Imigration Policy

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Mr. Hughes: In relation to the Minister's advice and best estimates across Government of assessments of numbers—and in relation to some of the questions arising from the Select Committee's report—will she confirm that, until about seven or eight years ago, we had a net emigration, but in the past seven years, we have had, almost every year, a small net immigration? Is the current advice to Government that, without some action being taken, that trend is likely to remain the same? Do the Government have an up-to-date figure—both for the UK and as a result of sharing information with other EU member states—on the number of people needed in the work force, because of a lack of skills, in the UK and across the EU? Are they working on the basis of a ball-park figure, which could inform this debate?

Have the Government concluded whether it is equally appropriate to grant both limited immigration, as in the work permit system—at least in the first place—and indefinite, unlimited immigration, as part of future policy development? That would create two categories—people who would apply and be entitled to stay without restriction, irrespective of nationality, from the beginning, and people who would apply but be given permission only for a fixed term, after which the matter would be open for reconsideration.

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman is right that, over the past few years, the figures have shifted slightly. I do not have up-to-date information on the matter, but I shall write to him and other members of the Committee about it. On the UK and the European Union, demographic imperatives apply, and the UK is not as badly affected as some other countries.

In dealing with the skills shortage, we would emphasise the need to invest in the skills and training of people who are currently resident here. Clearly, that has been one of the main policies and manifesto objectives of the Government. We must also have a grown-up debate about what we need, which is part of what I called for in September. That would not only involve those of us who are interested in home affairs issues but business, trade unions and others. It is not simply a question of skills shortages, and the problem must be looked at in the round. Migration is certainly one of the factors that contribute to demographic change, but it is not the only one.

On work permits, the UK tradition—of which I am proud, because it is better than that of many other countries—is that if one has had four years of continuous work permit employment, one can apply for indefinite leave to remain. After one has been given indefinite leave to remain, and if one fulfils the requirements, one can then apply for British citizenship. We have always had a tradition, unlike some other European Union countries, of welcoming settlement on that basis, and that is very good. Some countries do things differently, and we should look beyond the European Union at traditional countries of migration, such as the United States, Canada and Australia. Some of those countries have done interesting things, and we should look at them as part of the debate.

The Government are not making any proposals, apart from the changes that have already been made to the work permit scheme and the innovators scheme, which seems to be creating highly skilled jobs. We shall examine how such schemes bed down and stimulate public debate.

Mr. Corbett: I pick up on the Minister's point about the need to invest in the skills of people who are here already. That clearly would not include people who have arrived illegally and have gone into employment, often in dreadful conditions. Will she confirm that she is familiar with the estimate of the number of illegal immigrants throughout the European Union per year, which has risen from about 40,000 in 1993 to 500,000 last year? In the context of the development of the common immigration policy, has there been discussion about how to deal with illegal immigrants who are present in all our countries, or is it expected that each country will deal with such people in an individual manner?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am aware of his work as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, especially in respect of the report on border controls. This is a complex problem, and the welcome factor about the Commission communication is that it recognises that member states must deal with and deter illegal immigration, in terms of both individual action and collective work. Member states' laws are being broken, and criminal gangs are making huge amounts from smuggling and trafficking people. That is a terrible trade, and we must do all that we can to combat it.

There are measures that we can implement alone, but some of the most important measures are those that involve working with our European Union partners, such as the recent initiative that we led to tackle the trafficking and smuggling problem in the western Balkans. That is important, and involves the sharing of intelligence and information, and the posting of liaison officers. It is not an easy area, and we must ensure that all European Union countries redouble their efforts on it.

Mr. Lidington: In the motion, the Government declare their intention that British immigration policy should not be dissimilar from the policies of other European Union countries. Does that view extend to looking towards the approximation of our internal immigration controls, so that they resemble controls employed by continental countries?

Mrs. Roche: No. All that we say in the motion is that we should ensure that the UK's immigration policies are ``broadly in line'' with those of other member states. However, if we disagree with a policy, it will not be broadly in line. We shall make a decision depending on the policy.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): The Minister referred to the rights of third country nationals, and particularly long-term residents. The Commission's view is that for such people the right of abode in one member state can be transferred to another—a factor in labour mobility within the EU. What are the reasons for the Government's reservations about that?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend is right that we have some reservations. The key conclusion of the heads of Government at Tampere was—rightly, in our view—that rights should be accorded to third country nationals legally resident in member states. That is what it was all about. It is a jump, however, to say that they should therefore be accorded rights of residence in other member states, which is a matter for national Governments to determine on the basis of their own immigration laws and policies.

Mr. Lidington: The Minister will know that the Home Affairs Committee called on the Government to examine the possibility of entitlement cards for people coming into the country. She will also know that the Information Commissioner recently stated that the performance and innovation unit was looking into providing some form of smart card. Will she confirm that those proposals are under active consideration by the Government?

Mrs. Roche: At the risk of incurring the wrath of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), I can say that we found the arguments interesting, but were not persuaded. The issue has much to do with the different ways in which other European countries and this country deal with these matters. We do not all have a system of identity cards and internal checks. We have our own geographically separate and defined border controls, so we take a different view.

Mr. Corbett: Will the Minister confirm that, in response to the Home Affairs Committee report on border controls, the Government accepted that it would be wholly inappropriate to introduce identity cards into the United Kingdom? Some European states widely use such documents, and holders can be stopped by the police and made to produce their card at any time. Are the Government still opposed to that?

Mrs. Roche: I am very happy to confirm that.

Mr. Lidington: But may I press the Minister further? In her response a few moments ago, she referred to the Select Committee proposal, but not to the studies carried out by the performance and innovation unit. Is the PIU considering the use of the smart card, not as a form of identity card to which criminal penalties are attached, but as a form of modern, smart entitlement document, which can be used for some functions that the Select Committee identified as potentially useful for immigration control?

Mrs. Roche: I do not have any precise information on that. If I can obtain any, I shall certainly let the hon. Gentleman know.

Mr. Corbett: Will the Minister confirm that the Select Committee report specifically recommended that entitlement cards should apply to each and every citizen in the United Kingdom, not just to those who arrive to make their home here?

Mrs. Roche: I am glad that my hon. Friend brought me back to that point and I am happy to confirm it.

Mr. Lidington: Do the Government share the analysis of the Commission communication that Britain and other western European countries must find ways of allowing more people to migrate here because they possess skills that our economy demands? The suggestion is that far more people than in recent years should be allowed in on that basis.

Mrs. Roche: As I said in September, we need a debate that we have not had before in the UK on defining our migration needs. Some strong arguments have been advanced, for example by the business community, for managed migration to fulfil certain labour shortages. That is one of the reasons why we reformed the work permit system and made it much more user-friendly. I have alluded to the demographic pressures. We live in an age when not only capital but labour is mobile and we are in a competitive market for people with high levels of skills that they wish to use abroad. The analysis in the Home Affairs Committee report is, like the Committee itself, extremely thoughtful, and it contributes greatly to the debate. The Government want the business community and others to engage in the debate.

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Prepared 25 April 2001