Population & Immigration

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) I warmly welcome today’s debate, and thank my hon. Friend Mr. Soames for introducing it. It gives us the opportunity to discuss openly the challenges that we face over immigration control. Unfortunately, as has been alluded to by both my hon. Friend and Mr. Field, some politicians discuss this topic only when quick and populist headlines are required. That is regrettable because it reduces the legitimacy of immigration as an important issue to be discussed rationally and pragmatically. It also leads Government to produce confused and contradictory policies that are too lenient in some cases and too tough in others. Moreover, it fails to address the economic needs of our country, or prepare local authorities for the challenges on the ground. Most importantly though, it isolates the British public who are left feeling that the only outlet for their worries about immigration is to be found on the extremes of the political arena.

Let me make it clear that our borders should be open, to an extent, to hard-working, skilled professionals from abroad, but closed to those who will not contribute or integrate. We should also look more favourably on those who play by the rules by firmly rejecting the notion of an amnesty on illegal immigrants.

Immigration is the single biggest issue in my inner-city constituency postbag. It gives me daily exposure to what is, at times, the chaos in the Home Office. I regret to say that because the Minister has been extremely helpful to me on a number of occasions, and has taken great care with some of the cases that have come through. None the less, there is a problem in the Home Office that may, within a few months, face my hon. Friend Damian Green, so I hope that he, too, is listening to what I have to say. My team here at the House of Commons often despair at the day-to-day failings of the system. The last time I spoke in this House about immigration, I touched on a few specific cases. All too often the Home Office has failed to serve the correct paperwork in relation to deportation attempts. I shudder to think of the cost of each of those attempts.

Many cases in my daily postbag prompt the question why the Home Office is so desperately inept at enacting its own decisions. Bizarrely, while we seem to find it, at times, impossible to remove people who have no right to be here, employers in my constituency have untold difficulties in securing passage for some of the highly skilled migrants to whom they have offered jobs. Such employers have looked for personnel in the UK, but are forced to employ skilled people from abroad as the domestic pool cannot often fulfil their need.

Despite stumping up increasing amounts to make applications for visas or for leave to remain-the fee for a paper application is now £820 and the cost of a face-to-face appointment a staggering £1,020-highly skilled migrants and their partners inform me that they are facing ever longer delays. Once an application is made, and that cannot be for fewer than 28 days before a visa is required, passports are retained by the Home Office. Any attempt to request the return of such documents for travel or businesses purposes results in the withdrawal of the application and the loss of fees. Getting any information on a likely time scale is near impossible for a full 14 weeks after application, and there is very little accountability in the management structure. Business folk in my constituency now say that their international companies are choosing to recruit highly skilled global personnel for the German or French offices rather than negotiate with the unpredictable and costly British Home Office.

Two meetings I had yesterday with constituents about their particular cases lead me to believe that the Government are now deliberately delaying applications in the hope that the published immigration statistics immediately ahead of the general election will show a decreasing number of successful applicants. That is cynicism at its very worst.

Phil Woolas (Minister of State (the North West), Home Office; Oldham East & Saddleworth, Labour) I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is certainly not the case, and would not even be possible. He has brought to my attention a number of problems with the system, and we are sorting them out. May I just make a policy point? The hon. Gentleman talks about the highly skilled workers that fall under tier 1 and, to some extent, tier 2, which is where his own party’s cap would apply. Does he support that policy? Surely that makes his point even worse given that tier 3, the unskilled workers, is suspended. In other words, there is a cap on that which is zero.

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) The Minister makes a fair point, but I am trying to open up a broader discussion on immigration issues. Everything that I have tried to say reflects the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the Home Office, where known flouters of the rules are left to live freely, while individuals who contribute or could bring great benefit to the UK face a brick wall. The message that our immigration system sends out is completely askew. We must make it clear-perhaps I disagree here with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex-that Britain is open to highly skilled migrants, hard-working international students-who will be ambassadors for this country in the decades to come-applying to legitimate institutions, and those asylum seekers and refugees willing to play by the rules.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex, Conservative) I just want to make it plain that one of the most important proposals that the balanced migration group has put forward is that we must break the link between people coming to work here and people being able to settle here. That is key. Of course, they should come here; we welcome them and recognise that they have very important work to do. It is that link between coming to work here and settle here that needs to be broken.

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) That is a fair point. I am saying that we have no idea who is coming into this country, and those who come here and stay illegally effectively settle. As things stand, there is a clear incentive for people to lie low for as long as possible and resurface only when they believe that they have a strong basis for staying here-a connection to a community, a family and relationships. The imposition of an amnesty would only reinforce that message. Although I have a strong relationship with the Mayor of London, and admire him to a large extent, I fundamentally disagree with him in this regard. Rewarding such behaviour goes against the British notion of fair play and would be a slap in the face to all those immigrants who have strived so hard to play by the rules, including the settled immigrant populations here.

I now wish to turn briefly to the very real practical problems that mass, unplanned immigration is causing on the ground. At 24 per cent., Westminster-my own local authority-has had the greatest proportionate increase in population since 2001 of any local authority in England and Wales. That is a problem because population figures as part of the census calculation for next year will form a key part of the equation used by the Government to distribute grants to local councils. Westminster city council has repeatedly warned the Government that current methods of counting migration are simply not keeping pace with modern patterns of population movement. The consequence sees the council locked into a three-year grant settlement that leaves it paying some £6 million each year for those unaccounted people living within its boundary. As my hon. Friend said, the impact on services, such as housing, community protection, schooling and adult services, and on the quality of life in areas of high migration is significant. I warned about such problems in October 2008, which was well in advance of the forthcoming census, but Westminster city council maintains that despite our lobbying efforts, the 2011 census has still not been adequately tested for hard-to-count areas. Unless the Government address this problem urgently, I believe that they risk losing public good will, not only in Westminster but across the country, particularly in built-up areas, which would have serious consequences for the cohesion of our communities.

I should add that these types of issues are becoming more common for local authorities well outside central London and indeed any city centre. Although Westminster city council has a long history of dealing with some of the challenges of a hyper-diverse and hyper-mobile population, a new, unstable and diverse mix of residents is especially hard for suburban local authorities to cope with, which should be kept in mind by the Government.

The relatively clement economic picture that has existed until recently has allowed us to turn a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described; the right hon. Member for Birkenhead made that point earlier. However, a continued refusal to get to grips with the immigration system risks causing conflict in British communities which I fear will haunt us for decades to come.

Today’s debate comes at a time when the British National party is garnering ever more support, despite the frenetic attempts of politicians to silence it. Not only do I believe that some of those attempts approach being undemocratic-we must remember that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy-but they ignore the real reason for the surge in the BNP’s popularity. The real reason is that the BNP is positioning itself not only as an anti-immigration movement but as an anti-politician and anti-consensus movement.

If we had always made room for sensible and rational discussion about immigration, we would have had an incentive to sharpen the immigration system and improve it, not only for the benefit of the indigenous population-white, black and brown alike-but for the benefit of those who are seeking new lives in the UK.

In my view, those who seek to silence debate on this topic by crying “racism” should be under no illusions about the current immigration system. At present, it is failing everyone-British companies, the taxpayer, legitimate migrants and illegal immigrants alike.