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Westminster Hall

Monday 7 March 2016

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

Non-EU Citizens: Income Threshold

4.30 pm

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 118060 relating to the income threshold for non-EU citizens settling in the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I want first to read out the petition so that people who read the debate in Hansard later can see what we are talking about. It is entitled “Scrap the £35k threshold for non-EU citizens settling in the UK”. It goes on:

“In April (2016) the Home Office and Theresa May are introducing a pay threshold for people to remain here, after already working here for 5 years. This only affects non-EU citizens that earn under £35,000 a year, which unfairly discriminates against charity workers, nurses, students and others.

This ridiculous measure is only going to affect 40,000 people who have already been living and working in the UK for 5 years, contributing to our culture and economy. It will drive more workers from the NHS and people from their families. This empty gesture will barely affect the immigration statistics. It’s a waste of time, money and lives.

This is the first time the UK has discriminated against low-earners. £35k is an unreasonably high threshold. The UK will lose thousands of skilled workers.”

I will now return to using my own words; my own views may be slightly different. I should add that the Select Committee on Home Affairs has considered the issue as part of a wider report on skills, and on how the tier 2 and other visa categories affect skilled workers coming into the country, to which the Government responded in February.

I have been a member of the Petitions Committee since it was set up in May, and the petition before the House is one of a number that have hit the public’s imagination since the e-petition system began. However, from memory, I think this is the first pro-immigration petition to be debated. I have led on one that wanted a stop to all immigration now; and we had a quite interesting discussion about a certain Mr Trump, relating largely to his comments about immigration in the US. This is the first to look at immigration from a positive point of view, and to deal with a specific part of immigration policy. I hope that we will have an interesting debate on how the policy affects people, the contribution that people make when they come to this country and bring their skills here, including economically and culturally, and what we need to do to control mass uncontrolled immigration. I think that there is, largely, consensus that we always need to do more to address that.

I have a few general concerns about the wording of the petition, which are the sort of thing I would say to anyone considering putting something on the e-petition website. Some of the wording was not what I would have chosen—such as referring to a “ridiculous measure” and saying that it

“is only going to affect 40,000 people”.

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I think a lot of people who are concerned about immigration will say that 40,000 is effectively just over 10%—about 15%—of the current net migration figure, which is quite a lot. It is quite a high percentage that the Government are looking at, when we are talking about trying to control immigration as a whole.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government cannot apply such a measure to European Union citizens precisely because we are European Union citizens and are consequently prevented from discriminating in the matter of free movement of EU citizens? Does he agree that it would be better, fairer and more just to everyone if we operated migration on the basis of British citizenship, so that we could treat people fairly, wherever they came from?

Paul Scully: I very much agree and will speak about that later. I think we are acting with one arm tied behind our back within the structures of our immigration policy.

The petition also calls the policy an “empty gesture”, which

“will barely affect the immigration statistics.”

However, if we are talking about 40,000 people, it will do more than that. I do not think it is a waste of time. The petition says:

“This is the first time the UK has discriminated against low-earners. £35k is an unreasonably high threshold.”

I suspect that the debate will tease out the various types of occupations that may or may not be affected.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP): Of course, the occupations that will be affected are key to the debate. It will not be possible to recruit nurses, or teachers of science, technology, engineering and maths, from abroad. Gaping holes in those areas will not be filled.

Paul Scully: The hon. Lady is second-guessing what I was going to say, because I contend that the shortage occupation list, which is the second part of the tier 2 visa rules, takes that into account. Although the petition goes on about nurses, they are on the shortage occupation list. It also mentions charity workers, who tend to be dealt with on tier 5 visas, for temporary workers; and students, who tend to have tier 4 international student visas. Therefore there are a few factual inaccuracies in the petition, but none the less there are some real concerns within various occupations, and it is right that the people in question should make representations so that we can consider them. We should bear it in mind that the Migration Advisory Committee regularly looks at the list, and it is important that it should continue to do so.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): The economy relies on a wide variety of skills, and not all are paid at similar rates. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a banker in the City will earn much more than, say, a classical musician? The blanket application of one threshold for all industries is inherently unfair.

Paul Scully: If that were the case, then yes, it would be, but I think that is where the shortage occupation list comes in. For example, a classical ballet dancer has an exemption of £20,800 and so will not be affected by the £35,000 limit. The threshold is far lower. I cannot say

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what the market rate is for a classical ballet dancer, but there are such exemptions. That is why it is very important that the Migration Advisory Committee should keep the list under regular close inspection and review, covering such examples as the hon. Lady has mentioned.

Tier 2 is intended for skilled workers. The majority of reasonable people—if we can get past the people who say we should stop all immigration now—would consider immigration to play a positive economic and cultural role in the country. We bring in some fantastic migrant entrepreneurs and, as has been said, nurses, as well as pharmacists and people who work in the cultural industries such as music, dance and the arts. Those people contribute to the UK and the fabric of the country. In some cases they do jobs for which we cannot find the skills in this country, and they can help to train and upskill our own citizens.

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP): In response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), the hon. Gentleman talked about extending the policy to European Union citizens. Would he allow other European Union member states, where 1.26 million UK citizens live, to do the exact same to UK citizens?

Paul Scully: At the end of the day, when we talk about the European Union, we are talking about being able to control our own borders. We are talking about the skilled people we want in this country. My personal view is that I would like the UK to leave the EU, in order to get skilled people from other countries across the world. However, in the context of our debate, the best we can do is look at tackling immigration from outside the EU, work out the skills we need and the various industries that need particular help from outside, and work through the tier 2 visa rules in terms of the threshold and the various exemptions we have talked about.

Mr Baker: Does my hon. Friend agree that the key point is that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to continue to discriminate against people who are from outside the European Union, in favour of people from the European Union? That is the crucial point. The EU puts us in a position where we are discriminating against non-EU citizens; that should end.

Paul Scully: Yes. I have dealt with the curry industry—this may sound slightly random, but bear with me for a second. A lot of people representing that industry complain of the fact that two curry restaurants a week are closing down, out of the 10,000 or so around the country. There are lots of different reasons for that, one of which is that the restaurants are failing to attract skilled chefs. The associations and the trade bodies tell me that the restaurants can hire an unskilled person from another European country; that person can therefore come over here and get a job at the expense of a skilled chef with experience from, say, Bangladesh.

Carol Monaghan: In what way would raising the pay threshold to £35,000 alleviate that problem?

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Paul Scully: Frankly, it would not, which is why I am not going to make that case. Leaving the EU would mean that we did not have to pinpoint all our immigration policy on tackling immigration from outside the EU, which at the moment is the only lever we have to pull. We cannot do anything about immigration from within the EU because of rules on the free movement of people. People from, say, Bangladesh or India—countries that are going to dominate the world economy for the next few decades—are therefore at an unfair disadvantage to unskilled people from within the EU. I was therefore not going to make that case.

The threshold will apply only to workers in graduate occupations. Given the way our skills and skills agenda have changed over the past few years, more and more occupations are falling into that category. Years ago, nurses did not need a degree, but now they do, as nurses are taking on more and more responsibilities—responsibilities akin to those of doctors, in many cases. They are highly qualified and highly skilled, and rightly so. We certainly need to ensure that we can attract the very best nurses to this country.

Any employer that wants to take someone on under the skilled work category needs to carry out a resident labour market test, in order to prove that the job cannot be filled from within our domestic market. PhD-level jobs are exempt, and as I said, shortage occupation list workers are also exempt.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the domestic market. Would that exclude Ireland, with which we have had a free movement agreement since the early 1920s, and every Irish citizen?

Paul Scully: That is an interesting point. All I was saying about leaving the EU is that we would have control of what we do. We have had control of what we do with Ireland for a number of years, well before we were members of the European Union.

The Migration Advisory Committee looked at this issue in December 2015 and recommended a salary cap of about £30,000. It acknowledged:

“The Government’s core objective is to significantly reduce the level of economic migration from outside the EEA.”

The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government’s focus is on training domestic workers. That is the right long-term plan. I talked about curry chefs earlier. I know that the Government have talked about setting up training colleges, apprenticeships and that sort of thing. In the long term, that is absolutely the way to go. The curry industry and a number of other industries have struggled to get to grips with and adapt to the change in Government policy over the past few years. Those industries have been trying to push against the changes, but now that the rules are starting to come in and bite, they have realised that it is too late to make changes that they could have made over a number of years.

Even if the Government do not reverse their policy, I hope that they will be understanding and sympathetic to these industries, working with industry leaders and trade bodies to ensure that, where possible, compromises can be made to help the industries cope. The curry industry that I keep talking about is worth £3.5 billion to the UK economy and employs around 100,000 people. It would be a tragedy to see a UK industry of that level wither on the vine.

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Tier 2 has a role to play. When I was campaigning, immigration was certainly the No. 1 issue on the doorstep. It came up time and again. Everybody was saying to me, “You know what? We need a points-based system.” Well, we have one; we have had one since 2008, and the tier 2 visa system forms part of that process. To work out whether someone can get a tier 2 visa, they need to be able to show their income, and information in a number of other categories, and they then get points on the basis of that information.

Several Members here will have received the briefing from the Royal College of Nursing. I know that the threshold is of concern to the RCN, and nurses have already been mentioned today. I am glad that nurses are on the shortage occupation list; that is important, especially when we are trying to recruit more nurses and bring more of them into the national health service. Obviously, it takes time to train nurses, so we have to find them from somewhere. According to the RCN, 3,365 nurses would have been affected if they had not been on that list. The shortage occupation list has to iron out unintended consequences, but it still provides the default position that the UK should supply its own workforce wherever possible. That is the right thing to do.

We must bear in mind that the tier 2 visa system is only one tool in controlling immigration. The Government have done a number of very good things on immigration, such as closing down 920 bogus colleges, slashing 45,000 visas from the further education route, cutting family visas by a third, restricting access to public services through the Immigration Act 2014 and cutting abuses of those services. All those measures have had an effect, but there is still more we can do, and we must do so for the reasons I have given.

There are only a certain number of avenues that the Government can control. The issue of unskilled labour from the EU is not one of them, unfortunately. The UK economy is the biggest pull factor for migration. We have talked a lot in debates in the main Chamber about welfare changes, but ultimately the biggest pull factor for migration is the state of the UK economy—it is the fact that we have had the fastest-growing economy in the western world and have been creating more jobs in the UK than the rest of Europe put together. When there is double-digit unemployment in parts of southern Europe, of course the UK will be an attractive place to come, so we need to do more on immigration.

It is important that we have a good debate. We have to keep on controlling mass immigration, which affects infrastructure and can often affect social cohesion. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on some of the industries and occupations that are struggling to keep up with the pace of change, and at least acknowledge that they need comfort, support and the right words, so that they realise that they are valued in the UK economy and throughout our public services. I look forward to a vibrant debate.

4.49 pm

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the organisers of the petition on their achievement in getting 100,000 signatures from all across the UK. I note that more than 100 people in my constituency have signed it.

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I believe that the petition has got one thing wrong: the Government have form when it comes to discriminating against low earners. For instance, such discrimination is part and parcel of the restriction on the right of people earning less than £18,600 a year to bring a non-EU spouse into this country. That not only restricts the right to family life of many people on low incomes but disproportionately affects women, young people, those from more deprived areas of the UK and workers in lower-waged sectors of the economy.

I am sure I will be echoing the concerns of other Members in saying that we need to keep driving home the message that the Government’s attitude towards the management of immigration is wrong-headed. The measure that we are debating today will do yet more damage to their reputation and that of the UK. Its message was well summarised in an online headline, which said: “Britain To Foreign Workers: If You Don’t Make $50,000 A Year, Please Leave”.

The Government’s response to the petition illustrates their attitude and the tone in which they conduct this debate. They talk of “uncontrolled mass immigration” making it difficult to maintain social cohesion, putting pressure on public services and driving down wages for people on low incomes, yet this measure deals only with people entering the UK to take up a graduate-level job, many of whom come here to work in vital public services in which there are considerable skills shortages. Despite the fact that some of those services are on shortage occupation lists and will not be affected in the short term, it is concerning to see what a high proportion of them attract salaries of less than £35,000. That suggests that the bar is set too high.

Margaret Ferrier: The National Union of Journalists has concerns that the income threshold will have a huge impact on media workers, including people employed at the BBC World Service. Does my hon. Friend share those concerns?

Kirsten Oswald: I do. The measures could cause difficulties in many sectors, including the one that my hon. Friend mentions.

This policy seems to be more about portraying an image than the effect that it will have. Even its proponents admit that it will have little, if any, effect on the actual level of immigration to the UK. In its initial report on this topic, the Migration Advisory Committee said that

“it is likely that, to some extent, migrants prevented from staying beyond five years will be replaced by new migrants.”

Paul Scully: Does the hon. Lady not consider 40,000 fewer people coming to the UK to be a reasonably significant reduction?

Kirsten Oswald: I point the hon. Gentleman to what I said before; there will be churn, with people coming in and out of the UK.

The Migration Advisory Committee went on to say that

“the impact on the UK migrant stock of applying a pay criterion will probably be lower than…estimates suggest.”

Indeed, the Home Office’s own impact assessment talks of the policy potentially leading to a “churn of migrant inflows”.

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Many commentators have expressed reservations about applying such a simplistic measure as a single pay benchmark to the granting of settlement. Many of the consultees see the need for greater flexibility than is reflected in the Government’s policy. Perhaps not surprisingly, I find myself in agreement with the Scottish Government, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, have criticised the crude use of wage levels, because many essential occupations are not necessarily well paid. In addition, as the Scottish Government and others have pointed out, there are significantly different wage levels across the UK. In most cases, people with the same occupation and the same skill level are paid different amounts in London, for instance, compared with other parts of the UK.

The Migration Advisory Committee report on the impact of the policy highlights the fact that only London has a mean wage for graduate occupations that is higher than the UK average. All other nations and regions are below the average—in some cases considerably so. The spread from the mean graduate wage in London to that in Wales is more than £15,000, and it is difficult to see how a standard wage requirement of £35,000 for tier 2 applicants for residence can meet the needs of all areas. The notion that there is a single UK economy and demography, which can be managed by one-size-fits-all policies, is a fiction that should have been abandoned long ago. Of course, it is possible to construct models and reports that treat the UK as a single economic entity, but that does not make the whole UK the appropriate level at which to apply policy change. It is a long hard struggle to get this House to recognise that.

Since devolution, Scottish Administrations, regardless of party, have highlighted that our demographic experience does not match that of the rest of the UK. No country with which Scotland shares either a land or sea border has seen such low population growth, but as with other issues of particular interest to Scotland, this place has shown a long-term lack of interest in the causes of that relative decline. In 2000, Scotland’s population was lower than it had been in 1970. By contrast, the rest of the UK, Ireland, Norway and Iceland had all experienced significant population growth over that period. The coincidence of a booming oil industry off Scotland’s shores with population stagnation represented gross mismanagement of Scotland’s economic potential. Other parts of the UK, outwith London and the south-east, have experienced similar problems.

It was disappointing to see just how little consideration the Migration Advisory Committee gave to the regional impact of the policy. When we see that the committee contains seven members, none of whom are based north of Birmingham, we perhaps get some idea of their perspective. With three of the committee members either currently working at the London School of Economics or having studied there, it begins to look like a committee with a particular outlook and remit. With the growing level of devolution of economic decision making across the nations, regions and even the cities of the UK, there is no justification for such an influential committee reflecting so narrow a perspective on such a vital topic as immigration policy.

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Given the importance of demography, and particularly the impact of work-related migration on the economic future of all parts of the UK, it is vital that a wider perspective is brought to bear on this issue. Perhaps the UK Government will live up to their promise of treating devolved Administrations with respect and put the question of immigration rules and the make-up of the Migration Advisory Committee on the agenda of the Joint Ministerial Committee. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that he and his colleagues in the Department will consider that.

4.57 pm

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I think this is the first time that I have spoken in a Westminster Hall debate under the Petitions Committee system. I tried to squeeze into the debate on the Women Against State Pension Inequality petition, but I arrived about two minutes too late to get a seat, so I ended up sitting in what I believe is grandly called the “Press Gallery”—that little bench over at the side of the room—much to the chagrin of some members of the press. However, the fact that the Petitions Committee allows such debates to be triggered is a welcome development in this Parliament.

I note from the information provided by the Committee that 551 of my constituents have signed this petition—the 32nd highest number in the country—out of the 102,748 people who had signed the petition when I checked earlier this afternoon. I noticed that some of the constituencies with the highest number of signatories were held by Labour Members, so it is rather disappointing to see the paucity of Back Benchers from what is supposed to be the official Opposition party at such an important debate.

In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) noted that there had been a variety of immigration-based petitions, some of them pro-immigration and some less keen on various aspects of immigration. That demonstrates a disconnect across the country on the issues. There is certainly not any consensus behind the Government’s position, which seems to me to be driven by ideology and an obsession with the net migration target. It does not reflect any kind of consensus among the population at large, and certainly not among political parties or the different regions and nations of the United Kingdom.

We in the Scottish National party we recognise that effective immigration controls are important, but the £35,000 threshold that we are discussing is just another poorly thought out, unfair immigration policy from the Government. I want briefly to look at the principles behind the policy and the complexity of it, and I will raise a couple of specific concerns and the need for a fairer approach.

As I said, it is pretty clear to SNP Members that the UK Government’s immigration policy comes from a certain kind of ideology and a determination to pander to some of the more unpleasant elements of the support for the Conservative party and some other parties. The 100,000 net migration target does not seem to be based on any needs analysis of what might be good for this society’s economy. Rather, it is a nice round number that sounds quite big, and the Government hope that it will placate certain Back Benchers and UK Independence

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party voters. Incidentally, and interestingly, UKIP voters seem to be concentrated in constituencies that do not have much immigration or many asylum seekers.

The effect of the target has been a whole series of unintended consequences and ever more tortuous mechanisms to try to reach the target, focusing on smaller and smaller sub-groups of immigrants. That is having a disproportionate impact on the economy, society, communities and, most importantly, the lives of individuals.

Despite all that, there have been reports that net migration is beginning to fall, even if, at 323,000, it is much higher than the Government’s arbitrary target. Such an arbitrary target is almost impossible to reach, because so many factors that affect it are outwith the Government’s control. For a start, they cannot change the number of UK citizens who, rightly and legitimately, might want to leave the United Kingdom to live and work in other parts of the world, whether in the European Union, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, or in other parts of the world. Nowhere in UK policy does there seem to be any consideration of how other countries might react to people from this part of the world who want to leave to work overseas.

That brings me to some of the failings of the proposal. A disappointing lack of parliamentary scrutiny has preceded its introduction, as is true of many aspects of immigration reform. This debate should be the beginning of a scrutiny process rather than, as is more likely, the end, after which the reforms will be introduced. As far as I am aware, there has never been a vote in the House on the matter, nor is there likely to be one.

Our approach is at odds with that of many other countries that are trying to attract and retain expertise and skilled workers. In 2011, the Institute for Public Policy Research said in response to the original proposal:

“It is significant that no other major country is moving in this direction. Indeed, countries whose skilled migration policies are widely praised, such as Canada or New Zealand, are taking precisely the opposite approach: they may be fairly selective about who is allowed to enter, but they assume that those who do enter will settle, and have integration policies designed to make that work.”

Martin Docherty-Hughes: Does my hon. Friend recognise that one reason why Canada and other nations are going in the opposite direction is the ageing population in the northern hemisphere and the limitations on the ability to deal with it?

Patrick Grady: Absolutely. An ageing population and a declining birth rate have disproportionately affected Scotland and various regions of the United Kingdom. That goes back to my point about immigration policy being designed to placate voters and political parties in parts of the country that do not have such a situation.

Bodies in a number of sectors have expressed a wide range of concerns about the policy. The Government have responded to some extent to the concerns expressed by the Royal College of Nursing and others about the impact on the health service, but my understanding is that the proposal to put nursing into a skills shortage category will be temporary, with no guarantees about what might happen in future.

We have heard about the impact on other sectors that rely on special skills but do not necessarily pay above the £35,000 threshold. My background is in the international

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development charitable sector. People come to that sector with a whole range of skills and experiences, but £35,000 is a pretty high salary in such a field.

We have heard quite a bit about the catering industry. I was reminded of a video that was doing the rounds on social media at the weekend: the famous Rowan Atkinson sketch from the 1980s in which he speaks as a Conservative politician saying, “Well, you know, we welcome these people from different parts of the world, and they brought us exotic cuisine such as curry, but now that we’ve learnt the recipe, there is no real need for any more of them.” That was supposed to be satire, yet here we are hearing exactly that sort of sentiment expressed by today’s Tory Government.

I have just come from the all-party group on music’s live music briefing. Our creative sectors benefit hugely from people being able to come into the country to share their expertise, drawing on our rich cultural heritage and bringing their own. Again, £35,000 is a significant salary in those sectors, especially in the early years of work. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) made a point about churn in such sectors. As a result of the policy, people might come for five or six years and then have to leave, only to try to come back 12 or 18 months down the line.

Paul Scully: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whether it is in the catering industry, the music industry or any other industry, the Government’s default position on lower-paid jobs should be to train our own people first, and then to attract the skills we need beyond that?

Patrick Grady: Yes, but those things need not be contradictory. People can come here with specific skills, and learn, develop and share their skills in different ways. The system will allow people to be here for five or six years precisely to develop professional skills and, hopefully, work their way up the ladder, but if they do not meet the arbitrary threshold they will face having to leave the country, forcing potential employers to start again, ultimately with more cost. The Government’s paper on the issue, signed on 14 March 2012 by the Minister who was responsible at the time, states that there will be a reduction

“in economic output—estimated at £181m to £575m over 10 years”.

Even the Government’s own estimate is that the policy will have a negative impact on the economy, but clearly they believe it is a price worth paying to hit their arbitrary target.

The impact on the economy, society and culture as a whole is important, but so is the impact on individuals. I suspect that all of us—certainly all SNP Members—have had constituents in similar circumstances. If they are not directly affected by the income threshold, they are certainly victims of other pernicious aspects of the UK Government’s immigration policy.

The first time I was drawn to ask a question in Prime Minister’s questions—in fact, the only time—I raised the case of my constituent Steve Forman. I do not expect the Minister to have the details in front of him, but Dr Forman is a highly skilled musician, percussionist and teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He did not meet a particular income threshold, so he was being forced out of the country. He was not costing the taxpayer a penny. He was earning an income on which he was paying tax. He has access to a private income

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from his considerable years of work and experience around the world. He was a musician for David Bowie, among many of his contributions, yet the Home Office saw fit to try to deport him. That is what is costing the taxpayer money. A fortune is being spent on appeals, tribunals and further legal processes. My constituent could have been allowed to stay in the country. He is still here, but with a massive question mark over his appeal, which seems to be snarled up. I do not expect an immediate response from the Minister, but a letter telling us where we are with his case would be much appreciated. That is but one of the many examples that come to our surgeries daily.

Immigration is essential to the strength of our economy and greatly adds to the social and cultural fabric of the country. This proposal is, sadly, one more aspect of an ideologically driven Tory policy that is all about pulling up the drawbridge irrespective of the needs of the economy and society across the United Kingdom. When when I raised the case of my constituent at Prime Minister’s questions, I said that if the UK Government did not want to introduce an immigration policy suitable to Scotland’s needs, they could devolve immigration powers to Scotland and let us develop a policy that would work in Scotland’s interests.

Our vision is of a fair and sensible system of managed migration, with a measured strategy to make the most of the huge benefits that immigration can bring to the UK and Scotland. That stands in stark contrast with the Conservative approach. I have no doubt that we on the SNP Benches will continue to stand up for that, whether in Westminster Hall or during discussion of legislation on the Floor of the House.

5.9 pm

Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP): I am delighted to speak in this debate, but like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), I wish the attendance was rather better. I do not want to score any political points, but I do think that a fairly nasty and pernicious little proposal is being put forward and it is incumbent on us all to encourage our colleagues to take this a little more seriously and show more interest in it.

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tommy Sheppard: I will of course. Perhaps a meeting is going on that I do not know about.

Keir Starmer: I let that comment go the first time, but hon. Members will see on the screen that in the main Chamber at the moment there is a debate on a Home Office Bill, in which very many of my colleagues are down to speak. It is unfortunate that there is a clash, but it is not fair to read into that a lack of interest in this debate. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has seen the screen and realised that that Bill is now being debated in the main Chamber.

Tommy Sheppard: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his point. As I said, I am genuinely not trying to score a political point. I am simply saying

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that we need to encourage colleagues to take more interest in this debate, this subject and this proposal in particular.

Since my election to the House, I have discovered that this is a place rich in irony, and I have been overloaded with it today. I have come to this debate from Portcullis House, where I was at an exhibition of scientists, engineers and technologists, who are trying to show Parliament pioneering work in which they are involved. I met three young people working at Edinburgh University on doctorates. One was from England, one from Italy and one from the United States of America. I am fairly confident that if this little proposal goes through, we will have to say to Laura Underwood, who is pioneering clean water technology at the University of Edinburgh, that if she is successful in discovering something new in that technology, she will not be welcome to stay in this country and realise that and get a job to develop it unless she is earning more than £35,000 a year, which in a first-time job, when someone has just graduated, is pretty near impossible. If some people in the House get their way and we manage to pull out of and turn our backs on the European Union, down the line we would have to say something similar to Enrico Anderlini, who is working on developing new forms of wave technology—that he would not be welcome here as an Italian unless he was earning £35,000 a year, which for a young 20-something is pretty hard to do. It is very ironic indeed that I should come from that gathering to discuss a policy that seems to be set up to put a major hurdle in front of such people.

I am here today because more than 1,000 of my constituents have signed this petition and because many people have written to me, giving examples of what the proposal will mean for them as individuals. I think—I welcome some of the comments so far—that we need to change the whole way in which we debate immigration in this country and we need to start in this Chamber by setting the pace and setting an example of how that should be done. Immigration is undeniably a good thing for our economy; it is a good thing for our communities, and it is a good thing for humanity and the individuals who are involved in that process. If we had not had immigration or migration over the centuries, this world would be a much more miserable and unliveable place than it is today, so I would be glad if we could at least try to couch the debate in positive terms.

I note the statistic that has been thrown up in the debate that net migration—this is seen as a horrible thing—was about one third of a million people last year. I thought to myself on the train down this morning, “Well, how much is that really?” It is about one in every 200 people in the United Kingdom, so in a town of, say, 20,000 people, it would mean that 100 people have come over the last year to live in that place. I cannot square that statistic with the thoughts in some people’s minds about our being overrun by alien hordes or alien cultures and the country’s being swamped by migrants. That is clearly ludicrous, so we could at least get a sense of perspective.

I understand that in some communities, among some of our citizens, there is deep apprehension about migration. I understand in particular that many of the people who are living at the margins of society and who feel themselves to have very little are susceptible to the argument that says, “You can’t afford to be generous to people from

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elsewhere in the world. You need to be hard-faced about this and turn your backs on these people.” I do not agree with that approach, but I can understand why some people will develop it. It concerns me that we have politicians who want to manipulate that prejudice and who, rather than confronting with evidence the assumptions on which it is based, pander to it and try to use it for political capital. That is all of us going to hell in a handcart if we do not pull back from that general direction.

Although I can understand that type of feeling when it comes to whether we should take tens of thousands of refugees fleeing warzones in the third world, I cannot for one minute understand that when it comes to the question of tier 2 visas. Tier 2 visas, let us remind ourselves, are given to people who are coming to work here in a job that has already been advertised locally and that no one living in the area wants to take, so how that can be described as anything other than a positive benefit and contribution to our economy and our community, I do not know.

I want to question—the Minister will perhaps answer this—the rationale, the logic, behind saying that people have to earn a certain amount of money, a certain salary, to be able to come here, but a different amount of money, a different salary, to be able to stay here. That seems ludicrous; and the £35,000 a year figure is arbitrary. I need to hear the justification for it, because it certainly does not work in my constituency—in my city. It takes no account whatever of regional variations within the United Kingdom in employment and in salaries. Whereas there might be places in the middle of London where £35,000 is regarded as some sort of miserly salary, I can tell hon. Members that it is regarded as a very good salary indeed in my constituency. If we set that as the limit, all that will do is further imbalance the UK economy towards London and the south-east and those areas that are already sucking the lifeblood out of it, so I would caution people when thinking about trying to manipulate migration to this country so that it favours London and the south-east rather than the rest of the country.

The proposal also demonstrates no recognition of different industries. A constituent wrote to me and said, “This seems to indicate that the Secretary of State has a value system behind this—that they view some jobs as more important than others and that if someone is working in banking or finance and earning a good salary, they are regarded as inherently more valuable and someone we would want more than someone who is working in a lower-paid job in our public services or in the arts and creative industries.”

I want to make the point in particular about the arts and creative industries. This issue is particularly relevant to a city such as Edinburgh, a metropolitan, bustling city with people from all over the world, doing all sorts of exciting things and fuelling our great festivals. Many people in this Chamber will have attended those festivals and enjoyed them. That is partly because it is a welcoming place to come and we do not say to people, “To practise the arts here, you have to be in a job earning £35,000 a year, or you can’t do it.” As soon as we begin to do that, not only will that culture begin to ebb away and things will get that much duller, less creative and less exciting as a result, but other cities, in other countries, will directly benefit from that because people will go elsewhere.

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Of all the petitions that I have ever seen come to this House, this one is the most eminently reasonable. If we read what the petitioners want, we see that they are not saying, “Oh, throw out the Government’s immigration policy.” They are not even saying, “Overturn and throw out the concept of having to reach a salary threshold before people can get indefinite leave to remain.” They are saying, “Press the pause button. Take a look at this again, and wait to get some evidence in particular about whether a different limit should apply to different industries.” I cannot for the life of me see anything more reasonable than that, and I think that not only should we consider it, as we do in these debates in Westminster Hall; I hope that the Minister will say that the Government will consider it to the extent that they will think again and go away and amend this policy.

5.18 pm

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. I, too, welcome the debate and am genuinely pleased to see the degree of engagement on this issue that use of the petitions facility has generated, not just in terms of numbers, although they are at first glance pretty remarkable, but in terms of the quality of submissions made possible through Parliament’s Facebook account. I also welcome the contribution of the campaign group Stop35k in engaging with those affected and making their voices heard.

We have heard some excellent speeches this afternoon, and I am pleased to see so many of my hon. Friends present. A lot of good points have been made. As my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) pointed out, it is important to focus on the specific issue we are debating. It is not yet—thankfully—about raising the threshold for people who are coming here. People are being allowed to come here and take up jobs at a certain salary level that no resident could be recruited to do, but when those people put down roots, a huge extra salary hurdle is put in their way before they are able to gain settlement.

There are so many strong arguments in support of the petition and they broadly fall into two categories. The first is that the introduction of the new £35,000 salary requirement will cause a hell of a lot of pain. As some of my hon. Friends have argued, the second is the question of why we would want to inflict that pain. What is it all for? The answer seems to be that it is not for very much at all. I will take those two sides of the coin in turn.

The threshold will cause pain and, most importantly, distress and upheaval for so many people who have made their homes and built their careers in the UK over several years. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North mentioned a powerful constituency case. Indeed, so many individuals will have their lives, plans and dreams turned upside down by the new provisions. Parliament’s Facebook page and case studies provided by Stop 35k have allowed those individuals to explain their personal experiences. I will add another two or three examples that I spotted when looking at Parliament’s Facebook page this afternoon.

A typical example is Shannon, who has been here for more than seven years and who, but for the changes, would be eligible for indefinite leave to remain in a year.

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She studied at Imperial College London and has worked ever since on a tier 2 visa, doing very good work for a charity based in central London that communicates original science and development news and analysis aimed at helping the global south. She says,

“I don’t have anything anywhere else. I hope you can help skilled people like us stay in our homes and continue contributing making the UK as unique as it is.”

Megan has three university degrees and works in the international development sector, in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North mentioned, very few jobs pay more than £35,000. She supports herself comfortably and presents no burden whatever to the UK system, but the rule means that she could be forced to leave. She argues:

“This £35k threshold determines the worth of an individual based solely on income rather than contribution to society, which is not just inhumane—it’s shortsighted. The UK will lose essential staff like nurses, teachers, and care workers, and for what?... I sincerely hope that Parliament will think better of this foolish, knee-jerk policy.”

Those case studies point out that people put down roots over time so the UK becomes home, and they illustrate the excellent contribution that those people make to our economy and society. Some might argue that people should have known that this was coming, but it is clear that many just simply did not know. One contributor to the Facebook page was pretty typical in saying:

“When I immigrated to the UK almost five years ago, there was no £35,000 rule… So the ‘deal’ I signed up for has been RADICALLY changed, but only after I uprooted my family and committed to this country…It’s iniquitous, in my opinion, to entice an immigrant with one set of rules, and then rip the rug out from under them like this.”

That point was also eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East.

Even if people were aware of the rule changes that were provisionally announced in 2011, they cannot refrain from getting on with life and they cannot make a conscious choice to not put down roots, make friends, or build up a home and private life here. Nor can we stop folk having the ambition of meeting the £35,000 threshold by the end of their visas.

First and foremost, the Scottish National party condemns the impact that the provision will have on the individuals who are directly affected. Beyond that, we need to consider the impact it will have on the businesses and public services that employ those people. We are talking about teachers, classical musicians, IT workers, software engineers, professional ballet dancers, chefs and cooks, carers, media workers, biomedical and technological researchers, and many people with jobs in science and research, including in the NHS. We are talking about start-ups, employees of which will often earn less than £35,000 but will make a significant contribution to innovation and economic growth.

We are still concerned about nurses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) pointed out, despite the Government’s temporary sticking plaster of using the shortage occupation list. Prior to that move, 3,365 nurses working in the UK potentially would have had to leave the country, with a recruitment cost implication of £20 million for the

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NHS. The Royal College of Nursing pointed out that there was a steep percentage rise in non-EU admissions to the Nursing and Midwifery Council register in 2015. If nursing is removed from the shortage occupation list again, the figures for future years are potentially even more worrying, particularly if overseas recruitment continues to rise as a result of shortage of home-grown nurses and a crackdown on agency nurse spending. A stopgap answer for the NHS is not sufficient, but at least it has a stopgap measure—the other industries mentioned cannot rely on any such measure.

As several of my hon. Friends have argued, a one-size-fits-all policy is being used where, yet again, it is entirely inappropriate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, one size is being designed to fit all industries and jobs. The Government are also trying to make one size fit all nations and regions—a point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East. One size simply does not fit all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North highlighted the UK Government’s estimate of the damage to the UK economy of several hundred million pounds. Of course, the Migration Advisory Committee estimated that the cost to the UK economy would, in fact, be not far short of £800 million. The word “bonkers” springs to mind.

There will be personal pain, pain for business and public services, and economic pain, and for what? It is hard to find an up-to-date assessment of the numbers of people who will be affected but we are talking about comparatively small numbers in the grand scheme of things, particularly after various exceptions and exemptions are considered. Even the Government’s defence and response to the petition appears half-hearted, saying that the move

“is intended to make a modest contribution to the Government’s target of reducing net migration to sustainable levels.”

If the so-called gain is accepted, even by the Government, to be a modest one, why on earth inflict so much pain?

Patrick Grady: Is not the point that it is not really a modest measure, but a desperate one? The Government are so hidebound by this arbitrary target they have no chance of meeting that they will stop at nothing, even if it is at a cost to the economy and to people’s personal lives.

Stuart C. McDonald: I absolutely agree. One word that could be used is “tokenism”. Someone described the measure to me as “immigration theatre”; it is all in pretend pursuit of the so-called target that my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North and for Edinburgh East ripped to pieces. No one believes that the target is a genuine one. I think the Government recognise, to some extent, the ridiculousness of the move—hence the creation of an exemption for those whose job has been on the shortage occupation list at any time in the six years prior to a settlement application. There is an exemption for migrants who work in a PhD-level occupation, and for those who have a tier 2 minister of religion visa or a tier 2 intra-company transfer visa. With so many large exemptions and exceptions, should not the rule that we are creating those exceptions for be considered absolutely absurd?

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As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) rightly asked, what assessment has been done of the displacement effect of the change? Will not the lives of thousands of non-EU citizens be disrupted, only for so many of them to be replaced with fresh migrant employees? If so, what on earth is the point?

The Home Office’s 2012 impact assessment states:

“The goal is a smarter, more selective, more responsive system that commands public confidence and serves the UK’s economic interests.”

In fact, all the signs are that the measure will have a negative economic impact and will undermine, yet further, any confidence that the public has in what the UK Government are doing on immigration.

I know that the policy was inherited by the Minister for Immigration and I know that his hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, who is responding for the Government today, has had nothing to do with it either. I wish that they would ditch it not only as singularly unhelpful, but as harmful and hurtful for all concerned.

5.28 pm

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. Like others, I welcome the debate and the valuable contributions made by hon. Members. Clearly, there is public concern about this policy, which has not been debated in the House. It was introduced by statutory instrument, albeit followed by a consultation. I, too, pay tribute to the Stop 35k campaign that has helped to raise awareness and highlighted a number of consequences that could stem from the Government’s policy.

This afternoon, we have heard about the concerns from businesses and employers who recognise the potential economic consequences of the policy, as well as from teachers, nurses and trade unions who are rightly concerned about the impact it could have on key public services. Labour supports an immigration system that has control and fairness at its heart, but we also recognise that, as businesses across the country have told me, there are very serious skills shortages in our economy that we increasingly rely on skilled migrants to fill. We would like the need for skilled migration to be reduced, but the policy’s focus should be to upskill local workforces to reduce the long-term need for skilled migration. That is the best way to reduce immigration in the long term.

Carol Monaghan: To upskill the local population we need workers in key areas who will now be excluded, such as in teaching science, technology, engineering and maths and in lectureship positions. It will be almost impossible to upskill people who are living here without immigration for those key positions.

Keir Starmer: I accept the thrust of the hon. Lady’s point, and I will point out why the current policy is neither sensible nor sustainable, but the upskilling of the local workforce is much needed in the long term. Wherever I go across the country, I see a yawning gap between the skills that are needed in our businesses and our industry and the skills that are available locally, which points to a much wider issue than the narrow issue, framed in immigration terms, that we are addressing

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today. Labour’s position is that we should focus on upskilling the local workforce rather than relying on such a policy.

We recognise the concerns of the public, businesses, universities and, frankly, pretty well everyone else about the Government’s current approach to immigration. I remind Members that the Government’s net migration cap, which has already been mentioned—in fact, the primary aim of the Government’s immigration policy—is now in tatters. The latest figures show net migration at 323,000, which is more than three times the Prime Minister’s “no ifs, no buts” target. That is embarrassing for him but, more importantly, it is eroding public trust and is resulting in perverse consequences—this policy would be one of those perverse consequences—that are affecting British businesses and the British economy.

As we have heard today, the cap is leading the Government to clamp down even on those areas of migration that they acknowledge are likely to boost gross domestic product, fill skills gaps and support public services, which is a perverse consequence of the policy. The groups affected by the policy are those in work who have an approved visa sponsor and who have contributed to the UK economy and society over a number of years. Analysis of the group of individuals who currently would not meet the £35,000 threshold, the group most affected by the policy, shows that their mean income is £27,300. On any estimate, they are net contributors to the UK economy. They are the very people we should be welcoming to the UK, and they are filling skills gaps on which businesses and public services rely.

The Migration Advisory Committee’s assessment estimates that the threshold

“will reduce the numbers qualifying by around 16% per annum”.

That is the overall number, but the threshold will have a disproportionate impact on certain groups. The committee estimates that, as has already been mentioned, 48% of migrant nurses will be affected. Some 37% of migrant primary school teachers, 35% of migrant IT and software professionals and 9% of migrant secondary school teachers will also be excluded by the policy. The Department for Education made a critical submission to the Migration Advisory Committee’s call for evidence on the policy in 2011, warning that:

“If migrant teachers are required to leave the country after five years, this will present risks to the quality of teaching and incur further public expenditure on the training and recruitment of new teachers.”

That is the perverse impact.

Regional issues have also been mentioned, and I will stay with teaching. In London, there is a fair chance of a teacher reaching the £35,000 threshold in five years, but that is much less likely outside London, but the contribution and quality of input could be precisely the same in both cases. Obviously, like others, Labour welcomes the fact that nursing is currently on the shortage occupation list. Will the Government confirm that that will remain the case? We need to know, and it is a real concern for the national health service and the nursing professions. Nothing has been said to provide reassurance to the teaching profession, which will be affected in the way I have set out.

We recognise that there are strong arguments for addressing skills gaps in our economy, but the Government have failed to do so, and much more needs to be done.

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That is why we believe that the Government should urgently focus on improving skills training and vocational education to address those skills gaps, but businesses and unions have made it clear that an arbitrary limit that cuts off skilled migrant workers is a form of economic vandalism. I remind Members of the Government’s impact assessment, which states that the impact will be a loss to the UK economy, on the figures I have seen, of £288 million over 10 years—that is the adverse impact on business. I checked with the Library, which confirmed that that is the Government’s most up-to-date estimate. The independent Migration Advisory Committee also warned in 2012:

“As skilled migrant workers are expected to have a positive dynamic impact on growth over the long-run, we would expect reductions in skilled Tier 2 migrants to have a negative dynamic impact on per capita growth.”

Does the Minister accept those figures and the Government’s own figure that the policy will cost the economy £288 million over 10 years?

Patrick Grady: The hon. and learned Gentleman has perhaps explained why many of his colleagues are not on the Back Benches today. Perhaps some of his figures explain why not very many Government Back Benchers are here to defend this ridiculous policy.

Keir Starmer: I am grateful for that intervention because my point is on the adverse impact on business, and I will go on to address the minimal effect of the policy even in the Government’s own terms. We have the Government’s figure, which I have checked with the Library, and I am told that there is no more up-to-date estimate other than that the policy will cost the economy £288 million over 10 years. The Government’s justification for the policy, and therefore, in effect, for the damage that it will cause the economy, is that it will make

“a modest contribution to the Government’s target of reducing net migration to sustainable levels.”

So it is the old net migration target that is producing the perverse impacts. Drilling into that target, I remind Members that the Government’s impact assessment estimates that the introduction of the threshold will reduce overall net migration by between nought and 4,000 a year. We have the prospect of damage to the economy in the realm of £288 million over 10 years, with an estimated reduction in net migration that could be nothing or, at most, 4,000 a year in the best-case scenario. On current figures, that would simply reduce net migration from 323,000 to 319,000. Again, I have checked the figure of between nought and 4,000 for the estimated overall impact per year with the Library. Does the Minister accept that figure?

The Government are asking the House to agree a policy that will cost the country millions of pounds a year, deprive businesses and services of key workers and force people who are making an economic and social contribution to the UK to leave the country. If that is not a good example of unintended consequences flowing from an immigration policy designed to create headlines rather than address the country’s immigration needs, I cannot think of many better. Would it not be better to drop this misguided policy and ring-fence some of the money saved to help boost skills and vocational training for local workers?

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Labour supports a compassionate and controlled immigration policy. We also believe that there is scope to consider how the link between temporary work and indefinite leave to remain works. We will continue to push the necessity of long-term focus on skills and training, but we will not support policies that harm the economy, deprive public services of key workers and have next to no impact on net migration. Unless the Government can provide updated, materially different estimates for the policy, we cannot support it.

5.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): I would like to say, and I am sure that all of us agree, what an honour it is to be at this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. That is not the usual platitude that MPs use; I really mean it. I hope that you agree, as we all do, that it has been an interesting debate. I thank the Committee, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for securing it.

The Government welcome the opportunity to explain our reforms. My hon. Friend made balanced comments, stressing the important point that the £35,000 threshold applies only to settlement applications in tier 2, the route for skilled workers at graduate level. It does not apply to other routes, such as those for students or charity workers. Of course the Government believe that immigration can bring considerable economic benefits and has enriched our culture. I speak as a member of a family only two or three generations away from immigration, and as a Member for a constituency with a large number of immigrants. I have seen the benefit that immigration can bring to this country. However, the sustained high levels of net migration in recent years make it difficult to maintain social cohesion and put pressure on public services, and they can drive down wages for people on low incomes.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: What about the impact on social cohesion of oligarchs who come into the city of London, buy up council housing and exclude the working class from the city? Would the Minister like to exclude that type of people as well?

Richard Harrington: I have not seen any examples of oligarchs buying properties in my constituency of Watford, so I cannot comment on something that I do not know about. I do not think that comment is very relevant. If some oligarchs have done that, I am sure that compared to the total amount of accommodation in the country, it is a comparatively small amount. I must say that I would not know an oligarch if I saw one.

I will return to the debate, as I am sure you would expect me to do, Ms Vaz, or I will be ruled out of order. The case that immigration is somehow mixed up with the European Union renegotiation has been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who is no longer in his place. Obviously, in many debates in the Chamber and here in Westminster Hall, Europe seems to come into the matter, and people have different views on it. The Government’s view, as we know, is to remain, and the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, which has led to an emergency brake on benefits and other things, is relevant, but most of the comments made by hon. Members in

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their contributions have not involved the European side of the issue. Rather conveniently, I will return to the overall—




Excuse me, Ms Vaz. My voice is disappearing somewhat.

Margaret Ferrier: Does the Minister agree that the UK has greatly benefited economically and culturally from the free movement of workers from other EU countries, and that in the event of a vote to leave the European Union, the income threshold will have serious ramifications for labour markets in the UK?

Richard Harrington: I agree that this country has benefited significantly from immigration, in labour markets and in every other aspect of life. It is true that a significant level of net migration comes from the EU —172,000 people in the year ending September 2015. However, what is often not said—I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe is not in his place at the moment, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam will pass this on—is that an even larger amount, 191,000, is the result of non-EU net migration. The Office for National Statistics estimated that there were 67,000 non-EU long-term immigrants for work, an increase of 2% compared with the previous 12 months.

Paul Scully: Just as a full stop on the European point, we have talked a little about the fact that the threshold may apply to European citizens. If we left the EU, the threshold might not apply in quite the same way, because we would have greater flexibility within our immigration policy.

Richard Harrington: I do not think anyone could dispute that we would certainly have greater flexibility if we were not in the EU, but many of us would argue that the benefits of being in the EU are so significant that that would be a small point. For the record, that includes me; I totally agree with that view.

It should also be placed on record that numbers of those using tier 2, the skilled work route, have increased by 35% since 2010. Even if we were not experiencing high levels of migration from the EU, I argue that we would still need to reform the rules leading to such large population flows into the UK. I have dealt as much as I can in this debate with the EU issue. I have certainly given the Government’s view, which—luckily for me —coincides with my personal view on these matters.

In the past, it has been too easy for some employers to choose to bring in workers from overseas rather than invest in training for our existing workforce. On average, employers in the UK underinvest in training compared with those in other countries, with a marked decline over the past 20 years. In an increasingly global economy, it is not surprising that many skilled workers come to the UK for a short time to fill a temporary skills gap, or perhaps to experience work in another country, but—this is an important point—reducing migration is not just about reducing the numbers coming here. It is also about being more selective in who we allow to settle permanently. In 2015, some 44%, or nearly half, of all migrants granted settlement in the UK—

Patrick Grady: How does the Minister answer the point that other countries with skill shortages are actively encouraging people to come? Moreover, what

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kind of message does he think this policy sends to other countries to which UK citizens might want to travel or emigrate?

Richard Harrington: I answer that by restating that the consensus is that this country has a significant skill shortage, and that it is easier—this is a question of fact, whatever values one adds to it—to get people with skills from abroad rather than train staff oneself.

Keir Starmer: How does the policy, under which an employer could simply sponsor in another person earning under £35,000 to fill the job that has just been vacated by the person leaving, help the skill shortage in this country?

Richard Harrington: If employers want long-term employees, they will have to concentrate on training them here. In the short term, the hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right.

The Government consulted on reforming the rules for settlement in 2011, as we do not believe that there should be an automatic link between coming to the UK to work temporarily and staying permanently. That is common in most countries: there is a difference between temporary work and permanent settlement rights.

The minimum earnings threshold was set following advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. The main purpose of the tier 2 category is to support the UK economy, not to provide migrants with a route to settlement. While the MAC considered a number of alternative criteria, such as age or qualifications, it advised—this is where some hon. Members would have disagreed with it—that the strongest indicator of economic value is salary, and those migrants earning more than a given amount are more likely to make the biggest contributions to the UK economy in future. There may be exceptions to that, but fundamentally I believe that in the majority of situations, that is the case.

Tier 2 is reserved for those filling graduate-level jobs; that is what it is for. The figure of £35,000 a year was not invented by politicians from nowhere; it was worked out professionally by the MAC to be equivalent to the median UK pay in skilled jobs that qualified for tier 2 at the time of the MAC’s consultation in 2011. Hon. Members should be aware that the most recent research that the MAC has carried out means that the equivalent figure today would be £39,000.

The MAC has also identified evidence of a wage premium for migrant workers with specialist skills that are in short supply. On average, tier 2 migrants—that is, general migrants—earn an extra £3,000 per annum compared with UK workers with similar characteristics.

However, the Government recognise that salary is not always the strongest measure of the importance of a job, a point made very strongly by many Scottish National party Members who have spoken today. I thank all the SNP Members who are here for coming to this debate, because without them there would be comparatively few Members here. The hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) made the point that this debate unfortunately coincides with a Second Reading debate on the Policing and Crime Bill, but I still thank the SNP Members for coming to this debate.

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Within tier 2, there are exemptions for migrants working in a PhD-level occupation, for example, university researchers, and for those working in recognised shortage occupations. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) gave the example of a university researcher in the field of clean water technology and said that he would have to leave his job. As I say, there are exemptions for PhD-level occupations—

Tommy Sheppard: After the PhD.

Richard Harrington: Yes—after-PhD-level occupations. Therefore, that person would be exempt.

I mention that to show hon. Members that the £35,000 figure is not just an arbitrary amount; there are proper exemptions. The shortage occupation list includes nurses, as has been said, several healthcare professional categories, many engineers, many roles in the creative sector and some teachers.

The exemption extends to those in jobs that have been on the shortage occupation list at any time in the preceding six years. That guards against occupations being returned to shortage and provides reassurance to workers in those occupations against future changes to the list.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I am sorry that I have come to the debate relatively late. I am sure the point has already been made about nurses, but can the Minister give us some explicit reassurance about nurses? A constituent of mine, Siân Marvelley, is very worried that the threshold is going to affect her and require her to stop working.

Richard Harrington: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point and he correctly said that nurses have been mentioned several times already. So I shall respond to his point and the points made by several other hon. Members about the same subject. Basically, they were worried that an occupation’s position in the list was temporary and it could be withdrawn from the list at any time, which does not give people any certainty—the very points that the right hon. Gentleman just made.

The MAC, which Members should remember is not a political committee but an independent committee that operates very analytically with skilled staff who study data from the Office for National Statistics and any other data that are available, has just conducted a review of nursing, and the Government will consider that report carefully. We do not know what it says yet, because the MAC has not published its review. There was an interim measure and the change took effect in time for the December 2015 allocation of the certificates of sponsorship, which means that applications for nursing posts are prioritised.

In its latest investment plan, which was published at the end of last year, Health Education England—I am afraid that I do not have the relevant statistics for Scotland—proposed further increases in the number of nursing training places in 2016-17. So there is a lot of forecasting on this subject—the number arrived at is not just an arbitrary one—and there has been a full report.

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At this juncture, I feel that I should consider the point about the regional salary thresholds, which hon. Members from Scotland discussed very eloquently. In its November 2011 report on the settlement threshold, the MAC could not see a clear case for differentiation on a regional basis. Its argument, and therefore the Government’s argument, as we have adopted it, was that having a single threshold provides clarity and simplicity for applicants and sponsors. The minimum salary requirements for occupations in tier 2 are for the most part set using annual surveys of hours and earnings. The data generated are very sophisticated and UK-wide, and therefore take account of salary levels throughout the regions.

Kirsten Oswald: Although I understand what the Minister is saying, does he not accept that this averaging does not take account of the needs of Scotland? Scotland needs an immigration policy that welcomes world-class talent from abroad, but in this case this ideological policy is doing more harm than good to our business sector.

Richard Harrington: I clearly disagree with the hon. Lady about that, and I have just said that the way the statistics are worked out includes all the regional variations, so the MAC is not just taking numbers that suit London and the south-east, as was the implication of many hon. Members’ contributions.

The Government clearly agree that those who have helped to fill vital skill shortages in the UK should be able to do so. The subject of skills and skill shortages was mentioned—particularly eloquently, if I may say so—by the shadow Minister. He said that upskilling was very important, because why would employers need to bring workers in from abroad if there are people here with the relevant skills? I think that we would all agree about that.

The Government have done a lot about skills. My previous Government role was as the Prime Minister’s apprenticeship adviser.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: The Minister says the Government have done so much on this issue since 2010. However, does not the fact that they have to set the type of limit that we are discussing today show that their skills policy is an unmitigated disaster and failure?

Richard Harrington: I disagree very much with the hon. Gentleman on that point; I do not think that the Government’s skills policy has been a failure at all. The number of apprentices is increasing significantly, and with the new apprenticeship levy, whereby larger companies have to pay a percentage of their payroll to fund training programmes, we will see a very significant upskilling of the workforce. I have seen many, many examples of this type of training going on in all parts of the country. Nevertheless, as usual the shadow Minister made a very considered point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam gave the curry industry as an example of an industry with skills shortages. Both he and I have been involved in our constituencies with the owners of curry restaurants; it is probably fair to say that my hon. Friend is more of an expert on the hotter variations of curry in those restaurants than I am. The curry industry has lobbied

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Government very extensively on the fact that it cannot bring in chefs from Bangladesh or other places in the Indian subcontinent, saying that it is a problem.

However, there is beginning to be a significant amount of training for such chefs, and so I think that we will see, as time goes on, exactly the point that we have been making today—namely, that the answer is making the industry, and people who want to be in it, put the resources, the effort, the money and the skills into training people to fulfil these roles. That is of benefit to everyone, particularly the industry itself. All of us realise the contribution of the curry industry to the country as a whole, and, from my personal experience I know that that is true from the north of Scotland down to the south-west of England.

Kirsten Oswald: My point is not about curry. Although the Minister says that he sees things improving, last year the skills shortage in Britain worsened for a fourth consecutive year—Britain was one of the most severely affected countries in Europe—so his arguments do not stack up. We still have people who should be able to work here being sent away.

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Richard Harrington: I agree that a lot of work needs to be done on the skills shortage. The Government set a target of, I think, 3 million new apprentices for this Parliament. The courses are good and the standards high. The effect of the apprenticeship levy will, in the end, come through and companies will start to employ people from here rather than having to get skilled people from abroad.

Just to finish on curry, the industry has had access to numerous transitional immigration routes in the past—the key worker scheme in the 1990s and the sector-based scheme in the early 2000s—but I argue that a flow of lower-skilled migrant labour militates against the industry taking action itself. I am sure that the curry industry, which is a bastion of small enterprise in the whole of the United Kingdom, will rise to the challenge, in a short period, of training its own staff. I think it has a rosy future.

In the end, the curry business is a good example. We want to nurture more home-grown talent and encourage young people in this country who want to pursue a skilled career, and that means the restaurant sector offering training to attract and recruit resident workers to meet its staffing needs.

I would like to make an additional point, if I may, Ms Vaz—

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): Ms Vaz is no longer in the Chair.

Richard Harrington: I do apologise, Mr Rosindell. I was so preoccupied with speaking that I failed to see you take the Chair. I am sure that you will continue to chair the debate with the spirit and discipline with which Ms Vaz started it.

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): I intend to. Thank you, Mr Harrington.

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Richard Harrington: I welcome you to the Chair, and I apologise. No offence was meant when I called you Ms Vaz.

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): Please continue.

Richard Harrington: I would like briefly to respond to the points about the notice period. The view was expressed that it was unfair that people who had come here to work believing that it would lead to settlement had no idea about the changes that were going through. The Government made it clear that new rules would apply to migrants who entered tier 2 from 6 April 2011, and employers have had time to prepare for the possibility that their workers might not meet the required salary threshold for remaining in the UK. Workers who cannot meet the threshold may extend their stay in tier 2 for up to six years and may, during that period, apply to switch into any other immigration route for which they are eligible. It is not on or off, black or white; there is a transitional period.

I know that hon. Members recognise the importance of sustainable immigration. We must ensure that the UK economy can thrive while also reducing pressures on schools, hospitals, accommodation, transport and social services. We believe that the minimum earnings threshold for settlement under tier 2 ensures that the tier 2 route plays its part in the Government’s overall strategy to control net migration and that settlement is reserved for those who provide the greatest economic benefit to the UK.

Keir Starmer: I do not think that the Minister has touched on the impact on net migration. I am reading from the impact assessment, signed off by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green):

“We estimate that these restrictions on settlement will lead to some reductions in net migration of between 0 and 4,000 per year”.

Does the Minister accept that the policy could have no impact on net migration? That must be inferred from the impact assessment.

Richard Harrington: As the hon. and learned Gentleman would expect, I do not accept that. That impact assessment was from the previous Immigration Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I would like hon. Members to look at the policy in two years’ time and see its effects.

In part based on my many years’ experience as an employer—I am proud to have had many employees from all sorts of backgrounds—I think that the policy will make a significant difference to the number of skilled UK residents being employed here while, at the same time, because of the significant exemptions regarding qualifications and shortages, allowing reasonable numbers of skilled and qualified people to come here. I do not agree with the shadow Minister’s view and I think that, in time, the policy will be seen to be sensible, reasonable and measured.

6.6 pm

Paul Scully: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

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We have had a good and constructive debate, and I think that we all agree on the benefits, both economic and cultural, of immigration. I am the son of an immigrant. My father moved to England from Glasgow, where he completed his apprenticeship on the docks, but he was born in Burma. I have therefore seen the good side of immigration, but mass uncontrolled immigration, when it affects infrastructure and social cohesion in some areas, needs to be tackled. It is important that we see the tier 2 visa situation as one of a range of elements in the Government’s armoury for tackling that.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. Very interesting points have been made, and I know that the Minister will take away hon. Members’ reflections, especially those of Scottish National party Members, who have taken time out to make their points eloquently. I pay tribute to the petitioners themselves, who encouraged so many people to sign a petition about which they feel so strongly, and also to those people on Facebook—mentioned by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth

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and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—who engaged with the process that we, as the Petitions Committee, started in the lead-up to the debate, so that we could hear directly from people who believed that they might be affected by the policy, or had concerns about it. Their points have definitely been listened to and taken on board.

I am sure that the debate will run and run. When we talk about petitions, we always say that they are the start of a process, the start of a campaign and the start of raising a profile. They should not be seen as a full stop, as a final move. I am glad to have been able to put people’s voices across today, and I thank everyone who has contributed.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 118060 relating to the income threshold for non-EU citizens settling in the UK.

6.7 pm

Sitting adjourned.