to those health proposals. In fact, Unite has said that health workers should not collect money from foreign migrants. I do not know whether Unite is setting Labour’s policy, but that statement is extraordinary. We have a national health service, not an international health service. We are not talking about not treating people, which is one of Unite’s scare stories; it is about charging people who have no right to free treatment.

If my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I go to another European country, that country is much better at charging the UK for our health treatment; we are not very good at charging for such treatment. If we go to another country, we would be expected to use private health care. In some countries we would not get health treatment before paying for it. In the UK, though, we are talking about never withholding urgent treatment but ensuring that people pay for it, which is fair to taxpayers. I look forward both to the changes that we are making in the Immigration Bill and to my right hon. Friend’s proposals for charging overseas visitors and being more effective at recovering the money.