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Absurd situations can arise. A constituent of mine who is a Bulgarian national was asked only months before Bulgarian accession to produce a set of 25 different documents, including her school records from
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back in Bulgaria—if only the tests on getting a national insurance number were as thorough. I am unsure what relevance her school records in Bulgaria might have to her immigration status, but that shows that the UK has a perverse inability to get the regulations right.

Hammersmith and Fulham has a long tradition of welcoming migrants. It has an excellent record of harmonious community relations. It is home to a wide variety of cultures and religions; more than 60 languages are spoken by people from literally every continent. We have large communities from Africa, Pakistan and India, and many people from the nations of eastern Europe, notably Poland. I point all that out as background, as I will talk about some of the statistics on the sheer volume of people coming to my constituency and applying for a national insurance number and being given one.

Two points arise from the controversy that we have before us today. The first is a total failure on the part of Government to give accurate figures on the number of people coming in and out of this country—the number of foreign nationals in employment, the number of foreign nationals who are here and legitimately in employment, and so forth. The second point is also important, and it is not just a pure political issue about migration: the knock-on effect on public service provision of failing to account properly for those numbers, particularly in terms of local authorities.

The figures for new national insurance numbers are staggering, even before one considers whether they are legitimate.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hands: Of course.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): A Devine intervention.

Mr. Devine: I will try to live up to that description. If the Conservative party were in power, what the immigration figures be? What levels would the Conservatives allow? Conservative Members talk about the importance of assessing local service needs and other issues, but what would the limits on immigration be?

Mr. Hands: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is difficult for us to put a number on that. The party says that we will put an annual cap on immigration, but it is difficult to know exactly what will be the economic circumstances at the time. There will be many variables in determining what that number should be, which is right. A lot will depend on the state of the economy come the next Conservative Government, perhaps as early as next year.

My constituency has the fifth highest number of national insurance registrations by overseas nationals as a proportion of the population. As I have said, the figures are staggering. In 2006-07, 9,310 foreign nationals registered for national insurance numbers in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. To put that in perspective, that amounts to 5.2 per cent. of the total population of the borough in just one year. That
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figure applies only to foreign nationals applying for a national insurance number, and only in a one-year period. If all those national insurance applications are legitimate, it suggests that the work force in Hammersmith and Fulham increased by between 10 and 15 per cent. in just one year. To put that in another perspective, that number—9,310 people—is larger than the number employed by the largest employer in my constituency, which is the BBC. It is also larger than the total number of people working for Hammersmith and Fulham council. Yet still the Government say that 9,310 foreign nationals registered for national insurance numbers.

David Taylor: Surely it is the case—this applies to the settled population as well—that people apply for national insurance numbers for a range of reasons, so such figures are far from restricted to or identical to the number of people who intend to work?

Mr. Hands: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but we cannot get away from the magnitude of those numbers: more than 9,000 is a huge number of people in a small London borough such as Hammersmith and Fulham. That is by no means the worst case; as I said; it is the fifth highest area in the UK for this phenomenon.

There is a huge controversy about properly accounting for population, which this debate exemplifies. Local authorities in particular are either unable to provide services or have difficulty in doing so when they do not know how many people are living in their local authority area. I was interested to note that my council made a good submission to the Treasury Committee on the subject of accounting for population. One of the most popular means of accounting for local population is national insurance number registrations, which is one reason why we need to have absolute confidence in the legitimacy of the national insurance number allocation process.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: My hon. Friend is making a powerful and compelling argument, and we have worked together on bringing to the attention of Ministers this particularly difficult problem. The methodology that is currently used to allocate block grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government is based on fertility and mortality rates, for example, and it is completely skewed when account is taken of the significant increase of EU migrants in particular into the UK. Let me bring to my hon. Friend’s attention the comments of Karen Dunnell, the national statistician, in May 2006, which still stand:

What has changed?

Mr. Hands: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he and I have taken part in Westminster Hall debates on this matter. The projection of migration numbers in my constituency is currently based, if I am not mistaken, on a trend from between 2001 and 2003. That is all very well, but if the trend line of migration or type of trend alter fundamentally—as they would
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have done, for example, following the accession on 1 May 2004 of eight new EU countries—that will have a severe impact on population estimates for a borough and its provision of public services. This is what my local council had to say in its submission to the Treasury Committee:

Let me just outline how getting one’s data wrong can have a big impact. Again, national insurance registration plays an important part. Every council’s local development framework is based on its population figures, as are councils’ and partners’ strategy documents. The statistics are also essential for determining school places. There is controversy in my constituency about surplus places in schools. One of the main arguments being used against any moves to reduce or change the number of schools is an increase in population, yet nobody can be in any way certain or even confident that their data on population increases, such as those brought out by national insurance numbers, can be justified. Not only the sheer numbers involved, but the age groups and also the origin of people coming into a borough, can have a big impact on how a primary care trust and a hospital trust caters for the health of its local population. This is very important stuff. It goes beyond the immediate issue of whether illegal immigrants should be given national insurance numbers to start with, because the results can have a big impact on local authority and other service provision.

The population estimates are so wildly different partly because of national insurance numbers being given out. I shall quote one or two people in support of what I am saying, despite their not being from my party. I am delighted to see that we are joined by one of the hon. Members who represents Sir Robin Wales’s borough of Newham, in east London, because he has said:

they being the Government—

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Sir Robin’s point was about whether the Office for National Statistics had got its sums wrong, and not about the issue of national insurance numbers?

Mr. Hands: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is right to a certain extent, but one of the sets of statistics cited against the ONS statistical base, sometimes with good reason, is national insurance registrations. The people involved will not necessarily be picked up by the ONS, which has more or less admitted that its population calculation techniques are wrong or at least flawed. One of the alternative sources of such information is national insurance number registrations.

Sir Robin went on to say:

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The ONS estimates that Slough has received 1,100 extra migrants since 2002—those are the official figures—but the local council estimates, partly from national insurance data, that at least 10,000 Polish people alone have arrived to work in the town since 2004. Migration figures released by the ONS in 2007 suggested that approximately 56,000 Poles entered the UK in 2005, but the Department for Work and Pensions issued figures suggesting that more than 170,000 Polish citizens applied for national insurance numbers in the same year.

Such mistakes and inaccuracies in data can have a big impact on the funding and service provision of boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham. As I said, 9,310 foreign nationals were issued with national insurance numbers in the financial year 2006-07, which is 5.2 per cent. of the borough’s population, yet the Government perversely say that our population is falling. If they took one look at their own national insurance data, they would ask who all these people are. They say that these people are not living in Hammersmith and Fulham, but they have all succeeded in getting national insurance numbers. Somebody urgently needs to do a study.

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge and understand that the fact that someone has had a national insurance number issued to them does not necessarily mean that they will remain in that particular area for ever? Many of those who come to work in the UK from EU countries come for a period and then return to their country of origin. It is thus wrong just to examine national insurance numbers as the basis for population figures, but I agree with the point he has made. That is why, through the migration impacts forum, we are looking much more closely at the impact on local authorities, the communities that they serve and local services of population changes and how static or fluid populations are.

Mr. Hands: The Minister makes a similar point to that made by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine). Of course those are other factors, and there are other reasons why people apply for and are given a national insurance number. I am talking about magnitude. As I said, nobody can be precise or even close on population figures. We can only examine the magnitudes involved. Of course people are coming here and then leaving. I can tell the Minister that Hammersmith and Fulham has a population turnover of between 20 and 25 per cent. per annum, so we are well used to such turnover. The local council tells us that it should be funded to help people who are here for a short time—the fact that people are here for less than one year does not mean that they are not accessing public services.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity at the sheer brass neck of the Minister and the complacency shown? We are debating national insurance numbers because they are practically the
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only way in which we can gauge the level of migration and immigration in this country. Otherwise, we are really talking about a few people with clipboards at airports and ports. No one takes the worker registration scheme seriously; it is completely flawed, as is the accession monitoring report. The Minister mentions the migration impacts forum, but it took the Government three years to establish it. They did so because their own supporters in their own local authorities, diminishing as they are in number, told them that what they were doing was disastrous for community relations.

Mr. Hands: My hon. Friend is right. He and I have been urging the Government to examine all these problems, as have a number of local authorities, controlled by different parties, from across the country. We still have not got this issue right. I am looking forward to the day when Britain can say with confidence that its population data, both nationally and locally, are accurate.

Caroline Flint: On the point raised by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), it is clear this afternoon that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and his colleagues do not support issuing identity cards to foreign nationals and have not supported our plans on biometric visas. Given the previous point made, they clearly do not support the measures that we are taking to count people in and out. I understand that the Conservative party is in favour of a cap. Can the hon. Gentleman say what that cap is?

Mr. Hands: I was under the impression that interventions, even from Ministers, should somehow relate to the context and content of the speech that is being made, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not believe that I have mentioned anything about identity cards, and they are not on the Order Paper, so I find the whole thing rather peculiar.

I want to continue dealing with the impact that these poor quality data can have on a local authority. As a result of adjustments to estimates of international migration, the population in my borough is estimated at 8,500 people fewer than the previous estimate for 2005—the same year in which the 9,310 foreign nationals registered for national insurance numbers. As a result, there has been a net loss to the borough of a huge amount of money in the calculation of local authority support grants and so on.

The solutions for local authorities must lie in proper and robust population data, including, if not especially, on national insurance registration and on gateway authority funding for local authorities that are facing a big influx of migrants, whether legal or illegal. I want to make a few points on that particular controversy. I think that the Secretary of State was saying that that process is now very stringent when someone applies for a national insurance number, and, if I am not mistaken, he read out a series of hurdles that someone now has to jump over to get their number. I can only assume that the system has changed radically since his chief economist gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 2005, when he said that applicants are essentially issued with a national insurance number and
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that it was not about ascertaining whether someone is legally in the country or has the right to work, because they are given one anyway.

Some 300,000 national insurance numbers are issued to foreign nationals annually. I was interested in a parliamentary answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). He asked how many fraudulent applications for national insurance numbers there had been in each of the past four years. The Minister responding said that the number of applications that had been refused in the previous year because there was a doubt about the identity of the individual was only 1,020. So 300,000 national insurance numbers were granted to foreign nationals and only 1,020 were refused across all categories. That seems to me a sign that the processes that the Secretary of State laid out may be all very well in theory, but there is doubt about whether they are happening in practice. If they were, the refusal rate would necessarily be much higher than 0.33 per cent.

The Secretary of State seemed to suggest that business was at fault. Businesses clearly have a role in ensuring that the people who work for them have the legal entitlement to do so, but it cannot be primarily the duty of businesses to determine that. In 2006, the CBI said:

The Secretary of State read out a huge list of hurdles that people supposedly have to get over to get a national insurance number. I question the practicality of employers, especially small employers, being able to vet all that documentation.

My final point is the incredible delay by the DWP in checking the situation. I understand that the Secretary of State has been otherwise involved on several other fronts in recent months, but surely he cannot have failed to notice that there has been an ongoing controversy in Parliament and in the media about foreign nationals working illegally in the UK. I have been given a chronology of all of the events since 12 July 2007, when the Home Secretary first saw a paper on the subject of illegal foreign nationals working in the Security Industry Authority. The chronology includes 18 different events, and bizarrely only the 18th—the publication by Channel 4 of its investigation last night—implies that the DWP at any point checked the facts of the case. I find that staggering, considering that the issue related to illegal foreign nationals.

Let us contrast the situation in the UK with that in the US. Many of my constituents have worked at one point or another in the US and they know of the elaborate and laborious process that it uses to allocate social security numbers.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about delays and the lack of co-ordination between the Home Office and the DWP, which are jointly responsible. However, he was a little too kind to the Home Secretary when he referred to July. In her statement of 13 November 2007, she said that Ministers were informed in April 2007 by the Border and Immigration Agency that something was
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going wrong. There has been delay all along the line between both Departments.

Mr. Hands: It really is a staggering fact that nine months have passed, and it was only when Channel 4 went on air last night that the DWP seemed to be taking the issue seriously. The Secretary of State has already been called incompetent, admittedly in a different context, but that length of time does not give anybody any confidence.

As I was saying, any British subject who has worked in the US will have complaints about the lengths to which the system goes to check applicants for social security numbers, although most people realise that that is actually in everybody’s best interests. It can take months and the tests are strictly enforced, because the US knows that social security numbers are a gateway to its entire benefit and pensions system. That system works in almost the same way as our system, and I hope that the DWP will agree to examine how the US social security number system works. The DWP would learn a great deal and would be able to do something to prevent a similar fiasco from ever happening again.

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