National willing to give extra points to immigrants who settle outside Auckland

Michael Woodhouse has a plan.


National is looking to give extra points to immigrant investors, entrepreneurs and skilled migrants willing to settle outside Auckland to help regional development.

“That could happen in the next few months," Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says.

Despite his plan for awarding extra points to potential immigrants who settle outside New Zealand's largest city, Mr Woodhouse says he is unconcerned about the number of migrants staying in Auckland, saying it’s “about right.”

The government is confident it is building enough infrastructure for the number of people arriving in New Zealand, even though the number of houses built in Auckland is not keeping pace with population growth.

Mr Woodhouse says historic high immigration numbers are no problem.

He won't give a “Goldilocks” number but says “We’ve got the settings right.”

“A long bow to draw” to say immigration is contributing to Auckland housing crisis when fewer people are gaining residence and fewer houses have been built due to “bureaucratic issues”, he says.

“I cannot see for the life of me why an increase in the number of German backpackers going to Queenstown is actually having an impact on the Auckland housing market," he says.

"When you talk about the 56,000 positive net migration number, you are talking about those backpackers, those students studying in Invercargill, and they’re not putting pressure on the Auckland housing market.”

Mr Woodhouse says the $33 million spend on stopping overstayers an “appropriate investment” in Budget 2015, despite National saying it has little to spend and New Zealand’s over-staying rates being very low by international standards.

Immigration officials who used information from the Ministry of Education to track down overstayers through their children “overstepped the mark," Mr Woodhouse says.

“Both the Ministry of Education and Immigration New Zealand erred in that point."

Fewer people are gaining residence in New Zealand than 10 years ago, he says.


RAW DATA: TV3/The Nation transcript: Lisa Owen interviews Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse

Lisa Owen: So in the past two years, New Zealanders have gone from worrying about the exodus to Australia to the influx of migrants from the rest of the world. We have historically high immigration. Broken down, 113,000 people arrived here in the year to March, while 57,000 left, so that means net migration growth of 56,000, well ahead of projections. National says it’s a mark of its success, while opposition parties say it’s an avalanche, a flood that’s driving house prices and wages down. Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse joins us from Dunedin. Good morning to you, Minister. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Woodhouse: Good morning, Lisa.

Well, this week you announced $33 million that you’re going to spend on stopping people who pose an unacceptable risk coming into the country. So who are you talking about, and what is the risk that they pose?

Well, that risk is that people who come in here aren’t going to be doing what they say they’ll do. For example, they might work when they’re on tourist visas or they stay for longer than they plan to and they’re allowed to under their visa. We’ve got very sophisticated screening tools which enable us to identify those people of most risk of doing that, and because we’ve got so many more people coming into the country, it’s important that we keep the resource able to cope with that risk management.

So basically you’re talking about overstaying, and you said that about 50% of overstayers are from Pacific nations, but where are the rest from?

Yeah, the top five countries are Tonga, Samoa, China, India and Fiji, and then the balance of them – about another third of the overstayer community – are sprinkled around the nations. Look, we work very hard to prevent people who might be at risk of overstaying from coming in the first place, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of people who are prevented even from boarding those planes or from being turned around at the border when they get here.

Well, actually, just a few months ago you said that the number of overstayers were at a record low, less than 12,500, actually. And Bill English has told us on this programme that money is tight at the moment, don’t expect too much in the Budget. Yet you’re spending 33 million on this?

Yeah, and I think that’s an appropriate investment. About 10 years ago, we had around 20,000 overstayers. Now, as you say, it’s a little over 12,000. And, actually, the cost of deporting and managing that overstayer community has halved. So, actually, the sort of money that we’re putting up front to prevent the risks downstream I think is a really good investment, and that’s consistent with what the Government wants to do right across the public sector.

So judging by the number, this is one of your major worries – the Government’s major worries? It’s a priority for you?

Well, the important thing is we’ve got immigration policy settings that make sure the right people come in and the wrong people don’t. Now we have a demand-driven immigration policy, which means that people who have partners or employers who have skills that they can’t fill domestically are able to bring people in from overseas. We’ve always had that, and I think we’ve got the policy settings just about bang on.

But, Minister, the amount of money you’re spending suggest that it’s important to you, this; it’s a priority to do this. Correct?

Well, look, we have more than 5.3 million people coming and going across our borders every year. We need to make sure that we manage the risk of that from a people, from a goods and from a biosecurity perspective. So the immigration policy changes I announced this week, the budget increase, is part of managing that people risk.

Because that does seem like a lot of money when we’ve been told not to expect too much in the Budget. When there are concerns about child poverty that seems like a lot of money to be spending on this problem.

Well, it’s important to keep in mind that the immigration system is largely funded by the visitors themselves, so a good proportion of the funding that is going to be invested in this border control is actually being paid by the visa applications.

Minister, in your press release, it actually said, I think it was, 22 million of this is new spending from the Budget and only the balance is from those fees.

Yeah, so 25 million is coming from the consolidated fund, about $8 million of it is coming from the visa applicants themselves, but overall in our immigration system, about two-thirds to three-quarters of the process of managing visa applications and border risk actually comes from the visa applicants themselves. The balance, it is appropriate, I think, the taxpayer makes an investment, because, of course, there are risks at the border that are around security and bona fides that we need to make an investment in as well.

Okay, well, an investigation’s underway after an immigration official alleged used information from the Ministry of Education to get the home address of children of overstayers, and a few days later there was a raid at that property. Is it okay to get information that way?

Well, the first thing to say is no, it’s not, and both the Ministry of Education and Immigration New Zealand erred in that point. I should qualify the comment you made, though. The approach by immigration compliance officers was not at that address, and by no means were any of the children that were attending that school ever at any risk of that being undermined. Indeed, I understand that they were New Zealand citizens and weren’t the subject of the investigation.

But it was an—

But I do agree that it is not appropriate, and that’s been the message that’s gone back to Immigration New Zealand.

Right. So we would anticipate that this is not going to happen again.

I do hope not, and that’s certainly been the clear expectation I’ve set with officials.

Will heads roll over that?

Look, we have 600,000 visa applications, 12,100 overstayers. I think it’s appropriate that we do give Immigration authorities tools to investigate in certain ways. There are information-sharing arrangements with organisations like the IRD and MSD. That’s appropriate, but I think on this occasion, they overstepped the mark, and that’s what they’ve been told.

All right. Let’s talk about the people that you do want here. The numbers coming to New Zealand are at a record high, about 56,000. That’s about 150-plus people on any given day coming here and wanting to stay here.  Opposition parties say it’s too much; it’s an avalanche, turn the tap off. Are they right?

Well, look, if you are talking about people who are coming from overseas and gaining residence in New Zealand, I would say no, they’re not right, and the reason is this - in the last 10 years, people gaining residence in New Zealand has actually dropped, and that is what you would expect through a recessionary period. It dropped by about 20% at the peak of the recession. It’s now rising a little, but we are still granting residents to fewer people than we did in 2005.

So I just want to be clear – what’s the right number? So we’ve got 56,000 in the last year. Is that the right number? What is the Goldilocks number? Not too few, not too many, just right - what is it?

Look, it’s really important to distinguish between migration and immigration. Now, the 56,000 number you quote, and accurately, is the sum of the people who tick on their arrival cards at the border that they will stay for longer than 12 months. It doesn’t mean they are going to stay forever, and the growth that we’ve seen has been a temporary migration in things like working-holiday schemes, international students studying at our tertiary and secondary institutions and New Zealanders coming home and not leaving.

But, Minister, I’m talking about long-term and permanent people coming to this country - that is the figure of 56,000. Is that the right number? Should it be less? Should it be more? Could you give me a number?

Yeah. Long-term includes working holidaymakers and the international students who then go home, the temporary workers, who are working on farms in our horticulture industry and helping us rebuild our second-largest city. I think we’ve got those policy settings right, and I challenge anybody who says that we’re bringing in and granting residence to too many people. That’s fine if they think that, but very few of them are actually saying where they would nip and tuck those numbers, because they are the skills we need, they are the partners of New Zealand citizens, they are the residents that come from the South Pacific under friendship treaties, and they are refugees. I think we’ve got the settings right.

Minister, when we look at that number, about 75% of them are non-New Zealand citizens, so when you talk about returning Kiwis, actually 75% of this number are non-New Zealand citizens, so you’re saying we’re about right? So to be clear, we don’t need any more; this is about the right spot we’re at?

Well, only about between a third and 40% of that 113,000 that you describe are actually gaining residence, and that number has dropped over the last 10 years. So if you want to talk about housing pressures in Auckland, or the other consequences of residence being gained, I just don’t agree that in the last 10 years that’s got worse.

So are you comfortable we do have the right infrastructure in place?

I’m comfortable we’ve got the right immigration policy settings to respond to the challenges that we have, and that is – we do have skill shortages; we live in a global community, where a lot of our New Zealand citizens are getting married and having children with people who are not from New Zealand. They want to come in; we fulfil our humanitarian obligations through the refugee quota.

Minister, can I just stop you there? Can I just stop you there, because that’s not actually what I asked. What I asked you was – are you confident that we have the right infrastructure for the number of people we are inviting into this country?

Largely yes, I do. Yes.

We’ve got enough houses? Because the evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that that is the case.

Well, I think it’s a long bow to draw to say when there are reducing numbers of people coming in and gaining residence, and at the same time as we know we have built far fewer houses than we used to because of a number of bureaucratic issues that suddenly it’s the overseas migration problem rather than the simple supply of housing, and that’s what the government is focused on fixing. There’s a lot of work being done to boost the number of houses in Auckland and in those other hard-to-solve areas like Tauranga, Wellington, Queenstown. The special housing areas are being put in place-

But, Minister, again, can I stop you there? Because of the reality is that not enough houses are being built. The majority of these residents are staying in Auckland. We already know that Auckland is about right now 20,000 houses too short, so we apparently don’t have the infrastructure.

Well, I think this is the nub of the policy issue, though. Because if you want to solve that problem, then at least identify the number of people for whom the problem is occurring, and I cannot see for the life of me why an increase in the number of German backpackers going to Queenstown is actually having an impact on the Auckland housing market. When you talk about the 56,000 positive net migration number, you are talking about those backpackers, those students studying in Invercargill, and they’re not putting pressure on the Auckland housing market.

Minister, as you are aware, most of those people go to Auckland and stay in Auckland. More than 50% do.

Well, no, that’s not true either, Lisa, and I think it’s really important that we look through those numbers. About 40% of the people who gain residence do so in Auckland, and that should be about right, I think. We’ve got a third of the population living in the greater Auckland area, and 40% of those people were not born in New Zealand. So it’s no surprise to me that a similar or slightly larger proportion of our people who are gaining residence actually go to Auckland. Now, nobody’s shoehorning them into that city. They’re going there because that’s where the skilled jobs are, and in the temporary migration space, quite the opposite is occurring. The long-term temporary migrants who are helping with the Canterbury rebuild are obviously in Canterbury. We have migrants helping in our orchards in the Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough and Central Otago. We’ve got working holidaymakers in Queenstown and Taupo. They are not driving up Auckland house prices.

Minister, for every one that goes to Canterbury, four go to Auckland, though. So-

Well, that’s not a statistic that I’ve seen, and I would challenge it.

But what about shoehorning some of those people out of Auckland? You talked a little bit about it this week. Are you working on anything?

Well, we already have those policies in our skilled migrant and in our entrepreneur visa settings, so there are extra points being granted to those who intend to settle outside of Auckland. I certainly couldn’t rule out the possibility that the incentives for doing so might be increased.

Tell me about it. What are you thinking?

Well, it goes again to the tension between the supply of labour and the demand for labour. So what we want is the immigration that is required to fill the skill gaps that we have to be put in those places. Now, where those gaps occur in the regions, they can easily be filled now. But for those entrepreneurs, those innovators, those people who could make a meaningful contribution to regional development, it is possible for us to bump up the point settings to incentivise that, and that’s what I’m reflecting on right now.

Do you expect anything about that in the Budget? Or what kind of timeframe?

Oh, not in the Budget, but it’s part of the strategic thinking that I’ve set with my officials this year to talk about how we can tweak what I think are very sound immigration settings to make sure that they’re improved, and that could happen in the next few months.

So in the next few months, you might give more points to people who are investors in order to get them to move out of Auckland into the regions? Is that what you’re saying?

Yeah. Investors, entrepreneurs and skilled migrants. We already have those settings. The question is should the incentives be stronger.

All right. Thank you very much for joining us this morning. That’s the Minister of Immigration, Mr Michael Woodhouse, from Dunedin.

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