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Three weeks later, he had to write a letter admitting that he had been wrong, that he had been less than incredibly successful, that his figure was wrong by 300,000 and that the true number of non-UK workers was 1.1 million. Furthermore, buried in the detailed note that he attached to his letter—the degree of burial would have done credit to the Prime Minister—was an admission that the major part of the increase in employment was due to an increase in foreign employment. The Secretary of State was thus less than incredibly successful, but it turns out that he may not even have been mildly incredibly successful. According to a briefing note from the Statistics Commission, helpfully prepared for the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field):

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Perhaps that puts a different complexion on things; I do not know.

From the Secretary of State’s point of view, I suppose that there is another way of looking at it. Even if the UK share of employment is towards the lower end of that range, given the Secretary of State’s recent record when it comes to returns on spending, 20 per cent. would be an incredibly successful outcome. For the rest of us, it is clear that when it comes to illegal and legal non-UK employment, the Secretary of State does not know what is going on. He basks in the sunshine of life and spends his time in blissful ignorance of all that is going on around him. Apparently, those near him do not care to trouble him with what little they know about what is going on; even now, he is apparently unaware of the joint plan of his Department and the Home Office—they cooked it up between them, although neither will now admit it—to bypass several million higher-paid skilled workers in this country in favour of non-EU workers, through the relaxation of the resident labour market test.

We know that the Secretary of State may have had other concerns and ambitions, but as far as British workers and taxpayers are concerned, he is the Secretary of State in charge of their interests. He is out of touch in representing them; he has no grasp of what is taking place all around this country—the legal or illegal employment of non-EU nationals. He is the out-of-touch Secretary of State who is failing the interests of British workers and British taxpayers.

3.25 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): If nothing else, this debate has exposed ignorance—that is not a sin—about the nature of national insurance numbers and what contribution they do, or, as in this case, do not make in respect of foreign nationals’ proof of identity to work in this country. Interestingly, this week my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration made important announcements about how this year we will continue to embed policies that have led to a reduction in illegals coming to this country and to a reduction in the something like two years that immigration and asylum cases used to take to be processed—now we are looking at less than six months. This week, my hon. Friend also outlined our measures on identity cards for foreign nationals, counting people in and out and introducing a points system. We welcome the insight and experience of other countries such as Australia, which have helped to shape our policies.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

The Conservative party has used the tactic of dumping a debate on pensions late yesterday in favour of a debate that, as I hope to outline, has no substance in relation to the right to work. That only demonstrates
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that the Conservative party has shown once again that when it wants to score populist points, immigration is its subject of choice.

Mrs. Dorries rose—

Mr. Hands rose—

Caroline Flint: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has been here through the course of the afternoon.

Mr. Hands: I am delighted that the Minister mentioned populist points, because she supports the “British jobs for British workers” policy. How does that stack up with plans, being considered at the moment, that all jobs earning more than £40,000 should be open to nationals of every country, with the abolition of the resident labour test?

Caroline Flint: I understand that the test will not be dropped. This country will continue, as and when appropriate, to welcome those with high skills to work here and share their experience and expertise.

In relation to jobs, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to share with the House some very important statistics that were released this morning. I spent some considerable time on regional radio throughout the country, sharing with the UK—I was pleased to include Radio Scotland—the latest labour market statistics, which demonstrate that we have had the highest quarterly growth in the number of people in work since 1997. In the past three months, 175,000 more people have found a job, and—importantly, because this is not just about the numbers who get into work but matching that with the numbers who are coming off benefits—the figures on people claming jobseeker’s allowance, incapacity benefit and income support are all going down. I was also pleased to share with the nation independent figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that the numbers claiming unemployment benefit fell for the 15th consecutive month to just over 807,000—the lowest figure for more than 30 years, and a fall of some 812,000, or more than 50 per cent., since 1997. For many Members, that is a world away from the unemployment statistics that hit 3 million-plus on jobseeker’s allowance alone. When those numbers went down, they went straight on to incapacity benefit, which trebled between 1975 and the mid-1990s.

The figures demonstrate that more people are in work and that many of them have come off benefits. That has happened over the past 10 years, complemented by people coming from overseas. If we can get it right, that is good for this country—for the British people who live here and the businesses that need workers.

Several hon. Members rose

Caroline Flint: I give way to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who has also been here throughout the debate.

David T.C. Davies: Does the hon. Lady accept that she is unable to tell us how many of the extra jobs that have been created are for foreign nationals, although it is almost certainly between 50 and 80 per cent.? Does
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she further accept that many of the British people who are out of work are classed as being on the sick because they claim to have bad backs and stress? Is it not the case that British people are on the sick and foreign nationals are coming in and taking the jobs?

Caroline Flint: The key point is that there are more jobs, more people in work, more people coming off benefits, and wages are up, and that is good. I listened to what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said about benefits. There are measures that can be taken to assist people with ill-health and disabilities into the work place. Many people on incapacity benefit with long-term health conditions and serious disabilities want to work—our task is to help them to get there, but also to work with employers to recognise that they have a continuing contribution to make to the workplace. The hon. Member for Monmouth shows, as he did in his speech, that his choice of words in such debates does not always set the right tone or have the right vocabulary.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am delighted to see the Minister for Borders and Immigration in his place, playing a cameo role in the Chamber away from his onerous duties as Minister for the West Midlands and Labour campaign supremo for Birmingham.

The hon. Lady’s Government have presided over a situation in which we have 5.4 million economically inactive people while we import people who are usually low-skilled and living in slum conditions earning less than the minimum wage. If that is the sort of society that she is proud to have after 11 years of a Labour Government, I suggest that her policies and priorities are completely awry.

Caroline Flint: All I can do is reiterate that jobs are up, wages are up and the numbers of people on out-of-work benefits are going down. That is a pretty good place to be and a record that I am very proud of.

Danny Alexander: I have listened with interest to the hon. Lady’s remarks about the Government’s record on unemployment and so on. Before Dr. Pangloss is confirmed in his role as her chief speechwriter, perhaps she could note that the employment rate, which is the most important measure, is still no higher than it was at the peak of the last economic cycle in 1990. That is not something to be complacent about. In relation to incapacity benefit, numbers have gone down, but by a very small amount—from 2.7 million to 2.6 million. The failure to do that more quickly is one of the greatest failures of this Government’s welfare policy.

Caroline Flint: I certainly do not see more people in work and coming off benefits as a failure. I am totally with the hon. Gentleman in that nobody should be complacent. The job market is constantly changing and evolving, and we have to adjust to that. The skills and training that people need, not just today but down the road in 10 years’ time, are changing too, and we must ensure that we are doing what we can as a Government to support employers and organisations that have a role to play.

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Importantly, we have to challenge individuals who, if they can work, should work, and we should encourage them to do so.

Mr. Clappison: Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I would like to make some progress— [ Interruption. ] I think that I have until four o’clock. The main point of today’s debate is to discuss the matter of national insurance numbers, and the allegation that we have given individuals a right to work when those have been issued—or not, as the case may be. I would like to clarify that in my speech.

Mr. Clappison: In that case, will the Minister simply tell us whether national insurance numbers have been issued to illegal migrants? A yes or no answer will do at this point.

Caroline Flint: I will come to that point. [ Laughter. ] No, seriously. I will come to that point, but I just want to preface it by explaining what a national insurance number is not. The national insurance number is a unique, personal reference number that exists to track tax, national insurance, social security benefits, tax credits and payments of student loans. It is not a proof of identity. I am holding a national insurance card in my hand, and on the back it says, “This is not proof of identity”. It also says so on the front. In isolation, it does not provide proof of the right to work in the United Kingdom.

On the allegation that numbers appear to have been issued to illegal immigrants caught up in the review and investigation into applications for a licence to work as security personnel, my answer is as follows. At present, and during the course of the review, we have worked closely with the Home Office on that issue. The Home Office is currently checking through each record, and those records will be compared with DWP records. However, the results are not yet ready. Initial indications, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out in his opening speech, are that many SIA applicants quoted temporary national insurance numbers. Those are not official numbers, and they serve no purpose other than to attribute an administrative reference number for employers to use for tax and national insurance contribution deduction purposes. Since April 2004, their use has been actively discouraged by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They are not recorded on DWP benefit systems, and they cannot be used for benefit claim purposes. We do not recognise some of the numbers as legitimate national insurance numbers, which is why we have to check them all to see whether they have been issued.

The reality is that in 1996, a Conservative Government introduced legislation to put a legal responsibility on employers to establish the right to work of anyone they employed. At that time, the Conservative Government made no changes at all to national insurance numbers, they made no reference to the fact that national insurance numbers should be used as proof— [ Interruption. ] It is all very well to say that it was years ago, but it is the system that operated
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then, and continued to do so until we tightened it from 2006, meaning that someone applying for a national insurance number had to prove that they had a right to work in this country.

Danny Alexander: I am pleased to hear that that exercise of comparing Home Office data with the DWP record will take place. Would the Minister confirm that in examining the DWP data, a clear distinction will be made between national insurance numbers awarded before July 2006 and afterwards, so that the point raised during the debate would be answered? If she can do so, it will shed further light on the answers to the questions that have been raised.

Caroline Flint: As soon as we have the information, we will check as far as we can the date on which they were validated.

I have to say that when I heard the reports last night, the SIA said—and I paraphrase—that the numbers looked like national insurance numbers. We have to determine whether that is the case— [ Laughter. ] Hon. Members laugh, but an accusation has been made that may be found to be invalid. That is not the right way to conduct a debate.

Mr. Clappison: Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: No, I am not going to give way—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] No, I am sorry. I am not going to give way because a lot of contributions have been made, some of which may relate to the point that the hon. Gentleman wants to make, and I want to respond to them.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) made a point about the failure to get accurate figures for foreign nationals entering and leaving the UK. From 2008, we will start counting foreign nationals in and out of the country and we will introduce checks for all travellers before they land in Britain, and before the plane takes off in the case of high-risk countries. We have established the migration impacts forum, which gives the Government independent advice on the impact of migration. That, too, is important.

The hon. Gentleman also commented on the number of national insurance numbers allocated in Hammersmith in 2006-07. The figure is 9,310 and represents numbers in the borough at a specific time. It does not necessarily remain static—some people may have moved elsewhere, including outside the UK. The 2006 data for the UK estimated gross in-flows of 591,000 migrants set against gross out-flows of 400,000.

The hon. Gentleman also said that only around 1,000 people were refused national insurance numbers. There are separate tests. First, approximately 1,000 refusals, as cited in the parliamentary question to which he referred, were due to suspect identity documentation. More than 360 prosecutions took place in 2006-07. A further 12,602 refusals between April 2006 and November 2007 were for failing the identity test. On top of that, in the context of proof of right to work, a further 8,643 applications have been refused since July 2006, when the much stronger checks were implemented. That shows that our system is not out of control. It works.

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Mr. Clappison rose—

Caroline Flint: No, I shall not give way.

The hon. Member for Monmouth used intemperate language. On his point about employers, I hope that no hon. Member would disagree that employers, whether small, medium-sized or large, have duties to ensure that the people whom they employ have the right to work. We are streamlining and simplifying the employment routes into the UK under the new points-based system. We have launched a major public awareness campaign, which includes press advertising and sending direct mail to approximately 400,000 businesses, to ensure that employers cannot escape their responsibilities but are supported to make decisions when recruiting in their workplace.

David T.C. Davies rose—

Caroline Flint: I cannot give way; I have not got enough time.

The Border and Immigration Agency runs a helpline, which provides advice and support for employers.

Stewart Hosie: Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: I shall give way quickly to the hon. Gentleman because he has been present all afternoon.

Stewart Hosie: The Minister is being generous in giving way. If she finds that national insurance numbers had been wrongly issued since June 2006 and that individuals who were not entitled to them had faked, forged or stolen documentation that was sufficiently robust to get a national insurance number, does she concede that such documentation would also be sufficiently robust to con an employer? Does she therefore agree that any penalty that might normally be imposed on an employer in those circumstances should be examined and waived if necessary?

Caroline Flint: If any issues that are found through the investigation warrant further action, we will discuss the matter with our colleagues in the Home Office and in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. However, it is important in such a debate that we are sure of the facts and that we leave it with a much clearer understanding that national insurance numbers are not a right to work. Conservatives’ implication that they are is wrong and does not help anyone understand, including employers, who may get the idea, if they simply listen to Tory Front Benchers, that national insurance numbers constitute a right to work. They do not.

Mr. Clappison: Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: I am not giving way. I have Back-Bench speeches to respond to.

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