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Commons Chamber

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2008

House of Commons

Wednesday 16 January 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Research Funding

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills on funding for research for universities in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (177783)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to discuss a variety of issues affecting Wales, and Welsh universities have a vital role to play in meeting the challenges of the future, not only in increasing the knowledge economy of Wales, but in encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation.

North East Wales institute in my constituency, which we all hope will shortly be a university, has a proud record of research, particularly in attracting private investment into research. Since 2001, it has raised £2.7 million for its polymer investment programme, 80 per cent. of which has come from the private sector—

I got the gist of it, Mr. Speaker; I am happy to reply. The North East Wales institute has been right at the forefront of research. It has received £120,000 from the research investment fund since 2004-05. In particular, its innovation centre has made remarkable progress through links with Rolls-Royce, Airbus UK, Siemens, Jaguar and DaimlerChrysler. My hon. Friend will continue to receive support from myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; there is no more powerful advocate for the North East Wales institute than my hon. Friend.

Despite the Minister’s professed support for research funding, is he aware of the potential cuts to the physics funding of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which will amount to 25 per cent. over three years, and the detrimental effect that that will have on such institutes in Aberystwyth? Will he continue his dialogue with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and his colleagues at the STFC in order to find us some alternative funding?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will always continue such discussions, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that in the 2005-06 academic year, for the very first time, Welsh universities accounted for 11 per cent. of UK-wide income from collaborative research, outperforming six of the nine English regional development agency regions. Wales is doing very well in research, but it must do more, and we will continue to support Wales as it drives forward in the knowledge economy.

The Secretary of State has long been a champion of higher education in Wales, particularly with regard to its support of the knowledge economy. Does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary agree that the forthcoming inquiry by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs into cross-border issues affords the Wales Office and the DIUS a unique opportunity to give evidence on how we can best address the question of the research funding deficit in Wales? In so doing, we can help to strengthen the link between technology transfer and research funding in order to advance the cause of the knowledge economy in Wales.

Indeed; my hon. Friend’s commitment to higher education and his background in HE in Wales are well known, and the Wales Office would welcome any opportunity to appear before the Welsh Affairs Committee to give evidence to that very important inquiry into the future of skills and knowledge in Wales. I know that he will welcome the recent substantial increase in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform science and innovation budget—an increase from £5.4 billion in 2007 to £6.3 billion in 2010-11. That is positive news for Welsh HE, delivered under a Labour Government.

Manufacturing

Since the right hon. Gentleman took the position of Secretary of State for Wales in 2002, more than 23,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. Those who lost their jobs would not have been reassured to learn that when the Secretary of State should have been looking after their interests he had two jobs and was seeking another, the handling of which was described by the Prime Minister yesterday as incompetent. Given the Secretary of State’s growing lack of credibility and the mire that now surrounds him, would not the best prospect for new jobs in Wales be for him to quit his two jobs today?

Thanks for that supporting question. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a quote:

“Wales has got a huge amount going for it…Wales has got great universities, a vibrant business sector, a tradition of excellence in engineering and manufacturing.”

Those are not my words, but those of the Leader of the Opposition only last month.

Unemployment in Gower is now considerably less than half of what it was in 1997. However, at the beginning of this week, we learned from 3 Ms, a flagship manufacturer in Gower, that it is reviewing some operations in the Gorseinon factory. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the future of 3 Ms in Gorseinon?

I will be happy to do so. I remind my hon. Friend and everybody that Wales is a great place to do business at the moment. Only recently, the Royal Bank of Scotland found that manufacturing output continues to expand. The business climate is excellent. Wales is going from strength to strength, despite global uncertainty and financial instability. Everybody, including manufacturers, should come to Wales, because it is the best place to be.

Given that between June 1999 and June 2007 21 per cent. of manufacturing jobs were lost in Wales, does the Secretary of State agree that it is excellent news that Rigcycle Ltd has bought two quarries in Blaenau Ffestiniog and one in Penrhyn in Bethesda? Will he do all he can with his colleagues in the National Assembly to assist the company to expand even further? Does he agree that, Welsh slate, as a premier product, could do with more advertising worldwide?

I completely agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows better than anybody, the opportunity for Welsh slate is great. We should work together—I know that the Welsh Assembly Government will work with us—to advance the prospects of Welsh slate. I congratulate him on his work; we should ensure that the initiative in his constituency goes from strength to strength.

My right hon. Friend knows that General Dynamics in my constituency leads a £60 million defence research consortium with the Ministry of Defence, involving the universities of Cardiff, Cambridge and Imperial. What are the Government doing to ensure that the innovative ideas that come from that research benefit manufacturing industries in Wales?

My right hon. Friend will remember that I visited that factory with him. It is a fine example of manufacturing excellences in Wales, along with many others, such as the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company—EADS—which I visited, Airbus, the Metrix consortium and Visteon, with which I have worked. We will work closely with him and General Dynamics to see what opportunities there are. We will continue to invest in higher education and in skills and high technology to ensure that global companies such as General Dynamics continue to view Wales as an excellent base from which to operate.

When supporting manufacturing business in Wales, on what basis do Wales Office Ministers decide whether to give a personal endorsement to a manufacturing or other commercial operation in Wales, such as the Cuddy group? Does the Secretary of State have any regrets about the business endorsements that he has made as Secretary of State for Wales in the past two years?

I have absolutely no regrets—[Interruption.]—about the business endorsements that I have given in Wales. [Interruption.]

I was asked about the business endorsements in Wales that I gave as Secretary of State. I am proud to visit companies, whether manufacturers such as General Dynamics, construction companies such as Cuddy’s, or financial companies such as Picture Financial, which create more jobs. I have often accepted invitations from hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies. It is right that the Secretary of State for Wales gives his support to the growth and success of Welsh business.

Let me give the hon. Lady a quote:

“Most of the manufacturing capacity in sectors which are globally uncompetitive has already moved offshore, and the smaller manufacturing sector which remains in the UK is much better positioned to compete.”

The CBI Wales director, David Rosser, made that statement only a month ago, speaking from Wales.

In the light of the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm, will he arrange for the publication of all exchanges with the permanent secretary responsible for the Wales Office that relate to his dealings with businesses, especially those that he has endorsed, so that we can reassure manufacturing business that his Department is both competent and free of bias?

Let me say this to the hon. Lady: if she were doing my job, which she wants to do, I would perceive it as her duty to accept invitations from successful Welsh businesses—manufacturers and others—to give them support. Why is she attacking that?

She should applaud the statement that,

“the business sector in Wales seems to be going from strength to strength.”

It was made by Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, the director of the national entrepreneurship observatory for Wales and Conservative candidate for Clwyd, West in last year’s Assembly elections.

I compliment my right hon. Friend on his effective liaison with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government. What discussions has he had with Welsh Assembly Government colleagues about using the framework powers in the Education and Skills Bill to redress the gender imbalance and encourage more young women to take up apprenticeships and careers in manufacturing?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have had regular discussions—I with the First Minister and others with the Welsh Assembly Government—about the Bill. She is right: it is essential that we get more young women especially into apprenticeships. I remember visiting a training centre in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), where I had a discussion with a training official who was trying to persuade young girls to switch from hairdressing into plumbing, making it clear that it offered more opportunities for flexible working and greater wealth. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are decrying the opportunities for young women in Wales that this Labour Government are providing, when they should be supporting them.

Local Government Funding

3. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on financial allocations to local councils in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (177785)

Regular discussions take place with the First Minister on such matters. The Welsh Assembly Government have delivered, including in their announcement yesterday, a realistic settlement for local government that represents a fair deal for Wales.

Given that the Wales Office budget has doubled and that there are £40 million of reserves in the Welsh Assembly accounts, was it incompetence or intentional that the Secretary of State and the First Minister delivered a below-inflation settlement for the 22 Welsh councils, which means that front-line services the length and breadth of Wales will be at risk in the coming year?

I honestly thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to echo the sentiments of the individual who said:

“We are delighted that the many representations by the council’s elected members and others on its behalf have been recognised and responded to in this way.”

That was said by a spokesman for Powys county council yesterday. The Welsh Assembly will ensure that all councils receive an increase in funds of at least 2 per cent. An extra £4.7 million was announced yesterday by Finance Minister Andrew Davies, which will mean an average rise of 2.4 per cent. Councils such as Powys and Ynys Môn, which had been allocated 1 per cent., will benefit greatly. I honestly thought that the hon. Gentleman might mention that.

My hon. Friend is right. I thank him and the Secretary of State, who has an excellent record on delivering for Ynys Môn and its people, for the flooring in the mechanism. It is important that that flooring continues over the comprehensive spending review period, as the Home Office has provided for police authorities in Wales, so that local authorities can plan year on year and deliver adequate services. Will the Wales Office liaise with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that that happens?

My hon. Friend has been one of the most powerful advocates in recent days and weeks on the issue, and I know that he will have welcomed yesterday’s announcement. We will continue to argue strongly for a fair deal for Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited my hon. Friend’s constituency, and so have I. Perhaps I could extend an invitation to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to visit Bridgend, which has one of the best settlements in Wales, but which is in the shameful position of having the lowest spending on primary schools in Wales. Will he please visit and explain to the Lib-Dem leadership there what it needs to do right?

The Minister will know that the funding formula is skewed against rural authorities in Wales, which is why Monmouthshire has had the highest council tax increase of any authority in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. Will he do something about that—if in a short while he wields greater influence in the Wales Office than he does at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman fails to mention, as he once again launches into a diatribe against the Welsh Assembly and everything Welsh, that the last three financial years have seen the lowest council tax rises since the council tax was introduced in Wales. What a contrast with the Conservative years.

Despite the small improvements announced yesterday, many councils still face very tight financial settlements that are leading them to consider cuts in services or increases in council tax. What discussions has the Minister had with his Assembly colleagues to ensure that Welsh councils will be able to deliver on the equal pay agenda, so that women who have been disadvantaged for so long can now get equal pay for equal work? Or does he have some other funds for these progressive policies?

The hon. Gentleman raises a vital point, and I assure him that we raise these issues continually with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers and with the Welsh Local Government Association, whose representatives I met on Monday. There is a determination to deliver on equal pay, as there should be, and we will deliver it—I hope with cross-party support—because we have a Labour-led Administration with Plaid Cymru in Wales, and a Labour Government here.

The Minister will be aware that the Welsh block grant rose from £6.5 billion in 1997 to more than £14 billion this year. Yes, we need more money, but does he agree that the issue in Wales is how to get value for money from our local authorities? What discussions is he having with his Welsh Assembly colleagues to ensure that we get value for money in Wales?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct that we must not only deliver the investment in Wales, as the Labour Government are doing, but ensure that the right reforms and efficiencies are in place. In the Finance Minister’s statement yesterday, he made it clear that the extra investment will go hand in hand with efficiencies, reforms and delivery. I know that my hon. Friend will also welcome the announcement in this budget of in excess of £1.2 billion extra for health; a substantial increase in the number of apprenticeships, with an extra £25 million over the next three years; £6 million extra for alcohol and drug rehabilitation; and £120 million for affordable child care. Why are all those announcements significant? It is because they are being delivered under Labour.

Devolved Government

We are committed to giving the National Assembly for Wales new law-making powers through the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but does he accept that there has been no consultation among the people of Wales on the new powers for the Assembly? Why will he not allow the people of Wales to choose, in a referendum, whether they want the Assembly to have those powers?

Parliament is the proper source for granting extra powers and passing the legislation so to do. The powers that are now being exercised through Orders in Council and the framework powers being established in primary legislation are within the terms of the settlement endorsed by the people of Wales in a referendum in 1997, which the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly Government applied to the Wales Office for framework powers conferring legislative competence to be included in the Planning Bill. Six months later, the Bill has had its Second Reading and is now in Committee, yet the draft clauses relating to those powers have still not been produced. Will the Secretary of State please tell us whether that unacceptable delay is the product of deliberate policy, administrative oversight or simple incompetence?

As the hon. Gentleman knows—I think that he was present for it—there was a briefing on the Planning Bill given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister concerned last week. At that briefing, it was explained why the complexities involved meant that the framework clause was not yet ready. When it is ready, the hon. Gentleman will be given an opportunity, as will his hon. Friends and all other Members who have an interest, to question the Ministers concerned. The measure will be subject to proper scrutiny, as it will be throughout the process as it goes into the Bill and is debated in the House.

Ryder Cup

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government and elsewhere about issues affecting Wales, including the preparation for major events. In fact, I am planning to meet representatives of Ryder cup Wales in the near future to discuss the preparations for 2010.

Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that the great enthusiasm of all of Wales for the Ryder cup is shared by people throughout the UK? Is he looking forward, as I am, to that glorious day in 2010—a few months after the next general election—when I, the newly re-elected Member for Newport, West, will welcome the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) to Newport to congratulate him on his eighth successive year of distinguished service as Secretary of State for Wales?

My right hon. Friend, who has been a huge supporter of the Ryder cup, will indeed look forward to that glorious day and to the re-election of my hon. Friend. Certainly, the Ryder cup is welcomed across Wales and the UK—with its massive investment in infrastructure and jobs, the involvement of the private sector in Newport, and new hotel development. It is a great tribute to the work that Wales has done in remodelling itself as the venue for top-class sporting events.

Of course, the Ryder cup will not be a success if people are unable to get to it, so will the Minister give an assurance that the construction of Crossrail along the Great Western main line, which is due to commence in 2010, will not cause huge disruption to train services from Paddington to Newport?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and I am happy to take up that issue. It is important to have the infrastructure in place so that people can make use of it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome not only the massive investment in Newport but the legacy of the Ryder cup in Wales, the wider investment in golf across Wales and the fact that Wales now stages the rugby world cup, the Heineken cup final, the FA cup final and the Wales rally GB. Wales is now truly the destination for world-class sporting events.

What assessment has been made of the impact of the 2010 Ryder cup on my constituency in respect of economic, tourism, social and sporting prowess? Bridgend has some of the best golf courses in the UK, including the Royal Porthcawl, which is very popular with the Japanese ambassador, who regularly plays there.

My hon. Friend is unusually well informed about the activities of the Japanese ambassador, but it is indeed true that he plays there every month. It is estimated that the Ryder cup brought £88 million into the Irish economy in the tournament week alone and studies are progressing on how much it will bring into the wider Welsh economy and Bridgend. I have no doubt that our success in getting the Ryder cup will once again put us at the highest level in attracting investment and providing a sporting legacy for Wales.

Environment

I have regular discussions, for instance on our joint support for the Severn barrage, which will be by far the biggest renewable energy project in Britain.

How will the opening, in the teeth of local opposition, of Britain’s largest ever open-cast coal mine near Merthyr Tydfil help the UK meet its 2020 carbon reduction targets?

There is still a demand—indeed, an increasing demand—for Welsh coal and proper environmental standards apply to such applications and projects. We will need to move towards clean coal through carbon capture and storage in order to ensure that, where coal makes a contribution to our future energy mix, it is clean.

Defence Training Programme

8. What progress is being made on the Defence Training Programme at RAF St. Athan; and if he will make a statement. (177790)

I welcome the progress made so far on delivering an excellent package that meets our defence training needs. Work is expected to begin at St. Athan as early as next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and I thank him and the Secretary of State for their work in attracting this multi-billion pound investment to Wales. If all of Wales is to benefit from it, we must get the planning right. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss the local authority’s planning strategy to ensure that it appreciates the sheer scale and strategic importance of this economy-changing development?

My hon. Friend once again proves why he recently won the campaigner of the year prize at the Welsh politicians’ awards for his work on St. Athan. It was thoroughly deserved. I am more than happy to meet him once again, as will be my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The St. Athan development will bring £11 billion-worth of investment, creating thousands of direct and indirect jobs from 2013. It is the largest single Government investment in Wales and is thoroughly to be welcomed.

Is the Minister aware that, according to a recent survey by the Public and Commercial Services union, 72 per cent. of the defence personnel who are expected to move to Wales from RAF Cosford in my constituency are either unwilling or unable to do so? Is it not about time we were given some transparency in the planning problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith)?

The hon. Gentleman is a good advocate for his constituents. He will know that Cosford has been recommended for 102 Logistics Brigade and 1 Signal Brigade when they return from Germany, subject to development plans and value for money. If the defence community is located at Cosford, Metrix will remain committed to a learning centre and design facility there.

I should welcome it if, for once, the hon. Gentleman actually stood up and said what a good job this is for Wales, particularly given his role on the Welsh Affairs Committee.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Despite a decade of economic stability with low inflation and low interest rates, my constituents—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Despite those achievements, my constituents are now understandably concerned about the way in which global economic issues affect them. How does my right hon. Friend feel that these events compare with those of the early 1990s, when Britain was plunged into recession after recession?

It is right that people are concerned about what is happening in the global economy, and it is right that people want to know, as a result of global financial turbulence, what will happen to our economy over the next few months. That is why I am pleased to say that yesterday’s inflation figures showed that our inflation rate was 2.1 per cent., half the rate in America, and why I am also pleased to report that today’s employment figures showed that employment had risen by 175,000 in the last quarter, and was up by a quarter of a million over the year. Unemployment is down, the claimant count is down and inactivity is down. Under our Government, unemployment is down and employment up: we have the best employment record in history.

Last year, the Government promised that they would get back all the taxpayers’ money lent to Northern Rock. Can the Prime Minister tell us the exact amount of both the loans and the guarantees, and will he repeat today the pledge that all the taxpayers’ money will be paid back?

That is our intention. If I may say so, I welcome the chance to bring the House up to date on what is happening with Northern Rock. Northern Rock shareholders and depositors were let down by bad management. It was a bad business plan.

In September, the Leader of the Opposition was good enough to say that he overwhelmingly supported our action. The action that we took was first to ensure that there was stability in the economy, and we said that to ensure stability we would secure the deposits of all Northern Rock depositors. We also said that we would stand behind the company with support from the Bank of England. In the next few weeks we will consider how we can find buyers for Northern Rock, and I think everyone in the House would say that we should rule out no option in doing so. That is the right course to take.

Let me tell all Members what comes first. We had to intervene to ensure stability, so that the instability of Northern Rock would not spread across the economy. That is what we have achieved over the past four months, and the Opposition should be supporting us, not criticising us.

I asked the Prime Minister a very specific question about the figures. I think that the taxpayers, each of whom is currently lending about £1,800 to this bank, would like the figures to be confirmed in the House of Commons. It has been reported that the taxpayer is exposed to the tune of £55 billion: £26 billion of emergency loans and £29 billion of guarantees. Will the Prime Minister confirm those specific figures?

The Governor of the Bank of England announces the figures on what is happening every week, but I have to ask the Leader of the Opposition: he said in September—[Interruption.]

The Leader of the Opposition wholeheartedly supported our action. He said that it was right to inject “liquidity to Northern Rock”. Is he changing his mind?

Let the Leader of the Opposition answer in the way he wants to answer—[Interruption.] Order. He does not have to answer the Prime Minister's question.

I asked the Prime Minister a specific question about the figures, which he simply could not bear to read out. That is what taxpayers who are worried about supporting the bank and about the extent of the support are asking about.

Let me ask the Prime Minister something else. At the time that the guarantee was given, was he advised that the level of taxpayer support could reach this huge level of £55 billion?

I have said that we will do what is necessary to protect the stability of the economy. I do not apologise for taking the action that is necessary because it has ensured the stability of the economy. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will answer the question: does he still support our action?

For once, I did not ask the Prime Minister for an apology. I just asked him a straight question about the figures and whether he was advised about how bad it could be. He will not give an answer, so we do not know whether he was advised that the taxpayer could be in to the tune of £55 billion.

Let me ask the Prime Minister another specific question and see whether he can answer this one. Can he give an assurance that the level of support required from the taxpayer cannot get any higher than £55 billion?

It is precisely for that reason that we do not provide a running commentary on figures. Under any Government, including the previous Government, it was not the practice to pre-empt what the Bank of England does, which is to announce the figures itself, but I have to return to this point. We intervened to ensure stability in the economy and to ensure that Northern Rock would not spread across the economy to the rest of the financial system. We also intervened to protect depositors. Both those objectives in the past four months have been achieved. Is the right hon. Gentleman now telling me that, from a position of wholeheartedly supporting that action, he is now against it—yes or no?

I will tell you what you did. When it came to the need for a total guarantee of deposits, you dithered and delayed. When it came to the opportunity of pushing for a sale with Lloyds TSB, you dithered and delayed, and when it came to the advice that you were getting to sell the bank straight after the bank run, you dithered and delayed. Why did you dither and delay? It was because you were planning a general election. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he received advice from his financial advisers to push for an immediate sale after the bank run?

No, and there was no offer from Lloyds TSB, as the right hon. Gentleman alleges. He should return to the substance of the issue: if we had not intervened to save Northern Rock, there was a danger that that would spread across the whole economy. He supported our doing that in September. Does he still support us now? If we had not intervened, depositors would have lost their money. Their money has been protected. He supported us in September on that. Does he support us now? I say that we have taken the right, consistent action in the interests of the stability of the economy. To go backwards and forwards as he is doing would put the stability of the economy at risk.

The substance of the issue is that it is the Prime Minister’s regulatory system, it is his bank failure, it is his dithering, and it is his failure to deal with this issue. If it is the case, as he says, that he was not advised to go for an immediate sale, can he explain why the Bank of England was quoted as saying that he was

“unable to focus because morale throughout the government is so low”?

The fact is that we have had months of dithering and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is at risk. Does the Prime Minister accept that, if nationalisation goes ahead, it will be a massive failure of Government policy and a fresh chapter in the incompetence of this Government?

The Bank of England supports our action, the Financial Services Authority supports our action, and the right hon. Gentleman used to support our action—[Interruption.]

The Bank of England supports our action, the Financial Services Authority supports our action, and the Opposition used to support our action. I have looked at the policy of the Opposition between Sunday and Wednesday: on Sunday, the right hon. Gentleman said he was against nationalisation; on Monday at his press conference he said, perhaps by mistake, that we should look at nationalisation; and on Tuesday night’s “Newsnight” the shadow Chancellor said that we should look at administration, which is a route to a fire sale of the asset. They change their position every day; the only change they represent is that they change their positions all the time. We are for stability; they would bring instability.

Were the Prime Minister and his Government aware of his predecessor’s plan to attend the conference of the main party of the French right to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the European Union, as a prelude to his candidacy for the presidency of the world, the universe and everything? Did the Prime Minister know of that intended candidacy when his predecessor was negotiating the European constitution, and did that not represent a conflict of interests?

My right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister is doing a wonderful job because he is speaking up for peace in the middle east; I approve of his taking up any opportunity he gets to put his advocacy of a peaceful settlement for the middle east, and he was right to do so.

Q3. On new year’s day, little Hermione Bateman was born, 11 weeks prematurely. She is alive today only because of the prompt expert help she received from my local hospital. Is the Prime Minister aware that in 15 months’ time a baby such as Hermione will have to be taken 21 miles to Hastings to access such emergency care? Why are babies’ lives being put at risk in this way? (179209)

I am aware of the issues the hon. Gentleman raises, but the recommendations on the reconfiguration of maternity services were made by consultants and clinicians on the ground, and they are in the interests of the safety of all patients, all mothers, and all daughters and sons who are born. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will look at the massive investment we are making in the national health service, both in his area and in other areas. There are six new hospital developments in the whole of the region that he represents, and there have been 7,000 new staff, and waiting times of six months or more, of which there were 30,000 in 1997, are down to 57. That is what the health service is achieving.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister agree that the security of supply of electricity generation is a priority for any country’s well-being and true independence? Can the Prime Minister assure me that the Energy Bill, which gets its Second Reading next Tuesday, will protect the Scottish economy from any political gerrymandering of the planning laws envisaged by the Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh? (179208)

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in energy matters. The availability of secure energy is one of the big issues affecting this country, and it is what led to the energy White Paper last week, to our decision on nuclear power, and to our decisions to extend renewable sources of energy, to make ourselves less dependent on foreign sources of energy and to cut the carbon that is used in energy. I hope that every part of the United Kingdom will feel able to support all those decisions.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says that home repossessions will rocket this year by 50 per cent., with one repossession every 12 minutes. What comfort can the Prime Minister offer the 45,000 British families who now face the prospect of losing their homes this year?

What I can say to them is that we are determined to have low interest rates; to have low interest rates we have to have low inflation; and to have low inflation we have to have a decent economic policy, which I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s party does not have.

The reality is that the Prime Minister allowed, on his watch, grossly irresponsible lending practices by banks to destabilise the housing market. Will he act now to ensure that mortgage lenders take their responsibilities seriously and do more to stop evictions, or will he just sit there wringing his hands while British families lose their homes?

I think that the hon. Gentleman forgets that there are 1.5 million more home owners under a Labour Government than there were before our Government started. We have extended home ownership to all regions of the country and to people who previously could not afford it.

I have been given a copy of the dossier on the hon. Gentleman that, unfortunately, was prepared by the person sitting next to him, who suggests that on every major economic and social issue the leader of the Liberal party has flip-flopped, and keeps flip-flopping.

Q4. Following on from the point raised by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware of the very positive impact that this Government’s housing market renewal programme is having in former mining areas, such as Grimethorpe and Thurnscoe in the Barnsley area of my constituency and Mexborough in the Doncaster area of my constituency, in terms of future housing provision? Does he agree that such a programme has to be built around a principle of community sustainability and against a backdrop of a sound and stable economy, which this Government have provided for the past 11 years? (179210)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, as he says, massive housing investment has been made in his constituency—this is the answer to the Liberal party’s point—and that housing investment will continue with £1 billion more provided in the next three years. We are determined to remove substandard housing, to have more affordable housing and to extend home ownership, but that is possible only if we run a strong economy. I say to all Members of this House that ours is the country that has managed to have low inflation at the start of this year, half that of America, and at the same time has seen jobs expanding when unemployment is rising in America and in other countries, and that gives me hope that our economy can withstand what is clearly global financial turbulence.

Q5. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is a dead man walking, so what arrangements is he making for a competency transplant? (179211)

When it comes to the work of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, unemployment is down; employment is up; more single parents are in jobs; fewer people are claiming incapacity benefit; more long-term unemployed people are getting back to work; and, since my right hon. Friend became Secretary of State, hundreds of contracts have been signed with local employers to get thousands of people back to work. That is why I have confidence in what he is doing.

Darfur

We continue to monitor the humanitarian situation in Darfur. Some 4 million people are dependent on food aid, 2 million people have been displaced and 280,000 people have had to leave the country. We continue to work with the United Nations and the African Union to bring peace to that troubled region.

The fact that the Darfur genocide is now entering its sixth year is largely down to the UN Security Council, especially China, which has blocked or diluted efforts to stop the violence, leading the Khartoum regime to treat the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur protection force with contempt. Will my right hon. Friend say how he will tackle the continued failure of the UN to secure compliance with its own edicts and decisions, so that the looming threat of the withdrawal of humanitarian organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières can be avoided?

I praise my hon. Friend for his long-standing commitment to, and interest in, the area of Darfur and the problems that people are facing. As I said a minute ago, the problems are appalling and run to hundreds of thousands of people having been displaced or being on aid.

My hon. Friend mentions China. I talked to the Premier of China this morning about this very issue, because I believe that China and the United Kingdom can work with other countries to make sure that the Government of Sudan ensure that a ceasefire is properly administered, to bring in the African Union peacekeeping force, which is supported by the United Nations—20,000 more peacekeepers—and to move towards political talks that can bring a political settlement, where all parties, including those that did not attend the previous talks, are brought to the table. On my visit to China, I intend to continue the talks with Premier Wen so that all of us, including the Chinese Government, add to the pressure for a peaceful settlement in Darfur.

Engagements

Q7. The Prime Minister talks about low inflation, but the cost of living index is rising hugely. Food prices have gone up 7 per cent., energy prices have gone up 15 per cent. and petrol product prices have risen by more than 20 per cent. Why is the rate of inflation running at a higher rate now than the one his Government inherited? (179213)

But it is not. Inflation is 2.1 per cent. The hon. Lady makes an important point: energy prices have been rising—coal, oil and gas—by 60 to 80 per cent. in every part of the world. Food prices have been rising as a result of what has happened to the harvest. Therefore, it is all the more remarkable that our inflation is 2.1 per cent., when it is 3 per cent. in the euro area and 4 per cent. in America, on the same comparable index. That is why we have been able to bring down interest rates in the past few months, but they have not been able to do so in the euro area. We approach the global financial turbulence with low inflation, low interest rates and high employment, and if we can make the right long-term decisions on the economy, we can withstand the global financial turbulence. To say that oil and other commodity prices are going up and that we still have low inflation shows the achievement in getting inflation down.

Q8. On Monday, the Prime Minister said that he was very worried about the content of video and computer games. Some of those games, such as Manhunt 2, depict scenes of torture and murder using hammers, knives and guns. They seem to make a virtue of gratuitous and graphic violence. Will he meet a delegation of Members, including the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who has a private Member’s Bill on the subject, to see what further steps the industry can take to show better responsibility? Does my right hon. Friend, as a parent, agree that— (179214)

My right hon. Friend is right, and this is an issue that concerns all parties in the House and every parent. It is right that we look again at the classification system for those games and at what is happening on the internet in influencing young children. That is why the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has set up the Byron review, in which Dr. Tanya Byron is looking at these very issues. We want children to be able to enjoy the benefits of the internet and video games, without being influenced by the pornography or violence of them. Dr. Byron will report in March 2008 and while it would be premature for me to say what she is likely to recommend, the classification system is one of the things that she is looking at. I hope that when we get the report we can have a debate in this House. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend’s delegation and move forward whatever changes in the law are necessary.

Last Saturday, three children in my constituency had their grandmother murdered by their father, Gary Weddell, who then committed suicide, after he had been granted bail after being charged with the murder of his wife, the mother of the children concerned. Will the Prime Minister please ensure that the case is looked into, so that lessons are learnt and so that no other family has to endure a similar tragedy?

This is indeed a set of tragic circumstances that are almost difficult even to contemplate—that someone was let out on bail and then apparently is alleged to have murdered his mother-in-law and then to have taken his own life. The question is why bail was given. It is not in the power of the Government to give bail, although of course it is up to us to look at any laws affecting that. It was a decision by the judge, who set down an amount of money and probably took into account the fact that the man was a policeman. Those are the things that we have to look at, and if any changes in the law are necessary, we will make them.

Q9. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we can invest £8.4 billion in the supply of social housing over the next three years because of this Government’s sound stewardship of the economy, which is very different from the Tory record? It is because of their neglect that there was a £19 billion housing repair bill when they left office. (179215)

I hope that all parties will welcome the 50 per cent. increase in social housing that we are about to bring about through the measures that we are taking in the public spending review. I hope particularly that young couples will benefit from the supply both of affordable rented housing and of affordable housing to buy. I hope that the Opposition will reconsider their policy of opposing many of the housing measures that are intended to deliver more housing space for more people in this country.

The Plain English Campaign today described the consultation on Heathrow expansion as atrocious and said:

“This document effectively takes away human rights…No ordinary person could be expected to read and understand this”.

Will the Prime Minister please instruct the Department for Transport to withdraw the consultation until it can be written in comprehensible language, and will he tell Ministers and officials that it is a disgrace that none of them will attend a single public meeting on that crucial point?

The hon. Lady gives the impression that because of the wording of the document she does not understand the issue at stake, which is whether there will be a new runway at Heathrow. The consultation is there for the public to involve themselves in. I hope that people will join it vigorously, and then a decision can be made.

Q10. Daresbury laboratory in my constituency has been carrying out world-leading scientific research for 46 years. The science and innovation campus at Daresbury is a huge success, attracting science and high-tech businesses and creating high-quality jobs. Two reviews are about to take place—the McKillop review and the light source review—both of which will have an impact on the future of Daresbury laboratory. The knee-jerk reaction of the Science and Technology Facilities Council to cut research grants by 25 per cent. and staff by 25 per cent. to meet an £80 million shortfall in its £1.9 billion budget is a cause for concern— (179216)

Daresbury is a world-class facility. I am proud that we have such a facility in our country and in the north-west region, as well as an innovation centre that is world beating and path breaking in its research. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are two reviews. The McKillop review will consider how best we can meet the future needs of Daresbury. We have increased the amount of money to be spent on the Science and Technology Facilities Council by 13 per cent. during the spending review period. I hope that we will be able to see an expansion of the work done at Daresbury, which will benefit the whole country.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. There are times when I am on another planet; that was one of them.

Will the Prime Minister assure us that Mr. Stephen Carter, his chosen nominee for Northern Rock, has no residual interest whatsoever in Brunswick Group?

Q12. In my constituency, people living in the most deprived areas have a life expectancy seven years shorter than those in the most affluent areas a couple of miles away, yet national reports have indicated that they could have many years added to their lifespan if they made some lifestyle changes. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that in years to come the NHS will reach out to my constituents and advise them on how to change their lifestyles so that they can lead healthier and longer lives? (179218)

I praise the work that my hon. Friend does in the health service, in particular among carers. We attended a seminar on that issue in Leeds on Friday, where carers asked us to do more to make their lives better, particularly with respite care. As far as inequalities and life chances are concerned, we are putting forward measures for check-ups, screening and preventive vaccines so that people can identify their risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. That will save lives, particularly in the communities that my hon. Friend is talking about.

Q15. What was the point of invading Iraq, which led to the deaths of 150,000 Iraqis, just to hand over Basra to militant Shi’a militias while the army is holed up in the airport? (179221)

Violence in Basra has gone down by 90 per cent. over the past few months. Our troops there are doing a great job in training the Iraqi army’s security forces and the Iraqi police. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to diminish the effect of building economic prosperity in the Basra area. As for invading Iraq in the first place, Saddam Hussein had offended UN resolutions and the international community for more than a decade.

Q13. Although I do not foresee any great demand for my kidneys or liver, may I welcome the Prime Minister’s proposals on human transplants? On a much more serious note, will he act on the matter urgently, as people are dying every day for lack of donors? (179219)

As my hon. Friend knows, a report on organ donations is to be published today. It will recommend ways to increase the number of people prepared, under the present system, to give their organs when they die to save other people’s lives. More than 1,000 people lose their lives each year because no organs are available for transplant. Another report on this matter will be prepared later this year, and one proposal that may be worth discussing then is that, while people may opt out of organ donation, there could be a family veto on whether organ donation can go ahead. I believe that that would satisfy many religious objections, while at the same time ensuring that thousands of people are saved as a result of organ donations being available. I hope that there will be all-party support for taking action.

Following the Government’s recent naval base review, there was widespread concern at Plymouth’s Devonport naval base that ships currently based there could be moved to Portsmouth in the next few years. Will the Prime Minister reassure the base’s work force that their reward for generations of dedicated service to this nation’s security will not be simply death by a thousand cuts?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Plymouth will refit the Trident submarine, and it has a huge amount of work in the years ahead. A massive amount of investment has gone into Plymouth, and I can assure him of our commitment to the dock yard there. At the same time, he will acknowledge that that commitment is possible only because we are spending more on defence every year. We will continue to do so, and that depends on there being a healthy economy.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you use this opportunity to reiterate your ruling on the reading of questions by hon. Members on the Back Benches, whereas you allow questions to be read at the Dispatch Box?

I object to notes when an hon. Member reads from the top of the page to the bottom, and in effect reads the notes into the record. Hon. Members on the Back Benches can glance at a note if they are dealing with figures or any other matters that must be precise. As for the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, I let them have their way for half an hour. That is the best thing that I can say.

Education (Children with Autism)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the education and training of children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome; and for connected purposes.

I recognise and welcome the fact that more money is being spent on special educational needs provision in our schools. Even so, local education authorities are compelled to make tough decisions about what they will prioritise and where they will spend the money. We can all appreciate the very great pressures on school budgets, but money allocated for SEN in our country must not be used for other purposes. We will not be able to deliver on our educational promises to such children and their families if we allow that misdirection of money to continue. The funding must be ring-fenced, and that is one element of the Bill. We also need to ensure that it is being spent as efficiently as it should be.

The early diagnosis of children with autistic spectrum disorders is absolutely vital. It is difficult, if not impossible, to plan an effective educational strategy for a pupil with ASD until there has been a full assessment of the child’s condition. We in this country are frequently slow in making that assessment, and local councils and health authorities must both be encouraged to speed up the process. Internationally, there are a number of countries where the process takes place far earlier and far more effectively than it does here in the UK. We should examine and adopt best practice from overseas, and that means looking at what goes on in countries such as Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Israel. Early diagnosis of an ASD not only helps children and their families but saves money over years of schooling.

There is a real, pressing need for improved teacher training on ASDs. A survey by the National Union of Teachers found that 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident about teaching children with an autistic spectrum disorder, 39 per cent. are not confident about identifying children with an ASD and 76 per cent. said that a lack of professional development on the subject was a barrier to teaching children with an ASD. We must ensure that all teachers can do so. As about one in 100 children have some form of ASD, every teacher in every school can expect to teach children who are autistic.

Recent developments with regard to teacher training have been welcome. There are now pilot projects in which special educational needs are made part of initial teacher training; however, it is essential that the issue should become part of all teacher training at all levels. We must also ensure that teachers have access to high quality in-service training. Such measures would go a long way to increase teachers’ confidence when working with pupils with an ASD. We also need to ensure that all special educational needs co-ordinators have in-depth training on autism. We must recognise that with the right teaching regime, many children with an ASD are capable of moving on to further and higher education, which means that our colleges and universities must take on board lessons about how to teach young adults with Asperger’s or autism.

For the parents of an autistic child, exclusion from school is a very real concern. Some 27 per cent. of children with autism have been excluded, and 23 per cent. have been excluded more than once. We must acknowledge the special nature of such cases and place a requirement on schools under which, if any child with special educational needs is at risk of being excluded, there must be a review of provision before exclusion takes place.

A range of special educational needs provision is needed, as one size simply does not fit all. Research by the National Autistic Society found that more than half of such children attend a type of school that their parents believe does not provide the best support for them. Parents of autistic children need to be given a choice in education provision and assistance in making that choice an informed one. The National Autistic Society and local organisations such as Supporting Together those with Autism and Asperger’s in Redbridge, or STAAR, do a first-class job advising parents, but more support is needed from within the education system. Parents have every right to expect that the school will keep them informed regularly about how the school is supporting the child’s special needs, as well as about the child’s educational progress.

The Warnock report of 1978 made the case for including children with special needs in mainstream schools, a view that has influenced education policy ever since. However, more recently, Baroness Warnock urged the Government to review that policy. Including pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools is understandable, but not always desirable for such children or for the children with whom they are taught. For some children, a more specialised environment is required if their schooling is to progress. In my constituency, two schools—Little Heath school and Hatton school—provide first-class educational facilities for children with special educational needs. For that, I congratulate the London borough of Redbridge, which should be commended.

We must put in place sensible measures that encourage and reward local authorities that work together to provide a wide range of high quality special educational needs provision. In areas where such provision is not available, parents and children may be forced to make unacceptably long journeys to get to a suitable school. I have heard reports of children travelling for up to two hours to get to a school that provides the education that they need. That is not acceptable.

The Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 and the special educational needs code of practice already require that young people with a statement should have an assessment of their needs as a disabled adult when they leave school. However, that is not always enough to ensure a smooth transition from school to adulthood. A recent National Autistic Society report noted that only half of those with statements were issued with transition plans, and that 45 per cent. of them were dissatisfied with the process. In this day and age, that is not good enough.

There is a real need to make available high quality training for young adults with ASD so that they can be assisted into work. Many, with the right support and the right environment, can successfully make the transition into employment. Some companies and organisations are providing suitable and rewarding employment for those with ASD, but not enough to meet the demand. We must do more to encourage employers to consider making more posts available for adults with ASD, and we must give them more support in providing long-term employment. I have had personal experience of a young adult who was taken on board by one of our blue chip companies and is now not only holding down a responsible job, but living alone and leading a productive life. We must make sure that that happens more frequently.

It must be a concern for us all that individuals pass through both the education and the health systems with autistic spectrum disorders that go unrecognised. As adults, some of those are misdiagnosed as having a mental health problem, such as schizophrenia. I know of many cases where such people have languished in prison for several years, and some are still languishing in prison. They can find themselves being prescribed drugs that are completely inappropriate for their true condition.

Existing legislation, guidance and codes of conduct are far from silent on what services and assistance should be made available to autistic children and their families. There is no lack of good will, but often we fail to follow through existing laws and good intentions, and in these circumstances many children are being left behind. It is the concerns of the parents of autistic children that form the basis of this Bill. Naturally, they want the best for their children, as any of us would, and they have identified a number of ways in which that can be achieved.

I thank parliamentary colleagues from both sides of the House who have been most generous with their support and their advice. This is not a party political matter and we can achieve real progress if we work together. I also thank Lord Adonis for meeting me last week and discussing the various issues that I raised. My Bill is a simple measure addressing a narrow range of matters, but it would move things in the right direction. For that reason, I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Lee Scott, John Bercow, Stephen Hammond, Bob Russell, Mr. Charles Walker, Mr. John Leech, Mr. Brian Binley, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Harry Cohen, Mr. Peter Bone, Mike Gapes and Philip Davies.

Education (Children with Autism)

Mr. Lee Scott accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about the education and training of children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 May, and to be printed [Bill 56].

Opposition Day

[6th allotted day]

National Insurance Numbers and Illegal Immigrants

We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

I beg to move,

That this House expresses its very great concern that National Insurance numbers appear to have been issued to illegal immigrants.

Britain today has nearly 5 million people claiming out-of-work benefits. Despite £3 billion spent on the Government’s new deal, we have higher youth unemployment than 10 years ago. We have half a million people under the age of 35 claiming incapacity benefit. According to Ministers, a million IB claimants in all want to work. We have parts of Britain where as few as one in four adults of working age are working. We have a greater proportion of children being brought up in workless households than any other country in Europe.

What are the Government doing? They are handing national insurance numbers to tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. Some people might call that incompetence. Just when the Secretary of State thought that things could not get any worse, the chaos spreads to another part of his job. What we know for certain is that 6,000 illegal immigrants have been issued with national insurance numbers by his Department, giving them an official stamp of approval to go and get a job. We have figures that strongly suggest that the real number is much higher. That is Britain today under this Government. All that happened while the Secretary of State was too busy getting on with his two jobs in government to sort out the confusion with his campaign finances. What utter chaos.

To be frank, in the past few months we have seen a whole series of calamities for the Secretary of State on this important issue. We first had a sense that something was wrong last September, during the fiasco over the statistics on migrant workers; you will remember that, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State told us then that only 700,000 of the jobs created in Britain since 1997 had gone to migrant workers. We disputed his figure and suggested that the number was much higher. “No,” said the Secretary of State, “It’s 700,000.” A month later he said, “We’ve got the figure wrong—it’s not 700,000, but 1.1 million.” We know that the Secretary of State is not much good at adding up, but losing 400,000 people is almost as improbable as losing £100,000 of campaign contributions. Even the 1.1 million figure may not be right; the Office for National Statistics has since told us that it thinks that as many as 80 per cent. of the new jobs created since 1997 may have gone to people moving to the UK from overseas. No wonder the Secretary of State wanted to keep things private. Can he really tell the House today exactly how many people from overseas have come to Britain to work in the past 10 years?

Keeping things private is becoming a bit of a habit with the Secretary of State. We have been trying to get answers about national insurance numbers and this issue ever since it became clear, two months ago, that thousands of illegal workers were being cleared to work in the security industry. The written questions remain unanswered to this day. On 13 November last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) asked the Home Secretary about the issue during questions on the Security Industry Authority. She waffled and said almost nothing, telling us that sharing intelligence would be important in the future. It seems that the Secretary of State is not alone in wanting to keep us guessing about what is really going on.

I believe that yesterday’s admission represents the tip of the iceberg of what is really going on with the Department for Work and Pensions’ management of the system for migrant workers coming to Britain. We now know with cast-iron certainty that at least 6,000 people, illegally in the UK, have been given national insurance numbers by the Government. Yet nearly two years ago, the Government promised us that in future no national insurance numbers would be issued to anyone who did not have a right to work in the United Kingdom.

If the Government had done their job, those latest revelations should not have been possible. On 5 June 2006, Ministers told both Houses of Parliament:

“Any individual applying for a NINO”—

that is, a national insurance number—

“…who does not have the right to work here legally will be refused one.”

They passed regulations that were supposed to enforce that. The guidance notes state clearly that an individual applying for a national insurance number because they are in employment or self-employment must provide a specific document proving that they have the right to work in the United Kingdom. That was nearly two years ago, but we now know that every single one of the illegal immigrants in the security industry who caused such controversy before Christmas had been issued with national insurance numbers. Even when the regulations were passed, the Government strongly implied that the problem was small in scale. They had managed to find only about 3,000 cases in which something was amiss. It is now clear that that was a hopeless underestimate; the figure is much higher.

The hon. Gentleman asked about an outstanding answer to a written question. May I give him the information? The answer has remained outstanding because it has taken time to understand the extent of the national insurance number-related element captured as part of the Security Industry Authority review. As the review is nearing its completion, we now have a better understanding of the issue and we will be making the necessary checks against the SIA data. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question; we wanted to give an accurate one.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. However, given that the Security Industry Authority said yesterday that every single one of those people had national insurance numbers, I am at a loss to see what review needed to take place, as all those people were affected.

The original figure cited by the Government 18 months ago referred to 3,000 cases, but that is a hopeless underestimate of the level of the problem. Over the past three years, the Government have issued work permits to 270,000 people from outside the European economic area.

My hon. Friend is making an extremely impressive case. Is he aware that the Department that is to reply to this debate estimated in May 2004 that there would probably be 15,000 workers from the EU accession countries working in this country, yet in fact the figure is nearly 700,000? Is it not deplorable that a Government Department got its figures so catastrophically wrong?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, which amplify the point that the Department is in a state of chaos as regards dealing with the whole system of migrant workers coming to the UK to work.

That is highlighted by the comparison between the number of work permits issued and the number of national insurance numbers issued. Over the past three years, 270,000 people from outside the European economic area have been given work permits by this Government—

I will in a moment; let me just repeat this figure to the hon. Gentleman, because he may be particularly struck by it. The Government have issued 270,000 work permits to people from outside the EEA, but at the same time they have issued nearly 900,000 national insurance numbers—that is a difference of more than 600,000. Before I give my thoughts on what the meaning of that may be, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to give us his.

I am one of the many Members who wished to come here today to draw attention to the Government’s very creditable record on dealing with pensioners. Is it not clear from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that he is denying us that opportunity in order to pursue a nasty, vindictive witch hunt against the Minister?

I look forward to debating pensioner poverty with the hon. Gentleman at the earliest opportunity, as we have every intention of holding that debate. However, I think he will agree that these issues have a direct correlation with levels of worklessness and child poverty, and when we, as the House of Commons, discover that the Government are failing as they now clearly are, it is right and proper that we should bring Ministers to this House to hold them to account as quickly as we possibly can.

My hon. Friend may share my concern that the Government’s sheer incompetence in their handling of immigration means that in housing, for instance, we have a situation whereby the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), wrote to tell me:

“Information is not available centrally on the local impact of migration on household growth.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 516W.]

He informed me, however, that one third of projected new housing would be allocated for new immigration. Is that not a disastrous situation that leads to further problems of community cohesion and delivery of public services?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The reason for holding this debate is that the fact that the system is out of control has direct, human consequences as regards levels of deprivation and the serious challenges faced by many British families in many communities around the country.

Surely this shows the Government’s complete incompetence in trying to pursue their stated policy objective of British jobs for British workers. If they do not even know how many people are coming here from outside the EU and how they will control their access to work, that makes it impossible for them to pursue one of the central aims that the Prime Minister has repeated in this House on many occasions.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will set out in more detail why this completely undermines many aspects of the Government’s current strategy.

Let me return to the gap of 600,000 between the number of work permits issued and the number of national insurance numbers issued—

Could the hon. Gentleman give the House his precise understanding of the difference between a work permit and a national insurance number?

The Government explained that at the time of the publication of their regulations. If we are to believe them, given that it is clearly not the case, a national insurance number can be obtained only by someone who has the right to work in the UK. Is the Secretary of State saying that that is no longer correct? The Government told us that that was their policy, although it is clearly not what is happening on the ground. My understanding of the difference, and I think the understanding of any employer, is that if somebody turns up for employment with a national insurance number, that is taken as a stamp of approval from the Government—the right to work in the United Kingdom. If the Secretary of State wants to tell us otherwise, I should like to hear from him.

I warn the hon. Gentleman gently, and in a friendly way, that he is digging himself into an even deeper hole. I asked him about his understanding of the difference between a work permit and a national insurance number, because he seems to think that they are the same thing.

I have never said that they are the same thing, but the Government’s statements show that they regard the issuing of a national insurance number as linked directly to the right to work in the United Kingdom. They have clearly not managed the system properly given that, as we know as a matter of record from yesterday’s revelations, national insurance numbers are being handed out to a large number of people who do not have a right to work in the UK. That is the point. Nearly 1 million people have received national insurance numbers: the question is how many of them really have a right to be working in the UK. We know that some of them do—for example, overseas students or dependants of people who have permits to work here.

Lest Members should have any doubts about this issue, let me give a couple of examples of why I sincerely believe that the 600,000 figure masks a significant number of people who should not be here. Over the past three years, the Government have issued 755 work permits to people from Ghana, for example, but over the same period they have issued more than 21,000 national insurance numbers to people from Ghana. Take Albania, with 110 work permits issued and more than 4,000 national insurance numbers issued. Try persuading me that all those numbers were issued under the normal—[Interruption.] The Minister for Borders and Immigration asks how many are students. Let me answer that question for him, because I have taken a look at the website of the Higher Education Statistics Agency, whose most recent figures show that a grand total of 235 Albanians are studying in the UK—hardly equivalent to 4,000.

What do we know about the rest of those people? We have sought to do the right thing by probing the Government to find out who they really are. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere asked Ministers whether they could provide us with a breakdown of the gap between the number of work permits that they issue and the number of national insurance numbers that they hand out, their response—surprise, surprise—was that they did not have that information. So how do we take them seriously when they tell us that they know what is going on?

Let me say what I think. I do not believe for a moment that all those national insurance numbers were issued to people who are legitimately in the United Kingdom. I have suspected for a while that the current system is simply out of control—that the Government are handing out national insurance numbers to people who have no right to be here, and that Ministers have told employers that the national insurance number system is something they can rely on when the opposite is the case.

What chance does my hon. Friend think that the average employer has of knowing whether a national insurance number is legitimate, given the sophistication of the scams that illegal immigrants employ to obtain them and the apparent ease with which it is possible to do so? Are they not liable unwittingly to employ somebody who is not entitled to be here?

My hon. Friend is right. If the Government themselves cannot work out who is or is not entitled to a national insurance number, why should we expect the small business down the road to be able to do it?

We now know for certain that this is precisely what is happening, not from the Government, who did not want to answer the questions—we have heard the Secretary of State’s explanation, and I will leave hon. Members to reach a view on that—but from the Security Industry Authority, which had no problem in doing so. Yesterday, it confirmed publicly and openly, and Ministers finally accepted grudgingly, that every single one of the 6,000-plus illegal immigrants appointed to security posts had a national insurance number. After two months of not answering questions, in the end the truth had to be dragged out of them. Even as late as yesterday morning, the Department for Work and Pensions was still claiming that it did not know the answer, which, I have to say, stretches credibility. It was another attempt to hide bad news, this time for as long as possible. This comes at a time not just when the leadership of the Department is in a state of chaos but when the Government want more bad news like a hole in the head, and not surprisingly, on a serious issue we cannot get the information from them.

With supreme irony, this revelation comes a week after the Government launched a campaign to warn employers that they face prosecution if they hire someone who does not have a right to work in the UK. The slogans are direct:

“If you hire illegal migrant workers you're as illegal as they are”—

an interesting message for the Secretary of State to contemplate. The campaign even points out that offenders can be sent to jail. The Government could not have been more direct about it.

“Illegal working attracts illegal immigrants and undercuts British wages”—

I quote the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who launched the campaign last week. He also said:

“That’s why the Government is determined to shut it down. The message is clear for employers—we will not tolerate illegal working.”

A week later, it turns out that the Secretary of State’s Department is handing out national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. How on earth are businesses and employers supposed to take the system seriously when it is quite clear that the Department has lost control of it? That is what has been so worrying about the revelations from the DWP in the past few months. Almost every month at Question Time, the Secretary of State parrots the Prime Minister’s favourite slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, even though it was pinched from the BNP, and even though it is illegal under European law. But how does he get British people into British jobs if he has lost control of the system for managing the flow of people into the UK coming from overseas to work?

Let us be clear. The Secretary of State may only have been in his job since last summer, but the buck stops with him, and his grasp of the situation has been sketchy to say the least. In September, when he claimed that only 700,000 of the new jobs created since 1997 had gone to people from overseas, he was obviously wrong. It did not take rocket science to work that one out; one just has to go out for a walk in any of our cities to see the change that has happened. However, when I challenged him over that and told him that I thought he had got the numbers wrong, he was having absolutely none of it. Let me read to the House the letter I had from him. He emphatically stated:

“The net increase in the number of migrant workers is therefore 700,000.”

He added:

“In future, I am more than happy to provide you with such clarifications in private, to avoid the need to expose such confusion to public scrutiny.”

About three weeks after that, he had to make public appearances apologising for getting it wrong, so who is confused now?

Is not the irony of this Government’s appalling mismanagement of immigration the fact that the impact is felt most on low-skilled, low-wage people in a small number of communities in this constituency, including my own constituency of Peterborough? They are priced out of jobs by unfettered immigration, which causes enormous resentment and gives succour to the extremist parties on the right. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government are responsible for that. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), might think it is an amusing thing to comment on, but it is not. It has ramifications for community relations throughout this country.

My hon. Friend is right because underlying the debate is a real human cost. Getting the system wrong has real consequences for people in communities up and down the country.

If we could all see there was something wrong, why did the Secretary of State not see it? Let me ask him this question. When the security staff story first broke back in December, it was clear that there could be an issue with national insurance numbers. I have a copy of the application form here. It is quite clear, and it says that applicants are required to fill in all their details with a national insurance number. That is why we asked the questions, so why did he not answer? When did he first realise that something was amiss? Why was his Department still claiming that it did not know the answer as late as yesterday morning, when the Security Industry Authority was able to say what it knew? Why did it say that the answer was 100 per cent. when the Department was still trying to find out? Did he actually talk to it to find out what had happened, and what changes has he ordered to the national insurance number system since the matter occurred? Why has no statement been made to the House about what is clearly a problem in the Department?

This is a matter of extreme importance, not for technical reasons related to our immigration system, but because of those nearly 5 million people stranded on out-of-work benefits. Not all of them can or will work again—those who cannot will rightly need the help of the state to support them—but very many of them can and should be working again. It makes no sense to have millions of people coming to work here from overseas, or to be so lax with people coming to Britain illegally, while so many people are sitting at home doing nothing.

I am not sure the Secretary of State has fully grasped the seriousness of that issue either. When we met at the Dispatch Box last week, I pressed him about the level of child poverty in Britain. The academic evidence is clear-cut. Children brought up in workless households are more likely to fail at school, more likely to be workless themselves and more likely to end up in trouble in later life. Britain today has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other country in Europe, including the poorest new entrants to the EU such as Romania and Latvia. The Secretary of State does not seem to know that, because when I pressed him on the issue he said he thought we were “above the average” in Europe. I suggest that he goes back and looks at the figures again. He should cut through the Government’s rhetoric, and take a look at the real picture in Britain today, where child poverty is rising again, where young people cycle on and off the new deal without finding sustainable jobs, and where, in some parts of our community, as many as one in three children are being brought up in workless households.

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that what is before us is a very narrow motion, which he created. Therefore, he must keep to the terms of the motion. He is talking about the problems of families in this country, when the motion clearly expresses great concern about national insurance numbers being issued to illegal immigrants. According to his own distinction, the debate is very narrow indeed.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, but the whole point is that this is the human cost of what the Government are doing. The more national insurance numbers we issue to people who are in this country not by right, the more we cause a knock-on problem for people in communities around the country who suffer from deprivation. Those people are looking for work and those jobs are not always there. There are many people in this country who we need to get back into work, and if the Government are sanctioning, through the inefficiency of the way they operate, a flow of people into this country who should not be here by giving national insurance numbers to them, they are effectively giving a stamp of authority to employers, saying, “Actually, it is okay to hire this guy because the Government’s ticked his box. It must be okay for him to be here.” That takes opportunities away from people in this country, and it has a huge human cost as a knock-on effect.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly in order to say that, but not in depth. He can touch on that point, but not in the detail he was going into previously.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The fact is that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department that is focused on dealing with those issues, while at the same time it is giving national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. That is not a record of which any Secretary of State of any Government should be proud.

The truth is that the Government’s record in managing the flow of people coming to work in Britain is lamentable. They do not know how many people are here. They do not know who is working. They do not know whether or not people have a right to work here, and they seem to be handing out national insurance numbers without question. Yet the Department overseeing all of this is run by a Secretary of State who, by his own admission, cannot add up. He said that he could not manage his own finances because of the pressures of work, but he still thought it was okay to take on the Labour deputy leader’s job. He had lost control of the numbers not just in his campaign, but in his Department and all while he was trying to run not one, but two Departments of State. It all appears to be getting a bit much for him.

We know that the system he is overseeing is in a state of chaos. We know that handing national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants will undermine efforts to tackle deprivation and get people back into work. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why he believes that he is still the right man to do the job?

I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

“welcomes the new checks and controls the Government has introduced to reduce illegal working by foreign nationals, which include measures to prevent illegal immigrants being issued with national insurance numbers.”

I am very pleased indeed to be responding in this Opposition debate, and I am even more pleased having heard the speech of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Up to five minutes to 4 yesterday, the Opposition wanted to debate pensioner poverty today. Now they do not, and I can understand why. They treated pensioners appallingly when they were in power and now they have nothing to say to them. For our part, we will continue to work, speak and act for justice for pensioners.

I welcome this debate, not least because it gives me the opportunity to explain to the hon. Gentleman—and he clearly needs a proper education on this—what national insurance numbers are for and what they are not for, because he does not appear to understand. In fact, when he reads Hansard tomorrow, or online later today, I think he will be embarrassed by what he has just said. The hon. Gentleman makes accusations about national insurance numbers and compares them with work permits, but they are not the same. Total national insurance numbers issued to non-EU nationals and the number of work permits issued cannot be compared, which he tries to do.

National insurance numbers cover categories of people who are not required to have work permits but are eligible for national insurance numbers, such as overseas students, whom we welcome into our universities and who bring the fees that help to finance those universities, and the dependants of work permit holders—relatives who are given permission to come to the UK to join a family who already live here legally. There will always be more national insurance numbers than population, as, for example, national insurance numbers for deceased persons remain on the system to ensure that their surviving dependants can get benefits based on the deceased’s national insurance contributions, including the widow’s pension. That would also have been the case before 1997, when our Government came to power.

Let me explain the facts that the hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand.

European Union workers are entitled to count on national insurance contributions paid here for their pension in their country so their national insurance numbers and contribution records have to remain on UK systems after they have come and gone. That is part of the reason for the figures for national insurance numbers being greater than the hon. Gentleman might suppose.

I was making a point about national insurance numbers that were issued in the past three years. I assume that the Secretary of State has not been issuing national insurance numbers to dead people.

I think the hon. Gentleman will be even more embarrassed about those comments. Of course we do not do that. The national insurance numbers of people who die remain on the system so that their dependants, including widows, can claim the benefits that flow from their contributions.

As Secretary of State for work, will the right hon. Gentleman explain whether it is in order under employment law for a boss to call a member of his work force “incompetent”? How does it feel?

That question does not merit an answer.

Under Labour today, a national insurance number can never be proof of anyone’s right to work, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell appears to believe and as he implied this afternoon. The previous Conservative Government believed that it should be and legislated to that effect. That is a crucial point. The Tories thought that a national insurance number should be a passport to work and legislated to that effect. I repeat that, under Labour today, the national insurance number on its own cannot be an automatic passport to a job. It is an administrative mechanism whereby we can track people’s contributions to the national insurance system and record their entitlement to pensions and other benefits.

Of course, when the Conservatives were in power, illegal immigration and working were not the global phenomena they are now. That was not because they had well thought out policies to keep them under control. The main reason was that, under their stewardship, the economy was going to hell in a handcart. No one, especially not the 3 million unemployed, associated Britain with work.

I am listening to the Secretary of State with interest. It is clear from the quality of his speech that it was written by one of his phoney think tanks; we are not sure whether it exists or whether it is a hologram.

The motion deals with immigration. If the Government are worried about immigration, why, two years ago, did they specifically opt out of sharing criminal records data with European Union countries? There are many cases throughout the country of national insurance numbers being given to people who have a criminal record in other EU countries. The Government do not seem to know about that and, what is more, do not seem to care.

Again, I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s comments have to do with the debate, but I am happy to answer his question. We are putting together systems and procedures to share information with Interpol and I shall tackle directly the subject of illegal immigration, its flow into illegal work and the question of national insurance. I give way.

I keep saying that I am a lot prettier than my hon. Friend.

If someone approaches an employer saying that they are a British citizen, that they have no proof of it but they have a national insurance number, how is that employer to be sure that the person has a right to work in the UK?

Employers must make the requisite checks. I shall deal with the matter shortly because it is another false premise on which the Opposition motion has been framed.

Unemployment was dire under the Conservatives, but it is no longer the case. This morning’s figures again show that employment is at an all-time high, with nearly 3 million more people in work. Inactivity is historically low and a million people are off benefits. That is our Labour Government’s record. It is a record of genuine achievement and competence, not Tory abject failure and incompetence.

The Secretary of State says that 3 million more people are in work. He has plenty of figures at his fingertips; can he tell us how many of those 3 million people are British citizens?

As I have been explaining, employment has gone up, including for British citizens. Wages have risen and prosperity has increased. There are more house owners and the economic picture is completely different from the one that we inherited from the Conservatives.

The amendment announces measures to prevent illegal immigrants from being issued with national insurance numbers—a clear admission that it has been happening. [Interruption.] Does the Secretary of State believe that he is introducing the measures unnecessarily? Their introduction implies that illegal immigrants have been issued with national insurance numbers. What additional measures will he introduce to retrieve or withdraw the national insurance numbers that have been issued to people who are not entitled to them?

I am sorry to say to the hon. Lady that the level of ignorance and misunderstanding among Conservative Members on the matter is astonishing. Given that they chose to switch at the last moment from another topic to this one, I am amazed that they have not checked their facts. I shall describe shortly exactly what happens. I shall also describe the way in which, under the Government whom the hon. Lady supported and who were in power until 1997, the relevant procedures were inadequate and incompetent and could not nearly have dealt with the problems that we have faced with the global flows of millions of people on a scale never previously experienced in advanced European countries such as ours.

The Secretary of State accuses us of not checking our figures. However, his Department’s figures show that both the proportion and the absolute number of British adults of working age in employment have fallen in the past two years.

It is important to note when considering proportion that the population has been increased—[Interruption.] The facts are stark: 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives, but record employment under Labour, including record numbers of British citizens.

I agree with Conservative Members that illegal working is an issue and I shall explain what we are doing about it. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell should know that the Conservative Government in 1996 established a clear and unequivocal statutory duty on employers to check that new employees had the right to work. However, it is worth pausing and considering the key issue that, in doing so, they said that the possession of a national insurance number was sufficient proof of a right to work. The Tories said so and legislated to that effect. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that that was a stupid thing for the Tories to do—it was both administratively impractical and left the door wide open to abuse. Yet as we all know, despite the requirements on employers, illegal working has remained a problem. Employers cannot abrogate their responsibilities for that, which is a point to which I shall return later in my speech.

I want to make some progress, because I have been asked specific questions about changes and I want to answer them. Then I will give way.

The situation has evolved over the years. It became apparent to us that some employers, either wilfully or inadvertently, were employing illegal workers, in part because those people had been issued with national insurance numbers. Some of those NINOs will have been issued to students who then overstayed, for example. In other cases, employers will have created their own reference numbers, to record tax and national insurance deductions, which are not recognised by either the Department for Work and Pensions or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

We have therefore taken action, and I have been asked what we have done. In 2004, we changed the legislation inherited from the Conservatives to provide that a national insurance number alone is not enough to prove an entitlement to work, as it had been under the Conservatives. Since July 2006, all employment-related national insurance number applicants have to prove that they have the right to work in the United Kingdom, which is something that no previous Government—and certainly not the previous Tory Government—ever required. That has made a real impact.

Since July 2006, more than 8,000 national insurance number applications have been turned down because they did not satisfy the right to work. Before someone can be given a national insurance number, they have to undergo an intensive face-to-face interview by a specialist member of Jobcentre Plus staff—I was asked about that by, I think, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), although it may have been one of her colleagues. Did that system exist when the Conservative party was in power? We all know the answer to that: no.

The fact that we have tightened up the national insurance number system does not mean, however, that we have changed the fundamental responsibility of employers to check that their employees have the right to work. It is positively irresponsible for the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to go on the airwaves and try to mislead employers and the public into thinking that national insurance numbers prove the right to work. That positively encourages rogue or ignorant employers to flout the law. What the Opposition are saying demonstrates not only that they do not understand the first thing about the system, but that they are far more interested in making political points than in doing anything about illegal working.

The fact that some employers continue to ignore the law is the reason we are tightening up enforcement still further, by introducing increased fines from next month and, in extreme circumstances, prison for rogue employers, and why we are telling employers what their responsibilities are, through a major public awareness campaign. Will the hon. Gentleman put his and his party’s weight behind those proposals? I give him the opportunity to answer that question.

We would be delighted to see any proposals that tightened up the system. The point that the Secretary of State appears to be missing, however, is that Ministers told the House in 2006:

“Any individual applying for a NINO in connection with employment who does not have the right to work here legally will be refused one.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 June 2006; Vol. 682, c. WS68.]

That is clearly not happening. Why not?

But it is happening. The hon. Gentleman is sticking to his pre-rehearsed script. He came to the House brandishing a speech that he thought would demolish everything before him, but it is based on a total misunderstanding of the facts and the realities.

The hon. Gentleman asked about this, so let me remind the House what the Opposition’s position was when the Security Industry Authority was established. Also, the motion that we are debating was inspired by problems that the SIA has been seeking to address and which are being addressed by the Home Secretary—

I need to answer this point, and then I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.

Let me remind the House what position the Opposition took when the Security Industry Authority was established. Their spokesman said:

“The Opposition’s approach to the Bill is that it should not place unnecessary, overly complex, bureaucratic or burdensome regulations on the legitimate sector of the industry…A large company can afford to employ people in compliance and administrative departments to ensure that regulations are satisfied. However, for people legitimately trying to run a small company…extra bureaucratic regulation is a huge problem.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 980.]

The Conservatives will certainly get the gangmasters’ vote with that attitude. Here they are, complaining about a lack of due attention and proper regulation, but when we were putting the necessary legislative changes in place, they spoke out against the tight controls that we introduced.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. If the Security Industry Authority and the Home Office, which has been found to be employing illegal cleaners, cannot determine who can and cannot legitimately work in this country, how on earth does he expect a small shopkeeper, a restaurant keeper or a small business man to do so?

That is exactly why we need compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals, but the hon. Gentleman is opposed to that policy. As I will explain in a moment—clearly he does not understand the situation either—compulsory identity cards will be a crucial weapon in stamping out the illegal working that, in supporting his party’s motion, he professes to be concerned about.

I want to return to the Secretary of State’s reference to gangmasters. The Government introduced the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, yet there has been absolutely no diminution in the number of unlawfully operating gangmasters, who completely exploit usually illegal immigrants, who are housed disgracefully and paid a fraction of what they should be paid. That is because the Government have completely failed to provide the Gangmasters Licensing Authority with the powers and the resources to do the job that everybody in the House believes it should be doing.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way a second time. He is talking about the importance of employers making the necessary checks. However, if an employer is faced with a legitimate British citizen who does not have a passport, how is that British citizen supposed to prove that he or she has a right to work in this country, and how does that affect the Secretary of State’s point about national insurance numbers not necessarily being a guarantee of a right to work?

There are all sorts of documents, including a passport, that employers will be able to inspect. Employers are advised by the Home Office on the correct documentary evidence that can establish the right-to-work status. A British national starting work can establish his or her right to work through a UK passport or a UK birth certificate. The Home Office guidance to employers is to be amended from 29 February. That will help to clarify any uncertainty. It is clear that the Government are taking action in every respect to tighten up the loose and unregulated system that we inherited.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way—he is being most generous. He said that employers still have a duty in law to check their employees’ right to work. What would he expect prosecuting authorities to do in the event of an employer claiming that he was just too busy to make those checks?

I need to make some progress and then I will give way. The level of ignorance on the Opposition’s far Back Benches, let alone on their Front Bench, is enormous. [Interruption.] Indeed, they are back to front.

Ensuring that someone whom one employs has a right to be in this country and has a right to work is not, in my view, asking too much. Neither is it “burdensome” or “unnecessary”, as the Conservative party said it was when commenting on the legislation.

To help to deal with illegal workers in future, we will further tighten the system by introducing identity cards for foreign nationals from the end of this year. I can confirm that, as the ID card system for foreign nationals comes in, anyone who applies for a national insurance number must produce their identity card, so we are introducing an extra clamp-down on illegal working. Will the Conservatives support this absolutely vital tool for achieving that objective?

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he will tell us whether he will support compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He will know that confidence in a Government, of whatever political colour, is very important indeed. In that regard, will he give the House a guarantee that there are no illegal workers at the Wales Office or the Department for Work and Pensions, so that people listening to the debate, or reading about it tomorrow, can have confidence in his Government?

We have extremely strict procedures in the DWP on these matters. Many Conservatives are intervening on me, and I am happy to take all their interventions, but it is interesting that they are asking me questions on virtually anything except the issue that they have put down on the Order Paper. That is because they are embarrassed now that they have realised that it was based on an entirely false premise. When I—

I am happy to take all and sundry—[Interruption.] Most of it is sundry. I am more than happy to take interventions, however.

What is really embarrassing for the Conservatives about this debate is not just that they do not understand the issues, or the fact that the proposition on which they have sought to censure the Government is based on an entirely false premise, but that they will not support the proposals for the single weapon that would stem this problem at the outset—the introduction of compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals. That would enable regulations to be introduced that would be of enormous benefit to employers and everyone else.

Which one shall I take first? I give way to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands).

The Secretary of State seems to be blaming everyone else for this incompetence. He is blaming the Conservative Opposition and hard-pressed business people. May I take him back to the process of issuing national insurance numbers? His chief economist gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee two years ago, stating that Jobcentre Plus staff routinely issued national insurance numbers to all comers and that

“it is not about ascertaining whether someone is legally in the country or has a right to work”.

Is that still the case?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has just traipsed into the House a little late, but he obviously has not heard what has been said. As this is an issue, however, perhaps I can explain the situation to him. The question that he has just asked is based on woeful ignorance. It is worth putting on the record the process for the allocation of national insurance numbers.

To apply for a national insurance number, the applicant will need first to telephone the Jobcentre Plus national insurance allocation service helpline. When initial contact has been made, Jobcentre Plus will ensure that the applicant needs a national insurance number and does not already have one. After confirming that one is needed, a face-to-face interview will be arranged to establish evidence of identity. The customer will then receive a letter confirming their interview date and the types of documentation needed to support their application. The interviewing staff will complete a claim form and establish the applicant’s identity by asking a series of questions relating to personal information.

The interviewing officer will also establish that the applicant has the right to work in the UK by checking such evidence as Home Office documentation or a valid passport endorsed with the applicant’s entry conditions. Any documents provided by the customer will be thoroughly checked using specialist document-checking equipment, and the completed application form and supporting documentation will be sent to the central control unit, where further checks are undertaken. The central control unit will conduct specialist tracing action to ensure that a national insurance number does not already exist, to check that the information supplied by the customer at the interview is correct, and to decide whether to allocate a national insurance number to the customer. Following the allocation of a number, documentation will be passed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to register the number.

The checks that we make are extremely scrupulous and careful. It was absolutely necessary to introduce those extra checks and to change the law inherited from the Conservatives—the party that is seeking to attack us—to combat the abuses that would otherwise still be taking place. Yet the Conservatives will not support one of the single most important changes that we want to introduce—compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals. They will not give us the tool to do that.

Our staff are checking and working with the Home Office to establish precisely why that happened, and whether it was because employers were employing illegal workers or for some other reason that has not been identified. We are keeping oversight of the matter at ministerial level, and the Home Secretary has made it clear that she has agreed to report to the House when we are certain what happened.

The Secretary of State keeps referring to the fact that the Opposition have misunderstood the situation. May I take him back to a very short statement—namely, the motion that we are debating today? It states that

“this House expresses its very great concern that National Insurance numbers appear to have been issued to illegal immigrants.”

It says nothing about work or employment; this is simply a question of whether NINOs have been issued to illegal immigrants. Have the Government given NINOs to illegal immigrants in the two and a half years since the last general election—yes or no?

It is interesting that that is not what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has been asking. It is not the burden of the Conservative Front Bench’s argument. For the benefit of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for the whole House, perhaps I should explain the safeguards that are in place to ensure that a person has the right to reside and work in this country when they make an application for a national insurance number. I have already explained the procedure.

When an appointment is booked at the nearest national insurance number hub, a customer is advised of the supporting documentation required to make an application. It is made clear that that includes a passport, a birth certificate, a registration certificate, Home Office documents, work permits and identity cards. After all the initial checks are made, the process is followed through in the way that I have described.

The Conservatives appear to be suggesting that national insurance numbers are just being dished out to anybody who applies for one—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) is nodding in agreement.

I need to finish this point, then I will of course give way.

I have just explained that the most stringent safeguards are in place, and they have been steadily tightened up as the global phenomenon of illegal immigration has increased right across Europe and elsewhere across the industrially advanced, prosperous world. We have tightened them up bit by bit, yet some of the measures that we have introduced have been opposed or criticised by the Conservatives.

I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in allowing interventions. By his own admission, either by omission or commission he has not been straight with the Labour party’s national executive. Perhaps today he will be straight with the House. Why does he think that it was not the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats but the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who was prompted to say today:

“There needs to be immediate action taken to stop the issuing of National Insurance numbers to those who are here illegally. It is not acceptable—especially as this was first seen to be a problem way back in 2006”?

The Government have had two years to take this issue on board and deal with it properly, but they have clearly failed to do so.

The hon. Gentleman has stumbled into the Chamber this afternoon clutching a rehearsed question, but I have already given the answer and I will explain other aspects in a few moments.

I was talking about compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals and it is worth noting that foreign nationals, the subject of today’s debate, feature in the Conservative motion. Yet if Conservative Members had the power to impose compulsory ID cards on foreign nationals, they would not do so because they are fanatically opposed to ID cards in any shape or form. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister twice asked the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, whether he and his party would support the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals—and he twice refused to agree to that. If the Opposition were serious about prot