Previous Section Index Home Page

People in some parts of our country feel a sense of alienation and believe that they cannot trust any politician. They feel anger and resentment towards people who do not look and sound like they do, and that is wrong. Most people are decent. Wherever they come from, people come here to make a better life for themselves, and who are we to second-guess that? That applies even to those coming from the EU countries. If people are likely to earn five times what they could get
16 Jan 2008 : Column 973
in Estonia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, what is wrong with their sending some money back home to their families?

It is not my place to argue about that, but we can plan our immigration system and the delivery of public services properly only if we know what the numbers are. For that, we need honesty and transparency, rather than obfuscation and duplicity. The Department could make a start by answering questions properly, and it should not respond by saying, “This information is not collected in this format”, or “The information could be collected only at disproportionate cost.”

The Minister should work with us to defeat the extremists and to ensure that we have community cohesion in a civil society that we can be proud of, where everyone gets on well with each other. After all, the Conservative party is as opposed to the problems with Muslim extremism that have arisen in some parts of the country as she and the Government are, but working together requires a degree of honesty.

I believe that the Minister must concede that the Government’s management of immigration in the past few years has been lamentable. If she really thinks that things can change, she must honestly accept that the Government have given some NI numbers to illegal immigrants. If she is not willing to do that, she must give a full explanation of the eminent failure that we have seen over the past few years.

I had hoped that more Labour Members would attend this debate, and I am sorry that they have not done so. This is a vital issue, and we will share with constituents around the country the results of the debate and the Government’s disdain for the views expressed in this House. I hope that the Minister is able to show some humility and honesty when she winds up, as we need an immigration system that works. We need a system that will give this country a sound future and decent communities, in which people can work together irrespective of race, religion or country of origin.

2.59 pm

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I want to make a short contribution for the simple reason that I am deeply disappointed that so far no Labour Back Bencher at all has spoken. Sadly, that is an example of the way in which the Government treat the issue. They wish to look the other way and bury their heads in the sand on a particularly important and difficult issue that deserves much greater attention.

Martin Linton: By the sound of it, the hon. Gentleman is devoting his speech to the absence of Government Back Benchers. As he is so concerned about the issue, let me tell him that it seems facile for his party to hold a debate on national insurance numbers for illegal workers while opposing the one measure that will, as he must know, do the most to enable the Government to make it impossible for illegal workers to come here, namely the introduction of identity cards for foreign nationals. At Prime Minister’s questions last week, the leader of the Conservative party was asked three times whether he supported ID cards for foreign nationals—a measure that is due to be introduced in November this year. There was no reply.
16 Jan 2008 : Column 974
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will do Government Back Benchers the favour of giving an answer now: does he support ID cards for foreign nationals?

John Penrose: I am glad to have the opportunity to respond. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have made a proper speech on the issue, instead of just intervening on me. I plan to address the subject, because as he will know, an employer faced with a job applicant who says, “I am a British citizen and I do not have a passport” does not have any way of checking whether the applicant has a right to work. I am sorry, but compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals is no solution to the problem, if the person concerned says that they are not a foreign national. That is yet another example to show that the Government’s arguments on ID cards, both on the hon. Gentleman’s point and more broadly, are deeply flawed.

As for the history, the Government’s approach to the issues over the past 10 years was ably summed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Their usual stance is first to deny that there is any problem, and then to say that anyone who points out that there is a problem is in some way giving succour to racists. However, we all know that unless decent, reasonable, moderate people, such as all of us in the Chamber, are willing to debate this important issue in a decent, reasonable fashion, a vacuum is created, which is filled by terrible extremists from parties such as the British National party. The Labour party’s next move is to say, “Oh dear, there is a problem, and we need to do something about it. We do not have much idea of what that should be, so we’ll spend the next year or so rubbishing the Conservative party’s plans, and then we’ll put them into action.” The Government have suddenly realised that there is a problem. The scales have fallen from their eyes, and they have swiped the suggestions in the Conservative party’s 2001 and 2005 manifestos. They are busily trumpeting the fact that they plan to introduce the measures suggested in them.

The problem is not just with immigration and nationality; as has been made clear in this debate, there is a problem with the administration of national insurance, too. The terrible shame of it is that there is no disagreement on principle. As was pointed out in contributions from hon. Members of my party, there is a fair amount of political consensus on how the issue needs to be handled. The Secretary of State said earlier that a modest and controlled level of immigration—the right kind of immigration—is, on balance, good for the country, if it is managed properly. I think that everyone present would agree. Huge contributions are made to the country by people who arrived here recently, and who are working their socks off to make a better life for themselves, their communities and their families. I hope that no one present would disagree with that, and it is right to make that point.

There is no disagreement on principle, but there is a problem with competence. We have a problem with administrative ability, or the lack of it. I am afraid that the Government have a long and undistinguished track record of serial errors. I start with the immigration and asylum systems, which have been hugely overloaded in the past 10 years. Waiting lists are ballooning, and there is an inability to cope with people who overstay
16 Jan 2008 : Column 975
and with genuine applications. The system is bogged down, so people who are genuinely in need are having to wait months, and in many cases years, often with no hope of even a date on which their case will be considered and responded to. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who has a huge amount of experience on the issue, gave good examples of the kinds of problems that the situation creates.

As we have heard this afternoon, in addition to incompetence in the administration of nationality and immigration matters, there is incompetence in the administration of national insurance numbers. The Secretary of State was faced with the fact that roughly 900,000 people have been issued national insurance numbers, but fewer than 300,000 people have been issued with work permits. He was asked whether he could say, hand on heart, that the missing 600,000—the gap—was made up purely of people who have national insurance numbers but who are not eligible to work, such as students. I found it particularly disappointing and worrying that he ducked the question several times. He basically said, “We’re looking into it.” What worries me and, I am sure, everyone else who has listened to the debate is that after 10 or 11 years of a Labour Government, we should not be in such a situation—a situation in which the Government do not know the answer to such a simple, basic question.

Of course it is true that the international situation has changed, that there is far more pressure as regards migration, and that there is far more globalisation than there was 10 years ago. The systems have therefore had to be tightened up, but the problem is that they have not been tightened up quickly enough. The Government have consistently not been on the ball. That is why the problems have arisen. The issue is not one of principle but of competence, and when it comes to competence, the Government are sadly and badly lacking.

3.6 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I think we would all agree that this has been a good, important debate to which there were a number of good contributions—at least from Conservative Members. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we have not had the opportunity to cast a critical eye over contributions from Labour Members. To be fair to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, he made a number of important points and asked some legitimate questions—questions that we have already asked, and on concerns that we share. He also mentioned the tone of the debate. I agree it is important that we approach the issues in a measured way, using the proper tone, but there has to be debate about facts, evidence and policy, and talking about tone is not a substitute for that. However, those are perhaps matters for another day. Certainly, the points that the hon. Gentleman made today on national insurance numbers were apt.

We have heard some excellent contributions from Conservative Members, who have shown the depth of their knowledge of both the subject and their
16 Jan 2008 : Column 976
constituencies. That is particularly true of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who rightly drew attention to the huge number of people involved—896,000 people from outside the European Union have received national insurance numbers since 2004. He posed the question that naturally springs to mind: what has happened to the 600,000 of them who are not work permit holders? Have we accounted for them? I shall say more on that point later. His speech was particularly valuable in bringing the issue down to an individual and local level. He spoke with great knowledge and feeling about different elements of the issue and different people in his constituency.

My hon. Friend spoke about the immense impact that the issue is having in his constituency. He said that 9,310 national insurance numbers have been issued to non-EU citizens in his constituency alone in one year. That is equivalent to 5.2 per cent. of the whole population of the borough. It inevitably follows that there must be important impacts on employment, services and infrastructure in his borough. He drew full attention to all those issues on behalf of his constituents and made some valuable points. He also mentioned a concern that is shared by a number of Conservative colleagues: the incredible delays in administration, which make all the problems so much worse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) also spoke about the scale of the problem. He made an important connection between it and welfare policies—a connection that we have been keen to make throughout the debate. He spoke from the position of somebody who has been a small employer, who serves in the security industry as a special constable, and who is a member of the Home Affairs Committee. He made an important contribution to the debate, examining the issue from those perspectives. We do not hear often enough in the House the authentic voice of small employers, and my hon. Friend certainly put their case today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) also made a valuable contribution. He reminded us of the many previous episodes of mismanagement on the part of the Government in respect of the immigration and asylum system and the work permit system. He recalled the work permit scrutiny fiasco which produced the resignation of one of the predecessors of the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the foreign prisoner scandal which in due course produced the resignation of a Home Secretary, and the failure to predict the numbers of legal migrants who would come from the A8 countries. Some of us can remember back to when the Government produced their original prediction of that. The figure produced was 13,000. Since then there has been controversy about the exact number of legal migrants, but the figure runs into hundreds of thousands. That is important because the national insurance numbers which are the subject of today’s debate have been issued since 2004, when that huge and unprecedented influx of legal migrants began. The 896,000 national insurance numbers were issued over roughly the same period, since 2004, which gives us some indication of the huge pressures created. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough made that clear, drawing on
16 Jan 2008 : Column 977
experience in his constituency and speaking on behalf of his constituents and drawing attention to the real problems that the Government’s policies are creating for his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) made some important points in a brief speech which showed fully his great knowledge of and competence in the subject, as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. He spoke with impressive authority and knowledge of detail when he drew attention to the simple problem of competence which arises in this case.

A number of questions remain, but I begin with a word of congratulation to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He will not have received many congratulations lately, but I offer him mine on the fact that there is such immense satisfaction with his performance that hardly any of his fellow Labour Members of Parliament have bothered to come to the Chamber to listen to the debate and none at all has bothered to speak. It is an achievement for the right hon. Gentleman that there is such a unanimous sense of satisfaction with his performance.

I begin with the straightforward question that was asked of the right hon. Gentleman in a written question back on 14 November last year—how many of the non-EU nationals without the right to work, who were described by the Home Secretary in her statement to the House on 13 November, have been issued with a national insurance number? I have not had a reply to the original question, and I am not sure whether there has been an answer to it yet in the debate. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for his explanation of the delay in giving an answer. I understand from what he said that it is all to do with checking facts with the Border and Immigration Agency and the security industry. I thank him for that explanation.

I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could give me answers to the other questions that I asked the week before about national insurance numbers issued to UK and non-UK citizens over the relevant period. I will let him into a little secret, if I may. Those questions are the responsibility of his Department, and the Department is expected to answer questions asked of it. Nobody else can be responsible for the answers to those questions.

We wait for the answer to how many of those 6,653 people have been issued with national insurance numbers. We have been given a detailed explanation by the Secretary of State of the new checks that were put in place by the Government as a result of the measures taken on 6 June, so I think we can take it as read that none of the 6,653 national insurance numbers was issued after the new system was put in place in June 2006. I look to the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform to tell me if that is wrong and if any of them were issued after 6 June. We are still waiting for an answer to the question how many NI numbers were issued in the first place.

It is not hard to see why the Government are so reluctant to impart that information. After all, Ministers have been quick to lecture others about their responsibilities in respect of national insurance numbers. We heard a number of lectures today about what employers should
16 Jan 2008 : Column 978
and should not do and what is expected of them. The Home Secretary told us on 13 November when the matter first came to light. She said:

Employers, especially the small employers mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth, are entitled to ask what duties extend to the Government in respect of the same case. Surely it puts a different complexion on events if we learn that the self-same employees who should have been checked by the employers had been issued with national insurance numbers by the Government.

David T.C. Davies: Does my hon. Friend join me in hoping that the Minister will clarify that and tell us exactly what an employer has to do to establish the legitimacy of somebody with a national insurance number?

Mr. Clappison: That is a good point, which my hon. Friend makes from the perspective of small employers. It is easy for Ministers to lecture employers about what they should do. They should spend more time putting themselves in the position of small employers such as my hon. Friend, rather than scoffing at them.

We know that the 6,653 people who were issued with national insurance numbers were employees in—of all industries—the security industry. Some of them were under the Government’s nose or even, apparently, guarding the site where the Prime Minister’s car was parked. I think that that is what the Home Secretary admitted when she told the House on 13 November:

I think that is ministerial code for the Prime Minister’s car being guarded in the compound. By the standards of the present Government, that was an outstandingly transparent and candid answer.

The questions do not end there. We need to know whether the case of the 6,653 individuals was unique. Was that degree of incompetence over illegality something that the Government reserved for the security industry, or have there been other cases of national insurance numbers being issued to individuals without legal migration status?

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am listening to the strong case that my hon. Friend is making. He is a member of the Home Affairs Committee. We are told that there are many checks and balances to enable illegal immigrants to be weeded out, yet the Home Affairs Committee commented on page 113 of its report on immigration control:

Does my hon. Friend not think that that is a disgraceful situation after nine years of Labour government?

Mr. Clappison: As a member of the Home Affairs Committee at the time, perhaps a little modesty on my part is called for. Ministers were quick to take credit for
16 Jan 2008 : Column 979
the changes made in June 2006, but they did not draw attention to the fact that the Home Affairs Committee held an inquiry into the matter, took evidence and shamed the Government into taking action. Even now, not all the recommendations have been implemented. However, I do not want to go into my career on the Home Affairs Committee too much, not least while the Minister is present. We are entitled to ask about whether the case was unique. It involved the security industry, which the Government were in charge of regulating—that could be an explanation for what happened.

However, is there a wider problem of illegal working? We simply do not know, and I do not think that the Government know. We have not been able to establish from the Government the extent of the problem and we have not had proper explanations today. Are the Government saying that, apart from the 6,630, all the 896,000 national insurance numbers issued to workers from outside the EU are held perfectly legally? Is that the Government’s case, or can they tell us how far the problem goes?

We have always accepted that 270,000 of those people may be work permit holders. Whether it is desirable to issue such a large number of work permits to workers from outside the EU when so many workers are entering from within the EU, including from the new member states, is another matter—that debate is for another day. However, the 270,000 are here legally and, as has been said on both sides of the House, they are no doubt hard-working and law-abiding people. The problem is that the Secretary of State appears to have no idea about them either, because he has no idea about the scale of foreign employment, legal or illegal, in the United Kingdom.

To answer a point made in some detail by the Secretary of State in his opening speech, I remind him of what he vouchsafed to the House last year. He was shaking his head in disagreement when my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was taking him through this point, so I remind him of his own words from Hansard. He said:

Next Section Index Home Page