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16 Jan 2008 : Column 935

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. However, given that the Security Industry Authority said yesterday that every single one of those people had national insurance numbers, I am at a loss to see what review needed to take place, as all those people were affected.

The original figure cited by the Government 18 months ago referred to 3,000 cases, but that is a hopeless underestimate of the level of the problem. Over the past three years, the Government have issued work permits to 270,000 people from outside the European economic area.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an extremely impressive case. Is he aware that the Department that is to reply to this debate estimated in May 2004 that there would probably be 15,000 workers from the EU accession countries working in this country, yet in fact the figure is nearly 700,000? Is it not deplorable that a Government Department got its figures so catastrophically wrong?

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, which amplify the point that the Department is in a state of chaos as regards dealing with the whole system of migrant workers coming to the UK to work.

That is highlighted by the comparison between the number of work permits issued and the number of national insurance numbers issued. Over the past three years, 270,000 people from outside the European economic area have been given work permits by this Government—

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Grayling: I will in a moment; let me just repeat this figure to the hon. Gentleman, because he may be particularly struck by it. The Government have issued 270,000 work permits to people from outside the EEA, but at the same time they have issued nearly 900,000 national insurance numbers—that is a difference of more than 600,000. Before I give my thoughts on what the meaning of that may be, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to give us his.

Paul Flynn: I am one of the many Members who wished to come here today to draw attention to the Government’s very creditable record on dealing with pensioners. Is it not clear from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that he is denying us that opportunity in order to pursue a nasty, vindictive witch hunt against the Minister?

Chris Grayling: I look forward to debating pensioner poverty with the hon. Gentleman at the earliest opportunity, as we have every intention of holding that debate. However, I think he will agree that these issues have a direct correlation with levels of worklessness and child poverty, and when we, as the House of Commons, discover that the Government are failing as they now clearly are, it is right and proper that we should bring Ministers to this House to hold them to account as quickly as we possibly can.

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Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): My hon. Friend may share my concern that the Government’s sheer incompetence in their handling of immigration means that in housing, for instance, we have a situation whereby the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), wrote to tell me:

He informed me, however, that one third of projected new housing would be allocated for new immigration. Is that not a disastrous situation that leads to further problems of community cohesion and delivery of public services?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The reason for holding this debate is that the fact that the system is out of control has direct, human consequences as regards levels of deprivation and the serious challenges faced by many British families in many communities around the country.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Surely this shows the Government’s complete incompetence in trying to pursue their stated policy objective of British jobs for British workers. If they do not even know how many people are coming here from outside the EU and how they will control their access to work, that makes it impossible for them to pursue one of the central aims that the Prime Minister has repeated in this House on many occasions.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will set out in more detail why this completely undermines many aspects of the Government’s current strategy.

Let me return to the gap of 600,000 between the number of work permits issued and the number of national insurance numbers issued—

Mr. Hain: Could the hon. Gentleman give the House his precise understanding of the difference between a work permit and a national insurance number?

Chris Grayling: The Government explained that at the time of the publication of their regulations. If we are to believe them, given that it is clearly not the case, a national insurance number can be obtained only by someone who has the right to work in the UK. Is the Secretary of State saying that that is no longer correct? The Government told us that that was their policy, although it is clearly not what is happening on the ground. My understanding of the difference, and I think the understanding of any employer, is that if somebody turns up for employment with a national insurance number, that is taken as a stamp of approval from the Government—the right to work in the United Kingdom. If the Secretary of State wants to tell us otherwise, I should like to hear from him.

Mr. Hain: I warn the hon. Gentleman gently, and in a friendly way, that he is digging himself into an even deeper hole. I asked him about his understanding of the difference between a work permit and a national insurance number, because he seems to think that they are the same thing.

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Chris Grayling: I have never said that they are the same thing, but the Government’s statements show that they regard the issuing of a national insurance number as linked directly to the right to work in the United Kingdom. They have clearly not managed the system properly given that, as we know as a matter of record from yesterday’s revelations, national insurance numbers are being handed out to a large number of people who do not have a right to work in the UK. That is the point. Nearly 1 million people have received national insurance numbers: the question is how many of them really have a right to be working in the UK. We know that some of them do—for example, overseas students or dependants of people who have permits to work here.

Lest Members should have any doubts about this issue, let me give a couple of examples of why I sincerely believe that the 600,000 figure masks a significant number of people who should not be here. Over the past three years, the Government have issued 755 work permits to people from Ghana, for example, but over the same period they have issued more than 21,000 national insurance numbers to people from Ghana. Take Albania, with 110 work permits issued and more than 4,000 national insurance numbers issued. Try persuading me that all those numbers were issued under the normal— [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Borders and Immigration asks how many are students. Let me answer that question for him, because I have taken a look at the website of the Higher Education Statistics Agency, whose most recent figures show that a grand total of 235 Albanians are studying in the UK—hardly equivalent to 4,000.

What do we know about the rest of those people? We have sought to do the right thing by probing the Government to find out who they really are. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere asked Ministers whether they could provide us with a breakdown of the gap between the number of work permits that they issue and the number of national insurance numbers that they hand out, their response—surprise, surprise—was that they did not have that information. So how do we take them seriously when they tell us that they know what is going on?

Let me say what I think. I do not believe for a moment that all those national insurance numbers were issued to people who are legitimately in the United Kingdom. I have suspected for a while that the current system is simply out of control—that the Government are handing out national insurance numbers to people who have no right to be here, and that Ministers have told employers that the national insurance number system is something they can rely on when the opposite is the case.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What chance does my hon. Friend think that the average employer has of knowing whether a national insurance number is legitimate, given the sophistication of the scams that illegal immigrants employ to obtain them and the apparent ease with which it is possible to do so? Are they not liable unwittingly to employ somebody who is not entitled to be here?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right. If the Government themselves cannot work out who is or is not entitled to a national insurance number, why should we expect the small business down the road to be able to do it?

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We now know for certain that this is precisely what is happening, not from the Government, who did not want to answer the questions—we have heard the Secretary of State’s explanation, and I will leave hon. Members to reach a view on that—but from the Security Industry Authority, which had no problem in doing so. Yesterday, it confirmed publicly and openly, and Ministers finally accepted grudgingly, that every single one of the 6,000-plus illegal immigrants appointed to security posts had a national insurance number. After two months of not answering questions, in the end the truth had to be dragged out of them. Even as late as yesterday morning, the Department for Work and Pensions was still claiming that it did not know the answer, which, I have to say, stretches credibility. It was another attempt to hide bad news, this time for as long as possible. This comes at a time not just when the leadership of the Department is in a state of chaos but when the Government want more bad news like a hole in the head, and not surprisingly, on a serious issue we cannot get the information from them.

With supreme irony, this revelation comes a week after the Government launched a campaign to warn employers that they face prosecution if they hire someone who does not have a right to work in the UK. The slogans are direct:

an interesting message for the Secretary of State to contemplate. The campaign even points out that offenders can be sent to jail. The Government could not have been more direct about it.

I quote the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who launched the campaign last week. He also said:

A week later, it turns out that the Secretary of State’s Department is handing out national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. How on earth are businesses and employers supposed to take the system seriously when it is quite clear that the Department has lost control of it? That is what has been so worrying about the revelations from the DWP in the past few months. Almost every month at Question Time, the Secretary of State parrots the Prime Minister’s favourite slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, even though it was pinched from the BNP, and even though it is illegal under European law. But how does he get British people into British jobs if he has lost control of the system for managing the flow of people into the UK coming from overseas to work?

Let us be clear. The Secretary of State may only have been in his job since last summer, but the buck stops with him, and his grasp of the situation has been sketchy to say the least. In September, when he claimed that only 700,000 of the new jobs created since 1997 had gone to people from overseas, he was obviously wrong. It did not take rocket science to work that one out; one just has to go out for a walk in any of our cities to see the change that has happened. However, when I challenged him over that and told him that I
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thought he had got the numbers wrong, he was having absolutely none of it. Let me read to the House the letter I had from him. He emphatically stated:

He added:

About three weeks after that, he had to make public appearances apologising for getting it wrong, so who is confused now?

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Is not the irony of this Government’s appalling mismanagement of immigration the fact that the impact is felt most on low-skilled, low-wage people in a small number of communities in this constituency, including my own constituency of Peterborough? They are priced out of jobs by unfettered immigration, which causes enormous resentment and gives succour to the extremist parties on the right. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government are responsible for that. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), might think it is an amusing thing to comment on, but it is not. It has ramifications for community relations throughout this country.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right because underlying the debate is a real human cost. Getting the system wrong has real consequences for people in communities up and down the country.

If we could all see there was something wrong, why did the Secretary of State not see it? Let me ask him this question. When the security staff story first broke back in December, it was clear that there could be an issue with national insurance numbers. I have a copy of the application form here. It is quite clear, and it says that applicants are required to fill in all their details with a national insurance number. That is why we asked the questions, so why did he not answer? When did he first realise that something was amiss? Why was his Department still claiming that it did not know the answer as late as yesterday morning, when the Security Industry Authority was able to say what it knew? Why did it say that the answer was 100 per cent. when the Department was still trying to find out? Did he actually talk to it to find out what had happened, and what changes has he ordered to the national insurance number system since the matter occurred? Why has no statement been made to the House about what is clearly a problem in the Department?

This is a matter of extreme importance, not for technical reasons related to our immigration system, but because of those nearly 5 million people stranded on out-of-work benefits. Not all of them can or will work again—those who cannot will rightly need the help of the state to support them—but very many of them can and should be working again. It makes no sense to have millions of people coming to work here from overseas, or to be so lax with people coming to Britain illegally, while so many people are sitting at home doing nothing.

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I am not sure the Secretary of State has fully grasped the seriousness of that issue either. When we met at the Dispatch Box last week, I pressed him about the level of child poverty in Britain. The academic evidence is clear-cut. Children brought up in workless households are more likely to fail at school, more likely to be workless themselves and more likely to end up in trouble in later life. Britain today has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other country in Europe, including the poorest new entrants to the EU such as Romania and Latvia. The Secretary of State does not seem to know that, because when I pressed him on the issue he said he thought we were “above the average” in Europe. I suggest that he goes back and looks at the figures again. He should cut through the Government’s rhetoric, and take a look at the real picture in Britain today, where child poverty is rising again, where young people cycle on and off the new deal without finding sustainable jobs, and where, in some parts of our community, as many as one in three children are being brought up in workless households.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that what is before us is a very narrow motion, which he created. Therefore, he must keep to the terms of the motion. He is talking about the problems of families in this country, when the motion clearly expresses great concern about national insurance numbers being issued to illegal immigrants. According to his own distinction, the debate is very narrow indeed.

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, but the whole point is that this is the human cost of what the Government are doing. The more national insurance numbers we issue to people who are in this country not by right, the more we cause a knock-on problem for people in communities around the country who suffer from deprivation. Those people are looking for work and those jobs are not always there. There are many people in this country who we need to get back into work, and if the Government are sanctioning, through the inefficiency of the way they operate, a flow of people into this country who should not be here by giving national insurance numbers to them, they are effectively giving a stamp of authority to employers, saying, “Actually, it is okay to hire this guy because the Government’s ticked his box. It must be okay for him to be here.” That takes opportunities away from people in this country, and it has a huge human cost as a knock-on effect.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly in order to say that, but not in depth. He can touch on that point, but not in the detail he was going into previously.

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The fact is that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department that is focused on dealing with those issues, while at the same time it is giving national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. That is not a record of which any Secretary of State of any Government should be proud.

The truth is that the Government’s record in managing the flow of people coming to work in Britain is lamentable. They do not know how many people are
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here. They do not know who is working. They do not know whether or not people have a right to work here, and they seem to be handing out national insurance numbers without question. Yet the Department overseeing all of this is run by a Secretary of State who, by his own admission, cannot add up. He said that he could not manage his own finances because of the pressures of work, but he still thought it was okay to take on the Labour deputy leader’s job. He had lost control of the numbers not just in his campaign, but in his Department and all while he was trying to run not one, but two Departments of State. It all appears to be getting a bit much for him.

We know that the system he is overseeing is in a state of chaos. We know that handing national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants will undermine efforts to tackle deprivation and get people back into work. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why he believes that he is still the right man to do the job?

1.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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