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National Insurance Numbers (Illegal Immigrants)

Volume 447: debated on Monday 12 June 2006

3. What representations he has received on the allocation of national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. (76095)

I have had a number of representations from hon. Members. Since the inception of the national insurance system in 1948, the allocation of a number has never been designed to confirm that an individual has the right to live or work in the United Kingdom. However, in order to tighten the system further and to build on improvements that we already made in 2001 and again in 2004, we propose to introduce a right-to-work condition that will have to be satisfied before a number is issued.

I am pleased that the Government have finally taken note of this matter, but it was six years ago, in May 2000, that Lord Grabiner brought out his report, which highlighted the issue of illegal immigrants making national insurance applications. Why has the change taken six years? Why has it taken the Home Office scandals and fiasco to bring focus to this matter? I hope that the Minister will not tell us that the Government did act in 2000 and that everything was rosy, because if it was, why did they need to change the rules last week?

The hon. Gentleman should refresh his memory of what Lord Grabiner actually said. In paragraph 4.15 of his report, he said:

“It is unlikely that a large proportion of illegal immigrants claim benefits…However, to the extent that they do…this is likely to be linked to…identity fraud.”

His specific recommendation was about identity fraud. We enacted it within a year by the introduction of the enhanced national insurance allocation system. In 2004, we amended his Government’s legislation to strengthen the controls that employers have an obligation to put into place. The third improvement that we are making is to introduce the right-to-work condition. He should welcome that.

In relation to individuals whose asylum application fails although they are granted a national insurance number, would it be possible to incorporate in the number a field or pair or digits that showed their status so that the number could be de-registered when their application is refused? Is that not the way forward, as long we do not give the project to the Accentures, the EDSs and the Capitas of this world to mess up?

We do make records of such information at the point of dealing with the application, and that information is passed on to the immigration and nationality directorate.

I am reliably informed that in official circles there is widespread concern about the issue of temporary national insurance numbers and, indeed, multiple national insurance numbers to the same individual. On 2 March, however, the Department answered a question, saying that no temporary national insurance numbers were issued. Can he explain that apparent discrepancy?

Temporary numbers are issued in certain circumstances, but if there is doubt about an applicant’s immigration status—as I said, if they are in employment a national insurance number is issued, and that has always been the case—the matter will be referred to the IND. If they are not in employment, or if we suspect that their documentation is false, a national insurance number is not issued.

We welcome the fact that the Minister has announced plans to introduce a test of legality before issuing NI numbers from next month, but what plans does he have to recall for interview with a view, if appropriate, to cancelling national insurance numbers, the 1,712 applicants whom he recently told the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs had been referred to IND over the period April 2005 to February 2006 as potential immigration offenders, but who were issued with national insurance numbers anyway?

Last year, we referred 2,537 cases to IND on the grounds of immigration irregularities. We also reported 772 suspect document cases, and my Department brought 773 prosecutions for false documentation.

That is very interesting, but the Minister omitted to tell us that he gave all those people national insurance numbers.

The Minister shakes his head, but the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee certainly understood that to be the case. Let me ask him another question. In 2001, shortly after the Grabiner report, Jeff Rooker, the then social security Minister, said in Standing Committee in 2001 that techniques developed in the Balham project

“of in-depth analysis and more systematic questioning about NINOs are being rolled out across the country, virtually as we speak”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 April 2001; c. 74.]

Bearing in mind that commitment, will the Minister confirm that the amount of time allocated for interviews with national insurance number applicants has been cut from one hour to 45 minutes, and that interviewers have been instructed to accept photocopies of passports and other documents, instead of the originals? Despite the message from the Balham project, Lord Grabiner’s warnings, and Jeff Rooker’s commitment to the House, the Government have continued to weaken controls over the issue of national insurance numbers to foreign nationals.

There were a great many points in the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I shall respond to one or two. He said that national insurance numbers were issued willy-nilly: that is simply not the case. If our officials are aware of false documentation, national insurance numbers are not issued. He should bear in mind the fact that 20,000 applications for national insurance numbers were declined last year. The powers to which he referred in his long question are more robust following our implementation of Grabiner’s recommendations, as there is now a four-stage process, which did not exist under the previous Administration. For third-country nationals, the first stage covers telephone discussion; the second stage establishes residency; the third stage involves a face-to-face interview for identity purposes; and the fourth stage involves additional evidence. An applicant may be required to submit up to 20 documents as proof of their identity.