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Immigration (Romania and Bulgaria)

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. May I, through you, thank Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity this morning to raise the important matter of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria?

My job is humbly to stand up and speak out on behalf of my constituents in Kettering, and one of their biggest concerns is the level of immigration into the United Kingdom. A large part of the inward migration flows are from the European Union, over which, seemingly, we now have virtually no control whatsoever. The numbers are getting completely out of hand, and my constituents will be horrified to learn that, from December 2013, yet another hole will be opened in Britain’s border controls with the prospect of unlimited immigration from two new accession countries to the European Union—Romania and Bulgaria, the so-called A2.

Over the past number of years, as more countries have come into the expanding European Union, more people have come to our country. The UK Statistics Authority estimates that in the second quarter of 2012 there were 1.4 million EU citizens working in the United Kingdom, with 107,000 unemployed and almost half a million economically inactive; those EU citizens have some 400,000 children. About half of that number come from the so-called A8 countries, which are eight of the 10 countries that became members of the EU in May 2004—Cyprus and Malta, and the eight central and eastern European accession countries. A derogation was included in the accession treaty to allow existing member states, of which the UK was one, to restrict those nationals’ right to work. That allowed existing EU member states to impose transitional restrictions on the free movement rights of workers from those new countries.

The transitional restrictions could have lasted for up to five years, or up to seven years in the case of “serious disturbance” to the old member state’s labour market. Disgracefully, the previous Labour Government did not apply transitional restrictions to A8 workers upon their joining the EU in 2004.

Of those countries, the biggest was Poland with a population of 38.5 million. The Czech Republic had a population of 10.5 million; Hungary, almost 10 million; Slovakia, 5.5 million; Lithuania, 3 million; Latvia, 2 million; Slovenia, 2 million; and Estonia, 1.3 million. The combined population was almost 73 million people. At the time of those countries’ accession to the EU, there were 94,000 A8 nationals living in the United Kingdom; as of the second quarter of 2012, that total is 1,079,000.

In 2003, under the previous Labour Government, the Home Office estimated that the enlargement of the European Union in May 2004 would lead to an additional 5,000 to 13,000 net immigrants every year from those 10 acceding countries. Well, that disgracefully inadequate estimate has been replaced by the fact that well over 1 million people are now resident in the United Kingdom from the 2004 accession countries.

Romania and Bulgaria, the so-called A2, acceded to the EU in 2007. Once again, the treaty allowed for transitional restrictions for up to seven years. This time, thank goodness, the UK did apply transitional restrictions on the free movement rights of Bulgarian and Romanian workers, with the result that such workers normally need authorisation before they start work. Thank heaven for small mercies. The problem is that those seven years are almost up—they end on 31 December 2013.

When Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the European Union in 2007, 29,000 Romanians and Bulgarians were resident in the United Kingdom. As of the first quarter of 2012, that total has risen to 155,000 despite the transitional controls. Her Majesty’s Government are not prepared to estimate how many people will come in after December 2013. How do I know that? Because I asked the Home Department a written parliamentary question on how many immigrants are expected to arrive in the UK

“from Romania and Bulgaria in the first year after transitional immigration controls are lifted.”

The answer was:

“The Government do not routinely produce forecasts or estimates of future levels of migration from individual countries. The difficulty in producing a reliable forecast of likely levels of migration, which would need to take account of a variety of factors, is in this instance accentuated by the fact that the United Kingdom is not the only member state that will be required to lift existing labour market restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals on 31 December 2013.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 184W.]

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate.

Does my hon. Friend find it frankly disingenuous, even reprehensible, for the Home Secretary to complain about the likely effects of such changes when she has not introduced measures either to measure those effects or to consider whether we can vary the free movement directive? As my hon. Friend may know, I moved a ten-minute rule Bill in the House on 31 October to introduce a de facto workers’ registration scheme mark 2, as the Spanish have.

I am delighted by my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I commend him on the work he does for his constituents in Peterborough and on the courage he displayed in taking up the issue of immigration in the House. I was honoured and delighted to support his ten-minute rule Bill of 31 October that would have changed the freedom of movement that EU nationals currently enjoy in our country. For understandable reasons, he speaks for the British people on such issues.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we should do what the Spanish Government are doing. Faced with calamitous levels of unemployment, the Spanish have begun to interpret the free movement directive much more robustly. All EU citizens and family members in Spain have to register with the authorities if they wish to reside there for more than three months. Through that process, the Spanish authorities can check whether the requirements of the directive regarding residence after that period have been fulfilled. The Spanish authorities also require notification of any change of address or marital status. That is the absolute minimum that Her Majesty’s Government should be doing in this country, with the arrival of tens of thousands more Romanians and Bulgarians after December 2013.

It is a disgrace that the Home Office will not estimate the expected number of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria. Opening up our borders to all and sundry is bad enough, but it adds insult to injury not even to give the British people an estimate of how many incomers we can expect.

In the UK there are now almost 1.1 million eastern Europeans from the A8 accession countries, which have a combined population of 72.8 million. That is a rate of some 1.5%. If we apply that same rate to the entry of Romania, with 21 million, and Bulgaria, with 7 million, the 155,000 presently resident in the UK would climb to some 425,000. That means that we can expect three times more Romanians and Bulgarians than are currently resident in this country, an increase of some one third of a million over present levels, possibly within two years.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. My constituency, according to the statistics, has a low level of immigrants compared with other areas of the UK, but the issue remains key on the doorstep among voters. My constituents would be horrified at the figures he announced. Does he agree that the social cohesion of the country is under threat, and one of the first duties of the Government is to maintain that cohesion?

As always, my hon. Friend speaks for Cleethorpes. His constituents will be delighted at his intervention, because he rightly highlights the importance of the issue to him and to them.

In truth, host member states are permitted to require EU citizens and their family members to register with the authorities, and to impose proportionate and non-discriminatory sanctions on those who fail to do so. The UK Government fail to do that. Member states are also permitted to restrict rights of entry on grounds of public policy, public security or public health. The UK Government, however, have failed ever to test those conditions or the specific issue of proportionality that is implicit in the directive in respect of the deportation of persistent and prolific criminals who are EU citizens.

Through my humble experience as a special constable with the British Transport police on London’s underground network, I know that some eight out of 10 shoplifters arrested by the police are from eastern Europe. Can they be sent back to their country of origin for breaking our laws? No, they cannot. Well, actually, they could be—if the UK Government had the guts to enforce that measure, but they cannot be at the moment because the Home Office is not introducing the sanctions that it could.

London is the largest city in western Europe, with 7.5 million residents, compared with 3.5 million in Berlin, 3.25 million in Madrid, 2.5 million in Rome and 2 million in Paris. As one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and with English as its native language, of course London is a magnet for millions of people throughout the European Union, but the British people will not put up with the situation much longer. A local government Minister has said:

“The fact is, 43 per cent of the new households which want a home, is accounted for by immigration”,

so we will see swathes of our countryside built over to accommodate the millions of new arrivals from the European Union, over whom we seemingly have little control.

Is “enough is enough” enough? My constituents want the Home Office to impose the restrictions that it can on new entrants from Romania and Bulgaria. If our constituents were given the right to vote on whether we should stay a member of the European Union, they would now vote to leave, because Britain would be better off out of the European Union and we would have control over our borders once again.

I thank my old friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for allowing me to say a few words and for his heartfelt speech, which I am sure will be one of many on the issue in the months and years ahead.

I want to say a few words about some of the trends noticeable in my central London constituency since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union in 2007. In spite of the current freedom-of-movement restrictions, which are due to be lifted at the end of 2013, the most obvious example has been the profound problem of organised begging centred on Marble Arch in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.

In such matters, central London is almost a canary in a mine for future problems throughout the country. Difficulties in my constituency with particular migratory waves are magnified by the presence of Victoria coach station, through which many eastern and central European migrants arrive in Britain for the first time. Some 10 million to 12 million passengers use that facility each and every year. Significant amounts of contraband and controlled materials are brought into the UK via that route, and it has become an attractive destination for transient individuals, contributing to a large rough-sleeping population.

Last November, Westminster city council, the Met and the Romanian embassy launched Operation Chefornak to tackle antisocial behaviour and begging in Westminster, much of which, I fear, can be linked to Romanian migrants; 698 offences of begging and 922 instances of rough sleeping were recorded, and the council helped to arrange 169 repatriations, 138 of which were to Romania. That comes at colossal cost and requires enormous additional police time. The council has been proactive in raising awareness and highlighting what is not only a local but an increasingly national problem, which I fear will be even bigger after the beginning of 2014, with real consequences for the reputation of the UK.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend said, real limitations remain on what can be done to tackle effectively the problems caused by people congregating in a particular area if they are not committing criminal or antisocial behaviour. Many of the target-hardening options, in particular around Marble Arch, have been considered and discounted on the basis of cost, practicality or effectiveness. Given that Romanians are not subject to border controls, it is difficult to stem the source of the problem.

From our experience in the centre of London, therefore, I remain unconvinced that the Home Office has robust enough plans in place to tackle the problems that are likely to flow from the lifting of movement restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians in particular, as my hon. Friend pointed out. I share his concerns, and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), and we seek assurances from the Minister in that regard, in particular on how local authorities can be properly compensated for the financial cost to local taxpayers of national immigration decisions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate and on making his points in his usual robust fashion. I am pleased to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I will try to address the concerns of my hon. Friend and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who raised a local issue—we will see how “canary in a mine” it is for the future.

To give some context, the Government’s overall position on immigration is clear. We want to bring down the unsustainable levels of immigration—net migration—that we have seen, and we are taking a range of measures. The Office for National Statistics figures published last week show that the net migration figures, including EU citizens, have actually fallen by a quarter, from 242,000 to 183,000 in the year ending in March. It is also worth remembering, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering accurately set out, some of the misjudgments made by the previous Government, who did not introduce transitional controls so, in effect, the United Kingdom bore the entire burden of the adjustment process.

On the latest figures, about a third of the people coming to the United Kingdom are from the EU, but 55% are from outside the EU, where our policy changes are bearing down, and about 14% are British citizens returning home. The bulk of our net migration, therefore, is from outside the EU and not from our EU neighbours. It is worth saying that to put the matter in context.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) referred to the reluctance of the Home Office to come up with any statistics in that regard. Is it fair to say that that is simply a case of once bitten, twice shy, and is due to a concern that such statistics might be superseded by events, as they were in 2003 and 2004 in relation to the A8 nations? Alternatively, does the Home Office have an idea in mind, but does not want to go public with it? If the latter is the case, will the Minister indicate the effect on local communities of the overall numbers expected to arrive from 2014?

I assure my hon. Friend that the reason is simply that it is genuinely a difficult exercise. The difference this time is that we had transitional controls, as have a number of other European Union countries. We are not the only country that will have to remove our transitional controls at the end of next year. A number of other countries, including Germany, for example, will be doing that. It is difficult to assess where the Romanian and Bulgarian citizens who wish to move to another EU member state to exercise one of their treaty rights will choose to move.

The history is relevant, because there is no point in the Government effectively making up a number that is based on poor data or making a set of assumptions, which are effectively guesses, and bandying around a number that proves inaccurate. That is not sensible. It is more mature and open to say, “It is a difficult exercise and there are a range of factors,” then people can make a judgment about whether the Government are being frank. That is more sensible than picking a number out of the air, which appears to be what happened beforehand, that is used as a defensive mechanism for a period until it is shown to be untrue. That is not a mature way of treating the matter.

We learned recently that my hon. Friend the Minister is making excellent progress reducing immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year, but is he not concerned that the potential entry of Romanians and Bulgarians into the country might set back the progress and make it significantly harder to achieve the target by 2015?

My hon. Friend raises a valid concern, but the evidence is that net migration from the EU has been fairly consistent. However, we keep that matter under review. If he will allow me to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, he will see that some steps we are taking may alleviate some of his concerns.

My hon. Friend knows that the Government have adopted this policy change, but we will always implement transitional controls in respect of accession countries. We have already set out plans enabling primary legislation in respect of the accession of Croatia to the EU. I will take through the House regulations coming from that legislation, which will put in place those transitional controls. We have learned from the past. My hon. Friend mentioned that the previous Government learned from their experience and made more sensible decisions.

If people from EU member countries, including Romania and Bulgaria, want to stay in the United Kingdom beyond three months once there are no transitional controls, they have to be exercising treaty rights and be here as workers, students, or as self-employed or self-sufficient people. My hon. Friend mentioned the Government being robust about enforcing that. I will say a little bit more about that in a moment.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whom my hon. Friend mentioned in terms not as complementary as ones that I would use about her, has been working with our colleagues in the European Union to crack down on fraud and abuse of free movement rights. That concern is shared by a number of EU member states; it is not just a concern of the British Government. At the Justice and Home Affairs Council in April, a road map of actions was agreed, specifically to tackle human trafficking, sham marriages and, importantly, document fraud. If we can tackle document fraud, that will help strengthen our ability to deal with those entering the UK illicitly.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I may take an intervention from him shortly, but I want to make some progress, given that this debate was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I do not want to leave lots of his points unanswered.

There is more work to do with our EU partners and we will continue working with like-minded member states to move this agenda forward in the European Union.

My hon. Friend knows that the Foreign Secretary has set out plans for the balance of competences review. The Home Office will lead a piece of work next year, considering the free movement of people across the EU, including the scope and consequences of that, as part of that balance of competences review. I am sure that all my hon. Friends in the Chamber, not just my hon. Friend, will take part in that balance of competences review and ensure that their views are well known to me and the Government.

My hon. Friend set out clearly what happened when the A8 states joined the EU, so I do not need to repeat that. As he correctly said, before Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January, the previous Government, learning from the past, decided to impose transitional controls. Such controls can be applied for a maximum of seven years and can only be maintained beyond five where there is, to use the words in the treaties,

“serious disturbance of the labour market or the threat thereof.”

We did that, listening to the advice and careful evidence taken by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. We have extended those controls to the full length permitted under the treaties.

Under the current regulations, Bulgarian and Romanian nationals have to retain authorisation from the UK Border Agency before they take employment in the UK and they must also get authorisation to take lower-skilled employment in the agriculture and food processing sectors, under the seasonal agriculture workers scheme and the sectors- based scheme. The numbers given permission to work under those arrangements have not increased over the period in which they have been enforced. Excluding SAWS, the number of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals issued with accession worker cards was 2,618 in 2011, 2,776 in 2008 and 2,097 in 2007. That has been fairly consistent.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have a great deal of respect for him. He brings his skills to every portfolio. He has an even more difficult job now than in his previous role as the Deputy Prime Minister’s human shield. However, he is somewhat missing the point. Yes, of course, we are concerned about criminal records checks, for example, but those of us who are expressing concern about this issue are focusing on the sheer weight of numbers and the impact on the economy and the labour market. That is the key issue. Hon. Members’ greatest concerns are about the numbers, which have not been properly thought through.

My hon. Friend mentioned his ten-minute rule Bill, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I was in the main Chamber when he presented that thoroughly and carefully. We are considering that. I look forward to meeting him next week to talk about that and, no doubt, other issues connected to it.

To paraphrase my hon. Friend, the point is to use all the tools at our disposal. First, to put matters in context, Bulgaria and Romania may be different from the A8 countries. For example, 1.7 million of the 2.2 million Romanians who live in another EU member state have chosen to live in just two member states: Italy and Spain, notwithstanding all their economic difficulties. People can draw from that what they want; I am not making a forecast off the back of it

All hon. Members want to know that the Government want to use all the powers at our disposal. They may not be aware—this is a relatively new initiative—that we have set up a ministerial Cabinet committee, which the Prime Minister has asked me to chair, that will look at the rules on legal and illegal migrants’ access to public services and benefits, across the piece, working with colleagues across Departments. The committee will consider the pull factors, which are particularly important for EU nationals, where we do not have the same controls for those coming from outside the EU. We are at the beginning of that process, but I hope the fact that we have set it up and that it is being chaired by the Immigration Minister shows that we take these matters seriously, and I hope that that provides at least a little bit of comfort to hon. Friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the operation that we have been carrying out with UKBA, working with the police, local authorities and other partners to identify EU nationals who are rough sleeping and not exercising a treaty right and, therefore, do not have the right to be in the UK. We look at enabling them to return home and, if they do not do so voluntarily, we will consider using our powers to administratively remove them.

My hon. Friend can rest assured that, where we have the power to act, we will look at using that power. We will look at the pull factors that entice people to come to the UK and ensure that things are being applied fairly, so that we are not unwarrantedly popular among our EU partners. Of course, I am sure we will return to this issue again over the coming months. I am happy to engage in debate with hon. Friends and to meet them and discuss any of their concerns. I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough shortly. I hope that I have at least addressed some of the issues.

Sitting suspended.