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8 Oct 2008 : Column 127WH—continued

Opposition Members and hon. Friends talked about the way in which the tax was being modelled, particularly
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about whether using the maximum take-off weight was the right basis for the tax. This is probably the best proxy that we can get, in the current circumstances, upon which to base the tax, because we are trying to find an objective, uniform measure or combination of measures that will define an aircraft’s flight, and maximum take-off weight is a reasonable one. Many hon. Members have said, understandably, that emissions would be a better basis on which to levy the tax, but the difficulty is the Chicago convention. Charging for emissions on routes has already been deemed illegal in the European courts, so it is dubious in the extreme whether we could charge a tax purely on emissions for those purposes, given our international agreements. We therefore have to find a proxy. We consulted on maximum take-off weight, and heard about some of the problems that have been raised in today’s debate. We are happy to listen to other observations about whether we could use nitrate emissions and various other things, but the key to levying a tax is that it has to be simple enough for people to understand in advance what their liability is likely to be, robust enough not to vary between different flights by the same aircraft, and stable enough. Again, if hon. Members in the Chamber have other views, or have been in touch with stakeholders who have other views, I should be happy to hear them. However, we are still of the opinion that maximum take-off weight is probably about the best proxy for emissions that we have at the moment.

Justine Greening: Will the Minister give way?

Angela Eagle: Yes, but I have only two minutes and I wish to deal with another issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley.

Justine Greening: Will the Minister confirm that it is not lack of data that has prevented the Government from taking a different opinion? Is she saying that it is a legal issue rather than a lack of data?

Angela Eagle: It is not only a legal issue. If the hon. Lady looks at paragraphs 2.14 and 2.17 of the consultation paper, she will see that we say that nitrous oxide emissions

However, we are not assured there is enough robust, comprehensive data to base a tax on those emissions. There are therefore some technical issues that would put uncertainty into the tax base, which is not desirable. A combination of reasons have led us to use maximum take-off weight as the best proxy that we have for pollution and CO2 emissions in this instance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley asked whether we were confident that the proposed tax was legal. We have taken legal advice. We would not propose a tax that we thought was illegal, since that is not a sensible way for Governments to behave. I suppose one can always find a lawyer to take a contrary view, but the way things stand, our legal advice is that we have a robust legal case for taking this tax forward and we will proceed with that advice. My hon. Friend asked whether I would publish our legal advice. That is a nice try, but he knows that Governments do not publish their—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We now move to the next debate.

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Population Estimates (Westminster Council)

4 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The City of Westminster is one of the most complex and diverse districts in the United Kingdom. As the cultural and political hub of our capital city, it attracts a vast number of people each and every day, on top of the residential population, who either come to work in Westminster or to visit its wealth of attractions.

Unsurprisingly, it is also a destination of choice for people arriving in the United Kingdom for the first time. Many plan to work for a short period before returning home, and others hope to make new, permanent lives here, but the true extent of that population is unknown. Hidden from official statistics are the asylum seekers awaiting a decision from the Home Office, countless migrant workers from the European Union who are often willing to sleep in crowded rooms, illegal immigrants working in the black economy, and of course those whose application for leave to remain has been rejected but who are yet to be removed.

At 24 per cent., Westminster has had the greatest proportionate increase in population since 2001—the time of the last census—of any local authority in the United Kingdom. That tide of humanity must be catered for, but in this unique area of hyperdiversity and hypermobility it is uniquely difficult to assess its extent. That is a problem because population figures form a key part of the Government’s calculations to distribute grants to local councils, as the Minister knows.

Westminster city council has repeatedly warned the Government that current methods of counting migration are simply not keeping pace with modern patterns of population movement. Consequently, the council and many other areas where migration is high are locked into a three-year grant settlement, which leaves Westminster paying £6 million every year for those unaccounted-for people living within its boundaries.

No doubt migration will always be a sensitive issue, but the failure of the Office for National Statistics properly to measure its extent will mean London council tax payers shouldering the burden without the benefit. Unless the Government address the problem urgently, they risk losing public good will with serious consequences for the cohesion of our communities.

I should point out at this stage that this is not a narrow, partisan, party political issue. I share representation of the City of Westminster with the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) who sits on the Labour Benches, and we work hard together on this and a number of other local issues. It has often been at the hon. Lady’s behest that we have had meetings with Ministers in years gone by.

Many of the problems with population figures are attributable to the lack of a single, all-inclusive system to measure the movement of people into and out of the UK, and the absence of such a system to allocate those migrants to the place where they reside. Westminster city council’s grave concern is that the population figures used by the ONS in the calculation of Westminster’s grant allocation are incorrect and significantly underestimate the area’s population. Consequently, the
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council encounters difficulties in providing the full complement of services for its residents, both permanent and temporary.

No one disputes that Westminster is a particularly attractive place for migrants to work, especially as they can avoid London’s travel costs and often find employment easily in the capital’s service sector. Research commissioned by Westminster city council found that many choose to live in crowded accommodation, and are often classed as mid-term migrants, staying for between three and 12 months. Yet the methodology adopted by the ONS does not include in its population figures migrants who say that they intend to stay for fewer than 12 months. That omission is significant in an area such as central London, but I appreciate that it applies not only to Westminster but to one or two other local authorities. Independent research has shown that Westminster has more than 13,000 illegal migrants within its boundaries at any one time and, in addition, around 11,000 short-term migrants who are not registered in the official statistics for the reasons that I have set out.

The Government are not unaware of the problem. Westminster city council has campaigned on the issue ever since the ONS was found to have missed more than 22,000 people from the 2001 census count of the borough’s population. Westminster’s specific case was investigated by the Statistics Commission before the UK Statistics Authority replaced it. Recommendations were made for migrant data to be improved urgently after the quality was found to be “presently wholly inadequate”.

I am afraid that no action was taken, and in May 2006 the commission had to write again to the Home Office. It concluded:

More worryingly, the commission gave its original warning before the European Union’s enlargement in 2004, which took in the A8 accession countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The Government's colossal underestimation of the number of people arriving from those countries has been well documented, and the issue did not affect only Westminster.

Local authorities have borne the brunt of service provision for the countless hundreds of thousands who came to our shores without adequate support as a result of the Government's failure to prepare. Another two countries have since been added to the EU—the A2 nations of Bulgaria and Romania acceded on 1 January 2007—and the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs acknowledged last year that

The ONS has recognised the difficulty of measuring Westminster's population and has expressly excluded it as a field test authority for the forthcoming 2011 census on the grounds that

The understandable fear, which the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North and I share, is that the council could again face problems at the next
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census and beyond, given the importance of the census figures for the calculation of grant in the decade to come.

The volatility and confusion in population estimates make it almost impossible for local authorities to plan ahead with certainty. While the Government reap the rewards of migration through increased income tax and value added tax, and the higher productivity of British business, local authorities are trapped with the costs of an increased population without being given a fair share of funding. The impact on services and quality of life in areas of high migration is significant in terms of housing, community protection, schooling and adult services. In 2006-07 alone, the council incurred costs of more than £1 million just for supporting people who do not even have any recourse to public funds. That represented only a fairly small proportion of the migratory flow.

Many A8 migrants choose to live in private sector housing, and that has increased rents, applying further pressure to an already oversubscribed social housing market. Westminster's 2006 housing needs survey identified that increased overcrowding and household size was linked in part to a growth in houses in multiple occupation. That adds further to the acute pressures on affordable housing in an area where 44 per cent. of children already live in overcrowded accommodation. As the local Member of Parliament, I can testify to that.

The two most common issues in my constituency postbag are immigration and housing, and I reckon that I receive between 10 and 20 letters a week from families either struggling to obtain council or housing association property or hoping desperately for a transfer to a larger home. Westminster city council understands their frustration, but in a high-density, urban area the supply of affordable homes simply cannot keep up with the colossal demand. The average wait for a permanent home for someone accepted on to the list todayis likely to be between four and five years. For a family in a one-bedroom property needing a two-bedroom home, the transfer wait is currently six years, and for a three-bedroom home it is seven years and eight months. For those wanting to trade up to a four-bedroom home the wait is apparently, if academically, 27 years and seven months.

Furthermore, since 2004 London has seen increases in A8 migrants sleeping rough. Westminster city council has worked hard to tackle the needs of new arrivals and has worked with central Government agencies. I do not wish to offer too much criticism, because there have been significant improvements. The situation has ebbed and flowed at various times, and we have been trying to prevent nearly 400 A8 nationals from falling into long-term rough sleeping. I highlighted that work in a speech I made in this Chamber in January last year, when I warned the Government about the increasing pressure on homelessness services following the A2 enlargement of the EU; indeed, where I felt it was appropriate, I also complimented Government action.

Once A2 or A8 nationals have completed 12 months’ continuous employment as registered or authorised workers, if they remain in the labour market they have the same access to Jobcentre Plus services as any other citizen. The flip side of that is, of course, that Jobcentre Plus refuses to help A8 nationals to find work if they have not already been employed for that period. Those men and women rely on their local authority for support and
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advice and can all too often fall into homelessness, addiction and the other problems that arise in those circumstances.

The Westminster drugs and alcohol team is under increasing pressure to assist clients from EU accession nations who have fallen into alcohol dependency and drug addiction. Unfortunately, the influx from A10 countries has also had an impact on the council’s community protection operations. Strong evidence suggests that pockets of petty theft in the west end and persistent organised begging operations are being initiated by Romanian migrants. In fact, after several constituents complained to me specifically about aggressive begging in shopping districts, I had to raise the issue independently with City of Westminster police. The borough commander Steve Allen informed me that the police have had to put specific operations in place to combat a problem of which they are well aware.

Unfortunately, begging seems to be just one arm of organised crime that originates from eastern Europe. Automated teller machine fraud is another example of such crime, which, anecdotally, the local police have told me is conducted almost exclusively by Romanian gangs. I have tabled various parliamentary questions on that matter and was informed by the Home Office that it had no idea how much crime was being committed by Romanian nationals because country of origin data are not collected or collated in the crime statistics.

On education provision, short-term migration and the large number of migrants who move around the country seeking work cause significant problems in relation to the churn in schools. Such churn can leave teachers coping with a diverse class that has vastly different abilities in numeracy and literacy, and diverse cultural and language needs. Many children arrive mid-term and have no records, which has a significant administrative cost—about £400 for a primary school child and £800 for a secondary school child. In addition, extra support staff might be required to help migrant children with their learning and to liaise with related services. The council estimates that migrant families will contribute to a 10 per cent. increase in required school places in Westminster in the second half of this decade.

Child protection can be particularly difficult because of language and cross-cultural issues when investigating migrant families. In addition, mobility tends to be high, which makes investigations into problem families both costly and time consuming. With higher than average British birth rates, migrant families will often also have a greater reliance on primary health care facilities. A general confusion over who is entitled to assistance adds to service pressures, and there is increasing concern among local authorities about their legal obligations towards destitute people from abroad who have no recourse to public funds, such as failed asylum seekers or A10 nationals who have not worked for the requisite 12 continuous months. British citizens who have lived abroad for many years may also lose their right to benefits.

The obligation to support such foreign nationals with no recourse to public funds often arises as a direct result of a Home Office policy and practice, whereby support is withdrawn from failed asylum seekers, but they are not removed from the UK when their claim is finally refused. I have seen that phenomenon time and again in my constituency during the seven years I have represented
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it, and I am no longer surprised to find that a constituent is still writing to me many years after being told that they are to be deported and that they are still homeless, still wanting work and still desperate.

The Home Office has failed to provide local authorities with adequate guidance in such circumstances to the extent that many are concerned that they might be acting ultra vires. If local authorities disregard immigration restrictions on access to public services, they may be acting outside the law; but equally, a failure to provide services where there is an entitlement could result in judicial review and a claim for damages.

For obvious reasons, Westminster city council receives no funding from the Government to assist its work in supporting foreign nationals who have no recourse to public funds. That puts increasing pressure on the council’s departments, particularly adult services and health, to deliver services while maintaining strict budgets. Furthermore, regardless of benefits entitlement, all migrants are entitled to use leisure and culture facilities, and environmental services, join local authority-funded community groups, and have their children use local schools. Many migrants use the council’s libraries and one-stop shops and their visits often take longer because of language and cultural barriers. We all want to live in a civilised society and no one can deny that it is important for such individuals to have the right to play a part in various community services, but that comes at a significant cost.

Clearly, there needs to be a fundamental and radical reform of population measurement between each census, so that local authorities are funded appropriately for their true populations. The Government have committed extra resources—some £12 million—to the improvement of population estimates and have shown an important degree of leadership in taking forward progress via the statistics improvement programme board. However, I fear that those commitments might be insufficient to bring about the reform of the population estimates envisaged by the former Statistics Commission and by some local authority users.

Last September, the Statistics Commission stated in its response to the Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee that

However, much of the work being carried out by the ONS to improve migration estimates seems to be centred on survey improvements, and if the plans to improve migration estimates are not more ambitious the council is concerned that the work being undertaken will simply replace poor data with the like. If that happens, confidence in official statistics could be irreparably damaged.

Widespread concern has been aired that the ONS is simply not being adequately funded to make the improvements necessary to provide confidence in migration estimates. The Bank of England believes the ONS’s move to north Wales

It is unfair to ask local authorities and the communities they serve to foot the bill or to suffer adverse effects to services while waiting for migration measurement to improve.

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