Previous Section Index Home Page

13 May 2008 : Column 390WH—continued

13 May 2008 : Column 391WH

Worker Registration Scheme

12.29 pm

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): It is an honour and a pleasure to appear under your aegis, Mr. Cummings. For the record, I am not opposing the abolition of the worker registration scheme; I am seeking to advance its abolition—indeed, if it were up to me, I would take it out into the street and kick it to death now. I hope to make the case for why I propose that course of action.

I am delighted and considerably honoured that my hon. Friend the Minister will speak for the Government on this matter. It is important to place a couple of points on the record. First, very few Ministers in the history of this Government, let alone this place, have had a better record on combining the need for accurate statistical data and the strength and security of our borders with the human rights and civil rights for which he has become so well known. I pay a warm tribute to him.

Secondly, we are, I accept, in an area that is intentionally contentious. Emigration to this country is an issue that is constantly misrepresented, which leads to an absence or the opposite of social cohesion in many ways. It is crucial to have accurate data when we talk about people working in this country. Wrong statistics can be interpreted in whichever way they will by people of ill will, and I fear that the worker registration scheme is grist to that mill.

Many if not all hon. Members will know the basis of the worker registration scheme, which was initiated on 1 May 2004. The idea was to facilitate the then accession 8 countries—Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Estonia and the Czech Republic—giving them immediate access to the UK labour market. That decision by the UK Government, along with the Governments of Ireland and Sweden, has turned out to be immensely beneficial to this country.

It is mandatory to register if a person wishes to work for an employer in the UK for more than one month and they are normally a resident of one of the A8 countries. However, the minute we start to look down into the interstices of this legislation, we discover that exemptions exist, which seem quite dizzying in their breadth. The most important one is that a person does not have to register if they are self-employed. They do not have to register if they have worked legally in the UK for 12 months. They do not have to register if they provide services in the UK on behalf of an employer who is not established in this country.

Things then get rather interesting. A person does not have to register if they have dual citizenship of the UK and another country within the European economic area that I have not listed, or, as is always the case in these matters, Switzerland. They do not have to register if they are a family member of a Swiss—yet again, the exceptionally treated Swiss—or an EEA citizen, excluding of course the A8 countries, and that person is working in the UK. Finally, a person is exempt if they are a family member of—guess what?—a Swiss or an EEA citizen who is living in the UK as a student or as a retired or self-sufficient person.

Employers have a considerable list of obligations, mostly to do with keeping a copy of the application form, receiving and keeping a copy of the valid registration
13 May 2008 : Column 392WH
certificate and generally administering the system. Most importantly, registration originally cost a lesser sum but now costs the employee £90. One reason why I am raising this matter is that a number of my constituents have said to me, “What are we getting for the £90?” I have found it very difficult to give them an answer. If Her Majesty’s Government were obtaining valid data, if we had a controlled system whereby we were obtaining important information, I would think that the £90 was well spent. However, I cannot see that any of the aims and intentions of the worker registration scheme are met by it in its present form.

Among the flaws is the one that I mentioned relating to self-employed people. They clearly argue that registration is not compulsory, but there is an argument to say that it should be. There is also, bizarrely, no penalty for failing to register. Registration is required if the worker changes employers, but many simply do not register. There is no requirement to de-register from the scheme on leaving the country, so we are dealing with base data all the time. We will never know the accuracy of the data unless we measure the people leaving the register as well as those coming on to it. The £90 fee is certainly a disincentive and will discourage some people on low incomes from registering.

The registration form is complex. Unlike many hon. Members, with their glittering double firsts from Oxford, I left school at 15 and am largely self-educated—and not very effectively, either—but I have studied the four pages of questions and the seven pages of guidelines involved in filling in the form for the worker registration scheme. Fortunately, all the instructions are in English, which is, although some may be surprised to hear it, my first language. If it were not, I would find it immensely difficult to fill in the form.

In addition, the number of emigrants to the UK was considerably larger than originally anticipated, mostly because of the benign economic circumstances in these fortunate islands. As a result, the processing time for the worker registration scheme has been a great deal longer. Between May 2004 and June 2006, 427,000 central Europeans registered to work. It is reasonable to assume that that figure is more like 600,000 once self-employed workers are included.

I am not a voice crying in the wilderness, either in English or in Polish. The TUC wants to see the immediate end of the worker registration scheme. The union formerly known as the Transport and General Workers Union wants to see the end of it. Even Mark Boleat, the chairman of the Association of Labour Providers, said in a recent statement—in rather stronger language than someone as supportive of the Government as I am would ever use—that the Government may be “deceiving” migrant workers from the European Union into paying £90 to register under the accession states worker registration scheme, because they get virtually nothing for it.

We know that the worker registration scheme will end in the spring of next year anyway, so it could be asked why I am seeking to advance its abolition. We should have a proper system of registration in this country. I personally think that identity cards are an excellent idea and I like the work that the Minister has done on electronic borders and border control, but this scheme is cumbersome, bureaucratic, inefficient and, above all, dangerous, in that it provides data that are open to misinterpretation.

13 May 2008 : Column 393WH

I, or rather my office, delved deep into the subject and we are grateful for the Institute for Public Policy Research statement published in April 2008, “Floodgates or turnstiles”. We have the very useful Department for Work and Pensions report authored by Gilpin, Henty and others entitled “The impact of free movement of workers from Central and Eastern Europe on the UK labour market”. We have the Library brief. We have a range of documents. The one thing they have in common is that we can draw a different conclusion from every single one of them.

My personal concern and interest, as I mentioned, is as a Member of Parliament for the glorious London borough of Ealing and for the Polish community in particular. Ealing is an area that, for excellent reasons, has had a very long, amiable and cordial relationship with the Polish. I am referring to the relationship with, originally, the Polish combatants who came to fight with us between 1939 and 1945, particularly at RAF Northolt, and the Polish people who have put down deep roots in our part of west London. In fact, the Polish community form the bulk of the A8 nationals who have come to this country in large numbers since 2004. I would say that most of them see themselves, as anybody with access to an atlas or a globe could confirm, as central Europeans, not, as they are frequently referred to, eastern Europeans, and as EU citizens or EU workers with their families moving within the EU, rather than migrants.

If you looked at the data available, Mr. Cummings, perhaps you would ask yourself the same question I did. Would astrology, bibliomancy, necromancy or peering into the entrails of sacrificed beasts provide a more valid source of data than the worker registration scheme? I think it probably would, because the WRS has the imprimatur of legitimacy but the end-product is virtually irrelevant.

The data that we use on the people working in this country come from four major sources. The labour force survey and the international passenger survey—two of the sources frequently prayed in aid—are flawed because they are based on random samples, not on solid total figures. Although the labour force survey gives an interesting sociological glimpse of possible trends in the Polish community in Britain, it is not a valid source of data for the number of people working here. The international passenger survey is useless as it fails to record anything except arrivals through the major London airports and the Channel tunnel. It takes no account of arrivals and departures from provincial airports, and as I said it allows a skewed picture of immigration to provide ammunition for political parties of ill will.

The third source, the worker registration scheme, was seen as a useful tool for the Government, who were seen to have acted sensibly and responsibly in the face of a large influx of new workers, estimated to be about 13,000 a year. It was thought that it would be useful also for new arrivals; it was argued that it would help them to acclimatise to a regulated work force, and enable them to regulate their employment as an official part of our work force.

According to the WRS statistics administered by the Home Office, 327,538 Poles registered for work between May 2004 and December 2006. The number has decreased since then. In 2007, it was 150,000, with 38,000 in the last quarter. Those statistics were seized upon by The
13 May 2008 : Column 394WH
, which noted an apparent drop in the number and declared that Pavel the plumber was heading back to Wroclaw and that the Poles were leaving. At the time, I received a letter from a constituent complaining, “One cannot get a Polish plumber nowadays,” and asking. “What are the Government doing about it?”.

In reality, statistics based on the WRS do not provide the answer. The scheme is expensive and bureaucratic, and it has never covered the thousands of Poles who declared themselves to be self-employed. Few Poles bothered to record changes in employment after one year. When newly arrived or formerly self-employed Poles sought to register later, Home Office advice was that it was no longer a requirement. It was subsequently discovered that not registering made people ineligible for all benefits except child benefit.

Regional statistics based on the WRS are extraordinarily unreliable. I have a WRS list of every council area in the United Kingdom that shows the number of people registered. Camden and Westminster are shown as the London boroughs with the highest population of Poles, when evidence to which I shall refer in a moment shows that the largest concentrations in London were demonstrably in Ealing, Brent and Haringey.

The fourth statistical source—the national insurance registration figures—is the one that I recommend to my hon. Friend the Minister. I consider them the most reliable source of information not only on Poles but on all workers covered by the worker registration scheme, although imperfections remain. National insurance figures are more trustworthy because they correlate with other important local statistics, such as the number of children speaking Polish, the number of Polish births and the number of Polish citizens on the electoral register.

I pay tribute to Victor Moszczynski of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain for the work that he has done over the past couple of years in listing every person on the electoral register who can be identified by a Polish surname. I shall refer to that again in a moment. I realise that Polish names like Miller may not obviously be Polish, but if the first name is Stanislav or Piotr one can make a fairly good guess that the person is Polish. I give credit to Victor Moszczynski. I also thank Her Excellency Barbara Tuge-Erecinska, the Polish ambassador, for the work that she and the embassy have done.

Between 2001 and 2006, 333,000 Poles registered for national insurance. In 2006-07, a further 223,000 were registered, making a total of 556,000. The figure for last year shows an increase in registration, not a decrease. In other words, it is completely contra-indicative to the WRS information. That might confuse The Times, if no one else.

It is generally accepted that more Poles have not registered for work but are working none the less, although many are seasonal workers. I mentioned the work undertaken by the embassy. It has good reason for knowing that 600,000 or more Poles come here during the summer, and it can correlate that with data from within the Republic of Poland. The situation is slightly confused, however, in that the 2001 census shows that 57,000 are recorded as being of Polish origin, but that could go back four or five generations, with 100,000 or so being from inter-generational groups. Nevertheless, they would still be Polish.

13 May 2008 : Column 395WH

The work done by Victor Moszczynski and the Federation of Poles lists every constituency in the United Kingdom in which more than 1,000 new Polish names were entered on the electoral register last year. The list starts with Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush. It continues with Bedford; Birmingham, Ladywood; Birmingham, Perry Bar; Boston and Skegness; Brent, East; Brent, South; Brentford and Isleworth; Crewe and Nantwich; Doncaster, Central; Hackney, North and Stoke Newington; Hornsey and Wood Green; Leeds, Central; Leicester, West; Mitcham and Morden; Northampton, South; Nottingham, East; Oxford, East; Peterborough; Salford; Ealing, Southall; Southampton, Test; Streatham; Walthamstow; West Ham; Aberdeen, North; Edinburgh, East; Glasgow, Central; and Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. Five constituencies recorded more than 2,000 new Poles registered for national insurance in the current electoral register as against last year’s. They were Edinburgh, North and Leith; Tottenham; Slough; Luton, South; and Ealing, North. And a few hours ago, when leaving Belfast, I saw evidence of the 8,900 Poles who registered in Northern Ireland last year.

The Department for Work and Pensions has provided some important and useful data. It says that one third of the Poles who came here before 2006 are employed in administration, business and management. It also says that 22 per cent. work in hospitality and catering, 10 per cent. in agriculture, 8 per cent. in manufacturing, 6 per cent. in the health service, 5 per cent. in food processing, just under 5 per cent. in the retail trade and the same again in the construction industry.

We therefore have a great deal more than the stereotypical Polish plumber or builder. It could be said that our fresh food production has been saved by central European migration. The movement of people, particularly Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians, to places in Scotland and the rural areas of Wales and Lincolnshire has been the saviour of rural fresh food production.

It may not be the most accurate statistic, although I can understand why people might have said so, but when the Institute of Directors surveyed 500 employers, 61 per cent. said that they hire Poles because of their superior skills; only 16 per cent. said it was because they were cheaper.

There are also some extraordinary statistics about the value added by Poles. According to the National Bank of Poland, each year about £4 billion is sent by Polish workers in the UK to their families at home. However, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the Polish work force contributed £12 billion to the British economy between 2004 and 2006. A great deal of work has been done by Piotr Grzeszkiewicz, the director of Sara-Int, the recruitment agency. He concludes that about £1.9 billion a year is contributed to the British Exchequer by the Polish diaspora.

Changes in the exchange rate, from 7.2 zloty to the pound in 2004 to between 4.83 and 4.9 this month, have contributed to a slowing down of immigration—just like the “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” generation who went to Germany in the 1980s to flee the dark, doomy days of Thatcherite recession, and who, as soon as trade turned in the opposite direction, came back home. Here, we have the pull-effect of a strong and vibrant economy. However, that is being slightly counteracted by the
13 May 2008 : Column 396WH
growth in the Polish economy, particularly because of the 2012 UEFA championships. Indeed, the deputy mayor of Gdansk said just before Christmas that he was glad that the Poles were starting to return now; he did not want them all to return at once.

The Minister is a man of good will and I have paid tribute to him before. It is fairly unusual for a humble, insignificant and almost irrelevant Back Bencher to stand up and propose something that will save the Government money and may make life a little easier for all of us, but that is what I am doing. By bringing forward the abolition of the WRS, which will happen anyway, we will save money, and by moving to a national insurance based register or even by building on the work of organisations such as the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, we can come up with a far more accurate picture. Without accurate data, prejudice will flourish in the darkness, which no one wants.

I have every confidence that the Minister will resolve the matter one way or the other, but I want to place on the record my appreciation of the work done by the Polish community in this country. I hope that we can develop a valid set of statistics and some valid, solid data that will meet Britain’s need to secure its borders. I hope that we recognise the need for accuracy in the data on those who work in our nation.

12.50 pm

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) on securing this important debate. I should first like to take a brief detour through his virtues. He has raised the issue in the House this afternoon, but he has also lobbied me consistently in the past few months. I do not believe that the House of Commons has as doughty a defender, as strong an advocate or as keen an analyst of the contribution made to this country by the Polish community. He woke up extremely early this morning to participate in the debate this afternoon, which is an expression of his commitment to putting those arguments forward.

I have a couple of points to make in response to my hon. Friend’s remarks. It is typical of his style that he has made a very early strike on the rethinking of the policy. As he knows, the Government said that we would review the policy towards the end of the year, yet even though it is only May he has laid out an alternative approach for us to consider. His words will weigh all the more heavily with me for the fact that he got them in first, as it were.

I echo my hon. Friend’s celebration of the contribution made to our country and economy by A8 nationals. As he said, A8-born nationals in the UK have an employment rate among the highest of any immigrant group in Britain. They are more likely to be in employment and they make a tremendous contribution in some vital sectors of our economy, including administration, business and management, hospitality and catering, and agriculture. They also make a significant contribution to the provision of public services throughout Britain. When we look at the available figures and information for 2004 to 2006, we see that about 84 per cent. of people from A8 countries say that they came to the UK for work-related reasons or that they were coming to look for work. That is an extraordinarily high proportion. My hon. Friend
13 May 2008 : Column 397WH
quoted some figures, and his constituency has among the highest numbers of new national insurance number registrations issued to people from A8 countries. He speaks with a great deal of personal experience, as well as wisdom, because he sees at first hand in his constituency the contribution made by A8 nationals.

There is an enormous amount of nonsense in the debate, to which my hon. Friend alluded in rather polite language. Sometimes one hears arguments such as, “Migrants are coming over, taking jobs, driving down wages and consuming more in public services than they pay in taxes.” Overwhelmingly, such arguments are complete nonsense. On the contrary, the migration of recent years, particularly from eastern Europe, has profited our economy and the Exchequer. Indeed, the Treasury estimates that new migration added about £6 billion to our national output in 2006, which is worth having. Migrants add to our national wealth because they complement the skills of resident workers and therefore help to make the economy more productive, which is important because in the long term, there is pretty much a one-to-one relationship between increased productivity and increased wage growth.

When we look at Britain’s economic performance in the past 10 years, we see that productivity, wages and wage growth have gone up. That triple is rare—I do not think that we have seen it in any period since records began in the 1970s. Migration has been central to that economic performance. On top of that, migrants contribute about 10 per cent. of the taxes received by Government, but have consumed only 9.1 per cent. of Government spending. That is based on what is probably the best study of the issue, which was published some time around 2003-04. My hon. Friend was right to say that there is great deal of rubbish talked in the debate and it is important that we nail it when it rears its ugly head.

Next Section Index Home Page