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UK Immigration (Bulgaria and Romania)

Volume 558: debated on Monday 11 February 2013

3. What steps she plans to take to control the entry of Romanian and Bulgarian nationals to the UK from 1 January 2014. (142178)

5. What estimate she has made of the potential level of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania after the expiry of transitional controls. (142180)

Speculative projections about future inflows cannot be made with any degree of accuracy and are, therefore, not particularly helpful. That is why the Government are focused on dealing with the abuse of free movement rights and reducing the pull factors for migration, and so I am chairing a cross-Government group of Ministers to examine controls on immigrants’ access to public services and benefits.

It has been estimated that some 250,000 Romanians and Bulgarians are currently resident in Germany, and an internal paper produced by the German Association of Cities has noted that that level of immigration creates social dangers. Will any lessons be learned from the German experience?

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is helpful for us to look at the experience of other European countries. We want to make sure that when people look at the access to our benefits and our public services nobody thinks we are a soft touch in this country, and the Government are taking action to ensure that people will not think that.

My constituents think it is madness to open our borders to 29 million people when we have absolutely no idea how many are going to come to this country. Will the Minister at least introduce a new requirement that European Union nationals seeking to reside here for more than three months have to apply for a residency card? Will he insist that the Romanian and Bulgarian Governments share with the Home Office details of any criminal records of those who come to this country?

My hon. Friend’s first point about a residency card is something I will listen to and take away with me. On his second point, he may be interested to know that the Metropolitan police and the UK Border Agency been working closely together over the past few months on Operation Nexus, and have removed about 200 very serious and high-harm criminals. That has been very effective, and I hope it will be rolled out across the country in due course.

Given that the Government cannot produce or are not producing an estimate, and given that the national minimum wage is five to six times higher in this country than it is in Bulgaria or Romania, how confident are the Government that our public services can cope with any surge in immigration, particularly as we got our estimates so badly wrong in 2004?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. However, it is worth reminding people that even during the whole period of the previous Government, when, as even they have acknowledged, they had no transitional controls for eastern European migration and a significant number came here, four fifths of the net migration was from outside the EU. It is therefore worth seeing things in that context. I go back to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) in saying that the Government are looking at how our public services work and how our benefits system works to make sure that we are not a soft touch in this country. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

It is, of course, thanks to the Labour party that the UK was the only European economy that did not have transitional controls in 2004. Will the Minister confirm that as of 31 December every European economy will be open to the free movement of labour from Romania and Bulgaria, and not just ours this time?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth remembering that eight other European countries, including France and Germany, currently have transitional controls, as we do. They will have to remove those controls at the end of the year, which is partly why making a forecast is so difficult and why the Migration Advisory Committee advised against it.

There is a Bulgarian word for the position in which the Government find themselves—oburkvane: confused. The Prime Minister is a champion of enlargement, which means the free movement of people, yet the Home Office was considering putting advertisements in the Romanian and Bulgarian press advising people not to come here. There is a simple way of dealing with this matter. First, by working with the Romanian and Bulgarian Governments to find out the cause for people to move here. Secondly, by commissioning research so that we have proper predictions as to how many people will come here.

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, he has been in this House long enough to know not to believe everything he reads in newspapers when they talk about what the Government might or might not do. He may even occasionally have been the author of some such stories himself. [Interruption.] No, I am not. On his second question about working with our European partners, we will of course work with the Romanian and Bulgarian Governments, as we do on a number of important and serious issues. For example, we work closely with the Bulgarians on combating terrorism. We will continue to take that approach and we will look at ways of making sure that this country is not a soft touch when it comes to benefits and access to public services. The MAC advised against trying to forecast the numbers, because it said that that simply would not be helpful to policy makers.

Is the Minister satisfied that the fines levied on employers who do not pay the minimum wage are sufficient to deter such employers from employing on the cheap the very Bulgarian and Romanian workers his hon. Friends are asking about?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If anyone takes on people who do not have the right to work in the country, we fine them up to £10,000. I will take away the point that he has made. One thing we are looking at is the regulation of the labour market in general. A number of bodies are involved—HMRC for the minimum wage, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the UK Border Agency. It is sensible to consider whether those organisations are all working as closely together as they should be. That is something that the group I am chairing will indeed be looking at. I hope that is helpful to him.

But poor housing from rogue landlords, where they sometimes cram 20 to 30 people into some pretty shabby conditions, is also a major problem and a driver of immigration, particularly from places such as Romania, Bulgaria and other eastern European EU states, so will the Government commit to introducing a statutory national register of private landlords so that we can drive up housing standards in the private sector and drive out some of those crummy conditions?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Last Thursday morning, at an unearthly hour, the Minister for Housing and I accompanied UK Border Agency officers and housing officials from the London borough of Ealing on a raid to deal with exactly such landlords with houses in multiple occupation. It was a successful operation and we detained a number of people who had no right to be in the country. Such partnership working between the London borough of Ealing and central Government is working well, and it is the kind of activity that we will continue.

I am delighted that the Minister is tackling that one element, which has already been referred to, but last week the Attorney-General admitted that in 2011 and 2012 there was not a single prosecution of those breaching the national minimum wage. Would it not be a good idea, first, to impose the national minimum wage—enforce it properly—so that unscrupulous landlords could not turn people into virtual slaves in this country and, secondly, to double the fine?

I am not quite sure what landlords have to do with the national minimum wage, but I think I answered the other part of the hon. Gentleman’s question in responding to one of his colleagues. The hon. Gentleman needs to explain why all those problems were singularly not dealt with when Labour was in power. Labour made mistakes on immigration and failed to apologise. Until it does, no one will take it seriously.

23. Are the Government considering taking new powers to curb benefit tourism undertaken by Romanians and Bulgarians—welfare tourism that can only add to British public spending, not reduce it? (142199)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The committee that I am chairing will indeed consider how our benefit rules work. We want to ensure that we offer what we need to under the treaties, but no more. If we think that there is abuse of free movement rights, we will continue, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already started to do, to work with our European partners to drive out that abuse, which is what the people of this country want.