Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the thought-provoking contribution of the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). It has been an interesting debate, which has often been at cross purposes. I will probably have a share of that in my speech today. However, I very much agree with two speeches made by Labour Members, who said that the British National party has picked up support and votes only because mainstream politicians have so patently failed to articulate public concerns, to the extent that the only outlet for such worries about immigration is often to be found at the extremes of the political arena. Anyone who is complacent about these matters need only look at the BNP’s success at local elections to see that, week in and week out, in places where one would not expect the BNP to have even the tiniest bit of support, it is getting 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. in council by-elections.
Had we always made room for sensible, rational discussion on immigration, the immigration system would have been sharpened and improved to the benefit not just of the indigenous population?by which I mean both the black and white indigenous population?but of those seeking new lives in the UK. Those who seek to silence debate on this topic by crying racism should be under no illusions about the nature of the current system. It is, I am afraid, often confused, inequitable, unjust and so administratively chaotic that not only is the British taxpayer being failed but legitimate migrants and illegal immigrants alike are often being mistreated.
I hope that the House will forgive me for being slightly parochial, but I represent the Cities of London and Westminster constituency in the heart of our capital. Westminster especially?which to most British people is uninhabitable because of the exorbitant cost of renting or owning property here?is one of the top destinations for immigrants arriving in Britain for the first time. It is a constituency of the very rich and the very poor, and an area of incredible hyperdiversity and hypermobility. That causes some very real problems on the ground, and I spoke about them in the House only a couple of weeks ago when I set out the difficulty faced by Westminster city council in providing services for all those unaccounted for in census data. I am sure that those difficulties will be familiar to all hon. Members who represent other inner-city seats.
Immigration is the single biggest issue in my constituency postbag. It gives me?or I suppose it would be more honest for me to say my private office?daily exposure to the chaos that is rife in the Home Office system. I do not want to make an overly partisan point, as it is fair to say that many of the problems predate 1997. I suspect that they will remain for some years to come unless we get a grip on them.
The people who write to me are not necessarily voters, but my staff and I devote enormous amounts of time to trying to help them with their various complaints against the Home Office. In preparing this speech, I looked only at the last week of cases that have been brought to my attention. It was a light to medium case load, with nothing exceptional and no out-of-the-ordinary cases. From the replies that I have received from the Home Office, it is clear that there were three cases in which a constituent had arrived in the UK many years ago, had been denied asylum, had had numerous appeals rejected and yet was still living here?and that is a problem to which a number of other contributors to the debate have alluded.
In fact, one person had been told that he had no basis of stay and yet he resided?I can only assume mistakenly?in one of our precious social housing properties. That is heartbreaking, considering the number of letters that I get letters from lifelong Westminster residents who are forced to leave the capital as a result of being employed in low-paid jobs that make them just wealthy enough not to be considered a priority for social housing.
I do not wish to be accused of taking any of the Government’s actions out of context for political gain in this debate, so I shall simply read the UK Border Agency’s reply to another of my other constituency cases that came in this week. I shall call the constituent Mr. A, for privacy reasons, but the letter speaks for itself in exemplifying just how ludicrous our immigration system can be. It states:
"Mr A arrived in the UK and applied for asylum on 15 September 1996. The asylum claim was refused on Third Country grounds on 17 September 1996."
So he arrived more than 12 years ago, and his asylum claim was refused just two days later. The letter continues:
"On 23 September 1996 it was decided that his claim should be considered substantively, and Mr A’s application for asylum was refused on 11 August 1998. Mr A applied for Further Leave to Remain on the grounds of marriage on 18 July 2000".
The House should note that that was two years after he had been refused asylum.
"He requested that his application be considered together with his application for asylum. Mr A’s appeal against the decision to refuse him asylum was dismissed on 9 October 2001…Further representations were submitted on Human Rights grounds on 30 November 2001 and additional further representations were submitted on 22 December 2004".
Again, another three years seem to have passed in the flick of an eye.
"Mr A was sent a family questionnaire for consideration under the terms of the Family Indefinite Leave to Remain Exercise on 8 March 2005. He was found to be ineligible due to an unspent criminal conviction on 5 October 2005."
There was a further reconsideration of his application on 2 March 2006, and he was again found to be ineligible, as he had not declared that he had a criminal conviction. Further representations were submitted in June 2006 and a request for humanitarian protection was made at that stage.
The case remains outstanding. I am sorry to have gone into such detail, but it is not untypical of the sort of case that MPs see. Heavenly only knows when it will be resolved, but the whole sorry catalogue of events represents a relatively unexceptional constituency case and raises many questions. For instance, why, after he had been refused asylum so often, was this constituent not deported?
I could go into some detail about other, similar cases but I appreciate that time is tight in this debate. However, I feel that the easiest option for reducing the overall number of immigrants would be the most ill-advised route in many ways and, to that extent, I do not entirely agree with the contributions that have been made by hon. Members on either side of the House.
An ever-expanding number of non-EU nationals?and especially people working in highly skilled, global industries?are coming to this country and boosting our economy. A drastic reduction in that group would be neither desirable nor advisable. Similarly, we could relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming here to study, or prevent them from staying on to work for two years after graduation. However, I believe that the Labour Government have got that matter absolutely right over the past 10 years: we need to encourage that set of people, not least because many of them will return home as great ambassadors for this country in the decade to come.
Among the other groups of people who come to live here are the many dependants, relatives and would-be relatives of previous immigrants. They often arrive with very few skills and little understanding of the English language. I think that all hon. Members accept that that issue will continue to be very sensitive, and there are strong practical reasons why Members of Parliament who are in contact with the Home Office need to ensure that at least some of those immigrants will continue to come to these shores. A degree of hypocrisy is often evident: we all make great representations on behalf of our constituents because we recognise that there might be some electoral advantage down the line, but we also make strong statements about the generality of the matter. Complaints about immigration can be applied to each and every one of us, as Members of Parliament, just as much as it does to the Home Office.
It seems to me that we could also look to stem the number of asylum seekers who come here as political refugees, or indeed to restrict the major immigration influx coming from the EU. As many other hon. Members have pointed out today, however, we are signatories to several international agreements and we are also a signed-up member of the EU. Short of withdrawing from such treaties and reneging on our duties as an EU member state, there is little that we can do to stop such parties coming to our shores. Even so, it was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Elmet and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) make it clear that they felt that it should be possible for nations in an expanded EU to have some special immigration arrangements.
Given the severe limitations on our room to manoeuvre, it is all the more important that we deal effectively, swiftly and pragmatically with each and every person who makes an application to live here. I fear that the quota system for immigration will lead to a distortion of statistics, priorities and our economic needs. Above all, it is therefore crucial that we tighten the current decision-making process, stand firm once a decision has been made, and act quickly to remove any person found to have no basis of stay.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the relatively clement economic weather until recently has allowed us to turn something of a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described. However, a continued refusal to get a grip on our immigration system risks causing conflict in British communities that will haunt us in the decades to come.