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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am very unhappy about this proposal. It carries with it a number of very important assumptions and implications with which I am certainly not prepared to go along at this stage; it needs a lot of further debate. The first assumption is the casual one that the good folk of Ireland should continue to have special privileges in this country that others do not have. Of course, Ireland is a proud member of the European Union, as, indeed, is this country—for the time being. That suggests that for fairness and even-handedness, we should treat Ireland in exactly the same way as we treat other EU member states: no better and no worse. This constant demand for special treatment for Ireland strikes me as anomalous, to say the least. If the Irish want their country to be treated as a sovereign nation within the EU, they should surely accept the responsibilities that go with that. So there is a basic problem with this proposition that we have to face up to.

I turn to another difficulty. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) made some play of the fact that the naturalisation process is extremely difficult, arduous and strenuous. I do not think that that is so, but if it is, it is properly the case. Surely British citizenship is a privilege that should be somewhat arduous and difficult, rather than casual and easy, for people of any other nationality to obtain. So the idea that we make the privilege of British citizenship very simple and easy to get strikes me as odd. We should move in the other direction instead, given the problems that we face with people coming from other countries to this country. If, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, they come to live here for a long time, pay taxes and so on, there is a process open to them whereby they may apply to become British citizens, and it is a perfectly proper and correct process. I hope that that process is retained. Indeed, I could easily be persuaded that it should be made somewhat more difficult, rather than easier.

I have given two basic reasons why I think that this proposal should be resisted, certainly until we have explored its implications a lot further than we are able to today.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gregory Campbell, Kate Hoey, Michael Fabricant, Andrew Mackinlay, Lembit Opik, Rev. Ian Paisley, Mr. Peter Robinson, Mr. Nigel Dodds and Mrs. Iris Robinson.

British Subjects (Registration)

Mr. Gregory Campbell accordingly presented a Bill to amend the British Nationality Act 1981 to enable citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the United Kingdom to register as British subjects: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 16 June, and to be printed [Bill 91].

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Opposition Day

[10th Allotted Day]

Welfare Reform and Incapacity Benefit

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now come to the debate on welfare reform and incapacity benefit. I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.36 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House is extremely concerned that the Government is failing to tackle welfare reform despite promises to do so; recognises that the pensions system is in crisis; notes that the Prime Minister believes the Child Support Agency is not suited to carry out the task that it has been given; believes that the New Deal has failed to deliver; notes that 116,000 more people are claiming incapacity benefit than in 1997 despite the Government's pledge to reduce the number; is deeply disturbed that the Incapacity Benefit Green Paper, which was due to be published in the summer and then the autumn, will not now be published until January; believes that this is due to continuing conflict between the Prime Minister and the Department for Work and Pensions on the desired content of the Paper; and calls on the Government finally to deal with the increasingly urgent need for welfare reform, for the benefit of users of the system and all taxpayers.

My first, and very pleasant, duty is to welcome the new Secretary of State to his responsibilities. I am getting rather good at this, as only six months ago I welcomed his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). The right hon. Gentleman is no less than the fourth person to occupy the role in just over 12 months. The Prime Minister had better get careful: to lose one Secretary of State is a misfortune, to lose two is clearly carelessness, but to lose three suggests a degree of serial incompetence in 10 Downing street. In part, that explains some of the incoherence that we are experiencing in welfare policy.

Of course, we wish the new Secretary of State well. I hope that he will not mind if I borrow a phrase from pension language and say that he will find his Department rather difficult to handle, with very few direct benefits for him. He will expect to make most of the contributions and will find that a difficult task. One of the questions on which we will judge his performance is whether he can live up to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside. Despite his other failings, he was a big beast and could hold out against 10 Downing street when that was appropriate. The Secretary of State does not yet have that reputation, and we wait with interest to see whether he can earn it.

Welfare reform is an appropriate subject for debate today. When they first came to office in 1997, the Government chose to adopt it as one of the major issues on which they would be judged. It was one of the great themes of that election, but the Prime Minister essentially fell at the first hurdle. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was appointed as the Minister in charge of welfare and invited to think the unthinkable. However, he was out of government within a year, and never emerged again.

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That was our first evidence that, on welfare reform and many other issues, the Prime Minister is very powerful when it comes to rhetoric, but very poor when it comes to delivery.

Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I will in a moment. The Prime Minister likes to give the impression that he leads from the front but, on a great many issues, he prefers to go for public opinion when the going gets tough. In effect, he tells people, "Tell me where you wish to go, in order that I might lead you."

Ed Balls: In 1997, the Government introduced the new deal, which has reduced unemployment in my constituency by 80 per cent. and helped 550 single parents into work. Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman want to abolish the new deal? Is that a coherent policy?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Like the hon. Gentleman, we know that most jobs offered under the new deal are not permanent. It has not had the impact that had been hoped for, and a powerful argument for using the private and voluntary sectors to find jobs is that they tend to offer long-term or permanent employment.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I hope that the House will forgive me, but I intend to make my speech. I will accept interventions, but this debate is about the incoherence of the Government's welfare policy. That is what we shall concentrate on.

On so many issues, at the first sign of difficulty, the Prime Minister tries to distance himself from the policy of his own Government. Only last week, the Prime Minister dropped broad hints at the Dispatch Box that he was enthusiastic about the suggestion that the Child Support Agency should be abolished—he knows the low esteem in which it is held by the public. But of course, soon after the Prime Minister left the Chamber, No. 10 Downing street and the Department for Work and Pensions were asked for confirmation of the policy, and we then heard the magic word, "clarification". That made it clear that there was no intent to abolish the CSA. There was no new policy on the CSA: the Prime Minister simply wished to make a short-term impact.

The same thing happened with the deal that was done between the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the public sector trade unions. The Prime Minister let it be known how unhappy he was with the deal that had been made, as if somehow it had nothing to do with him. His attitude was, "Forgive me, I'm only the Prime Minister. I can't be expected to be held responsible for deals made by my Government." But we know that that deal has been enormously damaged by the Government's attempt to argue that the rest of the population should work longer and retire later while
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simultaneously sanctioning a deal for their own employees that will take 40 years to come into effect. It is a poor situation, and the Secretary of State will have to acknowledge that.

We are discussing welfare policy as a whole today, but as the motion implies I shall concentrate specifically on incapacity benefit, which is one of the areas where the Government have most fallen down on their stated ideals since they came into office.

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