Imigration Policy

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Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): Does the Minister agree that the welcome development of a Community immigration policy would benefit the UK, even though it has not fully signed up to the Schengen agreement?

Mrs. Roche: Absolutely. The communication is not intended to create a firm framework of detailed measures—although, if measures were proposed, we would consider them. One of its aims is to stimulate the debate on migration, and it has achieved that. What is important, especially in the current debate, is to separate migration from asylum. I had the pleasure of listening to Lady Harris on the ``Today'' programme this morning, who said that the two had become muddled. It is interesting that the document specifies migration.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are not inhibited from taking part in the discussion by our position on training, and we very much want to do so.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I apologise for arriving slightly late, Mr. Gale. I was delayed because I was responding to the latest asylum figures, which came out at 9.30 this morning.

I want to ask the Minister three questions. I agree with her that it is important to separate asylum and immigration, as my colleague Lady Harris said earlier on the radio. First, it is sensible to have a European-wide approach to policy, which should be non-discriminatory in respect of the origin of the applicant for immigration into the EU and into the United Kingdom, and of his or her qualifications or competence. The Minister said that we have skills shortages, but there is a danger in saying, ``Yes, we are happy to have an immigration policy with fixed numbers of immigrants,'' and announcing in advance how many there should be, but then saying that we will take only people who have further or higher education qualifications or those with particular skills. That would mean taking into our economy well-skilled people whose countries may need their skills, and not taking those whom we might be able to train, with a view to their returning home with skills that would help their countries.

Liberal Democrats would have a mixed, comprehensive school-type immigration policy, which would take a mixed ability range of immigrants. Those who had low academic qualifications but good manual skills would be equally likely to be able to come here, which would ensure that the United Kingdom did not take the cream of the developed world, leaving poorer countries to train people on whom they would have to spend much more money.

The Chairman: Order. I appreciate the reason for the hon. Gentleman's arriving late, but because he did so he did not hear my admonition that questions should be asked one at a time. I have imposed that restriction on every hon. Member who has spoken.

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting points. I am on record as having said that I firmly believe that immigration laws must be non-discriminatory on grounds of race. I feel slightly pompous for referring to my past speeches on the subject, but in my IPPR speech I was critical of legislation passed by previous Governments, both Labour and Conservative. Immigration policy should not be based on race.

The question whether immigrants should be skilled or unskilled is interesting. All countries are entitled to act in their own best interests, and countries clearly want the best and the brightest people. The most obvious recent example is that of the German Government, who are trying to recruit information technology specialists, especially from India. They have found it difficult because the people whom they are trying to recruit are so highly skilled, and thus so highly sought after, that it is a sellers' market. The specialists can go anywhere in the world because many countries, including the United Kingdom, want them. I am ambitious for the UK to get the best that we can. However, the Government's position is that it depends on what employers want. In my September speech, I called for a debate among employers to tell us what we need. Clearly, there are skill shortages in some areas, such as IT, but there have also been pressures in agriculture. People must make a case.

I should like to deal briefly with the important point that the hon. Gentleman made about developing countries and whether we are poaching people from them. This is a complex argument. Indeed, the report on migration produced by the Home Office research unit and published in January called for more work to be done on the subject. There are some mixed arguments. The Canadian Government have done quite a lot of research showing that the remittances that migrants send back to their families in their source countries and the network effect tend to outweigh the difficulties. Different developing countries have diverse views on this, so clearly much more research is needed. I agree that when we rightly look to our own interests, we should also act in a way that is compatible with our partnership with developing countries.

Mr. Lidington: May I draw the Minister's attention to page 12 of the document and the reference to the Commission's intention to introduce

    ``proposals for the development of common standards for expulsion decisions, detention and deportation''?

Will those be legislative proposals that would be binding on member states? In principle, is this an area of European policy that the Government would be happy to opt into?

Mrs. Roche: As I said before, we examine any proposals carefully and make a decision on whether they would be in the UK's interests. Our primary consideration is always whether they are compatible with the retention of our border controls, and we make our decisions accordingly.

Mr. Hughes: I should like follow on from the Minister's helpful answer and to consider the example of where people with low skills might well be needed and for whom a time spent here might be beneficial, such as hospital cleaners who are hard to find at present. Will she ensure that the policy is formulated and agreed in conjunction with our Commonwealth partners so that they can be happy that we are not proceeding in a way that suggests that this is a fortress Europe, a white man's club or a powerful countries' policy imposed on less powerful countries? Will the agreement of other international forums within the UN and elsewhere also be sought?

Could the process of application to come to the UK be facilitated at the same time? People should be able to obtain proper advice and assistance in the country of origin. Someone might want to leave Sri Lanka because he was unhappy about the politics, but he might also be keen to come for economic reasons. It might be helpful if a representative of the UK Government, the high commission or another EU state mission was there to process that application so that it could be made on the basis of the best case for the individual. Three cases are set out in the document, involving humanitarian, family reunion and economic migration grounds. People also apply on an asylum basis. Has the Minister considered a way in which to ensure that applications to come to this country are made in the home country through a process that ensures that the applicant receives guidance and is given the best opportunity to succeed in his application?

Mrs. Roche: In a sense, we already have that system. Through its consular posts throughout the world, the Foreign Office administers entry clearance. The hon. Gentleman will know from not only his Opposition Front-Bench position but his constituency casework that more money has been put into the entry clearance procedure, part of which is for the provision of information, including publishing pamphlets and a video. A joint entry clearance unit is also being set up to discuss such matters.

Since the Immigration Act 1971, about 60,000 people each year have settled legally in the United Kingdom either through joining a spouse or work permit-related methods. We must consider first how the changes that we have made to the work permit system have bedded down. My colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment have made the work permit system more employer-friendly and much easier to administer. They have enabled it to deal with some of the shortages that have been experienced in certain sectors. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point, our policies are clear and transparent. Giving people information about how such policies operate is important.

Mr. Corbett: When does the Minister expect the European Union to reach agreement on the Community policy? How long will it take to implement it?

Mrs. Roche: It is difficult to say, because what is before us today is a communication. Measures may come from it. I have an inkling that most member states will want their own objectives, perhaps within a Community framework. They will look closely at any particular measures that come through. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful. I do not regard the policy as all-embracing. I expect that, in the next year or so, individual measures will be introduced on which the United Kingdom Government will take a view. I assure my hon. Friend that the biggest movement is that, at last, we are discussing the matter at a European Union-wide level. In Marseilles last summer, it was the subject of a great deal of discussion by Justice and Home Affairs Ministers. I welcome that as a proper step forward.

Mr. Lidington: But did not the Heads of Government commit themselves at both Vienna and Tampere to a timetable that stated that a common European immigration policy would be in effect within five years of the treaty of Amsterdam coming into force? That would mean that the measures would have to be in place by about the middle of 2004. Do the Government believe that such a time scale is desirable and practical?

Mrs. Roche: Before that can happen, other measures may have to be introduced. In my experience as a Minister representing the United Kingdom, such matters take time. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we secured our own border controls, so we can decide on immigration and asylum matters and whether to opt in. We watched progress with a great deal of interest. We will participate in all the discussions and then make our views known. Several asylum measures are currently being discussed, and they are clearly occupying a great deal of the Council's time, so it is not possible to be absolutely precise about the timetable.

 
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Prepared 25 April 2001