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16 Jan 2008 : Column 947

Mr. Hain: There are all sorts of documents, including a passport, that employers will be able to inspect. Employers are advised by the Home Office on the correct documentary evidence that can establish the right-to-work status. A British national starting work can establish his or her right to work through a UK passport or a UK birth certificate. The Home Office guidance to employers is to be amended from 29 February. That will help to clarify any uncertainty. It is clear that the Government are taking action in every respect to tighten up the loose and unregulated system that we inherited.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way—he is being most generous. He said that employers still have a duty in law to check their employees’ right to work. What would he expect prosecuting authorities to do in the event of an employer claiming that he was just too busy to make those checks?

Mr. Hain: Again, I am not going to dignify that question with a response.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hain: I need to make some progress and then I will give way. The level of ignorance on the Opposition’s far Back Benches, let alone on their Front Bench, is enormous. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, they are back to front.

Ensuring that someone whom one employs has a right to be in this country and has a right to work is not, in my view, asking too much. Neither is it “burdensome” or “unnecessary”, as the Conservative party said it was when commenting on the legislation.

To help to deal with illegal workers in future, we will further tighten the system by introducing identity cards for foreign nationals from the end of this year. I can confirm that, as the ID card system for foreign nationals comes in, anyone who applies for a national insurance number must produce their identity card, so we are introducing an extra clamp-down on illegal working. Will the Conservatives support this absolutely vital tool for achieving that objective?

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hain: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he will tell us whether he will support compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He will know that confidence in a Government, of whatever political colour, is very important indeed. In that regard, will he give the House a guarantee that there are no illegal workers at the Wales Office or the Department for Work and Pensions, so that people listening to the debate, or reading about it tomorrow, can have confidence in his Government?

Mr. Hain: We have extremely strict procedures in the DWP on these matters. Many Conservatives are intervening on me, and I am happy to take all their interventions, but it is interesting that they are asking
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me questions on virtually anything except the issue that they have put down on the Order Paper. That is because they are embarrassed now that they have realised that it was based on an entirely false premise. When I—

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hain: I am happy to take all and sundry— [ Interruption. ] Most of it is sundry. I am more than happy to take interventions, however.

What is really embarrassing for the Conservatives about this debate is not just that they do not understand the issues, or the fact that the proposition on which they have sought to censure the Government is based on an entirely false premise, but that they will not support the proposals for the single weapon that would stem this problem at the outset—the introduction of compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals. That would enable regulations to be introduced that would be of enormous benefit to employers and everyone else.

Mr. Stewart Jackson rose—

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Paice rose—

Mr. Hain: Which one shall I take first? I give way to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands).

Mr. Hands: The Secretary of State seems to be blaming everyone else for this incompetence. He is blaming the Conservative Opposition and hard-pressed business people. May I take him back to the process of issuing national insurance numbers? His chief economist gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee two years ago, stating that Jobcentre Plus staff routinely issued national insurance numbers to all comers and that

Is that still the case?

Mr. Hain: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has just traipsed into the House a little late, but he obviously has not heard what has been said. As this is an issue, however, perhaps I can explain the situation to him. The question that he has just asked is based on woeful ignorance. It is worth putting on the record the process for the allocation of national insurance numbers.

To apply for a national insurance number, the applicant will need first to telephone the Jobcentre Plus national insurance allocation service helpline. When initial contact has been made, Jobcentre Plus will ensure that the applicant needs a national insurance number and does not already have one. After confirming that one is needed, a face-to-face interview will be arranged to establish evidence of identity. The customer will then receive a letter confirming their interview date and the types of documentation needed to support their application. The interviewing staff will
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complete a claim form and establish the applicant’s identity by asking a series of questions relating to personal information.

The interviewing officer will also establish that the applicant has the right to work in the UK by checking such evidence as Home Office documentation or a valid passport endorsed with the applicant’s entry conditions. Any documents provided by the customer will be thoroughly checked using specialist document-checking equipment, and the completed application form and supporting documentation will be sent to the central control unit, where further checks are undertaken. The central control unit will conduct specialist tracing action to ensure that a national insurance number does not already exist, to check that the information supplied by the customer at the interview is correct, and to decide whether to allocate a national insurance number to the customer. Following the allocation of a number, documentation will be passed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to register the number.

The checks that we make are extremely scrupulous and careful. It was absolutely necessary to introduce those extra checks and to change the law inherited from the Conservatives—the party that is seeking to attack us—to combat the abuses that would otherwise still be taking place. Yet the Conservatives will not support one of the single most important changes that we want to introduce—compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals. They will not give us the tool to do that.

Chris Grayling: Why did all those 6,600 illegal security staff applicants have national insurance numbers?

Mr. Hain: Our staff are checking and working with the Home Office to establish precisely why that happened, and whether it was because employers were employing illegal workers or for some other reason that has not been identified. We are keeping oversight of the matter at ministerial level, and the Home Secretary has made it clear that she has agreed to report to the House when we are certain what happened.

Mr. Paice: The Secretary of State keeps referring to the fact that the Opposition have misunderstood the situation. May I take him back to a very short statement—namely, the motion that we are debating today? It states that

It says nothing about work or employment; this is simply a question of whether NINOs have been issued to illegal immigrants. Have the Government given NINOs to illegal immigrants in the two and a half years since the last general election—yes or no?

Mr. Hain: It is interesting that that is not what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has been asking. It is not the burden of the Conservative Front Bench’s argument. For the benefit of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for the whole House, perhaps I should explain the safeguards that are in place to ensure that a person has the right to reside and work in this country when they make an
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application for a national insurance number. I have already explained the procedure.

When an appointment is booked at the nearest national insurance number hub, a customer is advised of the supporting documentation required to make an application. It is made clear that that includes a passport, a birth certificate, a registration certificate, Home Office documents, work permits and identity cards. After all the initial checks are made, the process is followed through in the way that I have described.

The Conservatives appear to be suggesting that national insurance numbers are just being dished out to anybody who applies for one— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) is nodding in agreement.

Mr. Stewart Jackson rose—

Mr. Hain: I need to finish this point, then I will of course give way.

I have just explained that the most stringent safeguards are in place, and they have been steadily tightened up as the global phenomenon of illegal immigration has increased right across Europe and elsewhere across the industrially advanced, prosperous world. We have tightened them up bit by bit, yet some of the measures that we have introduced have been opposed or criticised by the Conservatives.

Mr. Jackson: I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in allowing interventions. By his own admission, either by omission or commission he has not been straight with the Labour party’s national executive. Perhaps today he will be straight with the House. Why does he think that it was not the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats but the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who was prompted to say today:

The Government have had two years to take this issue on board and deal with it properly, but they have clearly failed to do so.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman has stumbled into the Chamber this afternoon clutching a rehearsed question, but I have already given the answer and I will explain other aspects in a few moments.

I was talking about compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals and it is worth noting that foreign nationals, the subject of today’s debate, feature in the Conservative motion. Yet if Conservative Members had the power to impose compulsory ID cards on foreign nationals, they would not do so because they are fanatically opposed to ID cards in any shape or form. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister twice asked the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, whether he and his party would support the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals—and he twice refused to agree to that. If the Opposition were serious about protecting Britain’s borders and about the problem of illegal working, they would support ID
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cards, especially compulsory ones for foreign nationals. ID cards are supported by Sir John Stevens, the chairman of the Conservative leader’s working group on border police, and by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, chair of the Conservative leader’s national and international security policy commission. I gladly give the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell the opportunity to say yes or no, right now, to compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals. I gladly give way to him on that point— [Interruption.] I note that he will not rise to say yes or no. I have been happy to take his interventions throughout the debate, but he will not get up to say yes or no to compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals.

Chris Grayling rose—

Mr. Hain: It looks as though he will now.

Chris Grayling: Why should the Opposition give yes or no answers to the Secretary of State when he will not give yes or no answers to my hon. Friends about the issue outlined in the motion? Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question whether his Government have issued national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants over the last two and a half years? Yes or no?

Mr. Hain: I have just explained to the hon. Gentleman that we have put in place the most stringent checks. If we find that a national insurance number has been issued to illegal workers, presumably through deception, we will see whether any further checks and measures are necessary, particularly in the security industry cases. In that case, we hope that, unlike in respect of ID cards for foreign nationals, the hon. Gentleman will support us.

Mr. Hands: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hain: Not for a moment.

It is no good the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell fulminating about illegal working when he wants to deprive Britain of an essential weapon—compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals—to defeat it.

Lest we forget, I shall detail some of the other measures that the Opposition have felt unable to support on this matter: fines for hauliers who attempt to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country to work illegally; limits to benefits for asylum seekers; measures to refuse asylum to convicted criminals sentenced to two years’ imprisonment—so much for the high and mighty condemnations of the Government that we have heard this afternoon.

We are now in the middle of the biggest ever shake-up of Britain’s border security, intended to tackle these problems: we are introducing a single border force to guard our ports and airports with police-like powers for front-line staff; we are checking fingerprints before we issue a visa for anywhere in the world; we are counting foreign nationals in and out of the country; and we are introducing compulsory watch-list checks for all travellers before they land in Britain and, for high-risk countries, before planes take off. We are also introducing a new points system like that in Australia so that business can bring in legal migrants to work here legally as we need them.

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Conservative Members express “very great concern” on the issue of illegal immigration. They are concerned if they think they can get a vote or two out of it, but not concerned enough to do anything about it or to back those such as the Government who will. As has been shown graphically this afternoon, this is a contrived debate. What Channel 4 news ran last night, the Opposition re-heat today, which is a fine example of what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell does best—putting a crust on a soufflé.

1.44 pm

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State in such an important debate. It is rather disappointing, as the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) noted earlier, that we do not have an opportunity to discuss pensioner poverty today—a hugely important issue on which so many hon. Members have much to say. I hope that the hon. Gentleman lives up to his commitment to find another opportunity to debate that important subject— [Interruption.] Today’s subject is none the less important, but the exchanges so far have generated more heat than light, so I shall do my best to shed a little light on the issue.

I appreciate that this may be a difficult day on which the Secretary of State has to respond to the Opposition motion, given that yesterday, in another context, the Prime Minister used the word “incompetence” to describe him. At the outset, the Prime Minister certainly made it clear that he intended to have a Government of all the talents; we did not expect that incompetence would be among them. Today’s debate is certainly about incompetence, particularly historical incompetence, and the question remains whether such incompetence continues today. No one can doubt the extent of the serious problems that arose in the past, so we need to focus on the extent to which the Government’s changes are delivering a more watertight system. Or is it the case that the revelations on Channel 4 News last night about security workers suggest that more needs to be done to surmount the problems highlighted?

National insurance numbers are important because they have a number of uses, which the Secretary of State has enumerated in detail. They relate to work and are also important as part of the process of claiming benefits—an issue that I am surprised to note has not cropped up in the debate so far. The relationship between a national insurance number and a benefit claim needs to be addressed if we are to deal seriously with all the questions surrounding national insurance numbers.

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