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Mark makes home affairs front-bench debut

March 21, 2006 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in House of Commons

• Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker. It's a pleasure to make my first contribution from my party's front bench on Home Affairs issues and a particular pleasure to welcome the fact that the government have decided to take up Liberal Democrat policy in relation to economic migration.

• It was nearly two years ago that my party officially called for a points-based system to be introduced to determine policy towards migrant workers. We believed then, as we do now, that such a scheme would promote a culture of openness on issues relating to immigrant workers as well as responding to the country's long term economic needs.

• Before I set out the reasons why my party welcomes the broad principles underpinning the government's new policy on economic migration, can I first say two things:

• Firstly, that my party recognises the major contribution generations of migrant workers and refugees have made - and continue to make - to invigorating our economy, our society and our culture. That is the starting point for our approach to immigration issues and is a point that can be easily lost.

• In terms of economic migration - which we are debating specifically tonight - every objective analysis shows conclusively that immigrants have been net contributors to our overall economy and that their contribution is set to increase in the future as dictated by demographic trends. Our economy simply can't afford to do without them and it was pleasing to read that this sentiment was borne out by the consultation in advance of the command paper.

• Can I say, secondly, that I welcome the opportunity for this debate tonight. There is often more heat than light generated on this issue so I hope tonight's discussion can bring out at least some measure of consensus as well as sober debate. This debate provides us with an opportunity to re-state the case for well managed immigration and the benefits it brings to Britain. This points-based system is not a recipe for unlimited immigration as some members of this House seem to believe, it is a policy for well-managed immigration. That is precisely why the Liberal Democrats have been calling for it for so long and it is what - I believe - the country wants too.

• If I can now turn to the reasons why I believe the proposals are - broadly - to be welcomed:

• The proposals recognise the long term challenges and trends our country faces. They recognise the fact that with an ageing population and a globalised economy, our country needs a migration policy that is flexible, relatively simple and one that can adapt to changing needs and pressures.

• In particular, a move towards simplifying what is currently a fiendishly complex system of immigration is long overdue. The complexity of current arrangements is one of the key factors that has contributed to a general lack of confidence in the system. As we all know, it is this lack of confidence that elements in our society will use to exploit fears and stoke up hatred in our communities.

• On the issue of flexibility, it is clear that work permits in their current form are inadequate to meet the needs of our 21st Century economy. An emphasis on plugging skills gaps in the workforce and a systematic, strategic approach is self-evidently the right way to proceed to achieve our shared aim of maintaining a competitive economy.

• I also welcome the government's acknowledgement about the diverse needs of our regions. A rigid, whole-country approach would clearly be undesirable. And as our city regions continue to take shape, we cannot ignore the fact that their economies develop in different ways and in varying sectors. I hope the regions will have a genuinely strong voice in discussions and decisions in relation to the assessments made on economic migration.

• And I welcome the overall transparency of the new system. Transparency, coupled with simplicity provide the key to public confidence. And I hope that the new arrangements will give the government a much better handle on information and statistics related to economic migration. Furthermore, I hope that the information the policy provides will be used wisely by all concerned.

• Having spoken about the reasons why I and my colleagues welcome these proposals, I would like to turn to the reservations we have with the plans.

• The prospect of a large-scale, administrative and IT reorganisation of a major part of the Home Office fills me with some dread, as do the potential costs. On pretty much the full range of issues - ID cards, criminal records checks, asylum - we've seen a catalogue of disasters in terms of costings, leadership and management. For these proposals to go the same way would be unfortunate to say the least and we would find ourselves dealing with a system that was designed to inspire public confidence which was doing precisely the opposite. And it would do a great disservice to the good intentions behind these proposals if policy - as has happened in the past - was dictated by tabloid headlines.

• The main issue to emerge from this policy - I believe - is that - in part at least - it spells the end of low skilled economic immigration from non-EU countries. Whilst I can accept the government's premise that Britain and the EU together can meet its own labour needs for the most part, there are some obvious dangers too.

• There is a real risk that this could lead to even greater exploitation of low skilled workers not just by the small minority of unscrupulous employers who will use and abuse illegal labour, but it could also expand the market for people-traffickers, snakehead gangs and other criminal organisations. We know that this area of the labour market is notoriously grey already, I can't see anything in the government's proposals tonight which sets out how it intends to deal with that situation.

• Much of the debate on this issue has been taken up by the specific example of catering workers who - it seems too me - would be unlikely to fulfil the criteria at any tier of the proposed arrangements. This area of the labour market is just one of many that is likely to be affected and I hope the new system will have the flexibility and creativity to ensure that those sectors of our economy that rely on low-skilled labour are not unduly penalised by the policy.

• And whilst the plans are clear about Britain's needs - as they should be, can the Minister explain what account will be taken of the needs of other countries. We have wider responsibilities than just to protect our own economy and we should not be in the business of draining talent and skills from countries that can least afford to lose them. We're often told about the ethical dimension to Britain's foreign policy, can we have assurances tonight that our economic migration policy will have a much firmer foundation.

• Other concerns my party has include possible burdens on businesses and universities. Better partnership-working is of course welcome and, in theory, the proposals on sponsorship have merit. Bureaucracy, however, has a tendency to expand as time goes on. I hope that in practice, the system is as user-friendly as promised.

• On the Skills Advisory Boards, I notice from the guidance that the Home Secretary can ignore the views of the SAB. I hope that will not be standard practice. In addition, as flexibility will be a key issue for the SAB, it would be useful if the Minister could give us some indication tonight about the regularity with which the board will report. Especially with seasonal and agricultural labour, any kind of delay on the part of the SAB or the government, could result in worker shortages.

• And whilst I praise the government's efforts at making the system more simplified - and I believe they have succeeded largely - when added together, economic migration into Britain will remain a fairly complex process. Indeed, the command paper itself praises the fact that the new arrangements will be 'sophisticated'. That is why a detailed assessment of the pilot scheme will be necessary and lessons learnt. There will be many links in the overall chain making up this policy and a weakness at any one of them could undermine the system itself. Those will need to be ironed out during the phasing process. And anyone - and I guess there are very many members here tonight - who has dealt with the points system for local authority housing will know that it is not necessarily a panacea and it certainly does not always produce the right or logical result.

• So can I finish by saying that I believe the government is on the right track with these proposals. If - and it really is a big if - they can implement the system efficiently and effectively in the way outlined in the command paper and if they can follow up this policy with effective action on illegal entry into Britain, then they will have gone a long way to restoring confidence in the system of economic migration. Mr Deputy Speaker, these are big 'ifs' and the pilot scheme will need detailed scrutiny over the coming months and years if we are to restore confidence in the system.