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We have heard regular and repeated assurances—we heard them again today from the Secretary of State—that the problems identified with the national insurance number allocation process are being dealt with and that new processes are being introduced. I have seen information on a Department for Work and Pensions website, setting out precisely how the Government intend to apply the rules to ensure that all the relevant checks are made. As reported on Channel 4 News last night, however, 6,653 workers in the security industry, who were not allowed to work here as they were in the country illegally, none the less had
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national insurance numbers. The Secretary of State said that processes were now in place to ensure that workers who are here illegally cannot apply for or receive national insurance numbers. What checks have been made to find out what proportion of those in the security industry gained their national insurance numbers before July 2006, when the new system was brought in, and what proportion received them after that date? That answer is key to establishing whether the system has changed in reality.

Mr. Hain: In respect of this inquiry, it is important to put on record—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do so—that the Home Secretary advised the House on the basis of further checks that around 70 per cent. had the right to work in the UK. The Security Industry Authority has written to the vast majority of the remainder—more than 10,500 individuals—to advise them that it is minded to revoke their licences. Applicants were given until 11 January to respond and if the evidence is not forthcoming, licences will be revoked.

I should add that, according to initial indications, many SIA applicants have quoted non-valid national insurance numbers. Those will not have been allocated by the DWP, and as such will not be recorded on DWP systems. Some of the numbers quoted may well be fictitious. For that reason too, I think that the premise on which the motion is based is entirely false.

Danny Alexander: The Secretary of State makes the important point that there is a range of possible ways in which national insurance numbers have been come by. They may have been invented or fictitious, but equally—and I note that the Secretary of State does not exclude this possibility—they may have been legitimately obtained by means of procedures that the Government have introduced. Given that, as the Secretary of State said, there are people who are here illegally—although I accept that, as he said, many are here legally—if those people had national insurance numbers that were obtained legitimately after July 2006 there is clearly a further problem in the system that needs to be addressed, and it is incumbent on the Secretary of State and his Department to make absolutely certain that that is done. In my opinion, that point could reasonably be made by Members in all parts of the House.

The Secretary of State defended the system staunchly in his speech, and seemed to imply that the problems were no longer occurring. I think it important for the Department to conduct a proper investigation, based on the information that we now have about those workers in the security industry, to establish that that is indeed the case. I hope that the Secretary of State, or the Minister who replies to the debate, can assure us that such an investigation will be forthcoming. The Secretary of State said that some 8,000 applications had already been rejected on the grounds that the applicants were here illegally, and it is clear that some are indeed being rejected, but if—despite whatever changes have been proposed and made—the system for the allocation of national insurance numbers is still allowing numbers to be allocated to those who are here illegally, that needs to be investigated and further changes made if necessary. The Secretary of State does not appear to demur from that, but I will give way to him if he wishes.

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Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman is making his points in a reasoned way. He is keeping me accountable to the House, which is his job, and I respect him for that. However, I have explained the way in which we have tightened up the system. If anything that comes to light as a result of the latest episode suggests that we should introduce further checks, we will introduce them. The hon. Gentleman may wish to write to me suggesting possible measures.

It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has no idea what he would do. He has made no suggestions so far. We inherited a mess from the Conservative party, and if the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions of his own, I will of course consider them.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for what he has said. I will make one specific suggestion now. I think that the Department needs to find out as soon as possible when the national insurance numbers in the 6,653 cases that have been highlighted were allocated, and tell the House what proportions received their numbers before and after July 2006. I realise that the task might be labour or IT-intensive, but it is important to shed light on whether the existing checks work or not. I hope that the Minister will feel able to commit the Government to doing that.

Clearly, national insurance numbers have been issued in the past to people who were not entitled to receive them because of their immigration status—in other words, because they were not entitled to be in the United Kingdom. I confess that I do not know what this would involve, but what steps is the Department taking to ensure that those numbers are revoked and removed from the system and people cannot continue to use them in a way that, while not in itself sufficient to gain them employment, is nevertheless part of the process of gaining employment and might, in some cases, lull employers into a false confidence that those with whom they were dealing had a legitimate right to work or indeed to claim benefit, a subject to which I shall return shortly?

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 2005, serious concerns were raised with Her Majesty’s Treasury about people claiming tax credits who, although not in the country legitimately, had national insurance numbers. It seems that in 2000 it was decided, perhaps by officials, that it was too costly to check immigration status before issuing national insurance numbers. In the light of the latest events, the basis and purpose of that decision must be questioned.

We must ask what are the implications of these events. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), they are linked to the problem of the number of foreign workers in the United Kingdom, and the ability to count people in and out. The Secretary of State announced back in November that the figures had been miscalculated, and that there were 1.1 million foreign workers in the UK rather than 700,000. The aspect of benefit fraud is also important. According to the DWP’s website,


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As was shown by a report published just before Christmas, nearly £2 billion is still being lost through fraud and error in the benefits system. That is a staggering figure with which I do not think anyone in the House can be satisfied. The most recent report showed that the amount of benefit being lost through both fraud and error had risen. While it is fair to say that in earlier years there was a steady decline in fraud, that seems to have stopped, and the amount of error is increasing. Given that national insurance numbers are necessary for the claiming of benefit—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): They are not sufficient.

Danny Alexander: They are necessary for the claiming of benefit. I ask the Secretary of State and his colleagues also to investigate whether benefits have been claimed by people who were not entitled to them by reason of their immigration status, but who had national insurance numbers that had been inappropriately obtained. While the position should be viewed in a rational manner, it is important to investigate all the possible outcomes. There seems to be no doubt that at some stage, at least, people have been allocated national insurance numbers when they were not entitled to them.

David Taylor: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House. Certainly national insurance numbers are necessary to the claiming of benefits, but they are not sufficient. A range of other checks, hurdles and barriers must be negotiated before entitlement is established. It is wrong to suggest that the two are synonymous.

Danny Alexander: I did not suggest that they were, as I think the record will make clear. Nevertheless, possession of a national insurance number is an essential starting point for a benefit claim. If the number has been obtained through the proper procedure, even if the person concerned is not entitled to it, that will allow the person to enter the process of claiming, although other information would have to be provided—in this instance, fraudulently—for the claim to be made. If, however, there is still a loophole, a problem, a mistake or incompetence in the system for the allocation of national insurance numbers, there are potential implications for the benefits system that need to be examined. I make no stronger claim than that, and I trust that the hon. Gentleman does not disagree with it.

I could not agree with the tone of some of what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said about the nature of the problem of foreign workers. He was, of course, right to stress the need to ensure that the maximum number of British claimants of incapacity benefit, for instance, are given the skills and support that will enable them to return to work. That is a critical factor. It is also true that there must be strict rules governing which people from other countries are and are not entitled to work in this country. It would be wrong, however, for the tone of the debate to give the impression that the large number of workers in the United Kingdom who are from foreign countries,
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whether inside or outside the European Union, are not making a valuable and in some cases an essential contribution to our economy, our public services and so on.

In my constituency, a large number of citizens from other European countries—I have discussed this with the Minister for Borders and Immigration—are making an essential contribution to the economy of the highlands and islands. That is not to say that people should be entitled to work if they are here illegally, but we need to conduct these debates in measured tones and to make it clear that those people are welcome in this country and are doing essential work. Of course, the pattern of migration will change over time, and it is critical that we ensure that as many people as possible get off benefit and into work. My point is perhaps more about tone than anything else.

Stewart Hosie: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might amplify that point. It is not merely that Inverness is booming and that excellent work is being done in Aviemore by a large number of mainly youngsters from eastern and central Europe. In the past three years, the populations of Dundee and Glasgow have risen after decades of decline, and the population of Scotland has increased, when it was forecast to decline over the long term. By and large, the general experience, both for those coming in and the people already living there, has been a happy one.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is right. That is one of the reasons why both the previous Scottish Executive and the current Scottish Government continue to encourage inward migration to Scotland. Certain essential jobs would not be done were it not for foreign nationals. It is important, therefore, that we do not conflate the two categories of people: those who are here legally and those who are here illegally.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, that the tone needs to be appropriate and that we have to be clear in saying that many of the people who come to work here have every right to do so and have made a positive contribution. Undoubtedly there will be others who will do so in future. Does he agree, however, that we need proper and clear controls on the number of people we allow to come here, and that the challenge is exemplified by the city of Glasgow, where people have been coming in to work, but at the same time a substantial proportion of the adult population is not currently in work? That demonstrates the challenge that we face in ensuring that more people who are on benefits in this country have the opportunity to get back into work. Controls on the number of people working here are a part, but only a part, of the challenge that we face in trying to ensure that that happens.

Danny Alexander: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I do not agree—but perhaps he was not making this point—that the two equate. We must work to get people off benefit and into work. He mentioned Glasgow and we could mention many other parts of the country, including my constituency. There are very good reasons to work extremely hard to address the issue. I have a lot of criticisms of the Government’s approach to that matter, but they would probably be outwith the scope of the debate. Work is
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important not just for economic reasons but for reasons of the dignity and self-worth of the individuals themselves and the wider non-financial benefits of working. However, it is not a zero-sum gain. I am not saying that we need to get those on benefit into work, so that we can have fewer foreign workers; I think that we need both.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: The hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting point, which is that, away from the heat and light of this debate, there is quite a broad consensus on some of the consequences of the impact of unfettered immigration. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s colleagues, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and organisations such as the Scottish TUC have made the point about the impact of immigration in entrenching welfare dependency and exacerbating community tension. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) is right to elucidate the consensus on that issue.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that intervention. Without wishing to venture too far outside the scope of the debate, I recognise some of what the hon. Gentleman said. What I do not recognise—I am thinking of the experience in my own part of the country—is the belief that the reason why many people are on benefit is that foreign workers are taking their jobs. There are lots of reasons why people are on benefit when they should not be, and they should be helped back into work. That is critical, but the two things are separate. For reasons of ensuring that this debate is conducted correctly, that separation needs to be made clear. Perhaps in his constituency, those are not separate considerations, in which case I would equally well accept that point from him.

Mr. Hain: I intervene because the hon. Gentleman made a valuable point for the House, which is that migration adds a lot to the British economy. I am glad that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell for once agrees on that point. In 2006, it contributed £6 billion to the British economy, accounting for about one sixth of the growth that year, so it is valuable. But it has to be legal.

Danny Alexander: I think that we have said enough on that point. The Secretary of State is right and the point about how the debate is conducted is important.

It is worth pointing out that problems with the administration of national insurance numbers have also occurred under previous Governments. For example, if it were not for the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), we might never have known about the failure of home responsibility protection. Because of problems in administration, no checks were made by the child benefit office to verify national insurance numbers until 1994. Women did not have to supply those details on the forms and it was not until May 2000 that it became compulsory for child benefit customers to do so. If it had not been for the work of my hon. Friend in highlighting that issue, many women would have been denied significant proportions of their pensions, because of the absence of proper checks on national
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insurance numbers. Such important matters must be got right, but at various times and at various levels, different Governments have made mistakes in the administration of the national insurance numbering system, and charges of incompetence could equally justifiably be levelled in both cases.

This important issue must be addressed in a balanced manner. Above and beyond the short-term issue of the damage done to the Secretary of State’s political credibility by recent revelations—it is very dear to his heart but it is none the less short term—this is a long-term issue that needs to be resolved, whether by him or by whoever follows him, should that eventuality arise. The Government need to do much more to ensure that there is confidence in the system. I have suggested that some investigations at least need to be carried out. For there to be confidence in the system, competence is required, including from the Secretary of State and his ministerial team.

Mr. Hain: On the question of a competent series of controls, will the hon. Gentleman support compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals to help to deal with the problem?

Danny Alexander: No. As the Secretary of State will know, my party has supported the introduction of biometric visas for foreign nationals that would be included in passports and could be used in the checking process. When I looked at the DWP’s website this morning and at the process for getting a national insurance number, one of the pieces of documentation that needs to be checked is the passport. A passport with a biometric visa included within it should, if that system is working properly—I see that the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who is responsible for these matters, is in his place—provide the means to check those things that the Secretary of State needs to be verified.

The arguments against ID cards are much more wide ranging than the scope of the debate. To have a competent system, we need the appropriate checks to be in place, managed and administered correctly, and the appropriate leadership from the top. We need to be reassured about that during the debate.

2.8 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I am delighted to take part in the debate. I was staggered, although I should not necessarily have been particularly surprised, by the news that came out of the Channel 4 investigation and was further highlighted today. It seems to me that the Secretary of State is lucky to have two jobs. There are many people out there—illegal immigrants in this country—who seem to have many jobs, so I think that he should consider himself lucky, at least for the time being, while he ties those two down.

We are talking about very large numbers of people here. We are talking about, in the past three years, almost 900,000 national insurance numbers being issued to non-EU nationals, but in the same period only 270,000 work permits have been issued. The big question before us is: what has happened to the other 600,000 people? As the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, some of them will be students, and others
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will be here entirely legitimately. Nevertheless, that is a huge number of people, and we need to explore who they are. In my experience, however, when this Government do anything that involves both counting people and the administration of migration it always leads to disaster, so having the two together in counting migrants may combine to make a double disaster.

Immigration casework accounts for an enormous amount of my constituency case load. The Home Office, which, as we know, is pretty much incapable of counting anything, publishes each year a league table of the amount of immigration casework that Members of Parliament do, and I am regularly the top Conservative—I am ranked between sixth and eighth overall. All the Members at the top of that table are London MPs. I currently have between 700 and 800 immigration cases outstanding—cases where the person’s status has still not been fully clarified or they are waiting to receive a document. That is a huge number of people in a constituency of 81,000. Some London MPs—particularly inner-London MPs—even have dedicated immigration case workers. The answering machine message of one of my neighbouring MPs says: “If you wish to speak to me on anything else then leave a message here, but if you wish to speak to me on immigration then you need to speak to the specific case worker.”

Our country faces a problem. There are many people who are legitimately in this country but who have been left for years waiting to have their status clarified, which cannot be in anybody’s interest—either that of Britain as a whole in terms of our national economy, or certainly that of the applicant. On the other hand, there are hundreds of people who should not be here and have been told that they must make preparations to leave. I think of all the letters I have received that say, “Dear Mr. Hands, your constituent should make immediate preparations to leave the country, here is how we might be able to provide assistance and this is what he needs to do”. Those letters might date from many months and sometimes years earlier, but nothing has happened as a result. That leaves me with no confidence in this Government’s ability to police the people—and the nature of the people—coming in and out of the country.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that at the very time when there is such manifest Government incompetence in dealing with the wide range of people who are here illegally, we are removing to places such as Darfur and Zimbabwe people who should be given a chance to make a life in this country? They are being removed back to persecution and imprisonment, and possibly to death. That is the level of this Government’s incompetence.

Mr. Hands: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The disparity between the treatment of different types of migrants to this country is shocking, especially in relation to their country of origin.

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