Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable annual limits to be set on immigration; and for connected purposes.
Since this Government came to power, net immigration has trebled. Over the last six years, it has averaged 157,000 a year?equivalent to two constituencies needing to be housed every year, mostly in southern England. The Government‘s own projections show that net immigration to this country will add more than 5 million people to the population by 2031.
A year ago, I started looking into the Government‘s housing targets, which are a major issue in my constituency. I had no intention of getting involved in the immigration issue, until I discovered that the Deputy Prime Minister‘s housing targets are driven by the Home Secretary‘s immigration policy.
The Government have tried to give the impression that the main reason, apart from smaller households, for building millions of extra houses is movement from the rest of the UK to the south of England. In fact, this accounts for less than a tenth of the population growth in southern England. The most important factor is net immigration from abroad, largely to London, which results in a roughly equivalent number of Londoners of all races moving out to the home counties.
The Government have finally admitted that net immigration will account for one third of all the additional households in the decades to come. One third is a significant figure, because, as the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier today, two thirds of his housing targets can be met on brownfield land, but one third?the same as the proportion of extra households resulting from net immigration?will have to be built on greenfield sites.
Such matters are of legitimate public concern, but I hope that we can all agree that most immigrants are decent, hard-working, law-abiding people who want to make a positive contribution to this country just as British ethnic minorities already do. Indeed, as Conservatives, the Opposition particularly admire the enterprise and family values that they often exemplify. Therefore, why do we want to set a limit on the numbers of people coming into this country?
I believe that some immigration enriches a country economically and culturally. Beyond a certain point, however, the benefits do not increase with numbers, whereas the costs do?notably, the pressures on housing and land. That is why it is essential to set a limit on the number of people coming to live and work here, as my Bill will make possible.
Immigration is to the economy what oil is to one‘s car. It is a lubricant, not a fuel. Lack of oil damages one‘s car. Stopping all immigration would damage the economy, but beyond a certain point, adding more does not make it go better. Unfortunately, the Government have been under the illusion that immigration is the fuel of economic growth and have put their foot on the accelerator.
23 Mar 2005 : Column 895
The policy of the previous Conservative Government, spelled out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition when he was Home Secretary, was
“To restrict severely the numbers coming to live permanently or to work in the United Kingdom”.
Like most people, I assumed that that remained the objective of this Government, too. I therefore thought that the large rise in immigration was simply because they had tried to control immigration but failed. In fact, my researches revealed that the Government have been trying to encourage immigration and have succeeded.
I spell out the evidence for that in my pamphlet, which I published yesterday, and it is threefold. First, an official Home Office document admits that
“the government wants to encourage lawful migration into the country . . . sustaining and perhaps increasing current levels”?
current levels that are already an all-time record. Secondly, the Government have written a letter to businesses?I have a copy with me?urging employers to bring in even low-skilled workers from outside Europe. Thirdly, they have relaxed the immigration rules in more than a dozen ways. As a result, the number entering on work permits, for example, has trebled and now dwarfs the number of asylum seekers granted refuge each year.
The Government claim that mass immigration on that scale is economically essential. In fact, most economic experts disagree. The Government‘s favourite think-tank, the left-of-centre Institute for Public Policy Research, published a whole book on the subject, which concluded:
“There is not a compelling long-term case for increased immigration purely in terms of economic benefits”.
In the pamphlet that I published yesterday, I examine the arguments that the Government use to justify unlimited immigration. All of them have two things in common. If they were valid, they would indeed mean that we should encourage immigration without limit. They are not valid. They are based largely on economic sleight of hand.
First, the Prime Minister confuses growth in the size of the economy with growth in our standard of living. More workers make the economy bigger, but that does not make the average worker any better off. It might make the rich richer by giving them cheap nannies and builders, but it makes the less well-off poorer by holding down the pay of resident nurses, teachers, catering workers and so on. That might be the reason that the Government‘s policy of unlimited immigration goes down well among the glitterati but is less popular with former Labour voters.
Secondly, the Prime Minister says that we have half a million vacancies, so we need immigration to fill them. Since he started saying that, we have imported half a million workers, yet we still have half a million vacancies. The reason for that is that immigration does not reduce job vacancies, because migrants not only produce goods and services but consume them, which requires yet more workers to produce good and services, so we end up chasing our tail.
23 Mar 2005 : Column 896
Thirdly, the Prime Minister claims that we need foreign workers to pay for our pensions in the decades ahead. But immigrants grow old, too. They will become pensioners precisely when the demographic problem is most acute. A United Nations study showed that to maintain the current ratio between working age and retired people in Britain would require more than a million immigrants a year. The Government‘s pensions tsar, Adair Turner, remarked,
“You only have to look at these figures to realise that this scale of immigration is undesirable and impossible. Fortunately it is also unnecessary”.
There are types of immigration that are genuinely economically beneficial. In particular, international companies setting up new operations here often need to transfer staff with company-specific skills that they simply could not hire locally at any price. Those people might work here for a few years before typically returning home. Therefore, that does not result in a permanent increase in our population. Even if an annual limit were set such that there was a rough balance between those coming to work here and those returning or moving abroad, the flows in both directions would be measured in hundreds of thousands of people.
We need to set an annual limit that allows that and other beneficial flows as well as accommodating our humanitarian obligations, and that brings a much better balance to our immigration policy. We can do so. We should do so. Above all, a clear limit would bring the transparency and openness that are essential if we are to rebuild public confidence in all communities about our immigration policy, after years of doing one thing while saying another. I urge the House to support my Bill.