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5.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) on securing the debate. The issues that he raised are important and I am pleased that we had a substantial amount of time
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in which to cover them. I thank him for his gracious comments about our useful discussions when we served together on the Committee stage of the UK Borders Bill. That was a fine example of good scrutiny. The Bill that left for the other place was well served by our work in Committee and on Report. It relates to some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned today.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for the calm and considered way in which he made his points. He obviously put a great deal of work into preparing his remarks, and that has been helpful. Let me comment at the outset on something that he said at the end of his contribution. It is not my view that it is racist to discuss matters of migration and immigration—the Home Secretary said that, or words to that effect, many months ago. We should bear that in mind. I am therefore happy to have the debate. However, I complimented the hon. Gentleman on the presentation of his contribution because that is important, and I bear in mind his remarks about extremist parties, not least the British National party.

I regret the fact that the hon. Members for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who made interventions, are no longer present—I hoped that they might be able to remain to hear some of the responses. However, I hope that they will avail themselves of Hansard later.

I thank the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), who made a valuable contribution to the debate. He is right to say that the issues that the hon. Member for Peterborough raised ranged across several Departments. For that reason, I am not in a position to cover all the subject matter and detail that have been presented to the House today. Those issues of cross-departmental working and agencies working together in local areas are important. Many of the issues raised about migrant communities—their possible transitional impacts and matters of integration, for example—obviously require a multi-agency and cross-Government response. I will talk later about some of the relevant developments that are well past the pipeline and on the verge of springing into life. I hope that that will help to provide answers to some of the points that hon. Gentlemen have raised.

I visited Peterborough just a few weeks ago when I saw the new passport interview centre. It was the first time that I had ever visited Peterborough and I must say that I thought it a very nice town centre with a very pleasant feel and nice atmosphere. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on representing such a nice place.

Migration from the European Union has certainly brought significant benefits to the United Kingdom, in terms of its contribution to our labour market and economy as well as to the diversity and vibrancy of our culture. Recent expansion of the EU has seen an increase in the numbers coming to the UK and a corresponding increase in the benefits that this brings. However, although we believe that migration is of benefit to the UK, the public rightly expect it to be managed and controlled. We have therefore taken a considered approach to the way in which nationals from the accession states can access our labour market. Our approach allows us to monitor the impacts and use the information to inform future policy areas.

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I am aware that Conservative Members were not suggesting that migration brought no benefits or that there should be no migration. It is important to take a balanced view. Hon. Gentlemen made some valid points, but I do not agree with what they said on some other issues. I hope that we can explore that a little further.

On the monitoring of migration from accession states, the UK Government have set up two schemes to manage the migration of workers. The hon. Member for Peterborough has already mentioned the worker registration scheme, which applies to the eight states that acceded in 2004. That requires workers to register their employment and it restricts their access to benefits. Those arrangements were right for the time and have delivered major economic benefits, with nationals from those countries contributing billions to the economy.

The worker registration scheme is effective at providing a profile of those A8 nationals who joined our labour market as employees and at restricting access to income-related benefits. The scheme provides information at an aggregate level on the profile of A8 nationals coming to the UK for employment. It gives us a profile of their age, gender, dependants, the sectors that they register to work in, occupations, hours of working, wages, intended length of stay and geographical distribution. It does not—nor was it intended to—provide information on the stock of migrants in the country, because it does not count those leaving or the number of self-employed migrants.

The WRS restricts access to income-based benefits—income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income support, pension credit, housing or council tax benefit, tax credit and homelessness assistance. It is actually very effective in restricting access to benefits. Only 130,030 of all those who have registered with the WRS—that is, some 632,285, as the hon. Member for Peterborough said—have applied for tax-funded, income-related benefits. Of those applications, 2,648 have been allowed. That is important information, because it is important to keep these matters in perspective. It would be wrong to give the impression that large numbers of people were accessing benefits, because that is not the case. We need to give our constituents that reassurance.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the number of people coming in, and it is probably appropriate to say something about that. He referred to the underestimate, and mentioned a figure of between 13,000 and 15,000. This point has been raised before; indeed, I have addressed it before in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. Those figures were never part of an official Home Office estimate. They were the result of one piece of research undertaken by University college London, among a number of others, that helped to inform the Government’s decision on the free movement of workers. That is why those pieces of research were submitted. However, that was not official Home Office research, and those were not figures that we developed. I understand that University college London developed them on the basis of a view that other member states would not restrict access, which explains why there is such a difference.

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The WRS tells us about those who are coming into this country from the A8 accession states to work but, as hon. Members know, we do not know how many are leaving to return home. We do not have that kind of information because in 1994 the embarkation controls were, to all intents and purposes, cancelled. Obviously, we are working towards being able to count in and count out all the people who enter and leave the United Kingdom, through the strengthening of our borders and through the development of programmes such as e-Borders. Those are important developments that I believe are well supported by Opposition Members.

Mr. Moss: I take it from what the Minister has just been saying that the Government have the means to track these migrant workers who are on the registration scheme, in terms not only of the work that they take on but of any benefits that they draw, or may seek to draw further down the line. I would like confirmation that we have the facility to determine that, say, X per cent. of those on the scheme have drawn benefits. I should also like to raise a couple of points relating to my constituency.

First, a family with children were allowed to rent a housing association property and, of course, received housing benefit from the local council—much to the indignation of the person who was berating me about it in my surgery. When I contacted the council, I was told that they were perfectly entitled to do this, and that the council could not differentiate between a worker in that situation and someone who had been local for some time. Secondly, a complaint reached me that a Slovakian family were drawing housing benefit for private rent. Will the Minister confirm that both those situations are normal in the current climate?

Joan Ryan: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, if someone presents themselves to claim a benefit, an interview takes place in which information is exchanged. If the person is not entitled to that benefit, they will not receive it. On tracking, as I have said, we do not have figures on people who have left, so we are not able to track people out. We need to be able to do that, so we are working to develop that capability as quickly as possible.

Mr. Jackson: The Minister is proceeding in a typically reasonable way to answer the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and I have highlighted. Given that she has sought to disavow the university of London study on the likely number of EU migrants who came to the UK, does she agree that it is quite an admission that the Government had no empirical or academic evidence whatever to predict the number of EU migrants who would come to the UK? Had such research taken place under the auspices of the Government, it would have assisted them—and any Government, of any party—to direct public policy towards those local authorities that have experienced such issues and pressure points.

Joan Ryan: I did not say that we had no information—I am not sure that it can be called evidence, as projections are not what I would refer to as evidence. Clearly, pieces of work were done to inform the decisions, and Ministers received that work, and requested some of it, from our policy officials. As I
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have said, we think that we made the right decision about the A8. We stand by that decision and the benefits that it has brought to our economy. That is not to say that situations do not change, or that we do not need to take account of transitional impacts; I fully acknowledge that that is the case.

I do not think that the admission is strange—we do not have a crystal ball. Obviously, looking ahead, a lot of work is going on, as it did in relation to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. In that case, we made the right decisions about restricting access to our labour market. The information that we can get, not least from the worker registration scheme, which does provide some evidence, enables us to do that better. The decision about the A2 was not taken because we thought that we got it wrong on the A8; we think that we got it right. The benefit to our economy is evidence of that. Some three years have passed since the A8 accession, and it is now evident that we have a growing population and more older people in the work force. It was therefore right to take a different decision in relation to the A2 accession.

Mr. Jackson: I beg the House’s indulgence, as my next point, in respect of EU migrants with criminal records, will be slightly controversial. The Minister was mentioned in dispatches not long ago, in The Sunday Times, for drawing to her officials’ attention—perhaps it was the other way round—that 45,000 people who had criminal convictions or were engaged in some criminal activity were likely to come into this country from Romania and Bulgaria. Does she regret the Government’s decision not to take part in the pilot project to share criminal records data between some European Union countries? Is she in a mood to be the sinner repenting on that issue?

Joan Ryan rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that we are in danger of straying from the particular to the general. The debate is supposed to be about Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, but it seems to be moving on to a national basis. I merely issue that cautionary word.

Joan Ryan: I will certainly take note of your cautionary word, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Members have raised the issue of crime in relation to Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, and I trust that anyone who commits a crime in this country will feel the full force of the law wherever their origin and whatever their status.

Following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, safeguards were introduced in relation to issues such as those raised by the hon. Member for Peterborough. That was unprecedented in the European Union, but we believe that it was the right decision at the time. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are working hard with our European Union partners to bring about greater co-operation on exchange of data. I am not talking about access to data on a hit/no hit basis; I am talking about protecting the privacy of our citizens, while also affording them greater protection by ensuring that information—which is one of the most important tools that we can give our police and law
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enforcement agencies—can be exchanged. I am afraid that crime knows no borders, and we must be able to allow our law enforcement agencies to work together across borders. Such measures will undoubtedly benefit the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and those of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

I have described the workers registration scheme as one of the ways in which we monitor workers from EU accession states. There is another scheme covering workers from Bulgaria and Romania. As I have said, it was decided that while we assessed the implications of the accession of the A8 countries, it would be desirable to impose greater limits on workers from Bulgaria and Romania. It is right for the Government to respond when issues relating to transitional impacts are raised, not least by Opposition Members. I draw no distinction between listening to my hon. Friends and listening to Opposition Members who raise matters about which they are concerned on behalf of their constituents, and the services and infrastructure that support life in their constituencies—and frankly, I resent the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, which were rather out of keeping with the tone of our exchange. I dispute them as well. I think it behoves any Government to serve all the people, whoever their Member of Parliament may be and to whatever party that Member of Parliament may belong. I am pleased to be able to work with Members across the Chamber on issues such as this, and I think it important that we are able to do so. It is important to our constituencies as well.

Mr. Moss: Having received a mild rebuke from the Minister, I should point out that I prefaced my remarks with the word “may”. I said “they may”, not “they will”.

Joan Ryan: That is a useful clarification, for which I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Low-skilled A2 workers have been restricted to existing quota schemes to fill vacancies in the agricultural and food-processing sectors. I point out to the hon. Member for Peterborough that we cannot introduce a points-based system for European Union states. We may as well be completely open about that, because it is a fact, and he knows it. He knows that that is related to the point that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made about freedom of movement and freedom of labour. Those policies did not just somehow leap into being 10 years ago, and it is not just Government Members since 1997 who signed up to them. As the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire pointed out, freedom of movement and freedom of labour are policies that the Conservative Government signed up to, and that we support.

I also point out to the hon. Member for Peterborough that his view may not reflect his party’s view, or the view of his Front-Bench colleagues. The free movement directive was transposed into UK law by the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006, which came into force on 30 April 2006. His party did not pray against the regulations, so I can only assume that if it does not go so far as to support the regulations, at least it does not oppose them. Perhaps he wants to raise those points with his Front-Bench colleagues, rather than with me.

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Mr. Moss: The Minister is now encouraging me, on the political front, to make sure that she does not get away with all sorts of things in Hansard. She said that we did not pray against the regulations, but she will admit that they were introduced as a statutory instrument that was dealt with under the negative procedure, of which hundreds are printed every day. I would not for one moment say that my Front-Bench colleagues missed the regulations, but given that the issue is important, praying against a statutory instrument is not quite the same as having a debate under the affirmative procedure, or a debate on the Floor of the House.

Joan Ryan: The original Bill that included the power to introduce the statutory instrument, subject to negative procedure, was common legislation that passed through the House. Legislation was passed in a similar way by the hon. Gentleman’s party, in the many years in which it was in government. I do not accept what he said; he is talking about a procedure of the House that is not seen to be inappropriate or inadequate. On many days of the week, we find ourselves in Committee Rooms off the Committee Corridor dealing with statutory instruments that have been prayed against by his party, so I think that my point is valid, and that his comments on the issue are not.

Mr. Jackson: I am touched that the Minister believes that my Front-Bench colleagues hang on my every word when it comes to formulation of EU and home affairs policy. On a serious note, she must agree that there is intrinsic merit in the suggestion, because it involves the exact system that was applied in respect of citizens from outside the European economic area who seek to come to the United Kingdom. That system was lauded by the Minister for Immigration and Asylum. If the scheme can work for non-EU citizens, it must have inherent merit, notwithstanding the possible legal issues.

Joan Ryan: The hon. Gentleman invites me to go well beyond the subject of the debate, but the points-based system, which I will come to, is an important development for all our constituents, including his. It applies to third countries—those outside the EEA—and we do not have the same relationship with those countries as we do with countries in the EU. There is not the same level of reciprocity, in terms of our citizens having free movement and free access to labour. Many of our citizens go to EU countries and avail themselves of those rights, just as there are EU citizens who come here. It is not a comparable situation, and I do not accept the merit of what the hon. Gentleman says, because I think that our relationship with the European Union is crucial to our country and to our economy.

We should not seek to turn the clock back on that relationship but, as I said, I support the proposition that the public expect migration to be controlled to meet our needs. The Government must endeavour to control it.

In introducing a points-based system for third countries—we have limited Bulgarian and Romanian workers to agricultural and low-skilled work and removed the right of third-country workers to come in and fill those jobs on the accession of the A2—we have demonstrated our ability to deal with migration from
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third countries and accommodated the fact that we have a different relationship with European Union countries. Knowing that there would be an increase in low-skilled workers from Bulgaria and Romania, we restricted the employment that they could take to agricultural and food processing work. Meanwhile, we removed the right of third countries to fill those roles. That is a good way to manage migration, and it demonstrates an important way forward.

The schemes in the agricultural and food processing sectors are necessary, as I said, and we may continue to need them. It is right that we should monitor them to ensure their continuing relevance. We will therefore undertake a cross-Government review of the restrictions on A2 nationals to inform our future approach. On accession, citizens of new member states gain the right to free movement within all EU states. The terms of accession mean that member states cannot impose more stringent terms and conditions on individuals than existed before accession. We believe that such a proposal is neither viable nor desirable, and that accession is managed most effectively by using the type of schemes that we have implemented. Our approach to EU accession, in conjunction with the points-based system for migration from outside the EU, will ensure that the UK continues to have a labour market that supports economic growth.

The hon. Member for Peterborough raised the issue of statistics and the need to improve the data. The labour force survey is the principal source of employment statistics, information on the UK household population and breakdown by country of birth. From October 2007, following the introduction of modernised labour force survey processing systems, the Office for National Statistics plans to release improved data, consistent with the latest population estimates, which we all welcome. When calculating the formula grant allocations, the Department for Communities and Local Government uses the best data available that treat all authorities consistently. Population projections and estimates are produced by the ONS, which always focuses on ways in which it can improve those statistics. The improvement to the labour force survey processing systems will assist with that. The calculation of sub-national population projections and population estimates is a matter for the ONS, and queries about their derivation and accuracy must be addressed to it directly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do that, if he has not already done it.

I should like to respond to what the hon. Members for Peterborough and for North-East Cambridgeshire said about community cohesion, as it is an issue that we take seriously. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set up the Commission on Integration and Cohesion under the chairmanship of Dara Singh, the chief executive of Ealing council. We expect the commission’s report tomorrow, and we await it with great interest. I am heartened by what Mr. Singh has already said about the importance of a shared language and sense of identity. We in the Home Office have done much to promote that by introducing the new requirements on people seeking to settle here, that they are able to speak English and know something about life in the UK, and by introducing citizenship ceremonies. I can tell Members from my own experience of attending such a ceremony that they are uplifting and moving occasions which do a great deal to instil a sense of shared identity and an appreciation of the privilege of UK citizenship.

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