Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Anne Milton.)
It is a pleasure to start this debate on an important topic of great national interest. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing us with the time to debate this topic before the Christmas recess. I think that most of us here find it a pity that we cannot debate the matter on a substantive motion in the main Chamber, where we could have tested the will of the House with a vote.
The hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which was last debated on 19 November. Although the Bill has completed Committee stage, there is no date, even in today’s business statement, for when the Bill will be brought back to the House of Commons. Does he regret that his party’s business managers did not give him that opportunity?
That is the point that I was alluding to. It would have been better to have had this debate during consideration of the amendment to the Immigration Bill on Report, so that we could have dealt with the issue on the Floor of the House before the restrictions were lifted, which, sadly, is likely to happen in less than two weeks’ time. However, I am afraid that House business management is even further above my pay grade than the machinations of the Backbench Business Committee, so it is probably not wise for me to be drawn on that subject.
The right hon. Gentleman takes me to my first theme. The Minister and I—alone, sadly—have debated this topic before, at Committee stage. A month has passed, and a few things have changed. I was the lone signatory to the amendment at that point, but more than 74 MPs have now signed it for Report. A few of the facts have probably changed since then as well; obviously, there was already a petition with more than 150,000 signatories, but since that point, we have learned that despite the Government’s many welcome measures over the course of this Parliament, net migration rose in the last year, which causes concern to those of us who are committed to our manifesto promise to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. Can that be achieved, especially if large numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians take advantage of the lack of restrictions? The Government have made a series of welcome announcements of policies to tackle immigration. Welfare measures were introduced to Parliament yesterday.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, but I put it to him that perhaps those measures, particularly the changes in benefits, risk being too little too late. They also risk feeding a minority’s views and prejudices about immigrants. My experience is that the vast majority come here to work, and they work hard. They come not because of the benefits, but because the average salary here is so much higher than in their home country. Would it not be a better option to extend the transitional controls and stop people coming in, to give us time to assimilate those already here? Given that whichever route the Government take, they will be challenged, they might as well go for the better option.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend says. If he has read the speech I made in Committee, he will have seen that I focused on the argument about the impact on our labour market, which is already and still disrupted by the recession. If he has not read that speech, luckily I can give most of it again, seeing that we are debating much the same topic. I fear that I may have to give the same speech in a few weeks’ time, when we debate the Immigration Bill.
My hon. Friend is right that it is important to get the tone of any debate about immigration right. We are not looking to insult people or make untrue claims; we are looking at what is in our national interest and the public interest. We are still experiencing higher unemployment than we would like; it is higher than before the recession, and even though it has decreased significantly in recent months, it is still the main problem.
That is not to say that the Government are wrong to try to ensure that our welfare system is no more generous than those of other western European nations, and to tackle some of the potential weaknesses, such as the fact that we still have a system based on entitlement, not contribution. A fundamental reform of the system may well be required. I wholeheartedly support the measures announced; perhaps we could have gone further.
I have an interesting question that I hope the Minister will answer later: how many people do the Government think their new measures will catch? How many fewer people do they estimate will come over the next five years than would have come without the measures? I suspect that the number is not very large, but the information would be welcome.
Why are we concerned about the potential level of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria once the restrictions are lifted? We have talked about people coming here to abuse our welfare system, to the extent that that is actually the case, but there are real concerns about the impact on our health service. The fact that we have free health care, which is, of course, very welcome, makes us a little more attractive a destination than many other western European nations where the situation is not quite as simple.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. The United Kingdom is one of only five European Union member states with a system in which non-contributory unemployment benefits are paid to people looking for work. Surely we cannot have totally unrestricted movement of people within the EU and retain our system of non-contributory unemployment benefits. At the same time, the European Commission is pushing to ensure that all EU nationals have the same rights as British nationals to claim non-contributory payments in this country. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is what is at stake? We must make a choice between the welfare system that the Labour party put in place after the second world war, and the grand project of the European grandees. We cannot have both.
I agree with what my hon. Friend says. He leads us to a fundamental tension. Can we allow freedom of movement when there are such disparities of wealth between the new nations joining the EU and others, and when the attractiveness of our benefit system means that it is very different from what people experience in their country? There is a tension between the welfare system that we would like and the impact that it has when there is free movement of people, and we must resolve that, one way or another.
It would be far better for the European Court not to produce such ludicrous decisions. Those of us on the Eurosceptic side of the debate probably welcome perverse decisions that further lower the reputation of the EU and the UK, but if I were in the Court’s shoes, I am not sure that I would be quite so creative.
The NHS is attractive to people coming here, and there are also concerns about whether we have enough housing to accommodate large influxes of migrants over the next five years. Those of us who are experiencing great discomfort due to local plans to comply with existing housing targets probably do not fancy adding a few more hundred thousand people throughout the country, and seeing how many more houses we will have to find on our green belt. There are also impacts on other public services, notably schools, in areas where there is high pressure from immigration.
I think there is general agreement that the level of migration over the past decade was clearly higher than the country could cope with. Members of the previous Government are now recognising that they made mistakes, especially relating to the accession of the A8 countries a decade ago. It is worth reminding ourselves that 5,000 to 13,000 people a year were predicted to come from those countries, and more than 1 million actually came. That was a spectacularly bad prediction.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is hugely important to our constituents, on what is probably one of the prevailing issues that they face. On his point about previous accessions, does he agree that the last Government’s lamentable failure to control immigration has left a long and large shadow of memory across our constituents’ minds? They are fearful that it will all happen again. Some of those fears may be unjust, but the concerns are occupying our constituents’ minds greatly.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It can be no surprise that the public have great concern about what might happen when new nations have unfettered access to free movement, given that our experience with other eastern European nations gaining such freedom is that so many of their nationals chose to come to this country. I accept that most of them chose to come here to work, but that leaves us with the fundamental question of how to deal with that when unemployment in this country is still far higher than we would like.
I realise that my hon. Friend is trying to make progress, but he makes an important point about the contradiction between people coming from Europe, eastern Europe in particular, because they believe jobs are here, and the perception of people locally that they are taking jobs. The reality is that many local people simply will not take those jobs; that is why they are being filled by eastern Europeans. That is the skills gap at the low end. It is not that there are no jobs; many people locally will simply not take the jobs, because they do not want to work for such pay or in those particular roles. That is the issue.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the drivers of the Government’s welfare reforms is to encourage people to take work if they are offered it; if they choose not to take work that is available, they do not get the benefits that they would presumably like to keep. For the welfare reforms to work, however, we need jobs to be available, so that people can be gently encouraged to take them, even if they are perhaps not their first choice. If the jobs that exist are taken by those who have just arrived in this country, those necessary and important welfare reforms become much harder to achieve. We must remember that a first job can be the start of the career ladder; it is not necessarily the end of it. Encouraging people to take jobs even if they do not think that they are suited to them, or if the jobs are not quite what they are after, is perfectly appropriate policy.
I shall try to get back to the thread of my argument. Let me set out why I tabled an amendment in Committee to keep in place transitional restrictions—and I am grateful that 73 other MPs have chosen to sign that amendment for Report. Looking at the criteria in the accession treaties that allowed us and other western European nations to keep restrictions until the last possible minute, we were allowed the restrictions, and chose to keep them, because there was still serious disruption in our employment market.
Two years ago, the Government commissioned an independent assessment from the Migration Advisory Committee of whether the test was still being met. The main criteria looked at were levels of employment and unemployment, the claimant count, and vacancies, both in 2011 and pre-recession. The pre-recession level of employment was 72.7%; two years ago, that was down at 70.6%. Unemployment before the recession was 5.1%; two years ago, it was 7.8%. The claimant count was 3% pre-recession and 4.6% two years ago; vacancies had been 621,000, but were down to 469,000. Those figures were the justification for saying, “We need to keep these restrictions for another two years. Our labour market can’t cope with the potential disruption of a large number of people arriving.”
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has the problem in a nutshell. In my constituency, unemployment is down to 2.4%, but many of those who remain unemployed are harder to place, and we need to do more work with them. The last thing that they need is competition from another wave of immigrants. We also need to look at the argument about what the level of immigration could do to the Romanian and Bulgarian economies. What effect will the departure of their brightest, young and best—the keen people willing to travel across the continent to find work—have on the Romanian and Bulgarian economies? That needs to be taken into account.
My hon. Friend is right. The idea behind those nations wanting to join the European Union was to grow their economies and to provide better living standards for their people. That must be harder to do if what looks like the best option for their brightest people is to leave for a better wage elsewhere.
I return to the test that was run two years ago. If we were to apply it now, with the excellent unemployment data from the end of November announced this week—we all accept and welcome those figures, which are a great improvement on where we were at the start of this Parliament, or even on the position two years ago, or at the start of the year—employment would be at about 72%, which is still down on where it was before the recession. Unemployment is still 7.4%, which is well up on the 5.1% before the recession; the claimant count is still at 4%, compared with 3%; and vacancies are up to 545,000, which is still down on 621,000. My contention is that if the treaty had allowed us to extend the restrictions for a further period, I can see no reason why we would not have sought to retain them, in the light of that analysis.
I thank my hon. Friend for letting me intervene, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. The real dilemma is that as our economy picks up, so will the attractiveness of coming to this country. That is almost a problem: as we get better, more people will want to come here. Does he agree?
That is one of those welcome problems, in that we all want our economy to be growing so strongly that we become a much more attractive place—but there are clearly downsides in dealing with the legacies of recession, with unemployment and especially youth unemployment still far higher than we might like. We need to get our own people who are struggling into the jobs that growth generates.
To return to my contention, if the treaty had allowed the restrictions to continue for a further period, I am in little doubt that we would have wanted to extend them, if we could, and that brings us to my next point. We signed that treaty a decade ago, but we had not at that point predicted a catastrophic recession, which would take many years to recover from—we are still trying to recover from it—and we had not appreciated just what the level of immigration from the previous accession wave would be, which was far in excess of our estimates. I suspect that had we known those two things when we were signing the treaty, we would never have agreed to restrictions on those two countries being lifted so soon or at this point in the economic cycle.
The question becomes, does Parliament say, “We have to accept that we approved the treaty”—it was passed by this House—or actually do we have the right to say, “With hindsight, that was a mistake and it is now not in our national interest to continue with what we agreed”? We need to change that. Let us simply keep the restrictions already in place for a further defined period—that is a proportionate response to a clear problem—at least until our economy is fully recovered from the shock experienced in the recession. That is not an unreasonable or disproportionate thing to do.
It is worth noting that I was only trying to keep the restrictions that have been in place since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. That would not stop completely people from those two countries finding work here. If able to find work in this country and get a work permit, they have been permitted to work here since they joined the EU—that would not change. So my suggestion of not lifting restrictions that are already in place is proportionate at this point. If the Government are not minded to accept that relatively gentle and proportionate measure, I sincerely hope that they think again in the two weeks left before the new year and try to find some other way of keeping the restrictions.
Some interesting policy ideas have been announced as different ways to tackle the problem. I was quite attracted by the idea that accession countries whose gross domestic product per capita is well below the EU average should not get full access to freedom of movement until their GDP was nearer the EU average—perhaps three quarters of the average. That would tackle the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), because it would mean that the brightest people in those countries could not leave; they would have to stay there and find ways to grow their own economy.
The gross national income per capita in both Bulgaria and Romania is about $16,000, compared with our GNI of $37,000, so those two countries would fail the test, were we to apply it now. That test is attractive, but its prospective introduction would not fix the problem that might well hit us from 1 January. Surely it would therefore be better to keep the restrictions we have in place while we are trying to achieve those reforms.
The second idea, which was leaked this week, was to have a cap on EU migration. Again, that is an attractive idea and one that, I suspect, would contribute greatly to enabling us to meet our target of net migration in the tens of thousands, although there would be some practical issues with enforcing a cap, and I suspect that other EU member states might not be as keen on the idea. But I find it intriguing that although it is seemingly impossible to try, in response to a clear issue in our employment market, to keep in place for a bit longer restrictions that have been allowed until now by the accession treaty, it is thought that a complete and utter unravelling of freedom of movement—even between the main western European nations—might be possible. I am afraid that I am not so optimistic that we could achieve that aim in a renegotiation; but even if it could, it is a measure for a long time in the future, not one that can help us out in the coming years if large amounts of people decide to come here.
Finally, I have some questions for the Minister. I understand that Governments have had their fingers burnt making estimates in the past, but will he set out whether the Government believe that a large number of people from Romanian and Bulgaria will try to come to the UK when the restrictions are lifted? Independent estimates suggest figures of between 30,000 and 70,000 people a year for the next five years, which would put the total at something like 350,000. I do not expect an accurate assessment, but do the Government think that number is way over the top, is an underestimate or is about right? The people of this country want to know whether their fears are unrealistic or entirely realistic.
Given that nearly all western European nations have kept the restrictions in place until the last minute, I would presume that those countries fear that there might be an issue. It is also worth noting that Romania and Bulgaria will not be joining Schengen on 1 January, as they were meant to, again because of concerns across Europe about what that might entail.
My hon. Friend is looking at public policy responses to this problem and has outlined some important ideas, but surely there is one blindingly obvious policy solution that we need to consider seriously, which is to withdraw this country from the EU completely. Is it not absurd that people need a visa to come to this country from Singapore, a country with an incredibly high number of talented and able people—we would benefit from greater labour mobility for such people—but we have unrestricted movement of people from Bulgaria? If we were outside the EU, like Switzerland, where one in five members of the labour force is a non-Swiss national, we could benefit from all the advantages of labour mobility and have all the necessary requirements to control it.
My hon. Friend is clearly right. However, sadly, I do not think that we can convince the Government to pull us out of the EU in the next fortnight, and so we probably need to take some different measures in the meantime. He may have noticed that the five-year period I am proposing for keeping the restrictions will take us well past the referendum that we hope will take place on our EU membership. At that point, the people will have been able to choose whether they want to stay in and have unrestricted migration or to leave and reintroduce our border controls. I hope he would agree that a five-year time frame for keeping the restrictions would be one way of helping to meet his aspirations in that situation.
My hon. Friend said that the Bulgarians and Romanians have not joined the Schengen agreement, although that had been expected. Is that an agreement that they made but have subsequently decided not to stick with, or an agreement that they made with the rest of Europe in which we were not involved?
As I understand it, Schengen is an agreement between nations rather than a treaty, and, fortunately, one that we are outside as we were thankfully not required to join. Having had a pleasant meeting with the Bulgarian ambassador in a TV studio not that long ago, I know that there is some annoyance among those nations because they feel that they have met the criteria for Schengen but are not being permitted to join it. There were some strong quotes from Mr Barroso on why that was not to be the case; he used language that I would not want to use in a debate in immigration, but there we go.
I am a little over the time that I promised I would take with my remarks, so I will conclude. I do not think that any other measure has been trailed or announced that can tackle this matter in the right time frame. There is widespread concern, as anyone who reads almost any of the newspapers can see. I have already mentioned the Daily Express petition with 150,000 signatures; yesterday we saw a campaign in The Sun and today there is an editorial on the issue in The Daily Telegraph. It is an issue of great concern. The Government need either to give us convincing reassurance that the problem will not arise or to take some action to protect our employment market and protect those people in our constituencies who are struggling to find work. The only realistic answer is to keep proportionate restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians in place for a further period. I urge the Government to act before those restrictions are lifted on 1 January.
Order. Gentlemen, we have permission to impose time limits on speeches in this debate, but if everybody keeps their remarks to about 15 minutes in length I hope that we will not need to do so. The wind-up speeches will begin at 4 o’clock, so if Members keep to that 15-minute guideline we will not need to impose any limits, but if speeches take longer we will have to impose a limit of eight to 10 minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time today, Ms Dorries. I welcome the measured way in which the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) put his case. I congratulate him and the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on applying to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. It is good to see so many people here in Westminster Hall on the day that the House rises, but what a pity it is that the debate is not being held in the Chamber itself, where we could have had an even longer and more detailed debate.
I respect the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is here, but I find it strange that an enormous amount of Conservative Members are here to discuss this important issue. I cannot believe that the issue is of concern only to those Members of Parliament who happen to be Conservatives or to their constituents. Surely there are Labour MPs with the same concerns, so why have they not joined him here today?
The remit of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee does not extend to controlling the diaries of members of the parliamentary Labour party, but it is their loss: I think it is important that we should be here participating in this debate.
We should start by acknowledging the strong and important relations that we have with Bulgaria and Romania. I visited both countries while I was Minister for Europe, when we started the enlargement process. The ambassadors representing the two countries here are excellent, as are our ambassadors in Sofia and Bucharest; in particular, I want to acknowledge the way in which Martin Harris, our ambassador in Bucharest, is ensuring that good relations between our two countries are fostered even at this challenging time.
The Home Affairs Committee has been looking at the issue of the transitional restrictions for a number of years and has made a number of recommendations. Earlier this year, with the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who is currently sitting on my right, and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), I went to Bucharest to meet members of the Romanian Government and to talk with members of the Romanian community. If there are regrets—I have a few regrets in my speech—my primary regret is that the Immigration Minister and the Home Secretary have not taken the opportunity over the past year to go to Romania and Bulgaria and engage with those Governments. We talk about push and pull factors—why it is people decide to travel all the way from Bucharest or Sofia to live in Leicester, London or Manchester—and we should have worked with other Governments to find out the problems and look at the issues.
For example, in response to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), the hon. Member for Amber Valley referred to the number of talented people leaving Romania and Bulgaria. When we were in Bucharest, we spoke with the president of the Romanian equivalent of the British Medical Association. He lamented the fact that so many talented young Romanian doctors had decided to leave Romania to work in the United Kingdom and in other countries—on average they trebled or even quadrupled their salaries when they came to our countries—which was having a detrimental effect on Romania and Bulgaria. That is why I wish that the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister had visited, because they would have been able to establish a dialogue and try to see what we could have done to help those countries.
One way in which we could have helped was in respect of the huge amount of money that was allocated to Romania when it joined the European Union. It may surprise Members to note that 87% of the £20 billion that was given to Romania in pre-accession funds have still not been accessed, because sufficient assistance is not being given to the Romanian Government to ensure that they get the funds. If those funds were accessed, the jobs that people seek to find here might have been made available in those countries. Across the House, we all support the enlargement of the European Union; I cannot remember an occasion in the past 26 years when any party has voted against enlargement. We allow countries to join the European Union, but then we leave them on their own. Our Ministers should have engaged more—under the previous Government and under this Government—to ensure that there was proper access to those funds.
The big question that remains unanswered is why we still do not have estimates of how many people will come here next year. On 21 October 2008, the then shadow Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), said that one of the greatest failures of the last Government was the failure to predict the consequences of enlargement in 2004. Given that, research should have been conducted so that we would be aware—at least have estimates—of the numbers that would be coming into this country. For the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Amber Valley—the pressure on housing, on schools and on the health service—if we had even estimates it would be helpful. When we went to Bucharest, we came across a university that had conducted research and had produced estimates. It is very remiss of this Government not to have done the same.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the people most vulnerable to the next wave of mass immigration are not the people in this room? They are previous immigrants, particularly the last wave of immigrants. Competition for jobs, housing and public services will be intense, particularly in inner city areas such as his constituency.
It is intense, but I think we can deal with such issues. It is right that in the first wave of enlargement, a million people came, but a lot of those people have returned. We will come on to benefits later, but what upsets people more than anything else is the issue of those who, for example, claim benefits in the United Kingdom—38,000 from the EU—yet their children live in other EU countries. There are simple changes that we could make to satisfy our constituents, because I do not believe that the Romanians and Bulgarians who will come to this country are coming to go on benefits. They are coming to work. The migration process is for that purpose. Last week, the Select Committee had before it the chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee. We specifically asked Sir David Metcalf whether the Government asked him and his committee to conduct research into the number of people coming into this country after 31 December. He specifically said no. He said that they are set their homework by the Government, and the Government did not ask them to do that. I think that that is big mistake. We have estimates of annual migration that vary from 10,000, according to the Bulgarian ambassador; 20,000, according to the Romanian ambassador; and 50,000, according to Migration Watch. We have such problems because the Government were not prepared to ask the very body they established.
On the issue of changing the benefits system, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is difficult to contemplate the Government making changes when, at the moment, they do not even have data on the nationality of individual claimants? Back in January this year, I was told in answer to a parliamentary question that the UK’s benefit payment systems do not record details of claimants’ nationality. The most basic information is not being sought by the Government.
On that specific point, we asked the Migration Advisory Committee in 2011 the question about the labour market, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) referred. In its response, the committee stated:
“It would not be sensible, or helpful to policy makers, for us to attempt to put a precise numerical range around this likely impact.”
That was the advice it gave us, and that was the advice we followed.
I say to the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect—he is a hard-working and fair Immigration Minister, and I have seen quite a few in my time—he has obviously not had the time to read the evidence of Sir David Metcalf. I specifically asked him that question after it was also raised by others, and he said:
“we have never been tasked to make estimates of the numbers coming from Romania and Bulgaria.”
He said that last week. The Minister has quoted something from 2011, but frankly the chairman himself has not been asked yet.
David Metcalf was right in what he said, and I have read the transcript. The point is that he and his committee said that asking them to do that work would not be sensible or helpful because of the uncertainty, so it seemed pointless to ask them, because they had replied to the point when we commissioned them in 2011.
Surely the point is that the British public do not really care who said what to whom. They are disgusted that Her Majesty’s Government have failed in their basic duty to provide the British public with a realistic estimate of how many immigrants we might expect from 1 January.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The public would have liked figures. Now that we have the former Foreign Secretary’s mea culpas on the issue of estimates, it is important that we have them, even though there are only 12 days to go. So the first issue is estimates. The second is the confusion about what will happen on 1 January. According to the permanent secretary Mark Sedwill in evidence to us last week, Olympic-style arrangements are being put in place at our airports from 1 January onwards. As far as I am concerned, that is pretty tough stuff. There is obviously an expectation that a lot of people will turn up on 1 January.
In her evidence to us on Monday this week, the Home Secretary said that it was business as usual. So we have the permanent secretary thinking that there will be Olympic-style security and the Home Secretary thinking that it will be business as usual. Just to be sure, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood and I will be at Luton airport on 1 January. Mrs Dorries, that is not far from your constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. If you would like to join us, you are more than welcome. The first flight from Romania gets in at 7.40 am. The hon. Gentleman has said that he will be up at that time. The second flight comes in at 9 pm, but we will be there for the first flight to see what arrangements have been put in place and how many people turn up. If the only way to do it is with our own eyes, and nobody else wants to have estimates, I am afraid we will have to do that.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, who is going to make an excursion to an airport to see what is going on. I think he is doing that more for the media than for anybody else. I hope he recognises that there is already a right for visa-free travel for Romanians and Bulgarians to the UK right now. It has been in existence since 2007, so what will he achieve by going to an airport? He can see people coming through already, even today, let alone waiting until the new arrangements are in place in January.
The only thing that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that he should come and join us. If he thinks for one moment that the media will turn up at 7.40 am after the biggest party of the year—31 December —he will be very surprised. I do not expect that any of them will be there, but the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood and I, who are not big partygoers and who both abstain from the usual parties on new year’s eve, will be there.
However, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) makes a more valid point, in that people are already here. Of course they are, and therefore, if they are already here, we should also be considering what is happening to those people. At the end of the day, 1 January is the critical time. That is when the restrictions are to be removed.
I have been listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and I am still not sure of his direction of travel, if I may say that. I am not sure whether he is saying that Romanians and Bulgarians will suddenly buy tickets to get on a plane to come here and live off our exceedingly generous benefits system, and if so, we have heard what the Government are doing, which is to put far greater restrictions on the ability of those to come here, before they can claim benefits or even housing or anything like that—the Government are trying to deal with that issue; the longest period of time that somebody can claim will be six months, and they have to wait three months—or is he saying that they are coming here because there are lots of jobs?
I shall make some progress and if there is time, I shall certainly give way again.
There is a more fundamental issue here—that of freedom of movement. One cannot have freedom of movement without movement, which is why I think the fundamental issue is our presence in the European Union and what we are prepared to take, as far as the negotiations are concerned, should the Government win the next election and should the Prime Minister start on his discussions with EU colleagues. At the end of the day, we need to have a fundamental discussion about that, and if it means changing treaties, so be it. That is why I favour a referendum on our membership of the EU, because this issue is a sideline. I will probably—most likely—be on the other side to the vast majority of those in here, but I am saying that I want the right to make that case. I think that this is a village story at the moment for Westminster. Why can the people not have a say on the whole issue of freedom of movement? We can discuss Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and what will happen when Turkey becomes a member of the EU, but at the end of the day, that is one of the fundamental issues that we need to address.
No. I will not be voting Conservative. I shall be voting for myself and hopefully, I will still be the Labour candidate at the next election. However, I hope to be able to persuade the leader of the Labour party and others of the necessity to hold a referendum on the day of the next general election and not afterwards, because frankly, by then it will be too late. We should put something of that importance to the British people.
Finally, there are so many issues that need to be resolved before 31 December. Only yesterday, in one of the courts in Lincoln, Judge Sean Morris talked about the fact that it is now taking up to seven months for criminal records to be provided for those who come from Romania, who are subject to prosecution in our courts. Before the cut-off date of 31 December, so many issues need to be resolved that have not been resolved. We should have resolved those earlier, rather than leaving it to the very last minute. The Government should think carefully about how they will proceed after 31 December and see whether, because I do not believe for a moment that there will be any further opportunities to discuss this issue—of course, because Parliament is rising shortly—we should revisit some of the issues that have not been resolved and try to resolve them as quickly as possible.
I shall end where I began. We are in the EU and we have good relations with the two countries. We welcome people who come to this country from Romania and Bulgaria as equal EU citizens, but we want them to play their part fully in the life of our country. If they are to be treated as equal EU citizens, and if there are problems with the way in which the system operates, we need to sort those out for the next time.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who, as usual, is speaking good sense. I was delighted to hear a shift in his position on the EU; up to now, he has been entirely against us coming out of the EU, and he has moved to being probably against us coming out. That is really good news.
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has prejudged my position on the referendum; I want entirely to hear what our Prime Minister achieves.
I am delighted that the excellent Minister for Immigration is here. The only thing I have to say about that is that we know that the Government have decided to give that Member of Parliament the most difficult area to deal with—the one that they are in trouble on. It is good to see him here, but it is a worry that the Government are relying not on getting the problem sorted out, but on having a very able Minister defend an absolutely impossible position.
One of the cornerstones and key strengths of the coalition is its tough stance on cutting immigration, which Labour allowed to soar to eye-watering levels. In 2010, we pledged to
“take steps to take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s—tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands.”
That is a common-sense policy, with overwhelming support. After a decade of Labour incompetence on the issue, it is long overdue.
The progress that we have made on cutting immigration to date is testament to the efforts of the Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I strongly believe that lifting the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants would jeopardise all the good work we have done, not only on getting immigration down, but on building new homes, improving public services and lowering unemployment.
Bulgaria’s new ambassador to the UK has claimed that hardly any Bulgarians want to move to the UK once restrictions are lifted, and that, more than anything, the change will hurt their economy. If that is the case, he should welcome continued restrictions. Government figures show that although overall immigration is down, eastern European immigration is bucking the trend, and is increasing. The number of people from Romania and Bulgaria settling in the UK has risen sharply, up from 37 in 2011 to 2,177 in 2012. Clearly, if the restrictions are lifted, those figures will increase dramatically, making them completely incompatible with the Government’s aim to reduce immigration.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to interrupt him. The number that we wish to control is the number of people from outside Europe. It is true, of course, that until now, we have got the figures for migration from within Europe down as well, but there is no promise from the Government that that will continue.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There is no guarantee at all. I am arguing that because of the removal of the restrictions, we will break that important promise.
It is common sense for us as a country to continue the restrictions, and the only obstacle to that is the European Union. That, however, is not an arrangement that the British people signed up to. The last time the people had a vote on the European Economic Community was in 1975. Needless to say, we now have an EU. When the EEC was in existence, it was a small group of prosperous western European countries. Now, the EU takes in poorer countries in central Europe that were formerly in the communist bloc. Old EU regulations and laws that applied to the European Economic Community have become seriously out of date; as a result, the EU is forcing on us a wave of immigration that the British public do not want and did not vote for, and that will have negative repercussions for our economy and our people.
This is the time when we need to stand up to the European Union and say, “Enough is enough.” Parliament is answerable to the British people, and therefore has sovereignty over the UK’s borders. We do not need to be told by a post-democratic body what our immigration policy is. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister stated that our country should welcome only those who came here to work hard. Relaxing the current arrangements and deregulating immigration from these two countries would do exactly the opposite.
I thoroughly welcome the Government’s Immigration Bill, and the proposals to restrict the access that immigrants have to the wealth of benefits that we offer. One such proposal is for an initial three-month period before benefits can be claimed. Migration Watch UK concludes that there are “very strong financial incentives” for Bulgarians and Romanians to move to the UK, partly due to the much higher wages and living standards in the United Kingdom.
I agree with my hon. Friend that EU laws are out of date, and that the income per capita is different in other countries, and that that is why people might want to move, but does he agree that rules are already in place allowing any Bulgarian or Romanian to come and gain work here? Doctors, nurses and so on can come already under the current arrangements, so my question is: who will be in the tranche of people arriving in January and February?
I am grateful for that intervention; my hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is right to say that Bulgarians and Romanians can come here if they satisfy the current requirements. I am absolutely in favour of continuing with that. The problem—it is a good point that he brings up, and it is one that I was moving on to—is that in Bulgaria the minimum wage is 73p an hour, and in Romania it is 79p, but in the UK the minimum wage is £6.31 for over-21s—nearly 10 times more than in Romania and Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Romania are two of the poorest members of the EU and do experience, I am afraid, levels of corruption. In 2010, gross domestic product per capita was £3,929 in Bulgaria and £4,682 in Romania, compared with Britain’s £22,426. Furthermore, there are 1.5 million people seeking work in Bulgaria and Romania.
It undoubtedly makes economic sense for individuals from these countries to migrate to the UK, regardless of whether they have the skills that we require. By lifting current restrictions, we leave ourselves wide open to a new wave of economic refugees, hoping to reap the rewards that this country has to offer. Those are pull factors that clearly cannot be addressed by reforming what benefits are available to immigrants. The UK is a fantastic place to live, and that is something to be proud of. Reforming the benefits system can only do so much; it cannot go far enough on its own when the fundamental issue is the lack of control that we appear to have over our borders.
The EU states that it has the power to control such reforms—common-sense reforms that are so badly needed to stop the abuse of public services by immigrants whom the EU is apparently forcing on this Government. There are still questions about how far the Immigration Bill can go before it is incompatible with EU law and the free movement of people. We are therefore left in a preposterous scenario in which the EU is trying to control not only who can come into this country, but what they can claim when they get here. It is an outrageous state of affairs, and we, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, need to say that we are ultimately sovereign over our own borders and the laws relating to domestic affairs.
The truth of the matter is that we do not know the extent of the upheaval that the removal of the restrictions will mean for our country, because we do not know how many people will come over. That is exactly the point that the right hon. Member for Leicester East made so powerfully. We learned that lesson from the 2004 influx of Polish immigrants. The Labour Government got it completely wrong and estimated that only 13,000 Poles would arrive; the figure turned out to be more than 100,000 a year at its peak.
Migration Watch UK has estimated that 50,000 immigrants will arrive from Romania and Bulgaria per year over the next five years. People might say, “Well, that’s Migration Watch,” but an independent think-tank, the Democracy Institute, has found to its surprise that
“the most alarming of the forecasts…is actually insufficiently alarmist.”
The institute projects that at least 70,000 immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria will arrive in the UK annually for the next five years, if the restrictions are lifted.
A poll by the BBC—not an organisation favourable to Eurosceptics—found that 1% of Romanians and 4% of Bulgarians said that they were looking for work in the UK. That would translate into 350,000 potential jobseekers in the UK. That is wholly contrary to our policy aims of cutting immigration and protecting the UK’s interests. At a time when we are making real inroads into cutting unemployment, the impact that an influx of immigrants would have on the job market would be detrimental to those looking for work and those on low wages.
In a very helpful intervention, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) pointed out that of course Romanians and Bulgarians can at the moment work in this country as self-employed people, and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said that he was happy with that. Does he agree that if we were able to speed up the length of time that it took them to get national insurance numbers, that would be one way of ensuring that the system works without having to change it?
I am grateful for that intervention. The simple answer is no. I think that we need to control our own borders. I do not think that we should be tinkering with the mechanisms; we should have complete control of what we do, as I think the right hon. Gentleman said in his concluding remarks.
A recent report on the economic effects of immigration found that those on the lowest wages feel the biggest impact of immigration, as immigration holds back the wages of the least well paid. We should be supporting those hard-working people, not eroding their wages by allowing uncontrolled immigration from countries with such vast economic differences. Moreover, although unemployment is down, youth unemployment is proving stubbornly high. With nearly 1 million under-25s still unemployed, the focus should be on helping them into jobs, not allowing into the job market an inpouring of immigrants who are looking for work.
Will my hon. Friend at least acknowledge that the Government’s policy, in the autumn statement, of abolishing the jobs tax for under-21s will encourage many small businesses, especially retailers, to hire young people? I go back to the question that I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills): there is a skills gap at the lower end, so who will fill that skills gap if we do not have people coming in from eastern Europe to plug that hole?
I am grateful for that intervention. No one in this Chamber is prouder than me of what this Government are doing to lower unemployment, and of the great efforts that the Prime Minister is making, but my hon. Friend is completely wrong on the second bit of the argument. We should not be paying jobseeker’s allowance to people who have the opportunity to work, but do not want to work. That is how those jobs will be filled—not by bringing people in from central Europe. Gosh, I got quite cross about that.
My hon. Friend proves the point that the basic requirement is to regain control of our borders. We do not have to worry about all the different arrangements, but we should be able to say to people from the EU, “No, you cannot come in unless we say so.” As the right hon. Member for Leicester East said, this goes back to the fundamental issue of whether we can get that control and still remain in the European Union. If we do not take decisive action now to control who settles in the UK, the figure will only rise. If we do not continue the restrictions, more unemployed migrants without the skills that we need will arrive in this country.
Not only is unrestricted migration from Romania and Bulgaria detrimental to many of the coalition’s key values and policy, but public opposition to lifting the restrictions is overwhelming. Two of the country’s leading newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Express, which many Members in the Chamber will agree speak for the British people, regard it as essential that the restrictions remain in place. The Sun found that
“42% of Brits believe slamming the door on EU migrants is of utmost importance and another 20% say it should be a major aim”.
The newspaper went on to say that if the Prime Minister could not achieve that, we should come out of the European Union.
The Daily Express has consistently opposed our membership of the EU. Its petition demanding the continuation of restrictions attracted more than 150,000 people, all of whom went to the trouble of cutting out a little slip from the paper and posting it. Many hon. Members in the Chamber had the great pleasure of taking those slips to Downing street and delivering them to the Prime Minister. On an e-petition on the Downing street website, another 150,000 people are demanding that the restrictions be kept in place. On the last day of term, 22 Members of Parliament have come to a Westminster Hall debate, in which we cannot even divide on the matter. Even the Chief Whip is here to listen to the debate. We know that the Chief Whip and the Government really want to tackle the problem, but the issue that they are wrestling with is whether to put the EU first and stay part of the club. Do they want to avoid offending the political elite and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, or do they want to put the British people first?
I hope that later in the debate the Chief Whip will catch your eye, Ms Dorries, and stand up and say that he has a message from the Prime Minister that the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration will continue.
The pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, is matched only by my joy at listening to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) when he opened the debate. I was also heartened by the contributions from the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone).
It says a lot that no Liberal Democrat MPs are present to debate this important issue. Not one of them could be bothered to turn up to the debate. They have gone on holiday a day earlier rather than talk about the most important issue on our constituents’ minds. At least the Labour party has one right hon. Member present on the Back Benches, and of course a presence on the Front Bench. There are 16 Conservative Members of Parliament here, because we listen to the concerns of our constituents and we know that this is an important issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the Liberal Democrats are not here because they know that in the quad—the extraordinary way in which the coalition is run—they have an effective veto? There is no need for them to come, because they know that they have a stranglehold over Government policy.
That may well be right. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that in a debate on a subject of such importance, some Liberal Democrat Members should have been present, not only to tell us their views but to listen to those of other Members of Parliament. Parliament is here to debate such issues, whether we agree with each other or not. By not turning up at all, Liberal Democrats are effectively refusing to engage with this important question.
Let me put my cards firmly on the table. I am not a supporter of our membership of the European Union. I believe that we should leave, and I support the Conservative party’s call for a referendum to give my constituents and others across the land their say about whether we should remain members. It represented a catastrophic loss of confidence in the nation’s future in the 1960s and 1970s that we decided to join the then Common Market, which mutated into the European Economic Community, the European Community and finally the European Union.
An individual would have to be in at least their mid-50s to have been able to take part in the referendum in 1975 on whether we should remain members, so a whole generation of the British public have never had their say on the matter. I am four-square behind the Conservative party manifesto promise to give the British people a say in 2017 on whether we should stay in or get out. I will vote to leave. I do not believe that renegotiation will work. I am not entirely convinced that Her Majesty’s Government will take the renegotiation as seriously as they should, but more or less nothing that could be achieved in the renegotiation would convince me that Britain was better off in the European Union. One reason for that is the cost; our annual membership fee is £10 billion and rising. Over the course of the coalition Government’s term, our total membership subscription will be almost twice what it was under the final term of the previous Labour Government. Our membership fee is simply too expensive. The other big reason why I will vote to leave is the reason we are here today.
My understanding is that the renegotiation has not started. The Government are undertaking a balance of competences review—a ridiculous name that nobody understands the meaning of—and are coming up with a list of items on which we will apparently renegotiate the terms of our membership. As far as I can tell, no chief negotiator has been appointed and renegotiation is not a Government policy but a Conservative party ambition.
The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party are doing their best to frustrate the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), which promotes an EU referendum. I am not entirely convinced, because no member of the Government has yet clarified this, whether if that Bill were to succeed in the other place and become an Act, it would form part of Government policy. We wait to hear from the Liberal Democrats on that.
I would welcome clarification from the Minister on that point, as would my hon. Friend. I welcome the Conservative party approach to cutting immigration, but I do not think it goes far enough. If I get to that part of my speech, I want to demonstrate why I do not think that aim can be achieved, not least because of our lifting of the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration. I am as sceptical as my hon. Friend about the way in which Conservative members of the Government, or the Government as a whole, may or may not start to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the European Union. I welcome the opportunity that I hope my constituents will have in 2017, under a majority Conservative Government, to have a say in a referendum.
The previous Labour Government’s lifting of the restrictions on immigration from the A8 eastern European countries was a catastrophic mistake. I would welcome a clear and frank apology from the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), for that huge “spectacular mistake”—the words of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Under the leadership of the Labour party, the Home Office estimated a maximum net inflow from the A8 nations of 13,000 a year through to 2010. In the end, the total is one million and rising. Her Majesty’s Government under the coalition have declined to estimate the numbers at all, lest they make a similar error. That is not good enough. They should have at least tried to commission some research to have some feel of the number who might come to our shores, not least because local authorities, schools, hospitals and police services need to know the potential impact of immigration on their communities.
The only helpful estimate we have is provided by Migration Watch, which I think everyone agrees has a tremendous reputation on immigration matters.
My apologies, Ms Dorries, I did not intend to make another intervention—I feel I have had my share already—but there is an important matter about my hon. Friend’s point. I looked carefully at the comparison with Poland and the Migration Watch numbers. It made a direct comparison with Poland, which I am afraid is disingenuous. When many Polish people decided in 2004 to come to the UK, other possible countries were closed to them, because they had used their rights and closed their borders. The Migration Watch numbers are slightly misleading because they compare the Polish numbers then with Romanian and Bulgarian numbers now.
My hon. Friend needed to pay more attention to the presentation. The estimate is 30,000 to 70,000 a year, with a central estimate of an increase of 50,000 a year in the population for five years, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East said. The estimate is based in part on the precedent set by the A8, but also on the growth rate of the current Romanian and Bulgarian population in the UK and the number of national insurance numbers issued, as well as the disparity in incomes and living standards between the UK and Romania and Bulgaria. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) will appreciate that the disparity between us and Romania and Bulgaria is rather bigger than the one between us and Poland. A Romanian or Bulgarian moving to the UK to work at the minimum wage could increase his take-home pay by four and a half to five times, after accounting for the cost of living. Families could increase their income by between eight and nine times. To put it another way, workers on the minimum wage in the UK could earn in one hour roughly what could be earned in a day in Romania or Bulgaria.
There are other factors to consider. Spain and Italy, where unemployment is now very high, especially among the young, have nearly one million Romanian and Bulgarian workers each. A worker from Romania or Bulgaria could increase his take-home pay in Spain or Italy by at least 50% if he or she were to move to the UK. Another serious issue, to which I have not had a satisfactory response from the Minister despite raising it on the Floor of the House, is that Romania is known to have issued some 600,000 passports to ethnic Romanians from Moldova. Moldova is not a member of the European Union and yet a significant proportion of its population has the right to move to, live in and work in the UK. I am sure that that was never the intention of the accession treaties. The number of ethnic Roma from Romania and Bulgaria who might migrate is another factor to consider, but the numbers are extremely uncertain. Substantial numbers of Roma people live in poor conditions in a number of EU countries. An estimated 2.5 million Roma live in Romania and Bulgaria.
There have been welcome changes, such as the Government’s announcement about out-of-work benefits for people coming from Romania and Bulgaria. The announcement was good, but do the measures also apply to tax credits? I would like a specific response from the Minister. Does the new three-month rule for entitlement to out-of-work benefits extend to people from other EU member states or only to those from the new entrants, Romania and Bulgaria?
Crime is a big concern. To put the issue into a pithy sentence, I would say that we are importing a wave of crime from Romania and Bulgaria. I put it as strongly as that deliberately. There are no powers to deport EU citizens, unless they have been convicted of an offence that attracts a two-year prison sentence or a sentence of 12 months or more for an offence involving drugs, violence or sexual crime. We should be able to deport any foreign national, whether from an EU or non-EU state, to their country of origin if they are convicted of any crime in this country. That is one thing on which I agree with the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who said that on the Floor of the House when he was Prime Minister, but sadly his Government did nothing. The right hon. Member for Leicester East, who is currently conversing with you, Ms Dorries, mentioned Judge Sean Morris, who said in court the other day to Romanians and Bulgarians,
“don’t come here and commit crime.”
He has delayed sentencing one such criminal, because of his frustration with delays of six months and more in obtaining criminal records from the Romanian authorities, and he has called on Ministers to do something about it. In Westminster Hall some months ago, I raised directly with the Minister the issue of the number of criminals from Romania and Bulgaria coming to our shores. There is a crime wave, particularly in London and particularly on the London underground, to do with Romanians.
I am sorry to arrive in the middle of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He raises an issue that resonates closely. Just across the river from the House of Commons, there is an increasingly difficult problem with many people doing exactly what he describes in the Waterloo area. Everyone gets involved—the police and the community safety teams—but at the end of the day, they can do nothing to get those people, some of whom do not even have the right to be here as EU citizens, out of the country. People are getting angry. I hope the Minister will respond to that.
Given that two hon. Members have raised the question, and given that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) takes part in crime fighting directly, I think it would be helpful to give an answer. The order I signed and laid before the House on 6 December, which I will set out in more detail later, enables us to remove from the UK people who are not here to exercise treaty rights—those committing low-level, but damaging crimes, begging and sleeping rough—and importantly stop them from coming straight back again, unless they are coming to exercise those rights. That is an important power and change that goes some way to addressing the concerns of my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady.
It does indeed go some way, and I am grateful for it, but sadly the changes do not go far enough. Those people can be sent back under the order he mentions to their country of origin, but in a certain amount of time, they can come back to our shores. I have a private Member’s Bill on the Order Paper that would ban foreign nationals who commit an offence in this country from ever returning to our shores. I think that measure would enjoy popular support.
The scale of this crime wave is really quite startling. Romanians are seven times more likely to be arrested in London than British nationals; Romanians account for more than 11% of all foreign offenders in the UK, despite currently making up just a tiny proportion of foreign residents here; and last year Romanians accounted for almost half of all arrests for begging and a third of arrests for pick-pocketing in the capital. I declare in my interests that I am a special constable with the British Transport police on the London underground, and I can say that eight out of 10 pick-pockets are from Romania. So the whole thing is completely out of control and the Romanian authorities need to provide the British police with information about the Romanian criminals that they know are in this country far more quickly than they are currently providing it.
The background to all this is that we are a crowded island. What the British people object to is not the nationality of someone coming to our shores, the colour of their skin or the language that they speak. What my constituents object to—what the British people object to—is the numbers coming to our shores, with which our crowded isle cannot cope.
We are now told that, according to official Government statistics, some 43% of new housing requirements are because of immigration. Immigration is driving up our population to unsustainable levels, and we have a population boom that is fuelled by EU migration. Indeed, Polish immigration has contributed almost half of the UK’s recent population growth. Half of all foreign-born residents currently in the UK have come here since 2001. From 2001, the number of foreign-born residents rose by almost 3 million, and yet in the 50 years beforehand only 2.7 million people arrived in the UK from abroad. There has been more immigration to our shores since 1950 than there was in all the time between 1066 and 1950. We are one of the most densely crowded countries in the European Union.
The vast majority of people who have come here in recent times have come from Poland. Poles are now the second largest group of foreign-born nationals in the UK, with only Indians having a larger presence. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2011 there were 7.5 million non-UK-born residents in the country—13% of the population—and it is migration that has contributed to just less than half of that population change in the last 60 years. The non-UK-born population has almost quadrupled since 1951, from 4.3% of the population to 13.4%. My contention is that our crowded island cannot cope with this level of population increase, because our population is set to rise, according to official statistics from the ONS, by 9.6 million people by 2037, reaching a total of 73.3 million people, a level of population that our country has never had to cope with before.
Unless we close the door to immigration from EU states, my contention—on behalf of my constituents—is that our country will struggle to cope, and not just in our capital city or our other big metropolitan areas but in semi-rural areas, such as my constituency of Kettering, where the number of houses is set to increase by a third within the next 25 years.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship today, Ms Dorries.
I am delighted to participate in this important debate. It has been very interesting so far and I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to many of the points that have been made. However, a myth can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, so I welcome the opportunity this debate gives to add some facts and figures, and indeed corrections, to some of the quite barmy assumptions that have been made in the wider debate—not necessarily here today—that then get repeated and seem to gain credence.
I wish to challenge a couple of the points that have been made already today. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), who is no longer in his place, suggested that we should adopt Switzerland’s immigration policy, or that our relationship with the EU should be that of Switzerland. Well, read any of the Swiss newspapers or visit Switzerland, and guess what the key issue is for the Swiss? It is immigration, and the numbers of immigrants into that country are proportionally much higher than they are for the UK.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is also no longer in his place; I do not know why people decided to depart just as I got to my feet. He made some interesting points about jobs. That issue needs to be clarified, because it is very much the case that Romanians and Bulgarians can work here. First, they have the right to travel here visa-free and, secondly, they can indeed work here, whether they are self-employed, have particular expertise—as doctors, nurses and so forth—or participate in agricultural work. There are restrictions in place, of course, for temporary work permits, and there are quota schemes, to allow low-skilled workers to come here too. I understand that the biggest group of foreign nationals who helped to build the Olympic stadium actually came from Romania. Apparently, there were more Romanians working on that stadium than people of any other nationality.
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
I am not arguing that more or fewer Romanians and Bulgarians should come here. I am simply saying that this important aspect of the debate on immigration needs to be considered in a sensible and measured way. We need to have a policy that is not determined by fear. I genuinely worry that the debate around immigration—to mention this is to slip slightly into a bigger debate on whether we should be in or out of the EU—has become very binary. It is the little Englanders, if you like, versus the multicultural open-door approach, but I would argue that in many cases that does not apply, by any stretch of the imagination.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me, because in trying to make his point, he brackets me. I am trying to say that we should not have these brackets, but unfortunately the way that the arguments often go is that people get shunted, one way or another, into these brackets. I am saying that they are wrong and it does not help the debate about what we are focusing on today, which is immigration and dealing with the prospect of what will happen on 1 January with Bulgaria and Romania. I would like to have a more cognitive debate, a more measured debate, and less one that is based either on fear or emotion. Consequently I apologise to my hon. Friend if in any way he felt offended by what I said.
Managed migration certainly has enormous benefits: for education; for business; and for filling the gaps in the labour market, which have been mentioned already.
I will just finish this point. However, the key word is “managed”. I am looking around the Chamber and—Ms Dorries, you seem to have changed. [Laughter.] I am looking around the Chamber and I think that we would all agree, bar possibly the Front-Bench spokesmen, that migration has not been managed well, particularly during the last decade.
I give way to my hon. Friend from a neighbouring constituency.
I was going to take up the same point about the issue of “managed” migration. Is not the issue that we face, in dealing with our constituents’ concerns about immigration, that at the moment we as a country are not in a position where we can manage our own borders and decide who can come to our country, and who can stay and receive benefits. Surely we should be emphasising that, as a sovereign country, we should be able to determine these issues ourselves and not have solutions to them imposed on us by the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I listened to his contribution earlier too. I was making the point that, during the past decade, huge mistakes have been made—I will discuss them shortly—but now there are measures in place to rectify that situation.
I am honoured to represent Bournemouth East, a wonderful part of Great Britain that very much reflects the national approach to running a liberal, open, free market economy. As a seaside town, we are reliant on both domestic and overseas visitors. We are served by an international airport and we have a university that is internationally recognised as one of the best in the world for digital and creative arts. We attract international businesses. JP Morgan, a US bank, and one of the biggest banks, is the largest employer in Bournemouth; our water company is run by a Malaysian company; our Yellow Buses transport company is French-owned; and, yes, the football club is owned by a Russian. Our tourism sector is huge. We are heavily reliant on overseas workers to do the jobs many British people refuse to do, because the dog’s breakfast of our benefits system has perverse incentives, resulting in people being worse off if they gain part-time employment. That left gaps in the employment market that needed to be filled.
I worry that, unless our debate on immigration is measured, rational and, of course, resolute, the unintended consequence of leaping to solutions, such as those calls we heard today to leave the EU, will damage or possibly kill off genuine international interest in inward-investment opportunities, as well as export prospects and British influence abroad. The perception will prevail—indeed, it will be promoted by other countries that are competing against us—that Britain is not open for business.
We should not forget our heritage and who we are. We are a nation with a rich history of immigration, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), who is sadly no longer in his place, articulated in a previous immigration debate. This island has been invaded, or settled in other forms, by Angles, Jutes and Norsemen in the dark ages, Normans, Jews and Huguenots in the middle ages, Italians and Irishmen in the 1800s and, more recently, people from the Caribbean and the Asian sector, as well. Our monarchy was, on more than one occasion, short of an obvious candidate for the top job, and we invited outsiders to fill that post, such as William and Mary of Orange, for example, or George I, Queen Anne having no surviving children. We need to be honest about our past.
We have also taken more than a shine to emigrating to all corners of the globe in the past 600 years. Britain has prospered, since the war, thanks to expanding trade links with Europe, and British and European security has improved, thanks to Britain championing the case for bringing nations that languished behind the iron curtain into NATO and the EU. We have been one of the strongest supporters of the single market. Naturally, our concerns about Bulgaria and Romania will be repeated when, in due course, Turkey, Ukraine and Bosnia hopefully enter the wider market. It is in our interests that the European market should grow, for all our citizens and businesses to have the opportunity to work in other European countries.
It is no coincidence that our attitude to being international now means that 80% of the cars that we produce are exported, 50% of them into the EU. That would not happen if we did not have the approach to internationalism that we have today.
Again, I am invited to wander away from the debate about immigration, into the wider, albeit important, debate about the virtues of the EU. What would happen if we went down my hon. Friend’s route and left the EU? If he thinks for a second that the countries remaining in Europe would leave tariffs as they are or allow us to have similar tariffs to Switzerland, and so on, he is wrong. We would then be seen as the competition and France would be first to say, “Let’s make it tougher for Britain to participate or trade with us.” That is exactly what would happen.
There is a notion that we can somehow say no to the EU or park the matter to one side and look to the emerging markets. Let us take one huge example. We tried to sell the Eurofighter to India, a close Commonwealth country, but it went with the French Rafale aircraft instead. It is not so simple to say, “Let’s ignore the EU” and suddenly embrace the Commonwealth, which we anticipate would have closer relationships with us.
Of course, my hon. Friend’s example may reflect the wisdom or otherwise of naming products we are trying to export with the “Euro” prefix. More worryingly, it is preposterous to say that tariffs would go up, when Germany sells more to us than it does to any other country in the world, including France. The EU is treaty bound to negotiate a free trade agreement with any state that needs it.
I do not think the name of the aircraft was the precursor of the deal falling through or the reason why it did so. I could have said “Typhoon”, as my hon. Friend is aware.
The majority would agree with the approach that I have spelled out, but fundamental flaws, out-of-date practices and British schoolboy errors have allowed a scale of migration into the UK over one decade that is incomparable with the spikes in migration on this island in all its history, as I mentioned earlier. That is what concerns my constituents and those of other hon. Members.
Let us look at some of those mistakes. Like other hon. Members, I am sorry that there are now no Labour Back Benchers—[Interruption.] I am sorry; apart from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who was not here at the beginning, there are none here to put the case. And there is not a single Lib Dem here, either.
Under Labour, in 2004, there was a deliberate policy of uncontrolled migration, resulting in more than 1 million people coming from central and eastern Europe, who now live here. Why? Because the UK completely opted out of the transitional controls on new EU member states. Britain was the only country to do so, ignoring the right to impose a seven-year ban before new citizens could come and work here. We were almost all alone in Europe.
I am not sure that the apology will be accepted by a nation that is now having to live with the consequences. As we have seen, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) is now embarrassed to admit that that was a huge mistake. I am sorry that the hon. Lady was not more vocal at the time or that her voice was not listened to, because that decision has had a profound effect, not only in respect of migration, but on the balance in the UK, as has already been mentioned.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Aside from the administrative errors, pressures on housing, benefits and health services, and so on, as he implies, the scale of migration in the last decade has challenged the very Britishness of some communities—what defines us: our values; our culture; who we are. Of course, that is an evolving thing and measured migration can be absorbed into it, but when overloaded—when diasporas move here on such a large scale—there is such an impact that it can be unmanaged, in that sense, and have a negative impact on those who are already here.
Let us not slip away from what Labour did in the last decade that was so wrong. It introduced eight Acts of Parliament, but it had no control over immigration despite those and illegal immigrants were free to abuse our state services. Migration from non-EU member states also increased during that time. Indeed, twice as many came from non-EU countries as EU countries. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is so.
In the five years leading up to the economic downturn—this is the real message—more than 90% of the increase in employment was accounted for by foreign nationals. We were creating jobs in this country and giving them to people from overseas. That cannot be right. To put that another way, one in 10 new jobs was given to a British person. I am pleased to say that that is not the case today with the 1.1 million new private sector jobs that have been created. To compound matters, employers targeted eastern European countries, to pay less than the minimum wage. In 2009, for example, 2,000 firms were fined for doing this. Thanks to stricter rules, that figure has now fallen.
Another area of abuse was student visas, and we felt the impact in Bournemouth too. Bogus students were attending bogus colleges, but, thankfully, that has also now stopped. International education is clearly important, with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimating that it is worth £8 billion. It is important to get our approach right, and given the importance of language schools to Bournemouth, people there expect us to.
Arguably, Labour’s biggest failure was failing to inspire a younger generation to work. Thanks to the something-for-nothing culture, a skills gap developed. If it does not pay to work, or if British people lack the necessary skills, that creates a huge space in our labour market for people from overseas to fill. We cannot blame people for wanting to come here and work hard, but the real answer lies in training our own people to fill these jobs. If we add to that the way in which the benefits system was abused, we can see why we ended up with the mess we inherited in 2010.
I am pleased to see the changes the Government have introduced. When passed into law, the Immigration Bill will upgrade the previously dysfunctional UK Border Agency, making it easier to send offenders back overseas. It will also cut the abuse of the appeals process, which originally had, I think, 17 different stages that could be put to appeal. In addition, it will oblige temporary immigrants seeking to stay longer than six months to pay a surcharge on their visa to cover NHS costs, should they use the health service. Finally, it will tackle sham marriages, to which more than 10,000 visa applications were linked every year.
As the Prime Minister announced last week, we are building a welfare system that encourages work and that is not so accessible to migrants, so no one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately. We will not pay those benefits for the first three months. If, after those three months, an EU national needs benefits, we will no longer pay them indefinitely. Migrants will also be able to claim for only a maximum of six months unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment. In addition, there will be a minimum earnings threshold, and if migrants do not pass the test, access to benefits such as income support will be cut. Finally, newly arrived EU jobseekers will not be able to claim housing benefit.
Those are welcome changes. If people are not here to work, or if they are begging or sleeping rough, they will be removed. They will be barred from re-entry for 12 months, unless they can prove there is a proper reason for them to be here, such as a job. Such steps have already been taken by other countries, such as Holland and Germany.
As we have seen, the Government’s policies are having an impact, with a drop in net migration of more than one third. Immigration from outside the EU is now at its lowest level for 14 years. With the new measures I have described, however, that drop will continue.
The best person to clarify that will be the Minister, but those are the figures that I have been presented with. Indeed, they were put forward by the Home Secretary when the Immigration Bill was read for the Third time a couple of weeks ago.
To return to a point on which I think there will be more common ground, given what my hon. Friends have already said, the EU needs to change. It needs to recognise that its rules are out of date. There is a disparity between the income per head of joining members and that of other member states. It is so large that it is not surprising that some people will choose to abandon their own country and move to a richer one.
In a way, that point has already been answered. There are those who get through the system and who are here already, which is why it was rather bizarre that the right hon. Member for Leicester East was going to go to Luton airport to watch people coming through. If people are determined to get through the system, they can already get here visa-free. However, the Prime Minister has made it clear that that will no longer be tolerated under the new rules.
It is important we take the lead in the EU. Some of my hon. Friends have no faith in what can be achieved, but I believe that, for the first time in many years, Britain is taking the lead in the EU, and British influence is increasing. Labour gave away our opt-out and our fishing rights, and it opened our borders when Germany, France and others decided to keep theirs closed. In contrast, this Government have managed to secure a trade deal with South Korea, and there is a trade deal with America in the offing. We have also had the first ever reduction in the EU budget, and there is an EU patent agreement—something that extends right across Europe.
Those things came about not just because of agreement in Europe, but because they were British-led initiatives. When we decide to step forward and we understand what is going on, other nations around Europe follow us. I am not sure Labour particularly understood that, and nor, if we are fair, did this Government. We can influence the direction of travel in Europe; we do not have to leave that to France and Germany, and we should not have an attitude that says we should. If we do leave things to them, and we do not affect the decisions that are made upstream before legislation is created, we have no right to complain about the outcome.
In conclusion, migration is a sensitive subject at any time, but thanks to the disastrous decisions taken by the previous Government, it has become very emotive indeed. We are overdue tougher migration rules, and I am pleased this Government are now producing them. However, the challenge posed by new EU immigrants could have been avoided had tougher decisions been taken further down the line.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on initiating the debate. I also congratulate my 73 parliamentary colleagues who, like me, signed his amendment to the Immigration Bill, although, regrettably, it will not be considered this side of 1 January 2014. However, it is an important amendment that would extend the transitional controls for an extra five years, and we will debate it next year.
Let us be clear about what the debate is not about: it is not about a zero-immigration policy, and it is not about closing this country’s borders to every other country in the world. It is, however, an expression of concern about the fact that, while my hon. Friend the Minister and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), have done sterling and impressive work in restricting influxes of unskilled labour from non-EU countries, we have not been able to effect the same restraint in respect of EU countries. That is the heart of the matter.
Just to be crystal clear, I want to put on record my gratitude to our splendid Home Secretary and the two Immigration Ministers we have had in this Parliament, who have moved this country much more towards the Australian model. We now have a rigorous points system for those who wish to come into this country from outside the EU; those people must have skills and something positive to contribute. However, when it comes to the EU, because of its quite pernicious freedom of movement rules, we are having to have this debate.
All of us in the room who speak to our constituents know that this is the No. 1 concern for the public after the economy. Only a few days ago, in a national newspaper, the opinion pollsters Harris found, in a very large poll, that 82% of adults in this country did not want the transitional controls that currently exist for Romania and Bulgaria to be lifted, while 85% thought that migration was putting huge pressure on our schools, hospitals and housing stock.
Although the 74 signatories to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley are predominantly Conservative Members, this debate is not a purely Conservative party concern. It is a fatal misreading of British public opinion to assume that it is something to do with Conservative Members being worried about the UK Independence party. It is much more important, for reasons I shall develop, but we know one thing about this issue: two rather good Labour former Home Secretaries do not have a problem with the proposal. In recent days, we have heard from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on his concerns about what may happen on the streets of Sheffield when transitional controls are lifted; and from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).
It is worth repeating why the right hon. Member for Blackburn thought the influx from a new EU accession country had deleterious consequences for civil society and the economy. He said, a matter of days ago, about the events of 2004:
“Thorough research by the Home Office suggested that the impact…would in any event be ‘relatively small, at between 5,000 and 13,000 immigrants per year up to 2010.’
Events proved these forecasts worthless.”
There is, then, some cross-party agreement on the potential influx of Romanians and Bulgarians from 1 January. We are talking about an indeterminate number. I shall disagree in only one respect with my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone): I understand why Home Office Ministers will not enter the territory of forecasting numbers; they would almost certainly be proved wrong.
Let us explore how many Bulgarians and Romanians might be attracted to living, settling and working in our country. It is estimated that 23,000 workers from Romania and Bulgaria have come to this country in the past 12 months, under the existing rules; they have been able to come if they are self-employed or work in agriculture, or, equally, if they can get a work permit to do a job that the UK Border Agency thinks cannot otherwise be done by an indigenous British worker. They certainly like coming to Britain; 23,000 did in the last 12 months.
We also know from the statistics that there are now 135,000 Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK, which compares with a 1997 figure of 2,000. A leap from 2,000 in 1997 to 135,000 this year is pretty persuasive evidence that people in that part of south-east Europe rather like what is on offer in the United Kingdom. Also, in the past 12 months, one in six applications for vocational courses in British colleges was made by people from Romania or Bulgaria.
As we have already heard, Migration Watch UK estimates that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians coming here to work or seek work could be anything over 50,000 a year for five years. I do not know whether that is correct, but we can certainly expect a considerable number over and above the number of Poles who came between 2004 and 2010, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn so powerfully reminded us. Ministers generally have my respect, but it is not good enough to say, on the basis of virtually no evidence, “Well, Romanians and Bulgarians will probably prefer Germany as a destination.” I have seen no evidence for that, but hope I have cited evidence that there are many reasons to suspect that they will want to come to the United Kingdom.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s impressive speech. Is not London one of the big United Kingdom pull factors? It is the biggest city in Europe apart from Moscow, and the most cosmopolitan city in the world where everyone speaks or learns English. It is a city such as no other country in Europe has.
Indeed. I am reminded of Cecil Rhodes’s comment that to be born a free-born Englishman was to have won first prize in the lottery of life. English as the world language is obviously the reason why so many migrants want to come from within and outside the EU, and attend language schools in this country. My hon. Friend is correct in suspecting that London will be a huge magnet for Romanians and Bulgarians. There are perfectly understandable reasons for them to want to come to this country, and many will no doubt want to work hard. Perhaps some will take jobs illegally under the minimum wage level of £6 an hour. We do not criticise those individuals who want a better life; we merely suggest that what I have outlined is a luxury that the country cannot afford, now or in the future.
On the argument about where people might go, my hon. Friend considered the facts regarding the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who are already here, but let us look at the other countries mentioned. Italy did not have transitional controls, and there are 1 million Romanians and Bulgarians there. Spain and Germany did, and 500,000 Romanians and Bulgarians went to Germany and 1 million to Spain. I do not say that that is conclusive, but it may be one aspect of what was meant when it was suggested that there is a range of options for Romanians and Bulgarians besides coming to the United Kingdom.
One could argue that in Germany and the other countries my hon. Friend mentioned, job vacancies for Romanians and Bulgarians are perhaps pretty much full up now, and they may want to try their luck in the United Kingdom, where, if they do their research, they will understand there are many job vacancies that remain unfilled, despite the economic recovery, and that there could be rich job pickings. However, I do not think that the argument can be made conclusively either way.
I am getting rather tired with the argument that all immigration to this country is by definition good, in economic terms. First, I pray in aid a 2008 report of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which made the point that total output can be driven up by increasing the number of people in the country. The greater the population, the greater the economic growth. That is an economic truism that no one disputes. However, the Committee also said that that was beside the point. What matters is not GDP, but GDP per capita. A much larger population, generating a higher total output, means there is a bigger cake; but there are also more people who want a slice of it.
The key point, which the Home Secretary and her Ministers have identified, is that this is not just about getting bodies into the country to generate more economic growth; it is about getting the right people in, with the skills and specialisms that we need. That, almost by definition, means small numbers of immigrants, who will meet a high-skill, high-value-added specification—not tens or even hundreds of thousands, as there were in the case of Poland and other accession countries in 2004. I fear that what happened then will also happen with Romania and Bulgaria.
If anyone is thinking of references for the debate, many arguments have recently been made about work by University college London that argues that immigrants contribute more in tax than they ever take in benefit. I do not have time to say why that work is grossly inadequate. Another grossly inadequate body, in my view, is the Office for Budget Responsibility, which in the past six months has blithely said that, unless this country has 7 million more immigrants between now and 2050, we will not cut our deficit and our national debt. Those figures are “Through the Looking Glass” stuff. I repeat again that the current Home Office Ministers understand that truth, but they are not able to say that they have made it tougher for EU migrants to come here, as they have with non-EU migrants. As a result of the EU treaties, Ministers have not been able to impose such welcome discipline on the number of EU migrants coming into this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) talked about the polarity—which he helped to set up, if he will allow me to say so—between little Englanders and free traders. I like to think that I am a free trader, and I want to run the Prime Minister’s global race, as I am sure we all do. I can hardly wait to run that race. As a free-market, right-of-centre—nay, right-wing—Conservative, I believe in free trade and Britain facing outwards to the world, but we should still understand that the best way to earn our way in the world is not to open our doors willy-nilly to an undifferentiated mass of workers from other countries, when we have no way of sifting to see what skills they have and how highly specialised those skills are. We can do that for workers from the rest of the world, but we cannot do it for workers from the EU.
Over the past year, as we all know, the British economy has begun to recover, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his tenacity in sticking to his economic project. Private sector employment is now at an all-time high. In the past, as the number of job vacancies increased, the response from employers in this country would have been to increase wages to attract the best workers. When the economy grew, wages grew. That is a fairly uncontroversial proposition, but that link seems to have been broken in the current recovery. The number of people in employment has increased, but real wage growth has been flat.
With gross migration to this country running at some 500,000 a year, and with many of those migrants coming from low-income countries, there is not much incentive for employers to increase wages. In 2004, when the Labour Government lifted the restriction on Polish and other eastern European workers coming into this country, the average wage in Poland was just 42% of the average wage in the UK. If a Polish plumber could more than double his salary by coming over to fit bathrooms in Wellingborough rather than Warsaw, who could blame him for jumping on the next easyJet flight? Good luck to him.
Although some think that lifting restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians will somehow produce a different outcome, we should bear in mind the following facts, which have been alluded to in earlier contributions. Average wages in Bulgaria and Romania are currently 31% and 34% of average wages in the UK respectively. That is even lower, relative to the UK, than Polish wages were in 2004.
Wage levels in the UK have been fairly flat recently, but since 2004, wages paid to workers in so-called elementary occupations, such as manual labourers and cleaners, have declined by 8%. Wages have not been flat. At the very lowest end, we have seen a very large fall in wages. Cleaning jobs and labouring jobs are hard, difficult and often monotonous work, but they are the sorts of jobs that many immigrants drift towards, at least when they first arrive in a country and need a job fast. Many immigrants have a strong work ethic. It is not surprising that several academic studies in many countries have found a close link, over time, between the scale of migration to a developed country such as ours and the wages of less-skilled workers. Those wages go down or stay flat.
If the restrictions are lifted—and it looks as if they will be—and there is an influx into this country of an indeterminate number of Bulgarians and Romanians, jobs in the elementary occupations might be paid at below the legal minimum wage. Why might that be? Paying below the minimum wage is, of course, illegal, but it is certainly anecdotally true that many immigrants do not have a tendency to inform the authorities that they are receiving £3 or £4 an hour, rather than the £6-plus that is the legal minimum in this country.
The problem of British workers being undercut by EU workers—in this case Bulgarians and Romanians—who are willing to accept extremely low wages, sometimes perhaps illegally low wages, may get worse in the coming year. This statistic has been mentioned before, but it bears repeating: the legal minimum wage in both Romania and Bulgaria is under 80p an hour; in the UK it is well over £6 an hour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough recited. One factor that we all know, and which has also been referred to, is that British workers do not want low-paid jobs. We hear all the time that young people do not want to take jobs in domiciliary care, nursing homes and so on. Suffice it to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is doing excellent work in reforming the benefit system, but there is more to do.
We cannot say yet that the welfare reforms have been a success. As Andrew Green, the chairman of Migration Watch UK, reminds us, it is inexcusable for British employers not to give British workers a level playing field on recruitment. The key point is that, with 1 million young people not in employment or training, it is imperative that they are given a chance to get on the work ladder. The route to proper employment has to start somewhere, and 1 million young people in our country are not doing anything at all. It is fairly inevitable that the influx of Bulgarians and Romanians will crowd out the opportunities for young people to move off benefits and into productive work.
I will close my remarks by saying that we may have lost the argument on lifting the controls, but I hope that this debate, and the further debates that I trust we will have in 2014, will move on to new territory. That territory must include the views attributed to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who I understand has floated a cap on EU migrants to this country of 75,000. EU migrants to this country should be blocked from claiming benefits not just for three months, but for three years or more. Finally, freedom of movement from poorer countries should be restricted, and we should insist that such movement may happen only when the GDP of those countries has reached 75% of the UK’s GDP. I hope that those of us here today, and those who support my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, will press the Prime Minister to put such radical reform of freedom of movement at the very top of his list of renegotiation items when he comes to renegotiate this country’s future as it relates to the European Union.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing this important debate. I share his frustration at not being able to have a debate on the splendid new clause he has tabled on the Immigration Bill prior to the day of reckoning: 1 January 2014. The Government’s failure to organise such a debate is symptomatic of the causes of much cynicism among the public, because there is a big credibility gap between the politicians—the elected representatives—and our electors, who are absolutely of one mind that we must do something to address the problem. The Government, instead of addressing it and facing up to my hon. Friend’s new clause, have decided to defer consideration until the new year.
Those of us who argue that we should continue with transitional arrangements are finding common cause with Romania’s jobs Minister, Mariana Câmpeanu, who was reported in The Sun on Sunday on 15 December as being concerned that Romania has lost 3 million people since joining the European Union, many of whom are its most able and mobile workers. She said that she could do nothing to stop such people leaving for what she described as a “better life”, but she despaired that this country has a benefits system that discourages our people from working.
The same article, which was drawn to my attention in particular because one of the companies mentioned is based in my constituency, describes British companies going to Bucharest to recruit Romanian workers. The example from my constituency is of a company that goes out to recruit heavy goods vehicle or van drivers, because the HGV and van drivers available in this country are not prepared to do the extraordinary out-of-hours work or the one-off. They are prepared only to work the regular 40-hour week, and Romanian workers are much more flexible. If the Minister is not already aware of it, it is worth drawing his attention to a further complication caused by the driver qualification card, which the European Union now demands that professional drivers possess. Many van and HGV drivers in this country do not have it, and they must go through an expensive safety course in order to get one. In Romania, however, almost all of them have the card. The article quotes a taxi driver who says:
“You only have to drive for 10 minutes to pass the test.”
Such people will come to this country with this EU qualification, which will enable them to access work that our own people will not unless they undergo expensive training.
That is another adverse consequence of our membership of the European Union. The challenge for the Minister is how to solve the problems, which are of such concern to our constituents, if we do not leave the European Union. What is being said at the moment is, “Don’t worry; we’re going to change the rules.” My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) was just saying that the Prime Minister had floated a cap on the number of immigrants. That is the point. He has floated the idea, but he knows that he cannot possibly deliver. If there was any doubt about that, why is it that the European Court of Justice is now considering our habitual residence test, which is a modest control over access to benefits? We might hope that the European Union was moderating its view and becoming more reasonable about our country’s rights to decide who should be able to access taxpayer-funded benefits, but there is no evidence on the ground that that is what is happening. In fact, it is quite the reverse.
Meanwhile, as I heard in this room yesterday when I was in the Chair, our constituents are complaining about numbers of rough sleepers and homeless people, shortages of housing and of school places, particularly in primary schools, and pressure on hospitals. We have heard today about the pressure on the criminal detection and enforcement agencies, because of the propensity of certain groups of Romanians to engage in low-level crime. We have problems with building on green-belt land and so on. So many of these problems are associated with the fact that we are allowing this country’s population to rise far faster and to a greater extent than the people want. We are a small island. We are the most densely populated part of the European Union. Enough is enough. We are now facing large numbers of additional people coming to our country and we can do nothing about it.
Most of the figures are fiddled. When one prepares for a debate such as this, one is normally surprised at the information that comes from the brilliant researchers in our House of Commons Library. I will close by drawing attention to the disparity that they have identified between the number of people estimated to have come from Bulgaria and Romania on one criterion—the one that the Government use—which says that net migration averages at fewer than 10,000 since 2007, and on another, which shows that the increase has been 25,000 a year or 148,000 in total over that period. The helpful Library note also refers to a report from July 2012 by the Office for National Statistics and states that
“there is evidence to suggest that estimates of migration flows between 2001 and 2011 may have underestimated the full extent of international migration.”
When the Government say that they are going to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, they are using figures that probably underestimate by half the actual extent of that migration. Even those figures are not correct.
In responding to the debate, I hope that the excellent Minister will be able to say how he thinks we can sort out these problems quickly, in line with the wishes of the British people and without leaving the European Union.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing the debate.
I was elected to this Parliament on the basis of a promise to cut immigration from hundreds of thousands a year to no more than tens of thousands a year. Many of my constituents voted for me on that basis. They had had enough of a Labour Government who oversaw uncontrolled immigration for year after year after year, and they wanted to see immigration cut. As a Member of this place and of the Select Committee on Home Affairs—I am delighted to have its Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), next to me—I have found that whenever we hold an inquiry into immigration all manner of people want to come in to tell us why there should be more immigrants for their particular vested interest, but hardly anyone, except Migration Watch UK, which is a superb, independent and thoroughly respected think tank, will put the counter-argument—
And of course the Minister, and his predecessor from Kent, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who also put forward that case.
Although the Government have taken a lot of action on immigration, much of which is in the detail of what has been done—I credit both Ministers for their work in that area—I am concerned that in several key areas we have relaxed what we should have done and perhaps originally intended to do. One such area was the number of people whom we allow in on inter-company transfers. When the Prime Minister went to India, he came under pressure, from Liberal Democrats and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, to put in place this loophole whereby people with incomes of down to the £24,000 or £30,000 level are allowed to come in for a certain period but then leave, and other people come in and also earn below the proper cap for inter-company transfers. That has put people in the IT industry in particular under intense pressure in terms of holding down wages in that sector and, I fear, has also increased the number of people in the country.
Another area is post-study work, which expanded under the Labour Government. As far as I can see, anyone can come here and do any course, and then stay on and work afterwards, or indeed while they are doing the course, with few if any questions asked. I was delighted when the Home Office said that it would get rid of that, but unfortunately it was then watered down under pressure from universities and, as ever, the Liberal Democrats. I would love to hear from the Minister whether they signed up to that policy, and whether it is a Government policy.
We then said that anyone who comes here and gets a degree from a university can stay on and work. We are subsidising our university sector through our immigration policy. The Government go on as though everyone else does it, but they do not. I studied in America, and it is difficult to stay on there afterwards. I think only Australia has a more obviously generous system than we do. Our universities should compete on the basis of their academic excellence, not on the basis of “If you come and study with us rather than with some other competitor, you’ll be able to stay on and work in the British labour market, and potentially stay on for ever thereafter.” The fact that we have allowed that loophole makes net migration higher than it otherwise would be, and we are further from hitting our target.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said that we have cut net migration by more than a third. I am afraid that his figures are significantly out of date, if indeed they had a solid basis when produced. He referred to a couple of weeks ago, “on Third Reading of the Immigration Bill”, which he may be aware has not actually happened yet.
I believe you said Third Reading. We shall see what the record says.
However, Third Reading has been delayed. It will not happen till the new year, although we do not know when. Perhaps the Minister can tell us that as well. Many of us think that it would be sensible to have a debate, or indeed a vote, on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley before the restrictions are lifted on 1 January rather than afterwards.
At the moment, the latest figures, up to June 2013, give 182,000 as the net migration figure, compared with the figure for 2009-10, the year before the election in which the coalition Government came to power, when it was 214,000. So net migration has been cut by just under 15%, which is barely one seventh, not more than one third, but I promised my constituents that if they elected me—if they had a Conservative or perhaps at least a Conservative-led Government—we would deliver on our promise to cut immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.
I was extremely concerned to read an interview apparently given by the Prime Minister to The Daily Telegraph in which he seems—perhaps I am wrong—to set aside that target. He seems to accept, or at least suggest, that the immigration target might not be hit, because we are taking in more people from the European Union. If we are not going to hit the target, as we promised our electors we would, we should change policy to ensure that we do hit it, either by getting rid of loopholes for Indian IT workers, post-study work or numerous others I could mention, or by taking some action on EU immigration.
I am pleased to say that at least some action is taking place. The change on benefits to three months is sensible, and I am pleased that it will be introduced before 1 January. It shows that Government can work on such things quickly when they want to. It is a shame that the same has not happened with regard to the Immigration Bill. We need the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley.
We have talked about estimates. To quote the Minister in The House magazine—I hope that this is accurate; I am sure it is—
“We consulted the Migration Advisory Committee on that question, and it advised us that making an estimate was not practical because of the number of variables, so we have not done so.”
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee mentioned that point and asked Professor Sir David Metcalf:
“If Ministers had said to you, ‘Sir David, could you please give us some estimates about the number of people coming in after 31 December?’, you would have happily obliged?”
“Yes, that is the role of the Migration Advisory Committee…if we were tasked by the Government to make such an estimate, it would be absolutely our job to do that, yes”.
But that estimate did not come.
I do not know what the numbers will be. I look forward to my trip to Luton on 1 January. Perhaps the Victoria coach station will also be another big point of entry. We can talk to some of those people and ask them whether they will be employed, or whether they purport to be self-employed, as they have had to do in most cases before. That will give us some interesting answers.
The big difference is that respectable, proper employment agencies can now go out and recruit proactively in Romania and Bulgaria. They can go to employers and offer them the service of bringing in people, often highly skilled people prepared to work hard, sometimes for much lower wages than people here, although we have a minimum wage in the formal sector. We do not know how large that sum will be; the Government have not given us an estimate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) made many strong points. I do not share his confidence or certainty that the numbers will be very large, but it is certainly possible, and we should have had a strategy to deal with that and prevent large numbers from coming here. It is good that we now have policemen from Scotland Yard out in particular villages in Romania to spread the message, but when the Select Committee went to Bucharest, I did not see any evidence of such a strategy.
Indeed, I said to Martin Harris, the excellent ambassador there, “What are you doing to reduce the numbers likely to come after 1 January?” He looked at me as though he had misheard or misunderstood what I had said and answered, “That’s not our job.” I said, “How do you mean? You work for the Government.” He said, “There’s free movement. Under EU law, they’re allowed to come. It’s not my role to reduce the numbers. I haven’t had any instructions to that effect.” He was managing the process and explaining things to both sides, but he did not see it as his role in any way, or think that it was Government policy, to try to hold down the numbers of people coming.
There has been more evidence over the last weeks, and possibly months, that that is the policy, and I hope it succeeds. If it does not succeed, and if the Migration Watch numbers are coming from Romania and Bulgaria, it is difficult to see how we will hit the net migration target, as I promised my constituents we would. I hope that we will hit it, and that we will see action to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley tabled his amendment, and then the Minister came to the Select Committee and told us that the amendment was illegal. I found that comment extraordinary. It is an amendment to primary legislation. For a Minister to come to the House and say that an amendment to primary legislation is unlawful comes close to contempt of the House, although I do not accuse him of that. It is this House that sets the law, and the Government who are bound by the law as determined by this Parliament, yet he seems to think that some other law might be higher and bind him in a way that the law of this Parliament does not.
The Minister has a reason for thinking that. The ministerial code says:
“The Ministerial Code should be read alongside the coalition agreement and the background of the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations”,
but in this country, our constitution has always been dualist in its approach to international law. International law binds, and binds Ministers, only to the extent that it is also the law of the land as passed by Parliament. If the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley succeeds, that will be the law that binds Ministers, not any previous agreement they may have happened to enter into with their counterparts overseas, except to the extent that that is part of our domestic law.
On that issue, the Thoburn case of the metric martyrs, involving Lord Justice Laws, is often quoted, but in my view, my hon. Friend’s amendment is consistent with that principle. It suggests that there are some bits of legislation that we have passed that are not to be repealed by accident; we must be express and clear that we intend to do so. However, my hon. Friend’s amendment refers to the European Union accession treaties. It would make no sense for him to add “notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972”, because those European Union treaties flow from that Act.
If my hon. Friend, as the promoter of that amendment, says clearly that it is intended to have that effect, and if those Members who vote for it succeed, as I hope, in amending the legislation to include it and put it into law, that will be the law. The Minister, like anyone else, will be bound to apply that law, as will our judges. If Romanians and Bulgarians come to this country and take employment contrary to that law, we will look to the courts to enforce it. We made a promise to our constituents to cut immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands per year. We must keep that promise.
I thank you, Mr Benton, and your co-Chair, Ms Dorries, for sharing today’s proceedings. The debate has been interesting and has generated some important issues that we need to reflect on, and I welcome the opportunity to do so. In particular, I welcome the fact that today I have learned about, if nothing else, the new year’s eve and new year’s day arrangements of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). In itself, that has been illuminating—that was said before you were in the Chair, Mr Benton, but they are spending new year’s day morning at Luton airport to check on the immigration status of arriving individuals and their destinations accordingly.
I also welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) brought the debate to the House. We had a similar debate on his new clause in the Immigration Bill in Committee on 19 November. We completed consideration in Committee on that day, but the Bill has still not returned to the House—according to today’s business statement, its return is not planned even for the first week of January. The hon. Gentleman has, however, tabled another amendment to the Immigration Bill for consideration on Report.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the new clause tabled by the hon. Gentleman. The debate on it will be an interesting one to have—in essence, it will be the same as today’s. I must say to the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood and others who have referred to the new clause, however, that that is still primary legislation. For the measure to take effect, the Bill would have to complete its passage through the Commons and another place and, even then, as the Minister said in Committee on 19 November:
“The only way of doing so would be to negotiate a change to those treaties. Given that this would require the unanimous agreement of all member states, including Bulgaria and Romania, the Government’s judgment—which I think is the right one—is that there is no prospect of achieving it.”
That is perfectly correct. The new clause is trying to unpick treaties that are the responsibility of Government to negotiate. Primary legislation would not impact on that. Even the hon. Member for Amber Valley said in Committee a little later that
“trying to get this country to breach various treaties it has signed is probably not a very sensible way of pursuing our diplomatic mission, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.”––[Official Report, Immigration Public Bill Committee, 19 November 2013; c. 401-02.]
I say that simply because the issue is important, and we need to address it, but I am not clear that the new clause or having the debate before or after Christmas would change the fundamental position.
My contention still stands. Having said that, we have had a calm and rational debate, which is the best way in which to approach the issue—in a calm and measured way. I agree with the approach taken by the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), at least in the first half of his speech, on some of the benefits that wider immigration can bring to the United Kingdom.
In response to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)—I say this on the record for the House—my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) have said clearly that mistakes were made in 2004 when transitional requests and controls were not put in place. It is a reasonable presumption to say that now. It is something that I am aware of, although at the time I was dealing with other matters in Government, and we have to accept that difficult, challenging and mistaken decisions were made at that time.
The hon. Gentleman should accept that, as the Front-Bench spokesman for my party in this Chamber today, what I am saying on behalf of my party is in support of what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, that we made some mistakes in 2004. Those mistakes had consequences; we should have interrogated the numbers further and we should have looked at the possible impact both culturally and economically over that time. I know that the combination of immigration and inadequate labour standards in many cases meant that there was a pressure on wages and employment; some of the jobs that came into the country through economic growth were taken by people from outside the United Kingdom. I know from my own constituency in north Wales that there are pressures even now on the labour market and on cultural issues, because of that immigration.
As the right hon. Gentleman is in confessional mode, perhaps I can encourage him to recognise as well that, even once the gates were open, the reason why so many chose to come to the UK was simply the benefits system—people could come here straight away, not even bother to work and gain benefits immediately. Does he agree that that was also a mistake back in 2004?
That was, which is why in March of this year my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), on behalf of the official Opposition, suggested the measures that the Prime Minister introduced only yesterday—some 14 days before 31 December, when transitional controls for Romania and Bulgaria expire.
Lest we think that the problem is now solely an Opposition one, let me quote what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) said in 2005, on 24 November, in the debate on the accession for Bulgaria and Romania:
“There is broad cross-party agreement on the objective of bringing Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union…The Conservative party has always been an enthusiastic supporter of enlargement, whether that has involved the 10 states that joined last year, or Bulgaria and Romania, or Turkey and Croatia.”
There are no Liberal Democrats present in the Chamber today, but in the same debate the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“I should also like to join in this festival of cross-party consensus, which I trust will be a rare, if valuable occasion.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2005; Vol. 1641, c. 1716-18.]
My right hon. Friend is taking absolutely the right approach. Another feature of the previous Government, however, was that Ministers constantly went to visit their EU counterparts and engaged in a dialogue about what was happening concerning enlargement. Does he agree that what we should have seen in the run-up to the restrictions being lifted is British Ministers going to see their Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts to look at the push and pull factors and to work out what could be done to assist?
That would be valuable. We have to have some positive dialogue. Statements have been made in the Chamber today that paint a picture of people from Bulgaria and Romania in one particular category—not all individuals are in the categories referred to today by some hon. Members. We need to look at what measures we can put in place before 31 December, including those the Opposition have suggested in response to the issue.
Members have mentioned a number of issues. There is potentially downward pressure on wages, because of people being undercut. There are recruitment agencies recruiting solely from eastern Europe, which was mentioned again by the hon. Members for Rochester and Strood and for Christchurch (Mr Chope). There are pressures on certain economic markets run by gangmasters with minimum wage, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley); people are coming to this country because they believe that a £4 or £5 an hour wage packet is better than a £2 an hour equivalent wage packet in their home country. Whatever happens on 31 December and whatever numbers of individuals come to the United Kingdom, I therefore want to see a real focus by the Government on enforcement of the minimum wage as a starting point. We need to put some effort in, not only through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but by looking at the possibility of giving local authorities the power to enforce the minimum wage, so that we can have greater enforcement, potentially stopping the undercutting of wages that the hon. Gentleman and others have referred to.
We need to look at enforcement of the Equality Act 2010. The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned recruitment from eastern Europe. It is illegal to recruit individuals based on their race or nationality under that Act, but it is not widely enforced. I have discussed that with the Minister and he has agreed to look at it and refer it to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I am glad the Minister has done that, because I recently gave chapter and verse in the Immigration Bill Committee on a number of recruitment agencies that are recruiting to fill positions in the United Kingdom solely with people from abroad.
We need to take greater action on the enforcement of housing regulations. Only yesterday, I was pleased to see the Prime Minister—again, I give credit when it is due—visiting a raid on a beds-in-sheds encampment in Southall. One aspect of immigration that greatly upsets my constituents in north Wales is when individuals share properties in squalid conditions and so are able to undercut wages locally, because the low standard of their accommodation means they do not have the outgoings that other people have. We also wish to look at extending legislation on gangmasters. It is perfectly reasonable to put controls in and extend gangmaster legislation to sectors to which it does not apply at the moment, such as catering and tourism.
There is action that we can take, but—and this is not intended to provoke a political fight—I genuinely do not think that the approach that some hon. Members are taking, of arguing that the transitional controls should be extended beyond 31 December, is the right one: we know, as do they, that that is a matter for treaty negotiation. Nor do I think, speaking with genuine humility, that the approach of withdrawal from the European Union is one that I can support. The European Union provides significant investments to constituencies such as mine. It also provides significant employment and a proper standard of working conditions across the board.
Furthermore, although this might not be a common thought at the moment, just under 100 years ago my grandfather was fighting Germans, Romanians and Bulgarians in the trenches and Turks in the middle east. But now, we have not had a world war for a generation and there is a stability that would surprise my grandfather if he were alive today. People from Germany, Romania, Bulgaria and Britain now sit in the same chamber to discuss issues of common economic and social interest whereas in his generation Europe was at war. That view of the European Union and the potential of a strong future Europe might not be a common one, but it is one that I hold passionately.
My grandfather was fighting Germans and Bulgarians, but let us put that aside. He was in the trenches at Neuve Chappelle in 1915 and at the Somme in 1916, and in Sinai in 1917. He was fighting people who now sit in the same Parliament here and elsewhere in Europe. That is good for the stability of Europe. Perhaps I made a slip, but the point I am making is that the stability we have gained, through a wider economic union and through shared social conditions, is a good thing. Hon. Members have stated we should withdraw, but in my view that would be a bad thing.
We need to look at how we can put labour market conditions in place after 1 January to strengthen our position. I would also, if I may, stretch out a hand of friendship to the hon. Member for Bournemouth East, who made a strong case for looking at other areas of immigration, including student immigration, tourism and business investment. There may not actually be that many people coming from Bulgaria and Romania in January at all—whether to claim benefits or to work—but the danger is that today’s debate could send a signal that Britain is closed for business, when there is a positive case to be made for some aspects of immigration and for managed migration. However, we need to have controlled migration, to remove people who are here illegally and to ensure that we have strong borders. We also need to ensure that we deport foreign criminals, as the hon. Member for Kettering said; I have to tell him that since my time as Prisons Minister, the rate of removal of foreign national offenders has fallen by 13.5%.
There are things that we can and should do, but we should approach the matter in a calm and measured way on 1 January. I also look forward to a calm and measured debate on the remaining stages of the Immigration Bill.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I agree with the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) that the blend of you and Ms Dorries could not have been bettered. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), and for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley), who collectively made a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for the debate.
I will not spend a great deal of time being partisan—that is not my natural way—but I want to make a couple of points. Part of the reason for the concern that our constituents have—a number of hon. Members touched on this—is the record of the previous Government, and the fact that they did not put transitional controls in place for the previous accession of new EU member states. Of course, the important thing was not just that we did not have them, but that we were the only significant country that did not have them. That was the reason for the very significant influx then, and that is a different position from the one that we face now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering tried to get the right hon. Member for Delyn to say sorry, but it is, of course, the hardest word, and he could not quite bring himself to say it. Interestingly, the Opposition have never said that they accept that they made any mistake on non-EU immigration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said, that was twice as large—twice as many people came from outside the EU—and it was completely controllable, as there were no issues about free movement. The Labour Government also messed that up, but not only have we heard no apology for that, we have not even heard an acknowledgement that it was a mistake. Perhaps in due course that statement will arrive; we wait with bated breath.
The other thing that we have been criticised for is not taking action previously. The shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has criticised us for not having made changes to the benefits system. It slipped my mind during our debate on this topic last week, but she was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the previous Administration. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Delyn will leap up and correct me if I am wrong, but I do not recall either of them acknowledging at any point, while he was at the Home Office or she was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that there was a problem with benefits for immigrants; nor, frankly, do I recall them doing anything about it. We are being criticised by the Opposition for not having taken any steps when our Immigration Bill is before the House and we have laid out steps in secondary legislation to deal with people’s concerns; that is a little bit on the rich side, but we will not be spending too much time on that.
I am sure that you will be pleased to hear, Mr Benton, that I will not spend too much time on the bigger issue of our membership of the European Union.
Tempting though I find the invitation from my hon. Friend to say more, I will just observe this: we were not, as we have discovered, blessed by the presence of any Liberal Democrats in this debate, but I note that there were only two Labour Back Benchers here—sadly, neither is here now. Interestingly, both support a referendum on our membership of the EU, and both attended the House on a Friday to support the excellent European Union (Referendum) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). The right hon. Member for Delyn is a little isolated: the only Labour Members who were here today, aside from him, are in favour of a referendum on our EU membership, want us to renegotiate that membership, and were willing to vote for that excellent Bill. Perhaps he should reflect on that and think about whether it might be more sensible for the Labour party to change its official position to support the Prime Minister when he leads that renegotiation after we win the general election with a Conservative majority Government, and then support us when we put that new position to the people.
I will say a few words on our record. We have reduced net migration. I will act as referee between my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth East, and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless): net migration is down by nearly a third since its peak. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood was right about the latest figures, but what my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East said was correct before those came out. The reduction is now nearly a third, rather than over a third. Non-European economic area migration is at its lowest level for 14 years, and is back to the level that it was at when we were last in power by ourselves. That is significant progress.
I was talking about the last year under the previous Government, rather than the peak. Is the Minister concerned by the increase in visa applications? They had gone down to 500,000 a quarter in the first half of the year, but are now up to about 530,00 for the third quarter.
It depends on the sort of visa applications. Some people coming to Britain do not count as immigrants, because they are not here for a long enough period of time. I will have to check the information, but my understanding is that our visa numbers suggest that the downward trend on non-EU migration will continue, based on our reforms. It is right to say—this goes to the heart of the debate—that the reason for the increase in the last set of figures was an increase in migration from the European Union, but not from eastern Europe. Interestingly, it was from the more traditional countries—the western European countries, with which there is not a massive disparity in GDP, although our economy has been rather more successful than theirs in creating jobs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley made a key point about employment. We might disagree about the solution, but his concern is well placed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East made this point strongly, too. Between 2003 and 2008, when the economy was growing under the previous Government, more than 90% of employment growth was accounted for by foreign nationals. Yes, the economy was growing under Labour, but the benefit was largely going to people who were not UK citizens—not the people for whom we all work. We have made a difference. Since the Government came to power, our immigration and welfare reforms have made it more worth while for British citizens to be in work.
Our skills agenda, more rigorous education and more apprenticeships are helping to make a difference. Since the second quarter of 2010, there has been a 1.1 million net increase in employment, and more than three quarters of that rise in employment has been accounted for by UK nationals, so the employment growth that we have seen since we came to power has largely benefited UK citizens, which is a significant turnaround. It is exactly what we wanted to achieve, and it is being achieved not only by the Home Office, but by our policies on immigration, on welfare, and on apprenticeships, training and education, which are all aligned and delivering the same outcome. That is significant, and it means that hundreds of thousands of families in Britain today have somebody in employment; they would not have had somebody in employment if the policies followed by the Labour had continued. That is welcome, and it is something of which we can be proud.
We are still committed to bringing down net migration. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood referred to the Prime Minister’s remarks. Just to be clear, he was drawing attention to the difficulty of the task, particularly given the problems in some of our western and southern European neighbours’ economies. In the interview, he reasserted the importance of delivering on our policy; he was simply drawing attention to the fact that it is a little more difficult than we had first thought, because of the difficulty in the European economies, but we are absolutely still committed to the policy.
It is worth putting the numbers in context. It is still the case with our reforms that, even having driven down migration from outside the European Union, 48% of immigration to Britain is from outside the EU, compared to 36% from the EU; the remainder are British citizens who have been overseas for more than a year and are returning to the United Kingdom. We should remember that many British citizens go to other European countries. According to the 2010 figures, there were 2.2 million EU nationals in the UK and 1.4 million Brits in EU countries. Interestingly, only five European Union countries have more than 100,000 citizens in the United Kingdom, and it is not the ones people might think: France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland. In the case of Ireland, there are historical reasons not connected to the EU. Poland is the only non-traditional country that has a significant number, which is 500,000.
If we balance the figures with the countries in which our citizens live, there are only two European Union countries where the net number of EU citizens in the United Kingdom is more than 100,000. There are 145,000 more Germans living in Britain than vice versa, and Poland has a significant number—519,000 more. Of course, Spain is the opposite way round: there are 750,000 more Brits living in Spain. It is worth putting that in context, so that we can have the rational, sensible debate that the right hon. Member for Delyn talked about.
Turning to the specific points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, and to his new clause to the Immigration Bill, it is worth remembering—I agree with the right hon. Member for Delyn on this point—that for that Bill to take effect, it has to go through our House and the other place. Whether we had debated the new clause this side of Christmas or the other side of Christmas, it would have made no difference, because the measure cannot become law until the Bill progresses through Parliament, and that is not likely to happen until towards the end of this Session. As the Leader of the House has said, the legislative agenda is quite packed. Only yesterday, five or six Acts of Parliament got Royal Assent, and—this is rather above my pay grade, so I have to be very careful, because the usual channels are in the room—the business will be scheduled in due course, but it will not make a difference to when the measure becomes law.
I fear that the right hon. Member for Delyn is right: the previous Government signed the accession treaties and we supported them. Of course I am not pretending that we did not support them. The treaty came into effect in 2007, and the seven-year transitional controls expire at the end of the year. It is worth being careful about language. We are not lifting them; they expire. They cease to have any legal effect, because of the terms of the accession treaties. I am not doing anything to lift them; they simply become legally ineffective at the end of the year, because of the provisions.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I am trying to cover the points made in the debate. I have listened to the debate, and I only have three and a half minutes to try to cover the other points that people have raised.
Unlike the previous Government, who chose not to apply controls, we have extended them to the maximum length possible, so I feel that the strategy of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley is not going to work. Although it is perfectly reasonable for colleagues to have concerns, I hope that they will have seen—of course, I knew these things were in the pipeline when we debated them in Committee, which, obviously, my hon. Friend did not—the order that I signed a couple of weeks ago, which puts in place tough rules about limiting jobseeker’s allowance to six months. It puts in place the controls that I talked about in response to points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey).
We will be able to remove, and stop returning to Britain, people who are here not exercising their treaty rights—who are here begging, rough sleeping and engaged in criminality. If Members look at some of those tough changes, they will see that they address things that our constituents are concerned about, so I urge Members who have signed the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, and those who have not done so, to look at the changes that we have brought forward. I think that they will see that they address many of their concerns.
My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have laid out their thinking about the discussions we need to have on the new accession countries and free movement generally. We can have that negotiation only when there is a new Government. We are constrained by the coalition with our Liberal Democrat colleagues. The renegotiation strategy is not the current Government’s policy, but it is the Conservative party’s policy, which we will put before the people at the election.
The final point is that we should remember that the transitional controls are about employment. A significant number of people—102,000 Romanians and 53,000 Bulgarians—are already here, according to the Office for National Statistics. They are working, or are self-employed, self-sufficient or studying. They are already in Britain. As one or two hon. Members suggested, some people already here might not entirely be doing what they purport to be doing. They might be working. We might find that they regularise their status in the new year. The point is that the controls are about whether people can work, not whether they can come to Britain. People can come to Britain for three months, but they can stay only if they are exercising treaty rights. We have given ourselves the power to remove people if they are here not exercising treaty rights—not working, studying or being self-sufficient—and we can stop them coming back to the UK to cause damage.
We want people who come here to work, contribute and pay taxes. The legislative changes that we will make with the Immigration Bill, and that we have made in secondary legislation, address the concerns. I urge hon. Members to study the changes. If they do so, they will be reassured that the Government are taking the tough action that our constituents want. We have a good story to tell our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.