I beg to move, That the Bill be now Read a Second time.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time on a Friday, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This is one of a series of Bills presented, and for every week that has passed since it was first printed, it has become more relevant. There is tremendous public concern about this matter. The Bill would make
“provision to restrict the entitlement of non-UK citizens from the European Union and the European Economic Area to taxpayer-funded benefits.”
Last week, the front page of The Sunday Times carried a big headline reading, “Ban migrant welfare for two years”. Those were the words of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who was quoted in the article as saying:
“Britain should be able to say to a migrant: ‘Demonstrate that you are committed to the country, that you are a resident and that you are here for a period of time and you are generally taking work and that you are contributing… At that particular point…it could be a year, it could be two years, after that, then we will consider you a resident of the UK’”.
Unfortunately, what my right hon. Friend says does not accord with EU law, so it was no surprise to read the brief on my Bill produced by the policy research unit, which referred to the quote from the Secretary of State, but then said:
“However, this is not Government policy. Sources close to Mr Duncan Smith stressed he was expressing an aspiration for the future, rather than spelling out a policy.”
That is the problem. Senior politicians, whether it be the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions or even the Deputy Prime Minister, can beat their chests and say, “The present state of affairs, with EU migrants coming here and sponging off our taxpayer-funded benefits system, is unacceptable”, but when one looks at the detail, one sees that despite their huffing and puffing, they cannot do anything about it, except perhaps for the first three months that somebody is here, which is no big deal. Once someone from another EU country has been here for more than three months, they effectively have as much access to our benefits system as you or me, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Apparently, one reason we cannot do much about it, legally, is that we have a universal system, rather than a contributory system. The Bulgarian Prime Minister says that our Prime Minister is being nasty, but he is not. It is actually much more difficult to get benefits in a country such as Germany, so we are just being sensible, and if the only way we can deal with this problem is to move to a contributory system, perhaps we should. There is a desire among many countries, particularly Germany, Britain and other developed countries, to try to solve this problem. It is not about being nasty; it is about being sensible.
I certainly agree that it is about being sensible, but I am not sure the solution lies in trying to change our benefits system. Surely, we, as a sovereign country, should be able to decide what benefits system we want for our own people and should not have to try to tailor it so that it cannot be abused under EU rules.
The bigger problem was referred to by Dominic Lawson also in an article in last week’s edition of The Sunday Times. He wrote that
“although the great majority of east European migrants are entrepreneurially seeking the much higher wages available in the richer nations, a proportion will be welfare tourists.”
He then referred to the
“point made many years ago by Milton Friedman, who believed in open borders: he asserted that you can have a generous welfare state or open borders, but not both…There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state, it is a different story; the supply of immigrants will become infinite.”
Indeed, that is the concern of people in this country—that the supply of immigrants is becoming infinite. We look in the Government statistics for the numbers, but again we find that they fudge the figures and do not even collect the raw material.
Does my hon. Friend think that the number of migrants coming into the country and the consequent increase in the supply of labour has had an effect on the cost of labour, resulting in the necessity of the introduction of things such as the minimum wage?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have never been an enthusiast for the minimum wage. Indeed, further down today’s Order Paper is my Employment Opportunities Bill, which would enable people to opt out of it. I am glad to see the Front-Bench spokesman agreeing with that.
In opposition to my hon. Friend’s comment, I am a very strong supporter of the minimum wage, and I believe that it is a progressive thing to trickle down the effects of the economic turnaround. There is ample evidence from a university of Essex study and various other studies that an increase in the minimum wage does not have any impact on job creation.
I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend, but as soon as he resorts to the expression “progressive” and subsequently refers to the university of Essex, he has lost me. I think that the level of wages should be set in a private arrangement between the employer and the employee, and that it is not for the Government to intervene. We hear all the current talk about whether the minimum wage should be increased, but it is open to anyone currently on the minimum wage to go to their employer and say, “I would like to be paid more”, while it is open to the employer to pay their workers more. The fact that they are not being paid more suggests to me that the labour market is such that if they were paid more it would result in either them or their colleagues being put out of work.
The whole concept of a national minimum wage ignores the fact that we have different labour markets in different parts of the country. What might be a reasonable wage in London might be a totally unrealistic and unaffordable wage in some of the more remote parts of the country. I do not know what my hon. Friend thinks the position is in Hexham, but if the national minimum wage is designed to ensure that people in London and in Hexham are treated equally well, it is likely to have the result of reducing the employment opportunities in his constituency.
I will pass on my hon. Friend’s apologies to the university of Essex. The harsh reality is that there is ample evidence from a variety of sources, including from other universities—[Interruption.] They are not their own sources; they are independent. It has been shown that the minimum wage does not impact on jobs. My hon. Friend challenged me specifically on the north-east. I represent an area that has one of the highest levels of social deprivation and there is still significant unemployment there to this day. It is coming down, but it is still significant. A rise in the minimum wage would be a fantastically good thing—for the north-east and for employers. I suggest that it would produce greater loyalty, greater productivity and greater enthusiasm in the work force. That is evidenced by companies, whether they be big ones such as Barclays or Aquila Way in Gateshead—a housing association that provides good support for the living wage.
Perhaps we will get a chance to discuss the Employment Opportunities Bill later. As the name suggests, it gives employment opportunities to people who would not otherwise have them. I hope that my hon. Friend has looked at the Bill. To assert, as he has, that the minimum wage cannot have any impact on jobs is to ignore the level at which the minimum wage is set. That is why the Low Pay Commission was set up to look at the level and make recommendations on the minimum wage. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be concerned if we start discussing the Employment Opportunities Bill in detail at this stage—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is accustomed to making long speeches in this Chamber on a Friday. I am listening very carefully to the content of his speech and to the information he provides to make sure that what he says is entirely related to the Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill. I would be surprised to discover that the hon. Gentleman wished to talk out his own Bill, so I am sure that he will stick very strictly to the matter in hand.
To help my hon. Friend seamlessly to slip back into the mainstream of his present Bill, as opposed to commenting on his other Bill further down the Order Paper, will he explain what could have possessed the Government, if they decided that they wished to deter benefit tourism, to impose a non-claimability period of just 12 or 13 weeks rather than an effectively longer period? If they did not want to impose an effectively long period, why put in any period at all—other than for some sort of public relations purpose?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about public relations; the Government have to be seen to be doing something, but they are constrained by the current state of European Union law, which will prevent them from being able to take any action against people after they have been in this country for more than three months. That is why the Government are making a great virtue of saying, “We are going to get really tough on people in the first three months they are here.” However, they are not emphasising that once those people have been here for three months the world is their oyster and they have free access to all our taxpayer-funded benefits.
As I shall go on to discuss, the problem is that EU law in this area is evolving and changing. That is largely being done through regulation, but it is also occurring through decisions taken by the unelected judges in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. They are, in effect, giving an interpretation of what was originally a free movement directive—everybody would have gone along with that, because one core element in the European Economic Community was that people should be able to go from one country to another and take up employment there. Following the successive treaties, directives and regulations, the interpretation now is of people having a right to go to claim benefits in any country in the European Union once they have been there for more than three months.
We are told that this proposal is against European law, but clearly the law is evolving. In any event, people cannot claim benefits in a place such as Germany unless they have been there for a considerable time. So why do the Government indulge in the politics of the pre-emptive cringe, kowtowing before what the European Commission might say in the future? Why do we not just say, “You cannot get a benefit for 12 months” and see whether it takes us to court? We could argue about it for years, so I do not know why we do not just stand firm on this.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, he will see that clauses 2, 3 and 4 of the Bill state:
“Notwithstanding…the European Communities Act 1972”.
In other words, the Bill would ensure that we were able to decide these things for ourselves, as a sovereign legislature, and override European Union law. My hon. Friend’s point was, in a sense, echoed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in an article in The Sunday Times to which I referred earlier. It states that he
“added that reforming benefits was part of a wider move towards no longer automatically accepting rulings from the European Commission and courts.”
He welcomed the comments by Lord Judge, the former lord chief justice, that ‘we shouldn’t always assume straight away that anything that comes legally out of Europe we have to impose’ and said he was optimistic that there was the ‘beginning of a twitch with the Supreme Court”.
My Bill is designed to go a bit further than a twitch; it is designed to ensure that we change our law. If we suffer infraction proceedings in the European Court of Justice, one thing is certain: they are unlikely to reach a conclusion until you and I are in our dotage, Madam Deputy Speaker. The ECJ involves a very long-winded process, and because it is so long-winded, the French Government, for example, will deliberately defy EU law in the knowledge that any sanctions arising from their defiance will not be apparent until many, many years later.
I am not going to answer that question; as with so many of my hon. Friend’s interventions, he perhaps already knows the answer, in which case he will be able to adumbrate it if he contributes to the debate. The point he makes is that we are net contributors, and if the European Union thinks that we can be kicked around and we will do whatever Mrs Reding or anybody else wants us to do, it is about time they started concentrating their minds on the fact that British taxpayers pay a lot of their salaries.
Again, if fines or penalties are imposed, that creates distortions. I suppose we could set them off against our contributions to the European Union.
I became particularly interested in this subject early last year, because I thought that it was absolutely fundamental that our country can distinguish between our nationals and nationals of other European Union countries in dealing with benefit issues. A few parliamentary questions have been asked on the subject. In answer to a question asked on 14 January 2013, the then Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), said:
“The UK’s benefit payment systems do not currently record details of a claimant’s nationality. Looking forward, the Government is considering ways of recording nationality and immigration status of migrants who make a claim to universal credit”.—[Official Report, 14 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 466W.]
I hope that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who is on the Front Bench today, will tell us what has happened in the subsequent year regarding recording nationality and immigration status, because if we do not even have basic information about the nationality of migrants or people claiming benefit, and have no means of finding that out, how can we ever have the tight controls that the Government keep talking about to ensure that migrants from other EU countries do not abuse our benefit system in their first three months here, or ensure that they are genuinely seeking work?
The first provision in the Bill would ensure that national insurance numbers were issued only after the applicant had declared their nationality, and would not make it possible for anybody to claim benefit without declaring their nationality. In that way, we could at least gather some statistics about the use of our benefit system by nationals from other countries, which we certainly cannot do at the moment.
There is a big problem and I fear that it suits the Government not to give the people the full facts on this issue. They have statistics measuring net migration, for the purposes of meeting a commitment they made at the last general election to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. However, there are different ways in which net migration is calculated. The labour force survey estimates that the number of A2 nationals living in the UK has increased by 25,000 a year in the six years between 2007 and 2013. However, the Government’s figures, which are based on passenger surveys carried out at ports and airports, suggest that there were fewer than 10,000 new people from Bulgaria and Romania a year. As we do not have a way of measuring people’s nationality when it comes to national insurance numbers or benefit claimants, the Government have to rely on passenger surveys to find out how many people have come from Romania or Bulgaria. The Office for National Statistics has been critical of the cavalier way in which the UK collects those statistics.
Clause 1 of my Bill would make it much easier for us to have a proper public debate on these issues, based on the facts rather than on conjecture. I hope that the Minister agrees that is a good idea.
Clause 2 of my Bill says:
“Notwithstanding the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972, no non-UK citizen who is a national of a member country of the European Union or the European Economic Area shall be eligible for housing benefit or council tax benefit in England and Wales unless the benefit entitlement arises by reason of having the status of a spouse or dependant of a UK citizen.”
In other words, the clause would close down access to housing and council tax benefit for people who have come to this country to work or to play.
As my hon. Friend knows, I fully support his Bill and the intention behind it. Does he think that child benefit falls under the clause on dependants, because one thing that irritates my constituents is when people come over from other countries in the EU and claim child benefit for children who have never left their country of origin and seemingly are entitled to it? I think that that is an absolute outrage, and I am certain that most of my constituents think so too.
It is an outrage, but, unfortunately, it is in accordance with European Union law and case law. The other day, the Deputy Prime Minister, ever the populist or attempted populist, said in relation to child benefits that there was “complete unity” in the coalition—that is probably the first inaccuracy—on tightening up benefit rules for European migrants. He then said that he did not quite understand
“why it is possible under the current rules for someone to claim child benefit for children who aren't even in this country.”
He might not understand that, but if he had looked at the legal advice given to the Government and published on their own website, he would find the answer set out for him. The legal annexe on the issue of free movement cites a number of European Court of Justice cases. Specifically, in the case of Martinez-Sala, case number 85/96, it says that it is possible to require the payment of a “child-raising allowance” to a person for children outside the country in which they reside. That is why, despite the huffing and puffing, we cannot do anything about it.
I agree with that, and that is why I want to get out of the wretched European Union at the first opportunity. I just wondered whether my hon. Friend’s Bill would deal with that issue and stop that payment of child benefit. Under the clause on dependants, he talks about housing benefit and council tax benefit, but does not specifically mention child benefit. I am just worried that he is going a bit soft. He is not going far enough with his Bill.
Clause 4 of my Bill says:
“Notwithstanding the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972, no UK taxpayer-funded benefit”—
which is obviously what child benefit is—
“shall be paid to a citizen of another country in membership of the European Union…unless the entitlement to that benefit arises from an insurance-based contribution which the claimant has made.”
In that case, such a person would not be eligible for child benefit. Clause 3 would also have a bearing on that. It says that
“no UK taxpayer-funded benefit shall be paid to a citizen of another country…at a rate which exceeds in cash terms the equivalent benefit which would be payable to such a person if that person were resident in the country of his nationality.”
In other words, a Pole working here would be able to claim child benefit in respect of his children in Poland at the rate prevailing under Polish national law, rather than at the rate prevailing under UK law.
Given that we may have to wait a year or two at least before we have the opportunity to decide whether we stay in the European Union, does my hon. Friend think that the suggestion made in the letter organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) about this Parliament being given the right to overrule decrees from the European Union that we regard to be against the national interest might be one way of making progress, even if his Bill, for all its merits, does not succeed in the meantime?
It was suggested that our proposal that Parliament should have a right to veto European legislation is contrary to European law, but it is interesting that a member of the German Bundestag said on the “Today” programme that, in his opinion, such a veto is not contrary to European law because the German supreme court can apparently strike down legislation that is contrary to the German constitution. So the proposal contained in the letter from our hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is eminently sensible, and we could do it. We should at least include the proposal in our manifesto.
I agree with my hon. Friend. If the Government were more open with the people about the fact that they have no scope under existing law to do anything about the people’s concerns on other European Union citizens’ access to our taxpayer-funded benefits, that would help the Government to make the case for a completely fresh arrangement with the European Union. At the moment, we are deluding ourselves and the people in thinking that we can address those very serious concerns.
When my hon. Friends and I launched our Bills after the Queen’s Speech, the noble Lord Ashcroft commissioned a survey of the popularity of the proposed measures. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the proposal in clause 1 to record the nationality of everyone with a national insurance number or on benefits received the support of 71% of the sample, with only 8% of people against the proposal and 21% undecided. On the proposal to restrict welfare benefits to UK citizens only, which is effectively the rest of the Bill, 74% were in favour, with another 13% undecided.
I hope the Minister will realise that he should not be in any doubt, if there is any doubt, about the public demand for the measure. At the moment, the public are demanding the measure and the Government are not saying, “No we can’t do it because we are tied by European Union law. We therefore have to change the European Union law or get out of the European Union.” The Government are pretending that they have freedom and flexibility to act under European Union law when they do not. I suppose no one really wants to admit impotence, least of all a Government, but that is their situation in the face of the evolving European Union law in this field.
I will not address in great detail the way in which European Union law has evolved, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will answer some of the questions I asked in the debate on 5 June 2013 that were never answered. I asked:
“Does the Minister agree with the basic proposition that if someone from another European country decides to move to the United Kingdom, they should not expect to receive taxpayer-funded assistance for their housing, health care, education or living expenses?”—[Official Report, 5 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 256WH.]
If the answer is that the Minister does not agree, let us have it on the record. It is no good ducking these questions. If a non-British EU national cannot afford to live in the United Kingdom without recourse to taxpayer-funded services, should not that person return to his own EU country rather than relying on UK taxpayer handouts? If the Government do not agree with that they should say so and then we can have a proper debate. I am sure we will then get even more letters than we do at the moment from UK Independence party supporters saying how out of the touch the Government are with the feelings of the people—but that is only an aside, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I hope that we will get some answers to those questions and will move away from the very carefully worded statements that on close analysis mean absolutely nothing, such as, “People will not be allowed to have benefits subject to their European Union rights.” Since their European Union rights give them access to almost all benefits, I submit that such a statement is without any value.
In essence, what happened was that we joined the European Economic Community, the fundamentals of which include freedom of movement, but over a period of time freedom of movement has been extended by treaty, directive, regulation and case law into areas that nobody could ever have contemplated. None of those extensions was discussed with the British people and hardly any of them were discussed with our Parliament.
The legal annexe, which is a scholarly document, spells out in frightening detail the extent to which the European Court of Justice has extended the scope of the various directives. For example, paragraph 47 states:
“In the case of Metock”
in 2008, the European Court of Justice made it clear that the free movement directive
“should not be interpreted restrictively and that its objectives must not be interpreted so as to deprive them of their effectiveness. The particular impact of the case in terms of the UK’s competence was its clear assertion that a member state should not be imposing additional requirements on those seeking to rely on free movement rights in addition to those set out in the existing legislation”.
The European Court of Justice is extending the law because it has direct application and because of the so-called shares of competence, which effectively mean that if the European Union legislates in this area it is not open to the UK Parliament or the UK Government to legislate in conflict with that.
Through the process of treating people from other countries in Europe who come to the United Kingdom as equals, we are moving inexorably towards the ever-closer union whereby people would not be citizens of an individual country but would just be citizens of the European Union. That is the agenda. When one sees the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of the various expressions in the legislation, one can see exactly what the threats on the horizon are and that they go beyond those that we have already witnessed.
Will my hon. Friend expand on that? Many people are confused about whether the EU rules allow free movement of people or free movement of labour. If it is free movement of labour, does he agree that if somebody from another EU country does not have a job that should give the Government every entitlement to send that person back to their country rather than allowing them to stay in the UK accessing UK benefits?
The problem is that the definition of “worker” is being extended. A significant case is pending in the European Court of Justice—that of Saint Prix v. the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and a preliminary reference concerns
“whether a person who gives up work… can remain a worker under Article 45.”
One is bound to sympathise with the Secretary of State, because the language—well, normal language just does not apply. It might be because the European Court of Justice works solely in French and delivers all its judgments in French. None the less, I think that it is extending the language somewhat to say that someone who gives up work can remain a worker. That is linked to the current provision, which states that a person cannot access means-tested benefits if they are going to be a burden on the social assistance system, but that system is being defined so narrowly that almost everyone is entitled to means-tested benefits.
I could give further examples, but I will draw my remarks to a close. Even if the Bill does not become law in this Session of Parliament, I hope that it will form a core part of the Conservative party manifesto at the next general election, because I am sure that its contents really accord with the wishes of the British people, as exemplified in any number of opinion polls.
I rise to support the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing it before the House. I am delighted to be one of its sponsors. As he said, it addresses a matter that is in the news a great deal at the moment—it could not be more topical. I think it demonstrates the real difficulty that the House sometimes has in connecting with people’s problems, because of the way our processes work. I will speak as briefly as I can, because I am anxious, as are my constituents, that the measures should become law as soon as possible.
I hope that the Minister will say that the Bill enjoys the full support of Her Majesty’s Government, but I fear that in reality he might find it difficult to offer that, no matter how much he might wish to, because of the situation we find ourselves in—[Interruption.] I see that he thinks that I am on the right lines. The problem is not with him—he is a very good chap—but with the position the House finds itself in as a result of our membership of European Union. It is really about that relationship.
There are two things to consider in the Bill. There is the meat of the Bill itself, although I will not go into the detail, because it is very straightforward. It can be summed up in one simple sentence: British benefits for British citizens. That is really what it boils down to. It is not rocket science.
We know this is a very popular measure. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Lord Ashcroft has scientifically tested the will of the nation on a number of the measures in Bills that several of us had proposed at the start of this Session. His polling company conducted a poll on 28 and 30 June 2013—bizarrely, it covered 2,013 adults; I think that is purely coincidence—in which a representative sample of the British people were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with certain propositions in those Bills. It asked specifically about the two proposals in this Bill: first, recording the nationality of a claimant; and secondly, restricting welfare benefits to UK citizens.
The respondents were not only asked whether they supported the proposals but split into two groups. The first group were told they that the measures had been suggested by some unspecified people and the second group were told that they were being proposed by Conservative politicians. Seventy-one per cent. of people in sample A—those who thought the measures had been proposed by unspecified people—agreed with the proposition that we should record the nationality of benefits claimants. The negative Tory effect, as it was called, was minus 3%, in that even if people were told that those nasty Conservatives were making the proposal, 68% still said, “I’m not bothered who puts it forward—it’s still a damn good idea and I want to support it.” Lord Ashcroft then took into account the people who said, “Frankly, I’m not that interested in politics and I can’t give a view—I neither agree nor disagree”; he called it the “Meh” effect. Twenty-one per cent. of respondents said they were not bothered either way, which, if one takes into account the 71% of those in sample A, leaves just 8% of the population disagreeing with the proposition that it is a good idea that we should record someone’s nationality when they wish to apply for a national insurance number.
The proposition on restricting welfare benefits to UK citizen, which is perhaps more important, was, I am pleased to say, even more popular, because 74% of people in sample A said they agreed with it, and 70% still thought it was a good idea even when they were told that it was being put forward by Conservative politicians. The figure for people who neither agreed nor disagreed—the “Meh” effect—was 13%.
These are enormously popular propositions, whichever way one looks at it. Our own anecdotal experience will tell us that if we go out into the street and discuss this with people they will say, “Of course British benefits should be paid to British citizens.” Nothing annoys people more than the thought of the taxes that they have paid as a result of hard work being paid to claimants who have not contributed to the system at all and have just come to this country saying that they are looking for work. Frankly, they are bound to say that; they are hardly likely to say, “I’ve come here because you’ve got a better benefits system.” I have no doubt, to be fair, that it may well be true that most people come here looking for work, but that does not negate the fact that the overwhelming majority of the British people think that British benefits should go only to British citizens.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has said, this House is now, in essence, unable to deal with this matter, as is the case with so many other issues.
We restrict access to benefits for people who come to this country from outside the European Union, so the idea that foreign nationals should not have access to our benefits does not appear to be controversial. Everybody seems to agree that we should restrict benefits for people from outside the EU, so is there any reason at all why the same principle should not apply to non-British citizens from within the EU?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that this is one reason why there is so much antagonism towards our membership of the European Union. This House is impotent in these matters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has said—I fear the Minister will say the same thing—the most we can do is restrict for three months the benefits of people who come here from other EU countries. To be frank, that is neither here nor there. It is no wonder that people are not satisfied with that response. Of course, they agree with it—it is better than nothing and we agree entirely that we should do it—but it is nowhere near being a sufficiently robust response to the complaints we hear every day of the week, such as, “I know very well that there are people living down the road who have moved here and made no contribution to the system, and yet they are claiming benefits.” I do not think that making them wait for a few weeks before they can claim will be enough to assuage people’s concerns.
I do not want to go down another avenue, but, to be honest, our relationship with the EU goes to the very heart of the problem, and unless we deal with that relationship, we will not be able to solve the problem. When this country joined the EU, it was not, of course, the European Union, but the Common Market. People thought that they were joining a free trade area. It had nothing to do with lots of people coming here and claiming benefits. As my hon. Friend has said, over the years we have seen a general competence creep on the part of the EU. It has gradually taken over more and more competences: more and more things have become its responsibility rather than the responsibility of this Chamber. It is, therefore, no wonder that people feel that it is not worth voting in elections and say, “There’s no point, because you can’t change anything.”
We have yet to hear what the Government’s red lines are in renegotiating our EU terms of membership, but such matters should be brought back within the control of this Parliament. I venture to suggest that if any party put that in its manifesto, it would be extremely well received and very popular, as shown by the evidence that I have given. The popular nature of the measure would be demonstrated if we put it in a manifesto and voted on it in a general election, knowing that it could be brought into law and that its introduction could not be stopped by the European Union.
If the measure is prevented by our membership of the EU and that fact is not changed in any renegotiation, the British people would be absolutely right to vote to leave the EU so that we can get back control over such matters as deciding who we pay benefits to. That is the heart of the matter. The measure is popular and would receive widespread support right across this country. I will not detain the House with the details, but the poll shows that it is supported by all age groups, sections of the public and parts of the country. It is absolutely wrong that this House has no power to bring in the measure because of our membership of the European Union, which is really what this boils down to. There is no other reason why we cannot do it; we are stopped from doing it by being members of the European Union.
I hope that the Minister will say something different—that he entirely agrees that the measure is popular and that it will receive the Government’s full support—but I fear that will not be the case. Nevertheless, the Bill has my full support. It will receive if not universal, then very widespread support from my constituents, and I wish it well.
The hon. Gentleman has suggested that some people come to this country purely to claim benefits. Frankly, I disagree with that contention, but will he estimate what percentage of people coming from the European Union do so purely to claim benefits?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in that we can only estimate or guess, because nobody keeps a check or monitors the situation: there are no figures. We do not know the percentage, because we do not check. That is why I accept that if people are asked why they come to this country, nobody says, “Just to claim your benefits”; they all say, “I’ve come here to look for work, of course.”
We do not know. I suspect that the figure is probably not zero, but some people will do so. Human nature being what it is, some people will want to work the system, just as there are some in this country who want to work the system and bend the rules to get the best deal they can. To be fair to them, the current EU rules permit those people to come here. They will say, “I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not committing any offences. I want to improve my English language skills”—those skills are very useful to have—so they can give lots of reasons for wanting to come to this country. When they are asked, I suspect 0% of them would say, “Well, I’ve come here to claim benefits”, but the reality is that they are doing so. It does not matter what they say; what matters is what is actually happening.
Frankly, if there is no problem, it does not matter if the Bill passes, does it? If nobody is coming here for that purpose, the Bill will not matter. However, when they are asked, the vast majority of people think that there is a problem that this Parliament should be doing something about. It is a travesty that, because we are members of the European Union, we cannot do anything about it. As I say, I hope that the Bill receives a fair wind from the Government and that it finds its way speedily on to the statute book.
I intend to speak only briefly to put on the record my full support for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and his excellent Bill. I am proud to be one of its sponsors.
I had always thought that the concept that benefits in this country should be paid only to UK citizens was not particularly contentious. I thought that everybody across the political divide agreed with that. If the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) wants to say that he does not support that principle—as a shadow Minister, he must speak with some authority on behalf of the Labour party as a whole—he is at liberty to do so.
If the hon. Gentleman does not think that there should be a restriction on the payment of benefits to people who are not UK citizens, he will presumably campaign for every non-EU citizen who comes into this country to have full access to the benefits system, unless he thinks that people from outside the EU are lesser people than those who are from within the EU. Perhaps he wants to discriminate against people from south Asia when they come into this country. In his interventions on my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), he seemed to be suggesting that all the people who come in from the EU are decent coves and should have full access to our benefits system, but that all those who come to this country from outside the EU are foul, swindling people whom we should stop at every turn. That appeared to be the thrust of what he was saying.
I do not subscribe to that view. I think that this country should treat all people who are not UK citizens exactly the same, irrespective of where they are from. It should not matter whether they are from India, Pakistan, South Africa or south America, or from Poland, Bulgaria, France or Germany. As far as I am concerned, we should treat them all the same. To me, they are all non-UK nationals. We should not be picking and choosing which countries have better people than others. The hon. Gentleman might want to go down that line, as he indicated in his interventions, but I do not. I think that we should treat them all the same.
The hon. Gentleman knows for a fact that that is not what I was suggesting. I was making the point, which I think was a valid one, that the suggestion by the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) that vast numbers of people are coming here with the sole motivation of claiming benefits is just not true.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is leading with his chin on these matters. He is getting out increasingly bigger spades with which to dig himself into a hole. He has now suggested that nobody from the EU comes here to claim benefits, but that everybody who comes here from outside the EU does so to claim benefits and that we need to restrict access to benefits for them. If he is not saying that, presumably his argument is that we should allow a free-for-all of benefits for anyone from anywhere around the world. That is certainly not an argument that I support, and I do not think that the majority of my constituents would support it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the question is not just whether people arrive here with the intention of claiming benefits, but whether, having been here for a bit of time and seen our generous benefits system, people decide not to seek employment but to claim benefits? For example, I had a constituency case in which a person came here from another European country and, after a year, gave up work and went on housing benefit, saying, “There’s no need for me to work.”
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I suspect that many Members have had similar cases. A man from Poland came into my constituency surgery who had come here to work, as he was entitled to do. He had heard on the grapevine in his local community that he was entitled to claim child benefit for his four children who were still residing back home in Poland. He thought that seemed like a good wheeze and that, if all his colleagues were doing it, he might as well do it himself. Of course, he found that, bizarrely, he was entitled to child benefit for his four children, who had never in their lives set foot outside Poland and who were living there with his wife, their mother. There is absolutely no justification for anybody from another country in the EU claiming child benefit for children who have not even had the decency to come over to this country and who are still residing in their home country.
The reason I support the Bill so strongly is that I believe we should treat all non-UK citizens the same, irrespective of where they are from. To me, that means restricting their access to benefits in this country. That is a simple proposition that I think most people in this country would support. We cannot afford to carry on handing out benefits willy-nilly to people who choose to come here from all over the EU—it is not sustainable for the welfare state or for our citizens. It will collapse the welfare state for UK citizens if we keep having to add to the burden.
On a point of clarification, let us suppose that someone had come from abroad and been in genuine employment, and had paid some contributions towards social security, but then lost his job through no fault of his own. Does my hon. Friend agree that that person ought to have some entitlement to appropriate levels of benefit?
No, I do not necessarily agree with that proposition. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has in mind how long that person might have had to work to be able to access benefits—it was not clear whether he felt that there should be a certain time span. As far as I can see, he is describing a non-British citizen who has come here not out of the goodness of his heart and concern for the UK’s economic well-being but, presumably, out of concern for his own economic well-being. It sounds as though he would have done rather well. Once the job is no longer available, I do not see any particular reason why we should then sustain such people in unemployment. It seems to me that at that point, we should be perfectly entitled to say, “If you can’t support yourself, we are not responsible for your continued upkeep.” I do not see why that should be unacceptable.
The UK Government’s primary duty should be to look after UK citizens, not to look after anybody who chooses to come here, works for five minutes and then expects us to sustain them on benefits for the rest of their life. I therefore do not necessarily agree with my hon. Friend’s premise—and even if it were desirable for the British Government to make such promises, I do not think it is affordable.
I ask that the Government accept the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I do not doubt that the consequence of it would be that we would have to leave the European Union, and I do not have a problem with that—I want to leave the European Union at the first opportunity. If the Bill would hasten our exit from the EU, that is an even greater reason to support it.
The Bill seems to me a statement of common sense and of what, as we have seen from Lord Ashcroft’s polling, the British public not only want but, I suspect, expect from their Government. I cannot understand how anybody could possibly be opposed to it, and I look forward to the Minister and shadow Minister doing some kind of gymnastics to explain why on earth it is not a sensible Bill. I suspect that most of their constituents think it is sensible.
The Bill is, of course, directly incompatible with our membership of the European Union. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) proposes that European Union citizens who are working legally in the UK should not be entitled, for example, to help with their housing costs, which UK citizens are entitled to. That direct discrimination against EU citizens is clearly incompatible with our obligations as a member state—I noted the enthusiasm for that proposition on the Conservative Benches.
One puzzling aspect of the Bill is that under its terms, contrary to what the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, people from outside Europe would continue to receive the help that citizens of the European Union would be prevented from receiving. He said that he wanted anyone who is not a UK citizen to be denied access to benefits, and I think he is under the impression that that is what the Bill would do. In fact, it would have that effect only on EU citizens, not on citizens from countries elsewhere in the world.
Two million citizens of other European countries are living in the UK. Many will have lived in the UK for a long time, and some will be in receipt of housing benefit or council tax benefit, alongside other UK residents whose circumstances are similar. Under clause 2 they would suddenly stop receiving that help. Some will be in receipt of other non-contributory benefits such as pension credit, so we are talking about some pensioners being affected, perhaps after a lifetime of working in the UK. Some are in receipt of child benefit, which is not insurance based, or tax credits, but under clause 4 they would suddenly lose them. European Union citizens would suddenly be disadvantaged not only relative to UK citizens, but also relative to citizens of non-European countries. The hon. Gentleman has told the House that that is not his intention, but that is the effect of the Bill he supports.
They may be entitled to do that, but many do not. Is it not the case that London has one of the largest French populations in the world? I think only two or three cities in France have more French citizens living in them than London does. The hon. Gentleman may feel that they should all apply for UK citizenship, but that seems to me an unreasonable demand.
The right hon. Gentleman seems already to have started the gymnastics as to why he is against the Bill. Is he saying that if the same restrictions that the Bill places on people from within the EU were imposed on people from outside the EU, he would support it on the basis that it would be consistent? Is that what he is saying, or is he just trying to give a bogus reason for why he is against the Bill?
I am simply seeking to assist Conservative Members who—clearly, in the hon. Gentleman’s case—do not understand the effect of the Bill. He said that he wanted benefits to be taken away from anyone who is not a UK citizen, but that would not be the effect of the Bill. I am simply seeking to be helpful, as I always am, to him and other hon. Members, and to explain the effects of the Bill they are supporting.
It would be interesting to know whether the hon. Member for Christchurch has made an assessment of the Bill’s impact on the large number of UK citizens living elsewhere in Europe, if such a policy were adopted in other member states. There are 1 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the European Union, and if other countries adopted the policy set out in the Bill, many would find themselves much worse off. Some pensioners in other European countries would find their pensions drastically reduced, and I wonder what the impact on the Exchequer would be if large numbers of retired Britons, who currently depend on health services in other European Union member states, suddenly returned to the UK and became dependent on the national health service.
There are, of course, perfectly justified reasons for concern about how the benefits system works in respect of European countries. We certainly agree that the Government should act now to deal with the exploitation of migrant workers from the EU and provide apprenticeships and training for unemployed young people targeted specifically at sectors recruiting from abroad. It is also perfectly appropriate to make sensible changes to the rules for jobseeker’s allowance, so that it is clear that people should not simply claim benefits on arrival, but contribute first. We also support reforms at EU level so that family benefits, such as child tax credit and child benefit, are not sent abroad.
In our view, there should also be action outside the benefits system. We have argued that fines for breaching the minimum wage regulations should be doubled. Local authorities should be allowed to take enforcement action over the minimum wage. I hope we can debate that in our deliberations on the Employment Opportunities Bill, which appears in the name of the hon. Member for Christchurch further down the Order Paper. The value of the minimum wage has fallen relative to other incomes since the general election, and it is welcome that the Chancellor has indicated his change of heart and is speaking now about significantly raising it. Furthermore, the rules for gangmasters should be strengthened, and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority should have its remit extended to sectors where there is currently abuse. Steps should be taken to stop the exploitation of migrant workers by rogue landlords. It should be illegal to cram migrants into grossly unsuitable accommodation, such as garages, sheds, barns and overcrowded mobile homes.
The benefits system needs to be fair, and to be seen to be fair. Over many decades, people have come from European countries to Britain and made a huge contribution to our economy and our society. There are quite a number of EU citizens working here in the Palace of Westminster, and it would be absolutely wrong suddenly to place them at a drastic disadvantage, relative to other workers, whether UK citizens or citizens of non-European countries, such as China and India, who would not be affected by the Bill. For all those reasons, we firmly oppose the Bill.
It is a privilege to serve in the House this afternoon as the duty Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will not be surprised to hear that I and the Government support much of what has been said today. I was accused earlier of probably having a carefully worded statement to read out which had been prepared after hours of works by civil servants. Anybody who knows me since I have been a Minister knows that I have never read out anything carefully worded in my life, which is why I get in trouble so much—but there we are.
As the shadow Minister and several colleagues alluded to, I am trapped, not so much, interestingly, by our membership of the EU, but by the interpretation of that membership by the courts over the years, which has extended the powers of unelected bodies over this country and this House. I am also slightly restricted in that, if I, as a Minister of the Crown, have legal advice that the Bill would be a breach for which I could be infracted, I am required, as the shadow Minister will know, being a former Minister, not to get the Government into that position. The ministerial code prevents me from doing that.
The Government will, therefore, be opposing the Bill today. I shall explain why and what we are doing. As announced already, we are doing as much as we can, within the established framework, to ensure that people who come to this country from the EU and the EEA come here to work from the outset and that they are restricted from getting benefits for the first three months.
I heard during today’s debate that that is not much of a restriction. I would have thought that people from different countries being in this country for 12 weeks with no income whatever would provide quite a restriction and would mean bearing a lot of financial hardship. Getting here and then having to live here for three months without benefits would be quite restrictive. I accept that there might be sponsorship for some, but three months is as far as we could go, although we continue to look at other measures while negotiations with our European partners are taking place.
Order. I am sorry, Minister, but every time you turn around from the Chair and the microphone to face your hon. Friend, I have difficulty hearing you. Not only that, but turning away from the microphones will cause difficulties for Hansard. I would be grateful if the Minister kept facing the House rather turning around. I am sure that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) will not be offended; it is the Minister’s words that he is listening to.
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try to speak up, too, so that Hansard can get every last nuance of what I say.
As I was saying, I was asked the same question when I became a Minister some three and a half months ago. That question is asked. I have officials of different nationalities who worked in Jobcentre Plus, but the difference is that it does not tie up directly with the Home Office systems at the moment. It will, however, when the excellent universal credit system comes into force. [Interruption.] I hear derogatory comments from a sedentary position coming from the Opposition side, so let me ask them whether they are going to scrap universal credit when they come into power—should this country be silly enough to allow a Labour Government back in again.
Order. However tempted the right hon. Gentleman might be to respond, we are not discussing universal credit today. I am happy for him to speak from the Dispatch Box, but he should not take us off the subject of this Bill. I expect the House to return to it.
I fully accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had to mention universal credit because that provides the answer to how we would know which country people claiming benefit come from. We are working closely, too, on making changes to the legal framework at the EU level, particularly in respect of family benefits for children who are not resident in this country. We think—and I think hon. Members would agree with me—that child benefit and child tax credit should not be paid to non-EU member families that are not resident in this country; we need to work on changing that.
The key issue is whether the scope of the Bill is such that the Government could support it. I am afraid that it is not. We sympathise with much of the intention—and so would my constituents—but as we run into the next election and the referendum, the Prime Minister will be participating in attempts to renegotiate our position to give this Parliament the sort of control over benefits and other issues that we would expect. Sadly, on behalf of the Government, I cannot support the Bill today.
That is both a surprise and a disappointment, although I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he agrees with a lot of the ideas behind the Bill. He says, in effect, that his hands are tied, he cannot do anything about it and we need to renegotiate these issues. My concern is that there does not seem to be any evidence that we will be able to command a majority in the European Union to renegotiate along the lines that we seek. When I asked the Prime Minister whether this issue would be one on which we would be renegotiating, my question was passed to the Foreign Office and it replied by setting out priorities for renegotiation that did not include anything to do with the subject matter of the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has therefore been announcing new Government policy today in saying that this subject will be right at the forefront of our renegotiation of our terms of engagement with the European Union. If that is so, I have not been putting forward this Bill and arguing in vain.
In closing, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) for their support and encouragement on the Bill. I am also grateful to my nearby colleague in Hampshire, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Their presence and involvement shows that this subject will not go away and that a lot of people feel strongly about it. I asked the Minister how he will be able to find out whether somebody applying for jobseeker’s allowance has been in this country for less than three months, and whether they come from outside the United Kingdom and are a national of another EU country. In reply, he said that he would not be able to sort that out with a requirement as to nationality until universal credit came in, but on any view that is some many months or years away. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are saying, “We are going to get tough, with effect from 1 January.” That is because people from Romania and Bulgaria were able to come here from 1 January and we were assured that we would be rigorous in ensuring that none of them would be able to apply for benefits within three months of their arrival. How are we going to know when people arrived and what nationality they are unless we have some means of asking the questions?
The Minister’s failure to answer that simple question drives a coach and horses through this aspect of Government policy. It is a charade; we are giving people the impression that we have got control over this when we have no control over it whatsoever. If that was not apparent from what has been said already, the fact that the Government are being taken to the European Court on the issue even of the habitual residence test just shows that the European Union is working in the opposite direction from us. That is why I think I speak for most of my hon. Friends in saying that unless we can sort this out, we would be better off out of the European Union. That is why I think it would be useful, because of the ongoing European Union debate, to test the will of the House on this matter.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided because fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House (Standing Order No. 41).