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Session 2000-01
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European Standing Committee B Debates

Imigration Policy

European Standing Committee B

Wednesday 25 April 2001

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Immigration Policy

[Relevant Document: European Community Document No. 11529/00.]

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Commission communication on a community immigration policy is designed to launch a wide debate on what a common EU policy should look like. Some of the thinking behind the communication echoes the debate already being held in member states, including the United Kingdom, on the need for a more positive approach to migration.

In my speech entitled ``UK Migration in a Global Economy'', which I delivered at the Institute for Public Policy Research conference last September, I raised the need to look at both the benefits and the challenges of managing modern migration, and I spoke about beginning a wider debate on what a modern migration policy should look like. Further discussion at European level would be helpful. The development of more positive policies on economic migration can help to tackle the predicted demographic decline in some member states and growing skills shortages in the UK. Those policies could from part of an overall migration framework in the European Union.

Orderly migration could bring a number of benefits to the EU, to the migrants themselves and to their countries of origin, and reduce the number of economic migrants entering the EU, either illegally or through the asylum procedures. In line with conclusions from the Tampere meeting of the European Council, the Commission's aim is to establish an overall framework for migration at EU level. It proposes common standards and procedures as well as a mechanism for setting objectives and targets. Member states would develop and implement national plans within that framework.

The Commission communication covers four distinct issues: developing a common policy; economic migration; fair treatment of third country nationals; and management of migration, focusing primarily on illegal migration. The Government have welcomed the communication as a first response to the call by the European Council at Tampere in October 1999 for a common EU immigration policy. We also support the proposition that immigration policies must be transparent, rational and flexible. The UK retains the right, under its protocol to the treaty establishing the European Community, not to participate in such measures, and Government policy is to retain control of our immigration policy. We would not agree to measures that would undermine the integrity of our frontier controls. However, that does not mean that the UK's immigration policies need be seriously at odds with those of the member states participating in such measures. The UK Government intend to be active participants.

The Government's formally stated aim for immigration explicitly recognises

    ``the regulation of entry to and settlement in the United Kingdom in the interests of social stability and economic growth.''

The recently published Home Office research makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the impact of migration policies. One of its key findings was that migration is likely to be beneficial in economic and social terms.

There is less demographic pressure on the UK than on much of the rest of the EU, but we face a decrease in the proportion of our working age population relative to those in retirement. Migration can help to alleviate that by encouraging people from abroad to take employment in the UK, but it is only part of the solution.

Other measures aimed at improving skills through education and training and increasing labour market participation rates and productivity are vital. Migration complements those labour market policies and is not a substitute for them. However, the efforts that the Government are putting into training the existing population will take time to feed through into increased skill levels.

In the meantime, we face an immediate problem as demographic pressures on the UK and Europe start to bite. Employers in some sectors are clamouring for labour from abroad, and the UK is competing with other countries for skilled people. A positive approach to managed migration can help.

The Home Office report also stated that we need more research into the congestion and regeneration effects of migration, the impact on different social groups in the UK, the social contribution made by migrants, and the implications of migration for source countries. The Government recognise the important role that migration has throughout the EU, and we are commissioning more research to inform our policy decisions.

The Government enthusiastically support the principle of fair treatment for third country nationals, which is fundamental to successful integration. We support measures to ensure that the rights of long-term legally resident third country nationals are broadly comparable to those of member states' nationals. The Tampere Council qualified the rights of third country nationals as rights in member states of residence. The Government would have serious difficulty with proposals that granted rights of residence for such persons in other member states.

The Government support the Commission's proposal that admission policies should be counterbalanced with a firm approach to illegal migration, especially in relation to the smuggling and trafficking of human beings. We have implemented a range of measures in the UK to tackle the problem of illegal immigration, one of the most effective of which was the introduction of a civil penalty for smuggling people in road haulage vehicles. We are working closely with the French Government in examining improving security at Calais and Coquelles and controlling the number of inadequately documented passengers arriving at Waterloo and Ashford on Eurostar trains.

In the UK, all operational activity targeted against serious and organised criminal involvement in illegal immigration is now co-ordinated through the inter-agency group Project Reflex. We have led the way in Europe in working with other member states for a co-ordinated European response to people trafficking and smuggling. I hope that that is a helpful overview of the Government's position on the communication.

The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that questions should be asked singly. If that is done, I suspect that we shall have more than enough time to ensure that all hon. Members are accommodated.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I should like to ask the Minister about the treaty basis for the common immigration policy. This morning, the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union published a report on community immigration policy, paragraph 172 of which states:

    ``The Government's ability to maintain the United Kingdom's independent admission policy will depend on preserving the integrity of Title IV. We doubt whether this will be feasible in the long term.''

Does the Minister agree that the Government's ability to preserve our independent admissions policy will be undermined over the medium to long term? If she disagrees with that conclusion, will she explain why?

Mrs. Roche: I had the great pleasure of giving evidence to that Committee in another place. It is a distinguished Committee that includes a wide range of opinions, and the Government will study its report closely. I was asked that question by their Lordships. We are strongly committed to maintaining the opt-out secured at Amsterdam. We are wedded to it. We will consider any measures that might be proposed as a result of the communication, but we reserve the right to decide whether to opt in. Our primary consideration is the maintenance of our border controls.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I agree with the Government's position and my hon. Friend's remarks. Does she agree that the European Union is not yet economically and socially homogeneous, and that that might never be achieved, as there are significant differences between its member states. Great Britain should maintain its own immigration policies given, for example, its distinctive labour market and birth rate. It is appropriate, for the foreseeable future at least, to retain the policies that she has outlined.

Mrs. Roche: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. The communication has many positive aspects. It is a thoughtful document, and the Government support its thrust. It is intended not to set policy but to promote debate. Indeed, I have called for a debate about the subject. It would be useful to discuss such matters in a European context, because some questions that are current in the United Kingdom are also current in other EU member states.

I agree with my hon. Friend's comments about different traditions and systems. To respond to the remarks of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), and to repeat what I said to their Lordships, because of the UK's unique history and geography, it takes a distinctive position with regard to border controls, which is why we strongly believe that that is an imperative matter. However, as our policies should not be seriously out of line with those of the rest of the EU, we also take a close interest in debates about such issues.

Mr. Lidington: I wish to press the Minister about the basis of the treaty. Will she confirm that there is disagreement between the UK and the Commission about the interpretation of the treaty, with regard to services that can be provided to third country nationals? If that is the case, does it not illustrate that, post-Amsterdam, the distinction between the aspects of immigration policy that fall within Community competence, and those that fall within the competence of member states, is far from clear-cut? The matter might have to be resolved by the European Court of Justice. What is the current situation with regard to that disagreement?

Mrs. Roche: The Government take a firm view on that issue. Matters that involve the status of third party nationals are intimately bound up with the opt-out that the Prime Minister secured at Amsterdam. Our position is clear-cut.

 
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Prepared 25 April 2001