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24 Apr 2008 : Column 1541

I want to pay tribute to the Minister. I know that he sometimes feels that the Home Affairs Committee and others in the House are a little harsh on this issue. He has listened to the community and been around the country to hear its concerns. I welcome what he has done: he has been to Tower Hamlets and to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore); he was due to go to Keighley and Manchester only yesterday, but was prevented from doing so by the votes in the House. That kind of first-hand experience is extremely important as the Government decide how to fashion their view.

I am pleased to tell the House that the Home Affairs Committee has decided to hold a detailed inquiry into the points-based system. It will begin in June, and we shall launch it in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who is a member of the Committee. We will travel to India and Bangladesh and take evidence from those who have been and will be affected. At a time when we have a global economy, with a company such as Tata—an Indian company—buying Jaguar, the need for the interchange of technology has never been greater. It is therefore important that we consider how the system operates. The Government are right to take it in stages—not to announce everything immediately but to consider the impact on each of the tiers. I welcome the fact that the Minister has done that. This is the largest shake-up of immigration policy, and we should be very grateful for his enthusiasm and willingness to consult.

The Minister should note, though, the comments of stakeholders—groups such as the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, which has already said clearly to him and to others that it is concerned about the changes to the right of appeal. He will know that in all the speeches on immigration that I ever make, I say that when the Government make a decision through administrative means there should always be the right of appeal. It is absolutely vital that the right of appeal is retained, whether for visitor visas, of which 50 per cent. of appeals are overturned, or for work permits and on issues surrounding the points-based system. I know that the Minister will bear that in mind as he goes through the system and analyses whether it is effective.

The Minister also needs to consider how information is made available to employers. I fear that despite his ambitions in this area and the good work that he is suggesting should be done, many employers are unaware of what is happening. He chooses to advertise in mainstream newspapers, but I hope that he will look at the flourishing ethnic minority media and the regional press. He represents a seat in Birmingham. It is important that the Home Office take out its advertisements in newspapers such as The Birmingham Post and the newspapers of the Asian, South Asian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani communities, so that it makes employers aware of precisely what it proposes as regards these fundamental issues.

Last week there was a lot of talk—the Minister mentioned Trevor Phillips and others—about the fact that it is 40 years since the speech made by Enoch
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Powell in which he predicted for our country rivers of blood. Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford—none of those great cities conformed to the prophecy that he described. That is a tribute to the people of our country—a wonderful, tolerant country that has absorbed a lot of people with different cultures and identities and worked with them in partnership. That is what makes our country so special.

The hon. Member for Ashford is right to say that we should be concerned about the BBC poll and the disappointing statistic that two thirds of the people interviewed thought that there were too many immigrants. Those issues should not be ignored. It is important that we should feel free, not only in this place but outside, to talk about immigration openly and transparently without letting anyone feel that they are being prevented from having those discussions, which are happening in every household in every community in the country.

The real problem is not about legal immigration or people trying to stop chefs coming into this country, but about dealing with illegal immigration. I know that the Government have made efforts on illegal immigration, but I am afraid that they have to do better. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and I recently met the head of the Border and Immigration Agency because I was concerned, as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, that we were not getting the information that was required to make us better informed before we made decisions in the course of our inquiries. I would imagine that every week, on a Monday morning, the Minister would get a report on the numbers of people who have come in and gone out, who have been deported, and who are illegal immigrants who have been arrested and are subject to due process. Yesterday, however, there were newspaper reports claiming that one in three police forces tells its officers not to arrest illegal immigrants but instead to give them directions to an immigration office.

We need to look at enforcement, which is really what concerns the people of this country. There are those who come here illegally and remain illegally, those who do not contribute to the economy, those who do not pay taxes and those who stay for many years because the administrative system allows cases to go on for ever. In an answer at Home Office questions this week, the Minister said that 90 per cent. of cases were dealt with in three months. I do not know where he got that statistic from, but—apart from the Minister, of course—my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North and I probably have two of the biggest such case loads, and I am sorry to say that I do not think that 90 per cent. of the Minister’s cases on applications for indefinite leave are dealt with in three months. I do not find that, and I write at least 50 letters to the BIA every week. I always get the same reply: “We are considering this. It has been allocated to a case worker. They have to wait because there is no timetable.” That is not acceptable, and frankly, it causes resentment.

I want to deal with two issues that concern the restaurant and catering industry. In Britain, 2.4 per cent. of all employment is in restaurants and other catering establishments. The amount spent on the industry is estimated to be £37.6 billion. In 2006, the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs estimated that about 9,500 Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants and
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takeaways in the United Kingdom employ 72,000 people, with an annual turnover of about £3.2 billion. Although those figures are estimates, they show the enormous benefit of this industry to our economy. The industry says that it is facing an unprecedented crisis that, if unresolved, will decimate it. Unfortunately, the crisis has been created by the Government through the points-based system. Each year, the restaurant sector has to recruit several thousand new staff to work in its kitchens. Once they were able to turn to the subcontinent to find talented chefs, brought up with the spices and cooking methods that made a great curry, but now, sadly, they have to fill the vacancies from the EU. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, those skills are simply not available in the EU.

As I have said before, we welcome the enlargement of the EU; I was the Minister for Europe when those discussions originally took place and I am delighted by their success, but to be perfectly frank, the skills needed are not here. They are in the subcontinent. There is no great demand for second-generation immigrants, whether they are Irish, Indian or whatever, to go into the profession unless there is a family necessity for them to do so. When I was younger, I was given the choice of becoming a doctor or a doctor, which is why I became a lawyer. The expectations and the aspirations of the immigrant community change.

We want to ensure that the restaurant industry is maintained in this country, especially in our major cities. There are some terrifically great restaurants, such as Amaya, The Red Fort and Madhu’s Brilliant in Southall, which are some of my favourites. When I last visited one of them, I was told that under the new rules they would lose about 90 per cent. of their chefs. That cannot be what the Home Office intended. The Bangladesh Catering Association estimates that there are now 27,500 vacancies in Bangladeshi-run restaurants. Whenever I hear from them, I find that they are even more concerned about what is proposed.

I should declare an interest, not as a lover of curry because I think that applies to everybody, but as the co-chairman of the Tiffin Cup, which encourages right hon. and hon. Members to nominate their favourite south Asian restaurant. We have a launch soon, and I hope that the Minister will come along to meet some of the chefs in person. It is not just the big restaurants in London that will be affected, but those on every single high street. If the Minister goes back to his constituency, as he does every Friday, and visits any of the south Asian restaurants in Hodge Hill, of which I am sure there are many, he will find that there is a shortage of chefs.

The number of immigration raids on south Asian restaurants worries me, and I have raised the matter with the Minister previously. Let us imagine a Friday night in Brick lane, with the diners sitting in the restaurants, when, suddenly, a whole lot of immigration officers and police officers come through the door. They raid the restaurants in the middle of their busiest period to find illegal immigrants. They go into the kitchen, and ask people to produce their passports and papers, as if everybody goes to work on
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their Oyster card, carrying their immigration file. There is no evidence of any huge illegality in those restaurants.

I have tabled a series of parliamentary questions to the Minister asking him, as a result of the raids that he has authorised—they are authorised by Ministers—how many people have been caught in any of the restaurants. I also asked whether, as well as Brick lane, he chooses to raid some of the bigger establishments, such as the Dorchester. I was at the Dorchester—I am telling hon. Members all my eating habits—last night at a charity awards event. There were at least 50 to 60 waiters there. Let us imagine that the Minister authorised the immigration services to raid the kitchens, and the ensuing disruption. I ask him to think again.

The Minister talks about the language of the kitchen and the necessity for English. The language of the kitchen in some of those restaurants is not English, but excellence, because people go to restaurants for excellent food. If the Minister does not believe me about the language of the kitchen and the fact that some of those great restaurants will lose their chefs, I issue him a challenge. He is good at accepting my challenges—indeed, so far, he has always done so. I challenge him to spend a day at one of the restaurants and experience the language of the kitchen.

Mr. Dismore: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend may be about to invite the Minister to Hendon, but I made my offer first.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend the Minister has already accepted my offer to visit Chinatown and spend some time in the kitchens of a Chinese restaurant.

Keith Vaz: I am pleased to hear that. Whatever the kitchen, we do not have a problem. I invite the Minister to come to hear the language of the kitchen, whether Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, Lebanese—I cannot go through the whole list. I simply encourage him to go somewhere to see what it is like.

The highly skilled migrant programme victory was the right decision. I do not say that simply because it was made by a distinguished High Court judge, Sir George Newman. I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford that retrospective law is not good law. I do not know whether the Government will appeal against the decision, but I have many constituents, as do several other hon. Members—I note that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who intervened earlier, had a similar problem with a constituent—who are affected.

The Minister conducted a meeting with me last year at which he heard concerns about the 49,000 people who came here on the highly skilled migrant programme. We understand why the Government have to intervene in immigration law—we live on a small island and we cannot have unlimited immigration—but such intervention should always be fair and just, and not retrospective. I have been a Member of Parliament for 21 years. Every year, there has been an immigration Bill and new immigration rules. I know that the Minister grasps the issues—more than others do, to be frank. The key is not to keep changing the law and creating uncertainty. Let us consider the consequences.

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Like the hon. Member for Ashford, I accept the points-based system in principle, subject to the inquiry that the Select Committee will tackle. However, the Minister should know that, last year, a delegation went to see his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who invented the points-based system—I do not blame the Minister for that—and pointed out precisely what would happen. We now have a chance to re-examine the process. I hope very much that the Minister will use this debate in his deliberations. I recognise his sincerity and the integrity with which he has held office. However, I urge him not to pass laws just because they help the Government’s case with the tabloid press, but to pass good and just laws that will not have an effect on the very communities on whom we, the settled community, rely and whose livelihoods are now at stake.

4.20 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). He made a number of good points and reminded the House, for the first time in this debate, of the rather shameful anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and of how, because of the tolerance in this country, he was comprehensively wrong about the results of the policy about which he was complaining. He was also right on enforcement and absolutely right to remind the Minister of the importance of rights of appeal and due process, which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches thoroughly support.

We broadly welcome the points-based immigration system, as it will simplify the mess of different immigration schemes, which is all to the good. We also hope—although we do not yet trust—that the system will dramatically improve what can only be described as the chaos of the current arrangements. The increased public concern over immigration reflects a lack of confidence that the Government know what they want, understand what they are doing or are delivering what people in this country need.

The most damning example of that chaos was the decision, made also by Ireland and Sweden, to allow immigration from the new member states of the European Union after 2004. The Liberal Democrats supported that decision on the basis of the Government’s projections that immigration would be 13,000 people a year. In other words, on the Government’s projections, immigration from the eight accession states would total some 52,000 to the end of last year. However, we now know that actual immigration has totalled 766,000.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is a Member whom I respect on such issues, but I urge him not to play the numbers game. So what if 700,000 people have come here? Have they not contributed to our country?

Chris Huhne: We should always be careful about the numbers game, and the right hon. Gentleman is correct to make that point. However, when an important projection that, after all, has so many consequences,
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which I shall describe later, is so wrong, the House and the Government have to take that into account.

Frankly, the scale of the error is breathtaking. Actual immigration was 1,373 per cent. higher than the forecast. In years of scrutinising Government projections, which I have to own up to as a former economist—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) is not here, as she is a great expert in the effect that differences between large numbers can have—I cannot remember another projection, even for difficult objectives such as borrowing, that was wrong by such an order of magnitude. As we know, Christopher Columbus thought that he had discovered India, when in fact he was in America. By comparison with the Home Office, he was a practitioner of pinpoint navigation.

Mr. Bone: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Is not one of the problems with the points-based system that it applies only to non-EEA countries and that huge influxes from the European Union therefore distort everything that we are trying to achieve?

Chris Huhne: The chances of our having a huge influx from the European Union in normal years are minimal. However, I shall come to that point later, when the hon. Gentleman will perhaps want to intervene on me if he disagrees.

It is bizarre that even when it became clear that the estimates for EU immigration were wildly wrong, the Government did not take rapid countervailing measures. Clearly they could not do much to affect the flow from the accession states; nor would it have been right to do so. We in this country benefit enormously from the free movement of people in the European Union. Indeed, more British people live in other member states than other member states’ nationals live here. That might have something to do with the sunshine or with other factors. Whatever the reason, pulling up the drawbridge on other EU nationals could cause a wholesale repatriation of British pensioners from Spain and Portugal, for example, which would be disastrous for our own public services and would deprive many of our citizens of an option that they clearly prefer.

However, it would be wise to use immigration flows from non-EU countries, over which we have some control, as a balancing factor. The Government have not done that. Therefore, net immigration—immigration minus emigration from the UK—of non-British people trebled from fewer than 100,000 a year in the early 1990s to more than 300,000 in 2006. That is a large, completely unplanned and unforeseen increase.

As I have said, the British people are a tolerant lot. We have been open to waves of immigration on a greater scale throughout our history than almost any other European country, and we have benefited enormously from that. Far from being an island fastness, our easy access to the sea means that we have always been more open than many other countries. However, one thing that the British people will rightly not tolerate is incompetence from their Government, but that is what we have seen in the mismanagement of immigration over the past 10 years.

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Nor can the official Opposition escape responsibility in this regard, as it was the last Conservative Government who took leave of their senses and began the process of dismantling exit controls. Perhaps they thought that we did not need to worry about anyone leaving. However, their action ignored the disastrous consequence that we were no longer able to check whether non-EU visitors had overstayed their visas. An essential element of control was lost, and that is why the Liberal Democrats have argued that the Government must get a grip on the management of immigration through a national border force—an idea that has now been taken up elsewhere in the House—and the reintroduction of exit controls.

The results of the recent mismanagement were detailed by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). They include local authorities not having the resources to tackle the needs of new communities, health authorities being unable to plan for the needs of their populations, and police services being stretched because population projections have been so far out. There have also been parts of the country in which particular trades have been hard hit. It is not easy for a trained brickie to find that their skills now earn only a fraction of what they got a couple of years ago. If the points-based system gives us a better grip on these random impacts of immigration, that will be all to the good, and a balancing factor between EU and non-EU immigration seems to be an essential part of that, alongside a greater effort to predict and respond to local impacts and to ensure that local authorities have the means to make the necessary adjustments.

The official Opposition have called for a national cap on immigration, which suggests that they have forgotten their other commitment, to the market economy. The needs of market economies are not always easy to forecast, and they are certainly impossible to plan. There has to be a flexibility, which a rigid cap would belie. With great respect to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who intervened to give us instruction on what it means to respect market economics and the price level, I have to tell him that when I was employing people in the City, there were occasions on which I needed to hire someone with particularly unusual skills that I could find only in New York or elsewhere. The idea that there was going to be a sudden market clearing because the price would go up was absolute nonsense, because it takes a number of years to train someone and to equip them with an economics PhD, let alone some of the other qualifications required. If the official Opposition’s policy had been operating at that time, the impact on my business could have been devastating. We must not use excessively blunt policy instruments to score cheap hits in the tabloid headlines.

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