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25 Apr 2007 : Column 329WH—continued

25 Apr 2007 : Column 330WH

Returning to my open meeting, I was told by Romanians working in London—generally well educated, professional people—that the regulations are “manufacturing exploitation”; that people are being ripped off by others offering to help them to move from Romania to London; that many are

that the “biggest problem” they face in London is neither housing costs nor the other problems that my other constituents are familiar with, but simply “government regulations”. There have been quite a few cases of Romanians being fined and paying up, even though they have been working legally with a self-employed status.

At the same time, it can be expensive to obtain good information. Self-styled advisers charge between £250 and £600 to assist in claiming self-employed status. One such adviser whom I have heard about sees nothing wrong with the situation: he says that “business is business”. Another adviser—again, I shall not name him—has been shown to have spent some £25,000, which is a great deal of money in Romania, on advertising his services in Romania this year alone. It must be a lucrative business if that is simply one’s advertising bill.

The Romanian press in London carries classified advertisements from advisers offering basic information for £150, and £450 costs for helping with worker registration forms. The point is that overly complex rules drive expensive advisers, and the Minister should really consider changing the situation.

The Bulgarian embassy reports similar problems with overly costly advisers. Agencies in Bulgaria, which UK nationals frequently own or operate, will arrange for a client a period of work that is often as short as two weeks. The embassy has seen some of the contracts, and many state that the agency cannot guarantee further placements. In that sense, the Bulgarians have been forewarned, but few seem to understand the situation. After the worker’s two weeks, the agency simply abandons them and they are left to fend for themselves. The worker cannot be sent home or claim benefits, and they will not get another job unless they become self-employed or a bogus student.

A Romanian has e-mailed me, ironically, with details of how a few individuals have fraudulently gained registration as students. In the public interest, I shall not put on the record the way in which the scheme operates, but the over-complex regulation is driving evasion. Evasion probably extends to tax and national insurance, so it costs us all money.

Ironically, owing to the fact that there are probably so few A2 nationals compared with A8 nationals, most employers do not bother to check the regulations behind A2s. They know that the regulations are different, but employers do not see any good reason to check out the rules; they simply play it safe and do not hire the Bulgarian or Romanian person. That is especially the case for self-employed builders in London. Employers are scared by the threat of fines. It seems that there is not too drastic a shortage of labour, and employers simply do not take the risk. If we as Members of Parliament do not understand the regulations, what hope is there for a small employer or, indeed, the Romanian national?

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Let me take the case of Mr. A, a construction worker. He arrived in Britain in February 2007 and applied to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for registration as a self-employed tradesman, in order to qualify for the construction industry scheme card. The card should have arrived later in February, but it did not, despite repeated promises by HMRC. In March, Mr. A was told that he could not have a CIS card after all, because the scheme was about to change. The contractor for whom Mr. A had undertaken to work abruptly considered supporting him to be not worth the risk, declared him to be working illegally and made him leave the site. Administrative delay and changing procedures cost Mr. A his livelihood. It is that sort of unfortunate experience that has made working on the black market become all too common, as it is regrettably far easier. Indeed, I hear that more than 20 Mr. As have been affected by the change in the construction industry scheme.

Others unscrupulously take advantage of the fact that Romanians and Bulgarians are known to have a different status and difficulties. Such people charge more for other services, such as private sector rents, which have nothing to do with the worker status of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, and simply exploit the fact that it is known that those two countries are treated differently.

There are cases where the rules for Bulgarians and Romanians are stricter than those for non-EU or non-European economic area nationals. For example, if one member of a couple is self-employed and given permission to work in the UK, the other generally has an unrestricted right to work in the UK as well, and that is valid in respect of non-EU countries, too. However, it does not seem to be the case for Bulgarians and Romanians. I am told that wives and husbands are frequently informed that they need to send a written job offer to the Home Office with a BR4 form and then wait for two to three weeks for permission. It would be helpful to know of any other information that the Minister has about that.

There are also fears that the rules are helping trafficking. Those involved are unlikely to come to an open public meeting or contact an MP by e-mail. However, their concerns that the rules are “manufacturing exploitation” have been raised on their behalf at such meetings by others in the community. Some regulations are simply crazy. For example, anyone graduating from a Scottish university does not require prior authorisation before coming from an A2 country to work in the UK, but they do require it if they have graduated from an English or Welsh university.

I cannot find a single Bulgarian or Romanian with words of praise for the Home Office. Interestingly, by contrast I hear a lot of praise for the police and the Met in particular. The head of the Romanian Orthodox Church in this country has echoed that favourable view of the police, who are reaching out to the community, but has also said that there is a lack of interest from the Home Office. Because Romanians and Bulgarians have free movement, but do not have free access to work or recourse to public funds, there is a small but growing number of cases putting a strain on church and charitable resources as a result. The head of the Church has told me that the police are “highly commended”. However, the Home Office did not contact him in the run-up to accession and has not
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done so since, and has not made any information available to the Church. I hope that the Minister will guarantee to change that.

I shall give a flavour of the comments that have been made to me by Romanian and Bulgarian nationals in the UK about the issue. One said:

Another said:

yet they are told that they are no good. Another person said:

Another said:

Let us consider what happens when one does become self-employed. One of my constituents, a Bulgarian working for an international bank, has been asked in a letter to produce within 28 days a set of 16 different documents to demonstrate her self-employed status. Let us contrast that with another Hammersmith and Fulham resident, who is not Bulgarian or Romanian. His letter from the Home Office actually apologised to him for all the delays that have been caused. The letter said:

but it went on to say that the reason the process had taken so long was that Mr. X

Why is the Home office apologising to al-Qaeda members, but putting huge obstacles in the way of fellow EU citizens who are simply trying to work here?

The problems do not exist just in London. The National Farmers Union has also been in touch with me. It is concerned with some of the bizarre regulations in place, specifically the strange decision to restrict the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, or SAWS, to Bulgarians and Romanians from next year. The NFU says that that will deny British agriculture a pool of skilled reliable labour from other countries, ironically mainly from non-EU eastern Europe. Because of their general rights as EU citizens, Bulgarians and Romanians are not obliged to return to their own countries at the end of their time on SAWS. Equally, however, if they stay here, they are not allowed to do other work unless they become self-employed or a student, both of which seem somewhat unlikely for agricultural labourers. The NFU has rightly pointed out that the system appears to be designed to create a potential black market in labour.

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The Minister told the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the European Scrutiny Committee on 7 December that

but that

I urge him to conduct that review now. The scheme set up specifically for the A2 nationals was estimated to cost £1.6 million. About £450,000 of that was for the scheme’s estimated annual running costs. I suspect that the actual cost is rather more than that, but I would be interested to hear his views on whether the costs of the separate scheme for the A2s are justified at all, given the smaller numbers involved.

The Home Secretary has called A8 immigration “a success”, and I for one agree with him. In announcing the new measures for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals on 24 October, he said, ironically, with reference to the A8 nationals:

So why should the A2 nations be any different? It is a curious world when something branded a success leads one to introduce measures to prevent further success.

I have five specific questions for the Minister. First, how many Romanian and Bulgarian nationals have come to the UK to work since 1 January 2007, what proportion of the total number of visitors from those countries does that figure represent, and how many have already exited? Secondly, why does he not simply apply the same rules for A8 nationals to those from the A2 nations? Although the A8 system has its problems, it is massively easier than the system that applies to Bulgarians and Romanians. Thirdly, when does he believe that he will have enough information to give serious consideration to lifting the restrictions?

Fourthly, what discussions has the Minister had with his EU counterparts on an EU-wide relaxation of restrictions? As he knows, various countries have relaxed restrictions on A8 nationals since May 2004. I urge him to work with his counterparts to make Britain part of a more welcoming regime overall. That would also be likely to reduce any risk—albeit small—of a sharp upturn in A2 numbers. Fifthly, this debate is about A2 nationals rather than A8 nationals, but I should also like to ask the Minister whether the Government make a profit out of the A8 registration scheme, as the £75 fee seems inordinately high.

In conclusion, most Romanians and Bulgarians to whom I have spoken or who have e-mailed me in the past few weeks have stories to tell. Obviously, most immigrants would. I myself was once a migrant worker, working in McDonalds in west Berlin in the 1980s. Nothing is very easy as a migrant worker. The bureaucracy can be intense and the hostility shown on occasion is unnerving. However, all that is at least partly offset by the overall experience and, potentially, the financial rewards. The point is that, unfortunately, the stays of most Romanians and Bulgarians in this country are made far more complex, difficult and
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subject to downright obstruction than they should be. It is high time that the Government took action to change that.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): I call Keith Vaz—briefly, please.

4.20 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Mr. Cook, I shall be very brief because we want to hear from the Minister. I support everything that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) has said. In 1999, I was at the European summit meeting in Helsinki with the Prime Minister when he made the pledge and plea for Romania and Bulgaria to join. I was also aware of the speech that he made to the Romanian Parliament.

All the statistics mentioned by the hon. Gentleman bear scrutiny and are correct. I hope that the Minister will accept the arguments that have been put forward and make the changes necessary for there to be fairness to the people from Romania and Bulgaria.

4.21 pm

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): I do not believe that I have served under your chairmanship before, Mr. Cook, and it is a privilege to do so this afternoon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this important debate. It appears that we have one thing in common: we both began our illustrious careers in McDonald’s, although I did not have the chance to work anywhere as glamorous as West Berlin, so my experience has not been quite as wide as his. I genuinely welcome the Conservatives back to the debate on immigration. They have been quieter during the past 12 months. I had not realised that the hon. Gentleman was a revolutionary; I hope that in the not-too-distant future he will bring a bit of that experience to his Front Bench.

I should like to start with two points of context before trying to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. My first point is that last July, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary launched the immigration service on the biggest and most radical shake-up in its history. On 2 April this year, the border and immigration agency started work as an arm’s length organisation. Subject to parliamentary approval of the UK Borders Bill, in the months to come we shall have a more powerful inspectorate to cast some transparency on an organisation that has been too dark and hard to see into. New regions will provide a much closer interface with local communities and their immigration priorities.

The issue is not all about immigration policing. There will be communities that say to us, “Look, we need a bit of help with changing the kind of migrants that are working in our economy.” I visited Newcastle at the end of last year and was struck when Liberal Democrat local authority leaders and others told me that they wanted to grow the population of Newcastle by 8 per cent. in the next few years and that they could not do that by encouraging the good citizens of that city to breed faster. They need migrants to help fill some of the skills gaps in their economy. I hope that in
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future years, the border and immigration agency will be able to work much more closely with local communities to plan for such changes.

We are also undertaking a number of important reforms to how immigration policing is effected in this country. We have set out plans to establish a second offshore border control, and we are harnessing new technologies, some of which the Conservatives have not yet signed up to. I was struck by the hon. Gentleman’s story about the woman asked to produce 16 or 17 different documents—I am not sure whether she was his constituent. When we introduce biometric ID cards, that process will get slightly easier.

We had to consider a decision about the work rights of Bulgaria and Romania against that general reform of the immigration system. Of course, we considered the experience of A8 migration. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; in 2004, when 10 countries joined the European Union, we gave their people access to our labour market. Our evidence is that the decision was absolutely right. There have been calculations of the considerable impact and contribution that those migrants have made to our economy and society. Research by the Department for Work and Pensions found that there was no evidence that jobs had been taken away from British workers.

The hon. Gentleman’s second question was important—he asked why we were not simply rolling forward the rules that we put in place for the A8 so that they apply to people from Bulgaria and Romania. The answer is simple—I thought that we set out our rationale and logic clearly at the time—and I shall repeat it. In some parts of the country, there was still evidence of transitional impacts caused by changing levels of migration. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), who is with us in the Chamber, has talked about that in the main Chamber and in the Committee considering the UK Borders Bill.

Last week, I talked about some of the changes that I had seen in schools in my constituency, and other hon. Members have discussed changes and pressures that they have seen in the health service. Against that background, we are witnessing evidence of admittedly isolated impacts on public services. It was sensible for us to wait a little longer to understand the overall impact. Our determination to put things on a more rational basis is best expressed in our recent decision to put immigration decisions as a whole on a far more open and transparent basis. That is why just before Easter, I said that we would set up a migration advisory committee to advise on where in the economy the UK needs migration and where it does not. Alongside that, I added that we would set up a migrations impact forum to ensure that the Government as a whole were taking into account the wider social impacts of migration in making decisions.

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