House of Commons
Friday 17 January 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill
Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank hon. Members for taking an interest in this Bill and for attending this morning’s debate. I am particularly grateful to Members who attended the Bill Committee. We had a good debate, as we did on Second Reading. I am delighted with the cross-party support that the Bill has enjoyed to date, and I hope that this continues.
Foreign and Commonwealth citizens in Her Majesty’s forces who wish to apply for naturalisation under section 6(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981 may currently be at a disadvantage because of their time served overseas. This is because an applicant must have been in the United Kingdom on day one of the five-year qualifying period for naturalisation. As a result, some members or former members of our armed forces have to wait longer to apply than other people who are simply living in the UK on the required date. The principles enshrined in the armed forces covenant between the nation and our armed forces community make it clear that those who serve should face no disadvantage as a result of that service.
The best estimate is that approximately up to 200 service personnel or ex-service personnel and their families could be helped by the Bill. This measure is not of vast significance and it will certainly not impact on our immigration or naturalisation numbers to any great extent, but I think my hon. Friend will agree that there is an injustice in the current rules and regulations which needs to be changed.
I believe that it is wrong for our armed service personnel and our former armed service personnel who fit into this category to be discriminated against in this way. It is anomalous, and it is something that this House and the other place can and should rectify. As I said on Second Reading, every day that members of our armed forces have spent in the service of our country abroad should have the same value in the eyes of the immigration authorities as a day spent in the UK. The Bill enjoyed a very thorough and far-reaching debate on Second Reading and I am delighted that no amendments were tabled. I therefore hope that we shall be able to conclude matters this morning without a huge or lengthy debate.
Clause 1 amends schedule 1 to the 1981 Act to give the Secretary of State discretion to overlook the requirement to be in the UK on day one of the qualifying period for naturalisation. This discretion will apply only in cases where the applicant is, or has been, a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister and the shadow Minister are in their places here today. As I say, I very much hope that the Bill will continue to enjoy cross-party support.
The Bill represents a small and sensible, but not insignificant, change to the way in which naturalisation applications from foreign and Commonwealth members of Her Majesty’s armed forces are considered. It enables us to remove the disadvantage currently experienced by certain forces and ex-forces personnel who happened to be outside the United Kingdom, serving their country, on that first day of their five-year qualifying period for naturalisation as a British citizen.
The Home Office takes its responsibilities under the armed forces covenant seriously, as I hope all hon. Members do. We have been steadily pursuing a range of measures to improve the various interactions that the armed forces community is obliged to have with UK Visa & Immigration. We recently implemented a new set of immigration rules for armed forces families, which include a number of practical improvements: a five-year visa; a dedicated application form; and the ability to make applications from overseas. Small things can make a big difference, and the small but important measure in this Bill is one such thing.
Anything that implements the military covenant, as this Bill does in a small but significant way, is a very good thing. What is the attitude of the various armed forces charities, which we all support, be it the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes or Veterans Aid? What is their approach to the Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I am pleased to inform him that our armed forces charities, those that help not only those currently serving and their families, but ex-service personnel and their families, are hugely and universally supportive of this measure. I have been grateful to them for their advice and support during this Bill’s passage through this House.
The measure in this Bill was identified by the Armed Forces Covenant Cabinet Sub-Committee as a priority commitment. Once implemented, it will provide the Secretary of State with the discretion to overlook the current requirement in schedule 1 the British Nationality Act 1981. As I said a moment ago, it is not anticipated that the volume of naturalisation applications from forces personnel will increase dramatically as a result of the Bill. Rather, it will help a small number of applicants who will become eligible to apply for naturalisation earlier than would otherwise have been the case. The numbers benefiting will be modest, but important none the less. UK Visa & Immigration does not hold data on the numbers of service personnel and ex-service personnel naturalising as British citizens, but as I said to my hon. Friend, we reckon that the number is something in the region of up to a couple of hundred cases per year, and no more. Not all those cases will require the discretion provided for by this Bill, but where they do, it is only right and fair that the people involved should benefit from it.
I am grateful to the Home Office and to all Members from across this House for their support as we put this Bill together. Throughout the process, we have listened to the organisations that so ably represent members of the armed forces. I am grateful for their input and I hope that they will be pleased by the result of this Third Reading debate. Should the Bill pass this House this morning, I have asked Lord Trefgarne to pilot the Bill through the other place.
I am relieved to hear that my hon. Friend has found a noble Lord willing to take up the task of piloting the Bill in the other place. Has my hon. Friend been given any indication by him on whether he foresees any time scale difficulties, given that their lordships are now having to consider the European Union (Referendum) Bill, which is in the other place?
I am delighted to say that Lord Trefgarne is helping Lord Dobbs in his endeavours in the other place on the European Union (Referendum) Bill, and I am assured that this Bill will not do anything to hold up progress in the other place. Of course, Conservative Members would like to send Godspeed to the European Union (Referendum) Bill, but I am pleased to say that the passage of my Bill should in no way affect its progress.
My Bill is an important part of our package of measures to ensure that those who are willing to put their life on the line in defence of our country are treated fairly by the immigration system. The principles enshrined in the armed forces covenant between the nation and our armed forces community make it absolutely clear that those who serve and who have served should, at the very least, face no disadvantage as a result of that service. On that basis, it has been a great honour and privilege to move the Bill on Third Reading, and I commend it to my colleagues and to the House.
It is a great pleasure to support my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) as he brings the passage of this Bill in this House to a conclusion. I was here during its gestation period, on Second Reading, and I am happy to be here now to support it as it is finally delivered. You were in the Chair on Second Reading, Mr Speaker, and I wearied you with a speech of nearly half an hour, so you will be pleased to hear that as this is Third Reading, my remarks will be very brief.
It is so pleasant to be here on a Friday morning, when everyone is so polite, nice and calm.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking because steering a private Member’s Bill through the rocks of parliamentary procedure is difficult, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who is piloting the European Union (Referendum) Bill, is finding this very day to his cost. However, I am sure that, with the help of Lord Trefgarne, the Bill before us will have a rapid passage. I do not believe for a moment that the other place would want to commit the double whammy of resisting the overwhelming will of this House and the people’s right to have a referendum—it is doing that on the European Union (Referendum) Bill. I say that very quickly before Mr Speaker rules me out of order, and I return to the Bill before us.
Although this is a small Bill, it has a big heart, because it is about supporting our armed forces and ensuring that another building block of the armed forces covenant is put in place. I was not here during the passage of the British Nationality Act 1981, but it seems extraordinary that we have a sensible provision that someone has to be in this country for five years before they are granted citizenship or the process comes to fruition, yet a country should say that someone should be denied this opportunity to get citizenship because they happen to be serving that country overseas.
Let us consider the position of a foreign national, one of our brave soldiers, who is serving in Afghanistan and who has served our country for five years and whose greatest ambition is to become a citizen of this country. How amazing it would be if, having loyally served our country in the armed forces, they are told, “I am sorry, but five years ago you were in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and you have to wait.” Such an approach is extraordinary. Although the number involved may be small—a figure of 200 has been cited—an important principle is at stake. In addition, although the specific number of people we think the Bill affects may be limited at the moment—it is perhaps only 200—about 8,000 foreign nationals are serving in our armed forces, so a considerable number of people are potentially involved.
One or two comments were made on Second Reading on the theme of, “Do we want to grant more citizenship? Are we not worried about immigration?” However, the number of people affected by this Bill is small, and surely it has always been a principle that when someone serves in the armed forces of a country and puts their life at risk, they are entitled to become a citizen of that country.
Is this not also about equality between the various troops who serve for Her Majesty’s Government and for the Queen? The arrangements should be no different for those who are overseas born and qualify in the usual way, subject to this calculation and this rule, as for a “normal” British citizen? There should be equal treatment.
I entirely agree. As I said, all countries have had this principle that people who have served a number of years in the armed forces of the country should be entitled to become a citizen. Can we imagine some poor Roman legionnaire 2,000 years ago, freezing on Hadrian’s wall, applying to become a citizen of the empire, only for someone to say, “I’m sorry, five years ago, you weren’t sitting around in Rome. You were serving the empire on the Rhine”? It would be ridiculous. There is clearly something wrong with our present laws.
This is a good Bill; it will make a good Act. It is important because there is undoubtedly a problem with morale in the armed forces. Their whole role is changing; they are leaving Afghanistan; and there have been severe reductions in the military. In this House, it behoves us always to support our armed forces and if we find any area where there are glitches or unfairnesses, we should take time to iron them out, and we should always proclaim our support and admiration for them and the work that they do.
In conclusion, Mr Speaker, I thank you for allowing me to speak today; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking; and I wish his Bill well as it completes its stages through this House.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). I add my thanks and congratulations to those that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), both for taking up this Bill and bringing it to the House, and for steering it so successfully through Committee and bringing it back for Report and Third Reading today.
Like my hon. Friend, I am pleased that the Bill has not been amended in any way, which is a tribute to the way that it was drafted. I know from experience, and we will see this in relation to the next Bill that we discuss, that a Bill that appears to be in order is sometimes found to need technical amendment. In this case, however, that was not necessary.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, this is a small Bill in many ways. It might not affect huge numbers of people, but it is very important in ensuring that we play our part in fulfilling our commitment to the armed forces covenant, and in ensuring that those who have served our country are not at any disadvantage compared with those who have lived a purely civilian life. We owe it to those who place their lives at risk to do all we can to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in any way as a result of their military service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking may have slightly misunderstood my intervention. Although I am clearly very anxious, like him, that the European Union (Referendum) Bill makes good progress, I was slightly concerned that the progress of that leviathan Bill—leviathan not in length but in importance—might push this Bill aside and make it difficult for it to get through the other place. I hope that that is not the case.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, and for his concern about this Bill and the referendum Bill. I can assure him that, as far as I know, my Bill will be well received by the House of Lords. The referendum Bill is now in Committee, so if my Bill passes through the Commons today, I am told—and very much hope, as does my hon. Friend—that it can go through its stages, and that neither Bill will be disturbed on their passage through the other place.
I am extremely relieved to hear that, as I am sure the whole House and those who are affected by this Bill will be. I hope that the Bill proceeds smoothly through Third Reading today, that the other place is welcoming and hospitable to the Bill, and that it has a speedy passage through the other place, so that those who are affected by it can benefit from it as soon as possible. I wish it well.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and it is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). As the Member of Parliament for Hadrian’s wall, I can assure him that many Romans—
I hear chuntering from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson; I entirely accept that of the 85 miles of Hadrian’s wall—[Interruption.] Well, we can disagree. Some parts are in Newcastle and some parts are in Carlisle, but without any shadow of a doubt all the best bits are in the constituency of Hexham. However, I digress and it is wrong of me to take Opposition Members’ bait.
The most important thing is to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), because he has done a wonderful thing. As we all know, it is very difficult to navigate a Bill through this House, however lovely Fridays are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made clear, and however much a Bill is supported by the whole House.
The Army charities do such wonderful work supporting our armed forces personnel and their families, including any of those personnel who are injured or who have suffered misadventure. We all pay tribute to them for the work that they do; I am quite sure that I speak for the whole House in that respect. The particular charity that I would pray in aid is Veterans Aid, which has said of this Bill:
“We warmly welcome any initiative that removes obstacles to those who have served this country with honour from settling here legally…Veterans Aid, more than any other military charity, has championed the cause of Foreign & Commonwealth servicemen and women disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, by bureaucracy that is demonstrably at odds with the spirit of the Military Covenant. This was an injustice and we applaud the Government”—
and, as the quote says, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking—
“for listening. We still have many cases in being but this will definitely help us move things forward”
for many of the customers that it is assisting.
It is wonderful that the military charities are supporting the Bill, which is about enforcing the military covenant. That is so fundamental to the being of this country, and so important to how we assess and appraise the armed forces, that it is right and proper that we have updated reports on it. It is a wonderful thing that the House is provided with an annual report on the military covenant, and that the progress and development of the relationship between the state, the public and the armed forces is assessed on an ongoing and regular basis.
The Bill addresses two key issues that form part of the military covenant: the state of immigration, and the relationship between the state and its armed forces. Most of all, however, it is surely about justice and fairness. That is because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough accepted and made clear, it is only right and proper that all armed services personnel should be treated in the same way. I am pleased to say that the military covenant is a priority for this Government. It is about fair treatment for our forces and ensuring that we have an impact on the lives of military personnel.
I obviously represent the best parts of Hadrian’s wall, but I am also lucky enough to have Albemarle barracks in my constituency, where 39th Regiment Royal Artillery is based. In 2015 we will welcome a new regiment there, the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. I cannot say specifically whether those individual armed forces personnel will be affected by the Bill, and it would be wrong of me to inquire about the specifics in advance of the Bill’s implementation. However, given the nature of those battalions, there will in all probability be individuals who are affected by it. My constituency also has RAF Spadeadam, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). The individuals who work in those facilities for the armed forces will be assisted by the Bill.
The covenant was established under this Government in May 2011. As we know, it is based on the principles of removing disadvantage from serving personnel in relation to access to public and commercial services. It also allows special provision in relation to access for the injured and the bereaved. Part of the ongoing process, which, I am pleased to say, this Government as a coalition have set up, is to address that relationship. If Members have not read the two reports on the military covenant, they really should look at them. The 2012 armed forces annual covenant report, which runs to almost 100 pages, provides a proper and detailed breakdown of the relationship between the state and the armed forces. There have been significant achievements, of which this Bill is one, relating to, among other things, health care, the medical rehabilitation that we have seen so successfully carried out at Headley Court, and housing. Frankly, this Bill would not be coming to fruition today were it not for the armed forces covenant, the hard work of the various charities and the dedication of the Government to make a genuine difference to that relationship.
I speak as a fifth generation immigrant. With a name like Opperman, I have more Saxon than Anglo in me. I endorse entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, who said that one must look only at those who have fought on our behalf in the past to see why this Bill is so right. During the battle of Britain, there were 145 pilots from Poland, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French and one each from Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Zimbabwe. My hon. Friend may be surprised that the French were fighting on our side, but there are times when they have assisted us. I am sure that President Hollande would be grateful for our assistance right now.
My point is that in our hour of ultimate need in the second world war, it was not just British citizens who were protecting us and fighting against the Nazis, but a large number of men and women from many different countries. To deny those who had fought in the battle of Britain the ability to have British citizenship is abhorrent.
As my hon. Friend mentions the Polish contribution to the battle of Britain, it is worth putting on the record that they came here in huge numbers and served our country with great bravery. Subsequently, we did not deal very fairly with their country. Let us pay tribute to our Polish friends. We should remember their contribution when people talk about Polish immigration now. We should always reflect on what they did for our country in the 1940s.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. It is right that we not only have a sensible discussion about immigration, but acknowledge that the communities from Poland have a great deal to offer this country and have contributed greatly not only in the past few years but down the generations. He will be interested to know that in the battle of Britain, of all the overseas troops who fought on behalf of Great Britain to defend us against the Nazis in the most pivotal and important aerial battle that there has ever been, the highest number of pilots was from Poland—higher than New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia and Ireland. The Polish were the largest number by a significant degree. How we approach immigration must be measured and fair. We accept the brightest and the best, and we ensure that there is no exploitation. We must accept that they made a great contribution in the past and continue to do so, and I welcome what he said.
In my constituency of Woking, we have a Muslim burial ground, which, I am pleased to say, will be renovated in time for the commemorations of the great war. It was built to house the remains and give proper dignity to, and proper commemoration of, the sacrifices made by those from the Indian sub-continent. Indian soldiers or those from modern-day Pakistan who served in the great war are commemorated there. We are talking about the new Commonwealth as well as the old Commonwealth and the European countries that served alongside our Great British forces in both of those great wars.
As significant tribute has now been paid to the respective immigrant communities of the United Kingdom, and that is perfectly right, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), I am sure, will now wish to focus with a laser-like precision on the contents of the Bill as it stands at Third Reading.
Mr Speaker, I am delighted to say that you have prompted me to say that I am in the last minute or so of my speech. I could not finish, notwithstanding your strong instruction on matters of international domain, without pointing out that crucially this Bill will affect the 9,000 foreign and Commonwealth troops who are serving in our armed forces, 200 of whom are expected to fall foul of the five-year rule. It would be totally wrong of this House in the 21st century to allow a situation in which those 200 or 300 are disadvantaged and not treated as equals. They are no different from those troops who have so bravely served us in the past.
It is worth noting that the Bill has the support of not just the Home Office but the Ministry of Defence. On 11 July 2013, our Minister of State for Defence, who was then responsible for personnel, welfare and veterans, said:
“There has been a long tradition of Commonwealth citizens serving in the British armed forces and most recently on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We continue to value their service which provides an important contribution in defending the UK at home and abroad.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 31WS.]
That is one reason why I believe my Bill is so important.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on bringing this Bill forward. I also pay tribute to our armed forces for the job they do on behalf of our country. The armed forces covenant, which is fully supported by Labour, enshrines in law the principle that no one who serves in the armed forces should face disadvantage as a result of their decision to do so. The covenant also recognises the need to provide special treatment where that is necessary to prevent such disadvantage from happening.
The private Member’s Bill before us has the full support of my party. Our only regret is that the Government did not include the provisions in the Immigration Bill, as they could have done. That would have allowed Members to table amendments on other categories of people who may also deserve special consideration. Those points were made in Committee, and there is no need to repeat them at length.
The core principle of the Bill is undoubtedly right, namely that foreign and Commonwealth personnel serving in our armed forces should not be disadvantaged if they wish to apply for naturalisation as British citizens because of time served overseas. The number who will be eligible under the provisions is relatively small. The hon. Gentleman estimates that to be a couple of hundred, but we are interested to know the Government’s latest estimates of what that number might be, and also what the estimated number of dependants might be. I hope, too, that the Government will allow the Bill to operate retrospectively, so that people who have already served overseas in the armed forces may also benefit from the new provisions if they come into law.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked whether a person injured in service would be disadvantaged if they were unable to complete a tour of service and left the armed forces early. She cited the example of a soldier from Ghana who was able to complete only two years’ service before being medically discharged owing to injuries incurred while he carried out his military duties. Because he had not completed infantry training before his medical discharge, which was a stipulation of his visa, he was detained and removal directions were set against him. It seems wrong that a concession was not given in that case, and I hope that, if the Bill becomes law, the Minister will introduce guidance so that similar cases, where the length of service is cut short by injury, do not result in such an outcome, which I consider to be both unfair and unjust.
I see no need to detain the House for long, as there is broad consensus on both sides that the Bill should proceed. Foreign and Commonwealth citizens who serve this country and our armed forces should not be placed at any disadvantage when applying for British citizenship compared with other applicants. It is right that the Bill corrects the existing anomaly in law. The Opposition welcome the provisions, and we give the Bill our full support.
My remarks will be relatively brief. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord). In his career in the House he has had remarkable success on private Members’ Bills, and if this one reaches the statute book, he will have been infinitely more successful than I ever was at getting a private Member’s Bill through. I am pleased that he chose this particular subject. He has steered the Bill well. At the end I will say a little about the Member of the House of Lords—as I believe we are now allowed to call it in this House—who will steer the Bill in the other place.
I join my hon. Friend, not in a full tribute, because that would test your patience, Mr Speaker, but in a tribute none the less to the foreign and Commonwealth members of our armed forces. The 1st Battalion The Rifles is based in my constituency at Beachley barracks, and a number of foreign and Commonwealth personnel have served on the battalion’s operational tours in Afghanistan. I have met those foreign and Commonwealth personnel, and they are as dedicated and committed as British citizens are to defending our country and serving Her Majesty the Queen.
It is right that the Bill addresses a matter on which those personnel could be disadvantaged by giving the Home Secretary the necessary discretion. The change is indeed small but sensible, and it is not insignificant. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) put it very well: it is a small Bill with a big heart. That phrase deserves repeating.
The Bill enables us to remove the disadvantage faced by those forces and ex-forces personnel who happened to be outside the United Kingdom serving their country on day one of the five-year qualifying period for naturalisation. The Bill gives the Home Secretary the necessary discretion to overlook the current requirement in schedule 1 to the British Nationality Act 1981. The hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) asked whether the Bill is retrospective, and it is to that extent. Once the Bill is enacted, for anyone applying for naturalisation we will look back five years to what they were doing at that time, and the Bill will enable the Home Secretary to use her discretion, where appropriate, to overlook absences for service. The Bill will benefit people as soon as it gets on to the statute book. We will not have to wait five years for it to kick in, which is very helpful.
In the Home Office we take our responsibilities under the armed forces covenant very seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) set out the background, so I will not test your patience by repeating it, Mr Speaker. We have been steadily pursuing a range of measures to improve how the Home Office deals with our foreign and Commonwealth personnel. Briefly, we have implemented new immigration rules for armed forces families, which include a number of practical improvements such as a five-year visa, a dedicated application form and the ability to make applications from overseas. The Army Families Federation said in its statement in the armed forces covenant annual report 2013 that the rules will
“address many of the inequalities that Foreign and Commonwealth families have been experiencing”.
The federation has been working closely with us and colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, and I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), is here today, because it demonstrates the Ministry of Defence’s close working with the Home Office. We have implemented the rules by having a transitional period in which those already on a route to settlement will be able to complete that route under the existing rules, and there will be clear rules for new foreign and Commonwealth service personnel.
Going back to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham and the hon. Member for Croydon North, we are not expecting a huge number of applications from forces personnel benefiting from the measure. We expect, anecdotally, some 200 to 300 cases a year of people who have served to naturalise as British citizens. Not all of those cases will require discretion, but where they do—even if there is only one case—it is right that someone who has served in our armed forces should benefit, and I am pleased that the Bill will enable that to happen.
We have had support for the Bill from the Army Families Federation, which has said that it will make
“a big difference to the…soldiers and their spouses who are currently prohibited from applying for Citizenship because they were serving overseas or were on operations at the start of the…period.”
The federation said that the current rule has been
“disproportionately disadvantaging members of HM Forces…and the AFF is fully supportive of the…changes”.
The other organisation, already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, is Veterans Aid, which warmly welcomes the change. Veterans Aid works for a range of former service personnel, and it works very hard for those who have had mental illness. I worked closely with the organisation when I was a shadow Defence Minister, and it works closely with foreign and Commonwealth personnel who have fallen foul of the system. Indeed, I met Dr Hugh Milroy, the organisation’s excellent chief executive, just yesterday to talk through some of the issues, and he has a very close working relationship both with my officials and with officials in the Ministry of Defence. Veterans Aid does excellent casework to support former members of our armed forces, both British citizens and foreign and Commonwealth personnel .
The Bill will hopefully get a fair wind today. It will then pass, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking said, to the steady hand of our noble Friend Lord Trefgarne, who of course had six years’ experience as a Defence Minister in the 1980s, so he is well briefed on defence issues, and I know that this matter is close to his heart. He is also experienced in the equivalent Friday sessions in the House of Lords, and he will be expert in steering both this Bill and, assisting our noble Friend Lord Dobbs, the European Union (Referendum) Bill through the House of Lords. I hope that the Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill will rapidly pass through the House of Lords and receive Royal Assent.
We have listened to the organisations that represent members of the armed forces, and will continue to work with them. The Bill does justice to those who have served our country from foreign and Commonwealth countries that support our armed forces. I am pleased to give the Government’s support to the Bill, which I hope will receive Third Reading today.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
International Development (Gender Equality) Bill
Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to move the Third Reading of this Bill. As you well know, navigating a private Member’s Bill is rather like navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, those mythical sea monsters noted by Homer and experienced by Odysseus on opposite sides of the strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was a six-headed sea monster on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. I am sure that you will appreciate that in this analogy, Scylla is the Whips and Charybdis the procedural hazards of private Members’ Bills, not to mention the amendments that can scupper such a Bill. I am extremely glad to say that such amendments as were tabled were withdrawn and I am grateful to all those concerned for giving us the opportunity to debate the Bill on Third Reading.
The Bill was originally No. 18 on the list for the private Member’s Bill ballot, so I must admit that when I first proposed it I did not really believe that I would be standing here today. It all arose because—as you will know, Mr Speaker, as the former shadow Secretary of State for International Development—I have taken an active interest in matters of international development for the 27 or so years for which I have been a Member of the House.
Last year and the year before, I had the opportunity to go to India where I noted the incredible work done by women on sanitation and water. I also have the honour to be chair of the all-party group on water and sanitation in the third world, which I set up about five years ago. What struck me was the dignity of the manner in which those wonderful women, who lived on the streets as often as not, would go around and collect money—one or two rupees—from the slums of Delhi and Mumbai and aggregate that into millions of rupees that would then be used to build lavatory facilities that were not available through the municipal authorities. I had also known for many years that in Africa it is women who do much of the down-to-earth small business work in the marketplace and so on, including in the slums of Nairobi and elsewhere. I have therefore always wanted to try to help in this field.
Let me put on record my grateful thanks to the various organisations that have helped with this Bill, particularly the GREAT Initiative, Plan UK, WaterAid UK, with which I have worked very closely for many years, and Voluntary Service Overseas. The net result is that the Bill, which many would have thought had very little chance to begin with, has been greatly boosted by support, particularly from the Secretary of State for International Development who, sadly, cannot be here today. I am extremely grateful to the Minister of State who has come along today to help with the passage of the Bill.
I also want to put on record my great thanks to those on the Public Bill Committee, which went very well, and to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), who spoke in support of the Bill. I also thank the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and our own Prime Minister. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister appeared before a meeting of the Liaison Committee and one of the subjects raised was pertinent to the Bill. I mentioned to him:
“On the United Kingdom’s implementation of international agreements on violence against women and girls, the UN committee recommended that the Government encourage Parliament to implement its international treaty obligations and the recommendations of the UN treaty bodies.”
As he had put great emphasis on the matter during his appearance before the Committee, I asked him whether he thought that the Bill would establish
“a statutory benchmark for other countries”
particularly after 2015, when there will be important developments as regards the millennium development goals, so that
“we will be able to promote the ideas internationally”.
“It is an absolute yes, because this is another brick in the wall of the whole argument that this should be the year when we really deliver a massive joined-up agenda on women’s empowerment and women’s equality all across the world. This helps us because the Bill will make Britain have a leading role in examining gender equality before we deploy aid and other resources”.
Does my hon. Friend accept that when half the population is effectively locked out of a country and prevented from being productive and from pursuing opportunities in education or anywhere else, there is no realistic and sustainable path to proper development?
I agree that the implementation of the Bill represents a social revolution. The scope of the Bill and the statutory duties it imposes on the Secretary of State, which the Government and the Opposition have voluntarily and willingly accepted, will put more flesh on the bones of the existing policies in legislative terms. As my hon. Friend notes, half the world’s population are women. It seems an obvious thing to say, but it is true.
Let me give one or two examples of the necessity for such a Bill and the basis on which I introduced it, linked to my personal experience—including an article I wrote in The Guardian when I came back from India, in which I said “Eat your heart out, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. I have been there and it is worse than you imagine.” The women deal with the problems on the ground, but they are estimated to account for almost two thirds of the people around the globe who live in extreme poverty. Women perform two thirds of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property.
At the same time, all around the world, women are not participating in public and political life on equal terms to men or in equal measure. The evidence shows that despite all the great efforts made by the Secretary of State for International Development and the Department over the years, we are still not solving the problem. Only one in five parliamentarians worldwide is a woman, women hold only 17% of ministerial positions and, at a governmental level, women account for only 13 of 193 Heads of Government. Women from poor backgrounds, from rural and indigenous communities and from minority groups are particularly marginalised in decision-making processes and institutions. This is a unique opportunity in the post-2015 process that I described earlier, and the Bill will achieve as much as the British Parliament and the British Government can achieve by imposing a duty within the legislative framework of the international development statutes to put women’s rights at the heart of the international development agenda.
My hon. Friend will know that seven colleagues from the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, including my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), visited the Syrian-Turkish border last weekend and saw the international development assistance that this country is providing on an ongoing basis. Clearly the Bill is prospective, but will it have any retrospective impact, either in law or through the practical application of international aid?
It will not have legislative retrospectivity, but it will reinforce existing policies by adding a statutory duty, which, as those of us who are familiar with administrative law will know, is what makes it bite. The fact that it will be a legal obligation enhances it beyond mere policy making. My hon. Friend mentions our hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), who of course is one of the Bill’s sponsors, as indeed is the Chair of the International Development Committee, along with Members from both sides of the House—their names are listed on the back of the Bill. I want to express my gratitude to them for their active support in pursuing these objectives.
Nobody could possibly be in favour of gender inequality, but can my hon. Friend assure me that this is not just another motherhood and apple pie Bill that will place a regulatory burden on the Department by pushing it in a direction which, according to common sense, it should be following anyway?
I could not agree more. It is not a regulatory burden at all; it is an amplification by statute of existing policies. It will help to generate self-help, enterprise and productivity in the third world, because it is women who are driving forward the whole market programme and helping to create micro-economic systems of enterprise. It is precisely for that reason that generating all the advantages of enterprise through women in the third world, who do all the work in the marketplaces, in the slums and so forth, will increase all the things that my hon. Friend advocates. He knows, as I do—I certainly advocate those things—how important it is to generate enterprise in those countries, because that will effectively balance the amount of aid that is necessary. The Bill is about providing a means of promoting enterprise, not over-regulation.
On that point, it would be a bizarre day indeed if my hon. Friend, who has battled for generations to stop greater regulation, were ever accused of seeking in any way to over-regulate the state. I certainly endorse what he says. Does he agree with the philosopher Jostein Gaarder’s point:
“A state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arm”?
I thoroughly endorse that proposition. I am also glad to be able to refer to the historical fact that it was a member of my family, Jacob Bright—John Bright’s brother—who in 1869 became the first person to introduce a Bill in this House promoting the representation of women. Hume had made proposals for that, but the first Bill to promote votes for women was produced by Mr Pankhurst—Emmeline Pankhurst’s father, I think—and brought in by Jacob Bright. I feel that, in a way, I can follow in their footsteps by promoting the role of women in the world in this way.
In summary, the Bill places duties relating to gender on the Secretary of State before she provides humanitarian or development assistance under the International Development Act 2002. The Bill amends that Act to require the Secretary of State, before providing such assistance, to consider whether it will reduce poverty—I repeat the word “poverty”—in a way that is also likely to contribute to reducing gender inequality and, similarly, to take account of gender-related matters before providing humanitarian assistance overseas.
Basically, the Bill will help enormously through the very efficient work that is done by those who work in the Department, and I pay tribute to them for the great work they have done in this entire exercise. It is part and parcel of a social revolution. It will also play a very big role in our international development thinking, because in order for them to give effect to any particular policy they will have to have regard to those measures, as set out in statute. The Bill has all-party support, including from the leaders of the respective parties, and an enormous amount of assistance has been given by the Department. I hope and trust that when it goes to the House of Lords it will manage to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of all private Members’ Bills there. I hope that my noble Friend Baroness Jenkin will be interested in taking it forward, which I believe is the case. It has enormous support in all parts of the House and, I believe, in the country at large.
Of course, I entirely support the aims of the Bill—it would be extraordinary if one did not—and the whole House will want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for the effort he has put into this work over many years. He is quite right that there is extraordinary and regrettable inequality, particularly in the developing world. It is absolutely right that the Department for International Development, in seeking to do its job, should try to construct its aims in such a way that reduces gender inequality.
However, on Third Reading it is important to scrutinise measures and look at the text of the Bill. It states:
“Before providing development assistance under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of providing development assistance that is likely to contribute to reducing poverty in a way which is likely to contribute to reducing inequality between persons of different gender.”
I want an assurance from the Minister that, in a world in which we are placing ever more regulatory burdens on Ministers, his freedom of manoeuvre in the way he conducts his negotiations, provides assistance and runs his Department will in no way be compromised by a Bill that, despite its eminently good intentions, might have some unintended effects, as is often the case.
There is a danger, because many of the Bills that passed through this House under the previous Government, particularly—dare I say it?—on Friday mornings, were undoubtedly well intentioned. Nobody could support gender inequality, and everybody wants the Secretary of State to produce programmes that reduce gender inequality, but the House will understand what I am saying. We cannot view Departments like Christmas trees and load more and more fairy lights and baubles on to them to try to satisfy our own prejudices or make us feel good. It is a very comfortable feeling, but ultimately it makes it increasingly difficult to run these Departments, because every time a Minister is getting on with their job, civil servants are coming to them and saying, “You have to tick this box, that box and the other box.” Ultimately, it is not a very good way of running a Department. My right hon. Friend the Minister is a very experienced Minister who understands his Department intimately, and I am sure he can give me the assurance that this Bill will in no way affect his work.
The Bill also deals with humanitarian assistance. I have two daughters who work in international development—one works for War Child and one works for the International Rescue Committee. They are both in Congo at the moment. My family and I are utterly committed to international development. Humanitarian assistance is a part of the Department’s work that has to be carried out with great speed, and the Minister has to take action not because it ticks some box or fulfils some regulatory function but because it is about saving lives. New subsection (2) says:
“Before providing assistance under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of providing assistance under that subsection in a way that takes account of any gender-related differences in the needs of those affected by the disaster or the emergency.”
Of course the Secretary of State will do that. It would be absurd if there were a disaster in Congo, Somaliland or anywhere else, and he provided assistance in such a way that did not help everybody. When he is grappling with such a disaster, I do not want some civil servant to be shuffling pieces of paper in front of him because he has to meet some provision that should obviously be met in any event.
We are all listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with interest, not least because of the experience of his family members, to whom we pay full credit. I totally accept that there is a distinction between the two clauses of the Bill. As he says, disaster relief or emergency assistance must clearly be immediate and instant. New subsection (1A), which deals with efforts to reduce poverty
“in a way which is likely to contribute to reducing inequality”,
must surely speak to the issue of education, which is the pathway towards reducing poverty. Surely education is the fundamental point of this Bill.
I am not opposed to the Bill and I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point.
I want the Department to be run in a successful fashion. I want it to reduce gender inequality and to improve education in the third world. I want the Minister to do all these things, but ultimately I want him and his officials to be able to trust in their own judgment and not have to think about another Act of Parliament that may have unintended consequences and restrict their freedom of manoeuvre. We should trust the Secretary of State. This Bill is obviously going to become law; nobody here is going to oppose it. I merely want to get from the Minister the assurance that I requested.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to speak in this debate. I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for being the seasoned and veteran campaigner that he is. He has battled long and hard to bring this Bill before the House of Commons, and we all wish it Godspeed and good will during its passage here and through the House of Lords.
In preparation for the debate, I looked at an article that my hon. Friend wrote in the New Statesman some time after the visit he mentioned. I must confess that I was surprised, but also delighted, to find him writing in such a modern socialist magazine as the New Statesman.
Obviously my hon. Friends on the Front Bench started out more right wing than Genghis Khan, but some of us have had an evolution as we have progressed. It is true to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has evolved, if not in his journalistic practices then certainly in his political practices. It is testament to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) that they are addressing and supporting this issue in the House.
Gender equality is a basic right, and it does not need any economic justification. We can provide an economic justification for it, but we should not even need to go there. It is a harsh fact that women across the world continue to face daily abuse and seclusion for the sole reason that they are women. Any argument that promotes inequality has no place in the 21st century.
I spent last weekend with various colleagues from the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists on the Syrian-Turkish border. There are 600,000 refugees in Turkey at the moment. The British Government are providing international aid—particularly food aid, but also other types of aid that I will mention later—to the refugees, who are based in a variety of camps all across southern Turkey. I have not visited the camps in Lebanon or Jordan, where the position is genuinely different, but I can speak with some authority on the international aid being provided in this region. I was accompanied by a number of Members of Parliament, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), who is a co-signatory to the Bill and served on its Committee and is an expert on the provision of international aid to the Syrian-Turkish border, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown).
Over the course of four days, we saw the impact of international development on the camp that we visited, Nizip 2, which is approximately 40 miles north of Aleppo and 20 miles north of the Syrian border. It caters for people in northern Syria who are particularly dependent on aid and who have fled towns such as Homs and Aleppo. They are of all colours, races and descriptions; it is not only the opponents of Assad and the Alawites who have fled Syria. The camp is testament to the impact of the work of international aid, and it is important to bring that to the House’s attention. There were 17,000 people there, 9,000 of whom were living in tents. In some cases, there were as many as 15 people to a tent, albeit that they were very serviceable tents. That may sound like a huge number, but the people we met and talked to felt that their situation was much better than it would have been in Syria. The camp was also a container camp where people have, in effect, turned containers into homes, exceptionally successfully.
Of the 17,000 people in the camp, well over 10,000 are children and a vast proportion are women. I was extremely pleased to see wholesale and proper education of the young women and children there. I met a young man called Suleiman who was formerly an engineer in Homs. He had been a fighter in Homs and had lost several members of his family. He had fled north of the border to Nizip. As an engineer, he knew about maths. He was teaching year 7, 6 and 5 students in a makeshift classroom—it was another container; everything there is a container—so he had three class years similar to those in this country’s primary and secondary schools. The crucial point is that all the young girls were getting an education. It was not a restrictive education that entitled them to do only certain types of projects. It was fantastic to see integration in the classroom and no difference between young girls and young boys. There was positive encouragement for young girls to become whatever they wished to be.
I did a survey of the children in the class in the Nizip camp and asked them what they wanted to be. Most of the girls wanted to be one of two things. Many wanted to be doctors and discussed how they were going to learn about medicine, including in a practical sense: there was a surgery and hospital nearby. Many of the others wanted to be engineers. When I asked these young girls, who were 11 and 12 years of age—the equivalent of years 6 and 7—why they wanted to be engineers, it was fantastic to hear them say, “Because I want to go back to rebuild my country.”
Immigration and the state of Syrian refuges, 600,000 of whom are in Turkey, is a matter of discussion. The crucial point about international aid is that, by providing a site just north of the Syria-Turkey border, the international community is able not only to preserve the lives of refugees, but, more importantly, to provide an environment in which they are able to live relatively normal, healthy lives. I met dozens of Syrian refugees and they all told me that they were desperately keen to go home to their own country when the conflict in Syria abates. If it does, those men, women and children will have a chance to go home. Such international aid is outstanding and we should be very proud of the role it plays. The important point is that the women in the camp were given particular assistance.
I believe that this Bill will help. It is important that education improves. The young girls I met were 10, 11 and 12 years of age. The question the Minister needs to answer is: what happens to those girls, who are receiving a basic education in a container in a refugee camp, when they wish to have a university education? Given that there are 600,000 refugees in Turkey and that we are providing huge amounts of international aid to the children, I hope that, by utilising this wonderful Bill, that aid will provide assistance to those children so that they can maximise their education potential and address the gender inequality that has unquestionably existed for many a generation. This Bill will address the problems those children face. Primary and secondary education can be provided, but the problem starts when someone wants to be a doctor or an engineer and to rebuild their country. The Bill will make a massive difference with regard to the quality of their education aged 14, 15, 16 and 18.
On any interpretation, for too long women have battled for equality. They have fought generations of deep-seated injustice. We could name dozens of countries where that has been the case, but it is particularly true in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Nepal and central America, particularly Guatemala. One in three women worldwide will experience physical or other violence or deprivation during their lifetime.
The Bill’s background is the huge amount of gender-based violence, but that is merely one part of the oppression. Marginalisation is also an issue. Anyone who reads the international aid periodicals and journalistic articles will have read about marginalisation, which sounds like such a philosophical and normal term, but it is totally abnormal and abhorrent. It represents a denial of access to land, credit and banking facilities and other simple matters. There is plentiful evidence that some female farmers are denied access to seed and fertiliser in a way that male farmers are not. That is all about marginalisation: the weird way in which women are denied a fair chance.
It is not just that they are marginalised. Women are often told to leave the room when meetings are held, even though they are doing the work. In certain countries and according to certain traditions, the men expect women not only to take second place, but to do the work as well.
Certainly. Shortly before I came to this House, I travelled through Karnataka, in central India, on my way to the town Hampi and saw the impact of that exact point: the men running the society were requiring the women to do the work and forcing them to take a secondary position. We have to acknowledge that there have been problems in communities in India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am reminded of the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who said:
“There are two powers in the world; one is the sword the other is the pen. Great competition and rivalry exist between the two. But there is a third power, stronger than both, and that is women”.
The most important thing is to harness the capability of the female sex.
On the question of violence against and harassment of women, my hon. Friend may know that I went to India last year with, among others, Baroness Royall and Lord Harries of Pentregarth. We visited a hostel where the woman running it had been beaten almost to death 18 times when protecting women she was looking after who had been violently abused since childhood up to the ages of about 18 to 20. People need to understand that such a situation is intolerable and that women need not only to be given a greater opportunity through empowerment, but to be protected from such abuse.
In generations to come, future Members of this House and of other Houses of Parliament and Governments will look back on the evolution of rights and equality for women and shake their heads in wonder that this was ever an issue—that we could have reached the 21st century and still be trying even partly to close the gap in some countries. The rights of women in many countries—all of which are known to those of us who take an interest in international aid—are as limited as they are non-existent, and the encouragement being given by the British and other Governments is absolutely vital.
We have often talked about India, including about the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and me and what we have seen in our travels. I have travelled five times through India—mostly as a backpacker and looking very scruffy, I hasten to add—and one is reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi:
“Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex.”
I could not agree more. It is still absolutely and manifestly wrong that, particularly in countries such as India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia, Guatemala and in certain central American counties, women are deprived of their economic rights, as well as in a multitude of other ways.
Like my hon. Friend, I have travelled in India. I recently came back from a visit with my gurdwara to the Punjab. We went into the rural areas to visit schools and look at education, including an eye camp that the gurdwara supports. One thing that struck me was the importance of valuing women—having a fundamental respect for women and their value in society—and that has to start with education. That is why I am so glad that this Government are doing work on educating girls to get the fundamental importance of the value of women in society through to both boys and girls.
I do not know whether it is good or bad that my hon. Friend is the first female contributor to this debate, apart from your interventions, assistance and guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is wonderful to welcome my hon. Friend to the debate. It is good that a group of men are talking about the fact that it is manifestly wrong that inequality should be shown towards women, but I welcome her and totally endorse her point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, who is no longer in his place, said there are two elements in the Bill. The second is effectively about disaster and emergency relief, and I certainly hope that the Minister will respond on that matter. None of us wants gender inequality to impede the impact of disaster and emergency relief: everybody should fully understand the Bill’s implication that no regulation should prevent an immediate effort to sort out difficulties such as those we have seen in the Philippines, Haiti and all manner of countries to which international aid has been provided.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone will correct me if I am wrong, but for me, however, the crucial element is in clause 1(2), which states:
“Before providing development assistance under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of providing development assistance that is likely to contribute to reducing poverty in a way which is likely to contribute to reducing inequality between persons of different gender.”
All Members of the House—particularly, I hope, Government Members—know that the fundamental way of reducing poverty and inequality is through education. Without getting into a debate about education, which I would of course be disallowed from doing, the purpose of the reforms to the education system is to try to reduce inequality, and to promote economic and development aspiration in this country. Surely, the point about clause 1(2) is therefore that the purpose of development aid is to reduce poverty and, fundamentally, the way to do that is by providing education internationally.
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s point. I would have expected nothing less from him than gender equality in the preparation of the Bill. I am absolutely certain that he would not have missed such an important aspect of his own Bill.
In preparing my speech, I spoke at length to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) about the Bill and her work in Committee. She is detained on constituency business, but was very keen to be here to help navigate the Bill through. I also spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) about the Bill’s prospects and nature. I confess that I have not spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), but I certainly discussed the Bill with the other two. As is always the case on Fridays, constituency business often prevents us from being in the Chamber, even though we would very much like to be here. This is only the fourth sitting Friday on which I have chosen to participate—
It is rare to be abused so roundly and robustly by the most impressively coiffured Government Whip. We may miss his Movember amplification, but we cannot in any way miss his contribution to debates, even though when I last checked Whips were meant to be silent.
My hon. Friend speaks very eloquently on this issue, particularly with regard to education. May I, however, mention the potential transformative effect of microfinance for women who have already gone through the education system? It can obviously work for men as well as women, but tiny amounts of money in western terms—whether for agriculture, craft or occasionally something more technological—can completely transform the lives of women and their families by allowing them to start and pursue businesses, giving them real security and future potential.
My hon. Friend makes exactly the point that I was coming to. Without being too techie, estimates of the loss of growth owing to gender inequality in educational support range from 0.3% per annum in sub-Saharan Africa to 0.81% in south Asia. It is patently clear that better education and support for women provides a much greater ongoing economic impact.
There is ample evidence in all the periodicals of the economic implications of the denial of gender equality. For example, a World Bank study has found that managers could increase worker productivity by 25% to 40% where they eliminate discrimination against female workers. I have to confess that I was surprised by that change being so massive, but those are the statistics.
On any interpretation, gender inequality makes labour markets less competitive, stunts agricultural productivity and decreases expected rates of return. If all would-be entrepreneurs were able to use their talents and be given a chance, we can only imagine how massive the economic benefits would be. Whether in relation to such examples as the House of Commons or the presidents and chief executives of FTSE 100 companies, we can see how only a limited number of women are given a chance in this country—let alone in others around the world—and that must surely be addressed. We also have to be blunt in this House that in many developing countries, discriminatory laws and social norms are not only a reality, but a fundamental barrier. They stop female entrepreneurship, curb productivity and stunt economic growth. As Benjamin Franklin said:
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
Investment in female education is not only critical for the future, but, I would suggest as a former human rights lawyer, a basic human right. As we know, that right is being denied to too many women. That is not only morally abhorrent, but economically damaging. When a young girl in the developing world is educated, not only does it open doors to a career and prosperity, but it provides numerous social benefits, such as knowledge about pregnancy, child care and nutrition.
We should consider the development that there has been through the millennium development goals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) made clear, it is fantastic that we are taking such a proactive step in this Bill.
To elaborate on an earlier point, microfinance can help with education. MicroLoan Foundation, a charity based in Chiswick in my constituency, supports women in setting up businesses in Africa. Its website states:
“With MicroLoan’s support, Esnart is able to send one of her three children to school.”
Not only does microfinance help through the economic empowerment of women, but it creates stronger families and helps with the education of children.
Access to work allows women to bring additional income into their families; drives down the rates of hunger, illiteracy and mortality; and raises productivity and economic growth.
To draw my remarks to a close, I return to the vital impact that international development is having on the young ladies in the Nizip 2 camp in southern Turkey and the education that is being provided. That was fantastic to see. The Bill will give those ladies a better prospect of gaining an education and going to university. It will make them more likely to become the doctors, and indeed engineers, that are so badly needed in the country that we hope will become Syria reborn. I was struck by how many of the young girls of 10, 11 or 12 in Suleiman’s class wanted to be engineers. They said, “I want to go home to my country and rebuild it. Give me the ability to do that.”
I rise to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). He kindly supported me at various stages in the passage of my private Member’s Bill and I would like to repay the compliment. I congratulate him on his excellent work on international development and gender equality over a number of years. I want to make a couple of brief points.
Our aid and international development programme consists not only of bilateral aid, but of multilateral aid. Clearly, we have complete decision-making power over our bilateral aid programmes, and I would like to think that we could find a mechanism to bring into effect the tenets of the Bill in multilateral aid programmes. That is very important because a lot of our money is spent on multilateral aid. The same principles that will be enshrined for bilateral aid when the Bill has passed through this House and the House of Lords should be part of our multilateral aid programmes. If in the course of ensuring that our partners in multilateral aid programmes have regard to gender equality and relieving the poverty and suffering of women and girls, we persuade those countries to take such a view in their own bilateral aid programmes, the beneficial effects of the Bill will be multiplied several times over.
There is a welcome renewal of emphasis on the role of the private sector in development and particularly in agricultural development. Poor women and families across the world will ultimately be brought out of poverty not just through governmental aid programmes, but through free trade, proper legal systems, Governments who are not corrupt and the rule of law. People must have security in their own property so that they know that if they build a business or if they have a successful agricultural concern, even if it is only on a small scale, they will be able to reap the benefits for themselves and their families. We need to do everything that we can to support world trade and to support our businesses in their relations with the poorer nations of the world. A strong message must go out from this House today that, in trading with the rest of the world, our businesses should have regard to the empowerment of women.
My hon. Friend makes a good point in a slightly humorous fashion. As always, he gets to the nub of the issue. I commend him on his excellent speech.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stone for introducing the Bill. It would be a remarkable achievement to secure the Third Reading of a private Member’s Bill having come only 18th in the ballot. That is testimony to the enormous respect that Members from all parts of the House have for him, as well as to the excellent propositions that he has put forward in this terrific Bill. I am very happy to support him today.
I am grateful that we have got to this stage in the passage of the Bill. We had a positive, lively and celebratory Committee stage and it is good to get to Third Reading. It goes without saying that the Opposition fully endorse and support the Bill. I acknowledge the changes that were made in Committee to ensure that it would be workable in practice.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We welcome the approach of the Government on violence against women and girls in particular and on gender equality more broadly. I believe that the measures in the Bill will be extremely helpful.
Before I turn to the substance of the Bill, I thought it might be helpful to the House if I clarified a couple of points that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) put to the Minister that are central to the argument over why the Bill is necessary. The Bill speaks to two scenarios. The first is where there is a broader programme of poverty reduction and the second is where there is humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance relates not just to the period immediately following a disaster, such as that in the Philippines, but to the weeks and months that follow because such operations have a long time lag.
The consideration of gender equality can literally be a matter of life or death. In the light of recent conflicts and humanitarian disasters, for example, we have seen alarming reports of women finding themselves at extreme risk of exploitation and of serious and sexual violence. It is right for the Department to give due consideration to that point. The basis of all successful humanitarian interventions is effective planning, and DFID has also been doing good work in that regard. I believe that is why we have been a successful partner in work around the world. Awareness of gender issues is required, and we know that women, much more than men, are at risk of violence in lawless conditions. It is therefore right to have the dual provisions in the Bill.
We know that gender inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. It is core to development now and will be as we go through the post-2015 process. As the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) rightly pointed out, we live in a world in which women shoulder 66% of the burden of work but own only 1% of the property. It is a world in which women account for two thirds of the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty and the 774 million people struggling with illiteracy; in which, tragically, an estimated 1.6 million daughters each year are not born because of a deep-seated preference for sons; in which one in five adolescent girls continue to be denied an education by the daily realities of poverty, conflict and discrimination; and in which one in three women are subject to violence, whether at a time of armed conflict or behind closed doors. We know the disproportionate impact of conflict on women, yet less than 3% of signatories to peace agreements are female. The House should also remember that only one in five national parliamentarians are female.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the women who had helped him in the preparation of the Bill. The Opposition should draw attention to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who I know was intensely involved in helping the Bill come to fruition, not least in Committee.
The fact that we live in the world that I have described places a moral duty on all of us to do more. Manifestations of inequality, brutality and cruelty still occur on a daily basis, which is why we welcome the Bill. In government, Labour started the journey of prioritising gender equality in development work—from DFID’s first ever gender policy document in 2000, which highlighted the importance of women’s empowerment beyond just regarding them as instruments of poverty reduction, to the three-year gender equality plan launched in 2007, which imposed specific responsibilities and embedded expertise across DFID’s delivery of programmes. In fact, one reason why we welcome the Government’s approach to the Bill is that at that time, there was concern about that action plan coming to an end. I believe that the Department has a genuine commitment to gender equality, from the Secretary of State downwards, and we support it in its work.
Some of the biggest global challenges that we face will require the empowerment, participation and achievement of all global citizens, both men and women. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that equalising access to productive resources between men and women could raise output in developing countries by as much as 4%, which is critical considering that more than 800 million people worldwide do not have adequate access to safe and nutritious food.
Reports documenting the impact of Typhoon Haiyan have emphasised the links between gender inequality and heightened vulnerability in the aftermath of environmental disasters, yet analysis last year by Development Finance International and Oxfam found that gender-related spending had fallen behind investment in other millennium development goals. That goes to the heart of why the Bill is important—it will set a standard for the rest of the world to meet.
I recently held a round table in the Punjab about female foeticide, and also talked about violence against women, economic empowerment, the absolute importance of education and other issues. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a third-world country will never have a chance to develop fully until we address gender inequality and until it uses the skills and talents of half its population?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which I have made before. When I came into the post of shadow International Development Minister, I believe I became the first male Member of Parliament, either in government or in opposition, to have responsibility for the brief of the prevention of violence against women and girls and gender inequality, since it was divided out as a separate area of responsibility within DFID’s work. I say that because we increasingly need to encourage men to have confidence to speak on those issues. This debate is a good example of that. Holding back women in society is not just holding back women, it is holding back society. It affects not just the development of women but the development of nations, which is why we absolutely need to make the case for this being a mainstream issue, not just a “women’s issue”.
Experience has repeatedly demonstrated that targeted initiatives for women need to be complemented by action to bring mainstream attention to gender equality and women’s rights across all development interventions. A focus on gender equality is often characterised by tokenism and hollow gesturing. That is why I believe the Bill is important—it is not a box-ticking exercise, it is about a shift of mindset in how we engage in these complex issues. I hope it will address them by putting the well-being of women and girls and the achievement of gender equality at the forefront of everything that we do. Gender inequality is so deeply entrenched in our global society that only through embedding those principles into each and every thing that we do can we hope to address the structural inequalities that affect millions, if not billions, of women and girls each year and that reproduce gender inequality generation after generation.
The scale of the challenge that we face must not be underestimated or ignored, and I welcome this landmark Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Stone on his hard and dedicated work. The Bill sets out one further commitment, and it is one that the Opposition are proud to support.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who had fully intended to speak today, but who was at the Syrian refugee pledging conference in Kuwait this week and has unfortunately returned with something of a lurgy, which has prevented her from attending. I am pleased to be able to step in at short notice.
The fact that the Bill has reached this stage is a testament to the dedication and determination of my hon. Friend. Very few Members could have managed to get it through in the way that he has, by bringing all parts of the House together both in the Chamber and in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are hugely grateful to him for championing this important issue and for all the time he has given to it.
I believe that the Bill can have a lasting impact on generations of girls and women around the world. My right hon. Friend and I feel strongly about the subject, because changing the lives of girls and women is a core priority for the Department for International Development and the entire coalition Government. There is no doubt that, over the past few decades, the world has made significant progress on gender equality. More girls are now going to school; women are living longer and having fewer children; and women are participating more in the labour market.
However, there is much unfinished business. As has been said, women do 60% of the world’s work but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 2% of the world’s land. By 2020, 50 million girls will have been forced into marriage before they have even reached their 15th birthday. Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic, and one in three women have experienced violence in their lifetime, which is a terrible statistic. I believe that that is the greatest unmet challenge of our time, not some sideline issue. It is a matter of basic human rights—the right of girls and women to live a life free of violence, to have an education and a voice in their community, to choose who to marry and when, and to have control over their bodies.
Gender equality is also a critical building block for progress towards other development goals. Around the world, people recognise that where open societies and open economies prevail, and where everyone has an opportunity to participate, people and communities are more prosperous, healthier and safer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister refers to that as the “golden thread” of development, and time and again we see that investing in girls and women leads to incredible returns, not only for them but for their families, communities, economies and countries.
We know that women with more years of schooling have better maternal health, fewer and healthier children, and greater economic opportunities. When a woman generates her own income, evidence shows that she reinvests more of it in her family and community than men do. Getting more girls into secondary education is shown to boost a country’s economic growth.
I will come to that point, but I say to my hon. Friend that there is value in embedding in everything we do an understanding of the issue, so that there is never any excuse for relegating it to a lower priority than it should enjoy. To that end, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stone for putting in all the effort for this simple, nearly one-page Bill, to ensure that that is the case.
The UK is already helping to give millions of girls and women voice, choice and control, for instance by supporting girls to complete primary and secondary education, to have jobs, incomes and access to markets, to live lives free from violence, and to have universal sexual and reproductive health rights. By 2015 we are on target to have saved the lives of at least 50,000 women during pregnancy and childbirth, to have enabled 10 million more women to use modern methods of family planning, to have improved access to financial services for more than 18 million women, and to have helped 10 million women get access to justice through the courts, police, and legal assistance.
We are supporting efforts to end the disgusting practice of female genital mutilation worldwide through a new £35 million programme that aims to reduce the practice by 30% in at least 10 countries over the next five years. We are also determined to do more to end violence against women and girls. Last November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched an international call to action on violence against women and girls in humanitarian emergencies—something that has already been mentioned. The result was Governments and aid agencies around the world signing up to a ground-breaking commitment to make the safety of girls and women a life-saving priority in our response to emergencies. That is exactly the kind of process now embedded in the Bill.
The advisability and advantages of an Act of Parliament include the fact that it imposes a duty that is voluntarily accepted by the Government and the Secretary of State, and endorsed across the House. It also acts as an encouragement and opportunity for other legislatures to regard it as a benchmark, and a lot of the advantages of the Bill will be derived from that.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. So much of the power that the United Kingdom is able to exercise, through the Department for International Development, is the power of example. Where we lead, many others follow. For instance, where we have led in assessing multilateral organisations, or in a review of how to respond to a humanitarian emergency, others have followed. I share my hon. Friend’s confidence and wish to see other countries follow that process of priority setting and giving attention to women and girls, and that is exactly what the Bill is attempting to embed.
I am proud of all the world-leading work that DFID is doing on girls and women, but we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. Although we have come a long way on gender equality, there is so much further to go. There are still too many girls and women whose potential is wasted, and it will not be easy to reach them. We are talking about some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world—in many cases, the unseen and the unheard. We must keep up the pressure, the resources and the visibility of our actions to achieve better outcomes for women. That is why we all think that the Bill is so important. It will give our commitment to addressing gender inequality in countries where we provide development assistance a statutory footing, and enshrine it in law. If passed, the Bill will mean that a Secretary of State for International Development must have regard to reducing gender inequality before making decisions to provide development assistance under the International Development Act 2002.
Such a duty will bite not simply in the act of providing development assistance, but in the work that takes place beforehand—for example, in the preparation of a business case by officials that informs the eventual approval decision of a Minister. In other words, right from the outset the Bill sets in train a proper approach to the priorities that need to be addressed. That is crucial because gender equality is not something that can be just tacked on to our development programmes and humanitarian assistance, and it cannot be an afterthought if we want to get to the root of the problem. In that respect, perhaps I can address the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and reassure him confidently that as far as I can see no perverse consequences will ensue from the Bill. Indeed, to use modern jargon, it reinforces “best practice”—that is perhaps not a turn of phrase he uses, but he knows what we mean.
The Bill shapes ministerial leadership and does not in any way impede it. As we have heard, we already feel that there should be a keen focus on women and girls when taking humanitarian action, because as we know, women and girls are susceptible to rape used as a weapon of war, and that is the sort of humanitarian peril we try to address in our assistance.
The Bill will not introduce any significant costs. It is about ensuring that Ministers and officials fully take into account the interests of girls and women—as well as those of others—in administering the United Kingdom’s bilateral aid programmes. If the Bill is enacted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will ensure that training and other measures are put in place in the Department to provide the necessary support for officials for the sort of actions and thinking that they need to adopt to implement the legislation.
Finally, this Bill comes at a timely moment. Many in this House will be aware that the deadline for the millennium development goals for tackling global poverty is fast approaching. The old ones expire in 2015, and a new set will be designed and implemented. In May 2013, the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel reported back on recommendations for that post-2015 development agenda. The panel, co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, alongside the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia, put forward a bold and ambitious vision for ending extreme poverty by 2030. At the heart of their report was a clear and powerful message that to defeat poverty we must leave no one behind, regardless of gender, ethnicity, geography, race or disability.
It is important that this ambition is not watered down in the final set of goals, which will replace the MDGs in two years. As negotiations get under way, the UK will push for a standalone goal on gender, with ambitious targets to tackle critical issues, such as ending child marriage and securing equal rights for girls and women to open bank accounts and own property, as well as integrating gender throughout the goals. I believe that the Bill, if passed, will set an example and put the UK in a stronger place to exercise influence in other forums, including those of multilateral organisations where the UK has a voting presence and to which we contribute significant funds.
Where half the population is locked out, prevented from being productive and from pursuing opportunities, there is no sustainable path to development. We urgently need irreversible gains in protecting the rights of girls and women and an end to violence against them. Improving the lives of girls and women is already a top priority in every area of our international development work. The UK is helping millions more girls and women to have voice, choice and control, and we are working to drive social transformation and shift discriminatory practices such as early and forced marriage and female genital cutting. The Bill—perhaps known for ever hereafter as Bill’s Bill—is another important step forward, enshrining our commitment to gender equality in law, and Her Majesty’s Government are proud to support it.
I will simply say how grateful I am for the remarks from Members on both sides of the House. I am delighted that the Bill is about to have its Third Reading. I have no more to say, other than that I am extremely glad that we have now reached this point.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill
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).
Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Flushed by my success on the previous Bill, I start by saying that many Members will remember the Government’s publicity campaign in which vans went around telling people that, if they were here illegally, they should leave or face penalties or arrest. In fact, on closer examination, it is clear that the warning signs on those vans were of no more value than the sign that someone puts at the end of his garden saying, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”
There is no criminal law against normal trespass. Likewise, it is not a criminal offence to be in this country having entered without authority or having overstayed once the legal authority to be here has expired. I do not think I am alone in finding it extraordinary that people can be in the United Kingdom without legal authority with impunity. They are not guilty of any offence because there is no offence. We are prosecuting hundreds of thousands of people for watching television illicitly without a television licence, but people who are here having broken our immigration laws are not subject to any criminal sanction.
When I raised the matter with the Immigration Minister, whom I am delighted to see on the Front Bench for this debate, he said, “Wouldn’t it be rather pointless to make it a criminal offence, because you would be prosecuting people and locking them up in prison when what you want is for them to go home?” I have built the Bill around that point. The penalties set out in clause 2 would accommodate his concerns.
Clause 1 states:
“Any person who is present in the United Kingdom after 30 June 2014 without legal authority shall be guilty of an offence…Any person who after 30 June 2014 enters or attempts to enter the United Kingdom without legal authority shall be guilty of an offence.”
We need to make it clear that the Government and our country do not tolerate people who break our immigration laws by coming into this country illicitly or by staying on after they should have left.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I very much support his Bill. Does he agree that there is currently no deterrent to somebody chancing their arm and trying to get into this country illegally, because the worst that can happen to them is that they will be sent back to where they come from? If his Bill was passed, the risk of losing their liberty might deter them from trying in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let me give a bit of background. I discovered that when a bystander in the port of Poole sees illegal immigrants from the continent getting out of the back of a van or lorry and decides to call the police, the police are not interested because they have no power of arrest as the person has not committed a criminal offence. All they can do, if they are feeling generous with their time, is tell those people to go to Croydon to report to the immigration and nationality directorate, which will tell them how to get back home. Not surprisingly, such people do not go to Croydon but go elsewhere.
I do not think I can comment on that, particularly because the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is not in the Chamber.
We then come on to the question of penalties. Let me illustrate the point with an example. I have a constituency case of a person who came here on a visitor’s visa. As they are married to a British citizen, all they needed to do was keep renewing that visa but they did not apply for an extension within the specified time and as a result they have been refused a new visa. I discussed with them whether they should appeal against that refusal, but there is no power of appeal and the advice that is given is that if an in-country application for a visa extension is rejected the person should voluntarily make their own way back to the country from which they came as it is possible they might be subject to a deportation order in due course. Of course, under the law a deportation order is subject to appeal so the authorities do not want to make many such orders as the appeals would clog up the immigration tribunal system. People therefore overstay their visas with impunity as there is effectively no sanction against them. The only sanction arises if they want to visit their country of origin to see a relative or something like that, when they suddenly find that they do not have the right paperwork to get back into the country. They can lie low in this country with impunity for months or years.
I think it would be reasonable to say that somebody guilty of an offence on summary conviction should be subject to a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or a fine that would be unlimited in England and Wales and would not exceed £5,000 in Scotland or Northern Ireland. A person would be brought before the court and, under the provisions of clause 2(2), would be ordered to be deported.
Unlike the present laws relating to deportation, which are rarely exercised, certainly for relatively minor offences—they are not applied in the cases to which I have referred—the deportation order would be mandatory unless the Secretary of State certified that it was against the public interest. In practice, the person would come before the court and, if found guilty, would be fined and deported or imprisoned, probably not for very long, pending deportation. The deportation would be ordered by the court, rather than the immigration authorities—the Border Agency—which is what happens at present.
An official from the Scotland Office contacted me, wondering what will happen in Scotland when the Bill is on the statute book. She pointed out that in Scotland deportation orders are not made by the courts; they merely make a recommendation to that effect. She agreed that there is nothing to stop the courts being given the power to make specific deportation orders, which I think is fundamental to clause 2. If people are here without legal authority, the most important thing is that they are deported as soon as possible, rather than kept in custody at great expense. Rather than being subject to a recommendation of deportation, they should just be subject to deportation.
While driving to the House this morning, I saw a big, brand-new van on which were the words, “Home Office Immigration Enforcement”. I could not see whether there was anybody inside the van, other than the driver. I suspect that the large lettering was designed to reassure the public that something is being done about all this, but my experience, which I have referred to briefly today, leads me to believe that that is another game of bluff and bluster by the Government and that, in reality, they do not have the will to ensure that our borders are kept secure and that people who enter illegally are found guilty of an offence. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is chuntering from the Opposition Front Bench. He might think it unusual for me to be concerned about Government policy, but I think that this is another area of Government policy that could be tightened significantly. That would be in accordance not only with public interest, but with the will of the public. In the popular mind, illegality means being against the criminal law, and if someone is guilty of a criminal offence they should be subject to the consequences.
It is unusual for my hon. Friend to reach this stage in the presentation of any of his multifarious Bills without making some reference in depth to the European Union. Will he explain what measures other European Union countries take when people overstay or enter illegally?
Without having researched that in detail, and based upon my experience as Chairman of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, my answer is that practice varies significantly from one country to another. Some make being an illegal immigrant a criminal offence, but others do not. There is no uniform practice across the European Union—
I think that responsibility for this rests solely with the United Kingdom. While wearing the hat as I have just described, I have come across a lot of evidence of organised criminal networks bringing people into our country illegally. The networks are usually based overseas and take very large sums from often very unfortunate migrants.
Once the migrants get here, they can be assured that they are here with impunity, because they will be able to lie low and will not be subject to any criminal sanctions. That gives them a perverse incentive to come to the United Kingdom rather than go to another European country where the rules are stricter and being there without authority gives rise to criminal penalties and sanctions.
The short answer is no. This Bill, like the Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill, was the subject of a survey by the noble Lord Ashcroft, and it was even more popular, with well over three quarters of respondents supporting it and only a handful opposing it.
The Bill accords with common sense. It is popular and sensible, and I hope the Government will let it go through and facilitate its passage so that we get it on to the statute book very quickly.
I rise to put on the record my support for the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). In all the words he used to describe it, he missed out “modest”, because it would merely strike a blow for common sense. I do not see why anybody could have any great objection to making being an illegal immigrant a criminal offence. Indeed, I would have thought that most people think that that is already the law of the land. I am sure we are all grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting this issue.
I would like to raise a couple of additional points beyond what my hon. Friend said—I agreed with every word—regarding matters that go hand in hand with the Bill and that the Government need to address. First, there is the need to extricate ourselves from the European convention on human rights. One of the major problems that this country faces in kicking out illegal immigrants is the Human Rights Act 1998 and the fact that the European Court of Human Rights, time after time, compels the United Kingdom to keep people in the country who have no basis for being here. Unless we tackle that issue as well, even my hon. Friend’s best intentions will be thwarted. I make an appeal for us to scrap the Human Rights Act, which has become a charter for criminals and illegal immigrants, and to get ourselves out of the European convention of human rights, because it is no longer acting in the UK’s national interest.
My other point, which I particularly direct at the Minister, is that people who have served their prison sentence for being in this country illegally should then be automatically kicked out. Unfortunately, on too many occasions when illegal immigrants are sent to prison having committed other criminal offences, even those people are not automatically deported from the country, as most people would think is the blindingly obvious thing to do. Far too many of them are released back on to the streets to go into hiding or to go out and commit more crimes. The Government can do an awful lot to get their performance right in making sure that any illegal immigrant who is caught is kicked out of the country straight away, which, on too many occasions, does not happen.
As part of that overall strategy to stop people coming here illegally and to make it easier to kick out those who are here illegally, I hope the Government will make much more rapid progress on the e-Borders project, the contracts for which the previous Government made a complete pig’s ear of. We are way behind other countries and the project has the scope to help prevent people we do not want to come to this country from coming here. Surely we should be striving to stop these people coming here in the first place. The trouble is that once they are here, the Government then have a job getting rid of them. The e-Borders project would make a massive difference if introduced properly and stop some of these people getting here in the first place. The Government could do a lot better.
The second issue on which the Government need to pull their finger out is exit checks. We are in the ridiculous situation whereby the Government keep absolutely no track of who leaves the country. This is slightly relevant to my hon. Friend’s previous Bill: we are already fighting with one hand tied behind our back, because we have absolutely no idea which of those people who have come here have left. I think I am right in saying that the coalition agreement said that exit checks would be in place during the course of this Parliament, but time is running out and I see no great sign that everything the Government said they would do to deal with these immigration problems is going to be sorted out.
The Government could do an awful lot more, irrespective of my hon. Friend’s Bill. There can be no doubt that making sure that being here illegally is a criminal offence and that people can be sent to prison for it would act as a deterrent to prevent them from trying to come here in the first place. As I said in my earlier intervention, there is nothing to deter somebody from chancing their arm, because the worst thing that can happen to them is that they will be sent back to the country they came from without receiving any punishment whatsoever, so of course lots of people are going to come here.
Many of my constituents tell me, “People come into this country illegally because we are so generous and give them too much money,” but I think that is a myth. I do not think it has anything to with that. I think that the reason why so many people chance their arm and come to the UK is that they realise that once they get here, the chances of their ever being kicked out are pretty remote. That is what drives them to come to the UK and we have to be much more robust at making sure that anybody who is here who should not be is kicked out. I am absolutely certain not only that the Bill will be very popular with the public, but that it will make a real difference in tackling a problem that my constituents are sick to their back teeth of hearing about and on which they feel that the Government are not taking any meaningful action.
It is right, of course, that those who seek to enter the country illegally should face criminal sanctions. It is right, too, that those sanctions should be tough enough to deter others from following a similar course and to punish appropriately those who commit the offence.
This Bill seeks to create criminal offences for anyone who comes into the country without any right to be here. The problem is that the offences exist already. There are existing offences for entering without leave, obtaining leave by deception, remaining beyond time limited by leave, failing to observe a condition of leave, assisting unlawful immigration, facilitating entry for gain, assisting entry in breach of a deportation or exclusion order, sham marriages, identity document offences and many others. Those are only some of the offences that are already on the statute book.
That being the case, it is fair to say that this Bill is superfluous and unnecessary. It is an exercise in pointlessness to promote new legislation that seeks to achieve what existing legislation already does achieve.
Immigration is a serious issue of deep concern to the public, and rightly so. Therefore, we need a mature and sensible debate on immigration, not an arms race of rhetoric. Most people who come to Britain contribute positively to our economy and our communities. Illegal immigration is a problem that is already criminalised.
I accept that the Government could do more to cut illegal immigration, but this Bill misses that opportunity. There is a problem with the Government’s net migration target, because it does not target the right things. Two thirds of the drop in numbers since 2010 is down to the fact that more British people are leaving the UK than are returning here. Most of the rest relates to the falling number of foreign students who, in any case, would be here only temporarily. Illegal immigration is outside the Government target.
Under this Government, fewer illegal immigrants have been stopped, more have absconded and fewer have been deported, while the backlog of information on cases is not being pursued. We should do more to tackle illegal immigration, including by perhaps giving border staff a new power to enable them to act quickly when they find abuse. Alas, the Bill proposes none of that; it simply repeats existing provisions, and I fear that it would make no difference on a matter of concern to the British people.
In conclusion, the Opposition welcome the positive contribution made by legal immigrants to the life of our country. We want effective action to be taken against illegal immigration, but the Bill will contribute nothing new or useful to help achieve that.
On the points made by the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), I cannot help but think that no similar points were made against the International Development (Gender Equality) Bill. When we considered that Bill earlier, it was suggested that its provision could easily be dealt with by Ministers without the need for legislation, but the Minister of State, Department for International Development, gave all manner of reasons why they should be enshrined in legislation. Let me put on the record that I support the Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill, and I am pleased to be one of its sponsors.
May I deal briefly with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) about the human rights aspect? I want to refer to the case of Haroon Aswat, a suspected terrorist, whom the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has prevented this country from returning to the United States of America. It comes to something when we cannot even return suspected terrorists to the US on the grounds that it is not a fit and proper country to which to return people. That really calls the whole system into question. It is the most developed nation on earth, so if the European Court of Human Rights says that it is not a safe nation—
I will be brief, but I cannot resist intervening, because I do not often have the chance to put right my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on a constitutional matter. Her Majesty the Queen is of course the sovereign of 16 nations, not only six.
That is the solution, and we now have agreement on that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has referred to the poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft on 28 and 30 June that asked 2,013 people about the merits or otherwise of various Bills. I obviously do not know why each of those individuals decided their views about each Bill, but on this one to introduce criminal sanctions against those in this country illegally, 86% of people said that it was a good idea, while only 9% said that they were not bothered either way. Therefore, only one in 20 people did not think that this was a sensible measure.
I am not surprised by that, because I see no reason why the Bill should not be on the statute book. It makes perfect sense that if somebody has entered this country illegally, through whatever means, it should be possible to find them guilty of having committed a criminal offence. For that reason, I fully support the Bill.
I have listened carefully to the debate. Although the Bill is not enormous, a wide range of issues have been touched on, including the scale of illegal immigration to Britain, why people may come here and the effectiveness of Government policy in removing people. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) spoke about some of the visible enforcement activity that he has seen.
Before I turn to the detailed provisions of the Bill, it might be helpful to the House if I set out a little of the context, which Members can bear in mind when they consider how they will vote on the Bill if my hon. Friend decides to test the will of the House. Immigration is an important subject, as is the question of those who have no right to be in Britain. Some illegal immigrants never had the right to be here, but still entered the United Kingdom. A more significant number of immigrants came here lawfully, but overstayed their welcome.
Why are people concerned about this matter? It is perfectly reasonable to be concerned, given the significant amount of migration, both legal and illegal, that we saw during the period of the last Labour Government. We only have statistics on legal migration because, by definition, it is very difficult to get a good handle on the level of unlawful migration. Net migration during that period was 2.2 million people. Despite what Labour likes to lead people to believe, the majority of those people came from outside the European Union, so it had full powers to do something about it.
We know that people are concerned about immigration and that they want tougher immigration controls. That was my party’s policy before the election and it is this Government’s policy. We have had a fair bit of success, with net migration down by nearly a third since 2010. I am afraid that it is not true, as the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) said, that that is to do with a change in the number of British citizens. The most significant change is the fall in immigration. That has been put clearly on the record by the independent Office for National Statistics. Non-EU immigration to the United Kingdom is at its lowest level since 1998.
To be frank, it is true that the most recent figures showed a small increase. That was largely because of an increase in migration from the EU. However, that has come not from the parts of the EU that have recently been giving the press in this country the vapours, but from more traditional EU member states such as Spain and other countries in southern Europe which have economies that are performing less well. It is important to put that in context.
On illegal migration, which is the subject of the Bill, I want to put two points to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that I hope he will find reassuring. A significant number of people who want to come to the United Kingdom illegally try to get here through our sea ports or the channel tunnel. He will be familiar with the fact that we have juxtaposed controls, which means that our border is effectively in France. We check freight vehicles, passenger transport that comes through the tunnel and transport on the ferries. Our UK Border Force officers, whom he mentioned, do an excellent job of preventing people from entering the UK illegally in the first place. In the year to the end of March 2013, for example, they prevented more than 11,000 people from entering. That is important, because if people cannot enter the United Kingdom illegally in the first place, the provisions in his Bill are unnecessary. We stop them at the border, which, with the juxtaposed controls, is in France, so they never get to our shores.
My hon. Friend asks an unanswerable question, but it is also worth considering the checks that our immigration enforcement officers make. When they encounter people who are working illegally, they look at when those people entered the United Kingdom to test whether they got through our juxtaposed controls. When we examine both sets of people—those we stop and those we encounter in-country—the evidence is that our controls are effective. I would not pretend that they are 100% effective, but they are very effective in reducing the number of people coming into the country.
As I said, most people who are in the United Kingdom illegally did not come here illegally. They came here lawfully but for a limited period. They are either a visa national—someone from one of the countries where we have visa controls—who has applied for a visa either to study or to work here and has overstayed, or a non-visa national from whom a visa was not required, but who has been allowed to come into the UK for only a limited period, perhaps as a visitor, and has overstayed. In one sense, my hon. Friend was right to raise his concern, because under the previous Government, if someone applied in-country for the renewal of a visa and was refused—I believe that was the example he gave—nothing happened. That was quite wrong. With our immigration enforcement organisation, we have started to change that.
It is worth mentioning in passing one change that I believe was generally welcomed in the House, including by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who has already been mentioned in this debate despite his not being here. Many people criticised the UK Border Agency, and when the Home Secretary split it up last year, one benefit was that our immigration enforcement operation—the part of the business that enforces the law and deals with illegal immigrants—was given a clear and separate identity. It still works closely with its colleagues in the rest of the Home Office, but we are creating much more of a visible law enforcement culture, which I think is what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is looking for. He said that he had seen some immigration enforcement vans with their livery, which is a deliberate strategy to make people aware that we have legal powers and are taking action. In a moment, I will set out for him some statistics showing that we are stepping up that activity so that people know that we are being effective.
If we are to deal with overstayers, it is no good just having more effective controls at the border, because they were legal when they arrived in the UK. Clause 1 of my hon. Friend’s Bill refers not just to people who enter the UK without authority but to people who are present here, so it covers overstayers. He referred to overstayers being attracted to the UK because of their chances of being removed, but I will set out in a moment why I do not believe that was a correct conclusion. In the Immigration Bill, which is currently before Parliament and waiting for business managers to agree the timing of Report—that is well above my pay grade as a humble Minister of State, as he will know—there are a number of provisions to deal effectively with overstayers. For example, we will make it impossible for someone who is in the country unlawfully to rent property. They will not be able to get a driving licence, and if they have one we will be able to revoke it. They will not have access to a bank account, and we are toughening the law governing whether or not they will be able to work lawfully.
Importantly—several hon. Members have mentioned this—we are putting into primary legislation clear rules about the impact of article 8 of the European convention on human rights on our ability to remove foreign nationals, particularly if they are offenders. Judges have told us that despite having included such measures in secondary legislation, we have not given a clear enough steer to the judiciary. They have asked us to put that into primary legislation, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and other hon. Members have taken the trouble to look at the Immigration Bill—I am sure they have—they will know that it contains clear statements about what the public interest requires, particularly regarding those guilty of criminal offences. Except in the most exceptional circumstances, we would expect someone guilty of an offence to be removed from the United Kingdom, and the Immigration Bill will contribute well to that.
My hon. Friend might also have spotted last October that we created the National Crime Agency, so as to be more effective in dealing with serious and organised crime. One part of that agency is the border policing command, part of which deals with the issues he raised about organised crime groups—based both inside and outside the United Kingdom—who are involved in people trafficking. Such trafficking could be either completely against someone’s will or when people effectively con others into coming to the United Kingdom by suggesting that all will be well, and perhaps charging them a fee. When people get to the UK, they then discover that things are not quite as they were led to believe, and sometimes they are almost in some kind of slavery or bonded arrangement, and are indebted to those organised crime groups. Hopefully, my hon. Friend will welcome the measures we have introduced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch when he introduced the Bill, spoke about exit checks. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said that we currently have no idea about who leaves the country, but that is not correct. Around 80% of those going into and out of the United Kingdom do so by air, around 10% by rail, and 10% by sea. For the vast majority of those travelling by air we have what is called advance passenger information, not only for those coming into the United Kingdom, but also for those leaving it. We use those data to protect ourselves from people coming in and to detect people who have perhaps had no right to be here and are leaving. We have that ability, but it needs to be improved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will know—I think he drew attention to this—that implementing exit checks was one of the commitments in the coalition agreement, and we are in the process of improving the coverage and the amount of data we collect. He will also know that the Immigration Bill contains provisions about outbound journeys, so that where we do not collect advance passenger information, the Home Secretary has the power—if we are not able to do it on a voluntary basis—to direct the carriers to work with the Home Office and perhaps collect some of that information. Such information is already collected for other reasons such as security and booking information, and so that we have more effective information about those coming to and from the United Kingdom. I do not pretend to my hon. Friend that the current position is perfect—it is not, and there is more work to do—but it is not as bleak as he set out. We have also had meetings with those in the rail and maritime sectors to consider what more we can do for those modes of travel.
I detected in the debate one or two remarks from my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch, for Shipley and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) about European Union nationals, and the extent to which there are legal provisions to deal with those coming from the European Union. I know that all three hon. Friends take a close interest in such matters, and they will have spotted that in December I laid before Parliament amendments to regulations covering the European economic area. We have taken steps to restrict access to benefits for EEA migrants—that was the subject of the previous Bill, and I am not sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has caught up with the extent to which we have already changed the law, but I will not dwell on that.
We have already defined in those regulations some abuses of free movement, such as when people are not exercising their treaty rights—for example, not working, not looking for work, not studying, not self-sufficient, but rough sleeping, begging or taking part in criminality. In those cases, we have given ourselves the legal power—the Immigration Bill is about putting provisions in statute to deal with offences—to remove those individuals from the UK and, importantly and for the first time, to prevent them from returning for at least a year, unless they can demonstrate that they will immediately be exercising their treaty rights. That is a significant new power that EU Schengen countries cannot put into effect because they do not have internal border controls. We can put it into effect because we do have those controls. I hope that gives my hon. Friend some confidence that we can deal with those abusing the free movement rules.
Finally, before turning to the detailed provisions in the Bill, I want to touch on serious criminality. I think my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch, for Shipley and for Bury North all talked about people committing not just offences to do with their immigration status, but more serious offences. In case they are not aware, I draw to their attention the joint working that the immigration enforcement directorate is doing with police forces, starting with the Metropolitan police, as part of a project called Nexus. It is not surprising, given that one third of London’s population are foreign nationals, that one third of criminals in London are also foreign nationals—they are not more likely to be criminals, but they are not less likely either.
We have opened up a new set of powers, and we are helping the police to use their powers more effectively. It is sometimes difficult to get the required level of evidence to prosecute a person even for serious criminality—for example, if they are involved in gang-related activity, it can be difficult, because of intimidation, to persuade witnesses to come forward—but if that person is a foreign national, it is sometimes possible to use our immigration powers to remove them from the UK and prevent them from returning. Since we started Nexus a year ago, we have removed more than 1,000 high-harm criminals and are now rolling it out to other parts of the UK with significant foreign national populations. We are working with West Midlands and Great Manchester police and—this will be of interest to you, Madam Deputy Speaker—Avon and Somerset constabulary to help them deal more effectively with criminality perpetrated by foreign nationals, which is welcome. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch welcomes those provisions, if he was not otherwise familiar with them.
When talking about how attractive the Bill was, my hon. Friend, like my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley and for Bury North, mentioned the noble Lord Ashcroft’s extensive polling on these subjects. I am not sure what terms he used in his polling—whether he referred specifically to the Bill or just to its provisions—but it was probably correct to point out that the provisions were overwhelmingly supported by the general public. I am not at all surprised by that. One of my hon. Friends also said that the general public would be surprised that these things were not already against the law. I do not often agree with the Labour party, but the hon. Member for Croydon North was right that the provisions are already effectively in statute.
The general public are hugely in favour of these provisions—quite rightly; I would expect them to be—but, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said, the general public are also right if they think that they already exist in law, because they do exist. It may be helpful, in trying to persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch not to pursue his Bill, briefly to set out the existing powers.
The Immigration Act 1971 provides for the two criminal offences set out in the Bill. Section 24(1)(a) of the 1971 Act makes an offence of
“knowingly entering the United Kingdom in breach of a deportation order or without leave”,
while section 24(1)(b) makes it an offence to “knowingly overstay or breach” the conditions of leave. The maximum penalty for both those offences on summary conviction is a fine of £5,000 and/or six months’ imprisonment, which is the same as proposed in the Bill—a spooky coincidence. Under section 24A of the Immigration Act 1971, it is an offence to obtain or seek to obtain leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom by deception, or to secure or seek to secure the avoidance, postponement or revocation of enforcement action by deception—and the maximum penalty for that offence is £5,000 and/or six months’ imprisonment on summary conviction. On indictment, the penalty is two years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both. I hope that Members can see that the offences proposed in the Bill are already on the statute book.
I asked the Minister a question about the incidence of offences. Can he tell us how many people have been prosecuted and convicted in respect of each of the offences to which he has referred? In replying to the parliamentary question I asked him, he said that the information could not be obtained because it would be too expensive.
My hon. Friend anticipates what I was about to say. He refers to a question he asked me a few Home Office Question Times ago. He basically asked me whether there was an offence in relation to this issue and why we did not prosecute people who are in this country unlawfully. I replied that that was against the law, but that our strategy was to secure such people’s removal from the United Kingdom. I think I made the point during that session of Home Office questions that it was not sensible, on the grounds of cost of the process, to prosecute everybody who is here unlawfully. My hon. Friend will know—he has expressed opinions about this before—that legal aid being what it is, the taxpayer would, even with our reforms, be likely to have to pay both prosecution and defence costs. Putting such offenders in prison would also be at taxpayers’ expense, and that would be necessary before we could remove them from the UK.
The Minister talks about the cost of throwing these people into prison, but he was also bandying around the fact that £5,000 fines could be imposed, which I would have thought amounted to getting money into the Exchequer. If he does not want to send these people to prison because of the cost, will he tell us how many £5,000 fines have been levied on these people since he has been the Minister and since these marvellous laws that he has talked about have been in place?
My hon. Friend will know, because he follows criminal justice matters intently, how much it costs to keep someone in prison. He knows that it costs very much more, even for six months, than £5,000. We are talking about costing the taxpayer significant amounts of money. I shall come on in a few moments to the number of people who are removed from the country; I would certainly not want to fund the cost of keeping them all in prison.
The current strategy is that we try to remove people who are in the United Kingdom illegally. Every year of this Government more illegal migrants have departed from the UK than in any year before 2010, and that trend was continuing in 2013. We remove two groups of people from the UK. Our preference is that people who are here unlawfully leave of their own accord. There is a clear reason for that: if someone leaves of their own accord, it does not put a huge financial burden on the taxpayer. If we have to go through the process of arresting and detaining someone, and going through an enforced removal, sometimes including escorts, the cost of removal can be upwards of £15,000 per person. I would rather not burden the taxpayer with that. In 2012-13, 44,000 people were removed from the country. It is worth repeating that figure of 44,000, because the polling seems to show that people think that nobody is removed from the UK, whereas the actual figure is significant. The number of people removed voluntarily because they found that it is not easy to be in the UK illegally increased by 30% between 2009-10 and 2012-13. That is the right approach to take. Part of the reason for the measures in the Immigration Bill is to make it more difficult to be in the UK unlawfully, so that more people will choose not to come here unlawfully in the first place and so that those already here will find leaving the UK a more attractive proposition than staying here unlawfully.
Has the Minister not considered the fact that being much tougher on illegal immigrants might deter others from coming here? He seems to be suggesting that the worst thing that will happen to someone who comes to this country illegally is that the Minister, like Sergeant Wilson in “Dad’s Army”, is going to say, “Would you mind awfully leaving?” How is there any deterrent to stop anybody coming here in the first place illegally if that is the worst that is ever going to happen to them?
Not only do 40,000 people a year leave, but in addition to those who leave voluntarily we enforce the removal of about 15,000 others, and that demonstrates that we are very effective. Part of the reason for the measures in the Immigration Bill is to make coming here illegally less attractive. We are also seeking to make it clear that people who come here unlawfully will find it difficult to be able to work; they will not have access to free treatment on the national health service; and they will not be able to have a bank account or a driving licence. In other words, it will be very difficult for them to be here. So it will be both less attractive to come here unlawfully and more attractive for those already here to leave, and the evidence shows that we are making progress on that.
The Bill contains another set of penalty provisions. The first set of penalties are the imprisonment and the fine, which of course are already in legislation. The Bill also proposes provisions on deportation and makes reference to the “public interest”. That doubtless relates to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made about the convention and the public interest test. Immigration legislation already provides for removal powers without the need to pursue a prosecution, so we have not only administration removal powers but deportation powers in criminal cases. Under schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971, immigration officers have the power to remove an illegal entrant. An illegal entrant is for these purposes defined as a person unlawfully entering or seeking to enter the United Kingdom in breach of a deportation order or of the immigration laws, or entering or seeking to enter by means which include deception. Unlike with the criminal sanction, there is no requirement for the migrant knowingly to be an illegal entrant. That is important, because it removes a defence which there would be in a criminal case in relation to the person having to know that they were breaching the law. Section 10 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 gives immigration officers a power to remove a person who remains beyond the time limited by the leave—in other words, an overstayer. Once again, for the purpose of removal there is no requirement for the overstaying to have been knowingly committed.
Part I of the 1971 Act sets out the Secretary of State’s power to deport an individual where it is deemed to be conducive to the public good or where there is a court recommendation for deportation, and the UK Borders Act 2007 further sets out that, subject to the exemptions listed, where a foreign national is sentenced to at least 12 months’ imprisonment the Secretary of State must make a deportation order.
That is the point, welcome though it is, that has fallen foul of the provisions of the European convention on human rights. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said when he expressed frustration about that, but that is why I hope that he welcomes the provisions in the Immigration Bill, which I set out. If he has not looked at them already, I can tell him that we have set out very clearly in them the public interest test. In other words, judges can weigh up the private interests of the people concerned against the public interest test that Parliament will set out, if it passes that Bill. If someone is a foreign national offender and they have committed a crime, the normal position is that they will be removed from the United Kingdom.
I think that my hon. Friend will also welcome the fact that the test makes it clear that if someone is here unlawfully or in a precarious immigration position—in other words, they are not here for very long—the court should put very little or no weight on any private or family interests built up during that period. Someone cannot come here unlawfully, create a family relationship and then expect that relationship to count, and to be a way of their avoiding being removed from the United Kingdom. That is very welcome, because I think that most Members, and most members of the public, will have the same view that I do: if someone has committed a serious offence, it is not right that they are able to stay in the United Kingdom because they have created some sort of family relationship while they should not have been here. I think that provision will be very welcome, and I hope that it will receive my hon. Friend’s support.
It is also worth saying that the removal powers that I have set out do not carry an in-country right of appeal before removal can take place. In the Immigration Bill, we propose extending the use of non-suspensive appeals so that we can remove more criminals whose article 3 rights are not engaged—in other words, those who would not suffer torture or worse in the country we are removing them to—before they are able to appeal. They will still have an appeal right, but it must be exercised out of country. My hunch is that appeals will not then take place, because most of those appeals are filed by people to try to delay their removal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and other hon. Friends who support the measure are usually assiduous—this is a position that I welcome—and particularly on Fridays in persuading the House, whether by dint of argument or through their use of time, that where legislation is not necessary, it should not be passed by the House. I frequently marvel at their creativity. Sadly, as a Minister, it is an activity in which I am no longer able to partake. They give the House many reasons why many Bills which other Members may support should not be put on the statute book.
My plea to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my other hon. Friends is this. I hope that I have effectively demonstrated, as the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) did, that these provisions are already on the statute book and are well supported by members of the public, as one would expect, given that they are sensible measures. Knowing my hon. Friends’ general sense that we should not burden the statute book with unnecessary legislation, I hope that they will acknowledge that the offences are already on the statute book, and will think it not worth troubling Parliament to pass legislation that does not give us any more tools to deal with those who abuse the law.
Finally, I hope that I have demonstrated that this Government, through some of the operational measures we are taking and the provisions in the Immigration Bill, are absolutely determined to address this issue, although we welcome those who come to the country lawfully. The hon. Member for Croydon North was right to put on the record that those who wish to come here lawfully to work, study and contribute to the country, and to pay taxes that make us all wealthier, are very welcome indeed. The Government are absolutely determined that those who have no right to be here or those who abuse our laws should be dealt with.
Having provided that clarity, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will feel able to tell the House that he does not wish to proceed with the Bill, and I hope that I have not failed to convince him that that is the right course of action.
I am grateful to the Minister for his thorough response. I shall look at it in great detail, along with the Immigration Bill, which I hope we will be able to discuss on Report sooner rather than later, because it is an important matter for the Government. I am surprised that they have delayed it so long. Taking into account what the Minister has said, I seek the leave of the House to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.
Control of Offshore Wind Turbines Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We do not have much time to discuss this Bill, but I am delighted that the Minister is on the Front Bench. I hope that, even if he cannot respond today to my points, we will have the chance to discuss these things informally.
On 4 January, an article in the Economist called Rueing the Waves said:
“Unfortunately, offshore wind power is staggeringly expensive. Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University, describes it as ‘among the most expensive ways of marginally reducing carbon emissions known to man’”.
Under a subsidy system, which was unveiled in late 2013, the Government guarantee farms at sea £155 per megawatt-hour. That is three times the current wholesale price of electricity, 60% more than goes to onshore turbines and far in excess of the £92.50 available to the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point. The Bill would restrict those subsidies, along with a lot of other worthwhile things that would be popular with my constituents who are absolutely incensed at the prospect of having the Navitus Bay wind farm set in Christchurch bay, within sight of the cliffs of Christchurch and Highcliffe and within a short distance of a heritage site.
My Bill would also restrict to 100 metres the height of the turbines. At the moment, turbines are proposed in excess of 200 metres—higher than 600 feet—which is more than the height of Beachy Head. It means that they will be seen from tens of miles away, in the same way that one can see the cliffs of Dover from Calais. The turbines will be very visible, and my Bill would restrict their size, number and location.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on tabling this Bill, which would, as I understand it, restrict the location, the number and the height of wind turbines situated offshore within 20 miles of our coast.
The thrust of this Bill would run counter to our policy of supporting a range of different renewable technologies to increase the part that renewable energy plays in our energy mix. It would also, therefore, run counter to our policy that follows from that, which is that we should offer to offshore wind projects the same type, if not the same price, of strike prices that are on offer to other technologies. My hon. Friend directly referred to the draft heads of terms, the commercial agreements that we have reached with EDF Energy in respect of Hinkley. Of course the final electricity market reform delivery plan that we published in December confirmed a range of strike prices for all the different technologies, including onshore wind, offshore wind, which my hon. Friend wants to restrict, solar power and tidal and wave energy.
Turning specifically to offshore wind, it would not be right for us to restrict the deployment of offshore wind in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 24 January.
Business without Debate
Employment Opportunities Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill [Lords]
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
Asylum (Time Limit) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
Foreign Nationals (Access to Public Services) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 January.
HMRC (Company Liquidations)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate on the behaviour of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in relation to company liquidations. HMRC has cynically abused the system, which is a disgrace to any public Department. HMRC’s behaviour also indicates serious flaws in policy, which I hope Ministers will address.
I am conscious of the fact that HMRC is operationally independent of Ministers, so my fire is not directed at my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary; my fire is directed at HMRC officials. There are concerns about individual injustice and about the operation of policy and governance within HMRC, which I submit are found to be woefully lacking on these matters. The concerns stem from an understandable change of policy through which HMRC has, over a number of years, used civil proceedings to pursue allegations of evasion of duty against individuals and corporate bodies. The proceedings frequently involve allegations of fraud that are thought to be more advantageous to pursue through the civil courts, where of course the burden of proof is lower—the balance of probabilities—than for proceedings in the criminal courts, where the Revenue would have to prove the matter to the criminal standard. Dealt with proportionately and properly, I can see that that is a legitimate tool in the box for protecting public revenue. The difficulty is that if it is not used proportionately and properly we do not get the real offenders. That was precisely what happened in the case of a company run by constituents of mine, of my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is in the Chamber today, and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). I shall refer to a particular case, but there are general principles too. I am conscious that there are still some matters of litigation, but I do not think I will be trespassing on any of them in what I say about the history.
The case concerns a company called Abbey Forwarding Ltd, a reputable and established bonded warehouse operation that operated in east London from 1971 until 2009. It employed 23 people. The directors were constituents of mine and my right hon. and hon. Friends. In February 2009, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs raised assessments against the company for a sum of just short of £6 million, alleging that excise duty had been evaded on the importation of alcohol. They went to an ex parte hearing and successfully applied to have the company placed in provisional liquidation on the basis that there had been participation in what was alleged to be a diversion fraud.
The court appointed Louise Brittain, a senior partner at Deloitte, as the liquidator. She apparently had a great deal of experience in the field, which might be surprising in the light of what comes later, and had been appointed in a number of other liquidations in which the Revenue had been involved. Of course, the Revenue says, “It wasn’t us but the court,” but we know that that is a play on words. The appointment was made and she immediately brought proceedings against the directors for breach of fiduciary duty, alleging fraud.
When that had been done the business was shut down with no forewarning, the staff were sacked and the business was effectively run down. The Abbey directors were not present at the ex parte hearing and as they had been dismissed as employees of the company they had no recourse to appeal against the allegations or the assessments, which they have contested from the very beginning. The liquidator, with the connivance of the Revenue, I would say, deliberately sought to shut them out from pursuing any avenue of appeal against those assessments.
It seems to me that the liquidator showed a remarkable lack of interest in pursuing the interests of the company or the creditors, and to that end she embarked on a fire sale of the company’s remaining assets to the extent that vehicles worth £38,000 were sold for £2,000 and alcohol stock worth £30,000 for £1,000. There was intimidating behaviour towards the directors and their families as friends and acquaintances were rung up, including on ex-directory phone numbers, and asked whether they were owed money.
That was all being done in a litigious war of attrition against the directors, funded in effect by the taxpayer as HMRC gave the liquidator indemnity from her legal costs and any damages that might be awarded against her should the directors be successful. That seems to me to be a very questionable use of public money.
Civil proceedings were used to pursue what might have been criminal matters, and two matters of concern arose. The first is the extraordinary conduct of the liquidator, as I have discussed already, and the second is the cynical conduct of HMRC in hiding behind the liquidator when things went wrong. That is exactly what it did. It might be legitimate to use such a device to deal with fraudsters, but my constituents were not fraudsters and were found not to be by the courts. Great care must be taken with the governance of this procedure, as HMRC can end up as judge, jury and executioner.
In this case, the claim was brought in due course on 30 July 2010, nearly a year or so later, before Mr Justice Lewison—now, I think, Lord Justice Lewison—in the High Court. The judge in the High Court dismissed the claims against the former directors in their entirety and said—one might have hoped that this would have sunken in with the Revenue, but it clearly did not—that the liquidator’s case had “crumbled to dust”. That is a very striking phrase. The case was not just thrown out on a technicality; it fell apart at the seams.
The allegation had been that there were 301 transactions amounting to a diversion. It became apparent that there had only ever been evidence of three potential diversions—interceptions, as they were called. As the judge observed, it was an exaggeration of a hundredfold. Even more extraordinarily, it became apparent in subsequent proceedings that the liquidator, Ms Brittain, had been aware of that throughout the 12-day trail, during which she gave evidence under oath, but at no point did she seek to correct the misleading information, despite signing a statement—it had a certification of truth on it—that included the inaccurate figure. She was thoroughly criticised by the judge, and rightly so. She consequently left Deloitte and no longer practises independently without supervision. Frankly, she should never be appointed as a liquidator again, because that ineptitude led to serious injustice for my constituents.
Unfortunately, rather than recognising that harm had been done and seeking to rectify it, HMRC sought simply, and disingenuously, to distance itself from the matter, saying, “All that was conducted by the liquidator. We had no more involvement once she had been appointed.” That is betrayed by the facts, even though the assertion is misleadingly contained in a letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and myself by Jennie Granger, HMRC’s operations director.
In fact, all the evidence that the liquidator relied upon, including the false allegation of 301 interceptions, came from witness statements provided by HMRC officers. HMRC officers and their representatives attended every single court hearing, and they were in regular correspondence with the liquidator throughout. E-mails that have come into my constituents’ possession indicate a social relationship between some of those officers and the liquidator, which some of us would raise an eyebrow about in a professional context. Against that background, it seems to me that Ms Granger—I do not doubt that she signed the letter in good faith—was seriously misinformed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that HMRC’s management looks seriously at the conduct of the officials involved.
The situation has now progressed to a stage where all that remains—I will not talk about this, because litigation is ongoing—is a ruination claim brought by the directors against HMRC. Tens of thousands of pounds—the total cost is disputed—have already been awarded, either against HMRC or the liquidator that HMRC is identifying. In other words, the money has come from the public purse.
Some 30 years’ work of my constituents has been destroyed, their workers have lost their livelihoods, and to this day HMRC has sought—happily, unsuccessfully—to obstruct their obtaining a new licence to operate a fresh business and rebuild their lives. A disgraceful vendetta has been carried out against them. It does a public body no good to try then to pretend that that did not happen. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister has to respond to a debate that must be cast in those terms, but my worry is this: what is a legitimate tool to be used that can be discredited if it is not used properly?
There has been a failure ever since this began, which was nearly two years ago, despite a detailed request from my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, supported by me, for the internal report on what happened in the investigation to be published. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that it will be made available. I hope that he will recognise that simply hiding behind the ongoing ruination litigation will lead only to the suspicion that it is a further attempt at delay and backside-covering, to put it bluntly, by those responsible in HMRC. This is not a case of there being a reasonable judgment and things going wrong in the course of litigation; the evidence clearly never justified the allegations made. If that was the case, one hopes that HMRC would say, in a constructive spirit, “We will carry out a full review, and we will be transparent about it and share the results with those who have been wronged as a consequence. We will apologise and ensure that appropriate arrangements for redress, such as there can be, are made.”
None of that has been forthcoming within, disturbingly, a culture of an unwillingness to engage realistically not only with the directors of the company but with their Members of Parliament. That does no credit to those involved. For the sake of those of us who do not wish the reputation of a public agency such as HMRC to be damaged, I hope that the management of HMRC—who are listening, I trust—will take serious action. Although the Minister does not have operational control, I hope that he will not only do what he can to facilitate ensuring that appropriate meetings take place with my hon. Friends and I, and others, to try to seek a resolution that does not needlessly cost the taxpayer any more money, but give us more detail on the changes in governance arrangements that I am told have taken place within HMRC since this case started.
I would like to say that this is an isolated instance, but I am afraid that other hon. Members have given me examples of a number of other instances where this tool—the use of liquidation to pursue claims—has been used and has been found wanting. Another well-reported case in 2013 led to another High Court judge seriously criticising the way in which HMRC had operated through this procedure. That suggests that problems still arise despite the changes in governance about which we were assured in the letter from Ms Granger.
The only way to reassure people that this will not happen in future is to be up-front about what happened, to make the report available, to make available to everybody the information about the changes in governance, and to instigate the fullest possible review to make sure that the vast majority of honourable and hard-working employees of HMRC do not have their reputations damaged by something that clearly went wrong and that, at the very least, demonstrates a high degree of incompetence. Even worse, it demonstrates a degree of complacency on the part of the senior management of HMRC. It is almost as though they said, “We will not admit that we were wrong. We have deeper pockets than they do. We will put them out of business, in effect, and hope that they go away.” That is what was happening, and they were doing it through the use of public money. That is not a proper and fair means of protecting public revenue.
Against that background, I hope that the Minister will insist that this is investigated within HMRC at the highest possible level. Although he does not have day-to-day operational responsibility, I hope that he will have passed to him the details of what happens, make sure that the details of any review are shared with my constituents and others, and make sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and I are given full details about the changes in governance arrangements so that we can be satisfied that the lessons that have been learned are genuinely acted on. I also hope that the Minister will prevail on those responsible to say that if an error has been made, the best thing to do is to recognise that lessons have been learned, apologise, and move on. None of that has happened so far.
As regards those who have been wronged, there should be a resolution of the claims they are seeking to make. I am not asking for anything as regards what those claims should be, because that is not appropriate in these circumstances. However, there should be a recognition that there needs to be some redress where it is clearly demonstrated that injustice has occurred. The High Court judge said that, prima facie, there was a strong case for injustice having been done to my constituents—and, ultimately, HMRC did not appeal his decision.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that I do not raise this issue lightly or with any pleasure, but in the interests of the reputation of the public service, it needs to be addressed with more vigour than it has been so far.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for securing a debate on this matter, which he has raised with me and with HMRC on a number of occasions in the past few years. As he pointed out, I can say the same for my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is here today.
My hon. Friend made his case very powerfully in his capacity as a constituency MP. He also, in many respects, brought to bear on these matters his considerable experience as a barrister, and a criminal barrister at that. He rightly said that I am constrained by the principle of taxpayer confidentiality and the fact that Ministers and politicians do not interfere in operational matters; there is good reason why that is the case. I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not able to delve too deeply into this particular matter, given the principle of taxpayer confidentiality, although I will say what I can.
I can, however, discuss the use of provisional liquidations, which my hon. Friend has highlighted, and I hope it will be helpful if I do so. Liquidation is a court-driven process that takes time. It can take several weeks after the presentation of a winding-up petition for a liquidator finally to be appointed. Where the company is being controlled by fraudulent individuals, that delay can provide a perfect opportunity for them to destroy the evidence of their fraud and move assets out of the company. In such cases, any creditor, including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, may petition the court for provisional liquidation. This allows the winding-up petition to be presented without any notice to the company. If the court is persuaded of both the company’s insolvency and the potential for fraud, it will appoint a liquidator to take immediate control of the company, its assets and its records. This protects creditors’ interests. The company directors will have a chance shortly afterwards to argue that the company is not insolvent and so should not be wound up. If they succeed, the provisional liquidator is removed. Where there is clear evidence that a company is perpetrating significant tax or duty fraud, HMRC will apply to the court for an order that the company be placed into provisional liquidation, to stop the fraud and recover assets.
Provisional liquidation orders can be made only by the court and HMRC applies to the court only in the most serious of cases, such as alcohol diversion fraud, whereby alcohol is purported to be exported lawfully without payment of duty or VAT to another European Union country but is then diverted unlawfully for consumption in the UK without payment of duty or VAT. The cost to the Exchequer of this type of fraud is estimated to be more than £1 billion. Provisional liquidation action stops the fraud continuing, because trade ceases, and allows assets to be recovered. It has also been used in cases of VAT missing trader fraud and ongoing pay-as-you-earn and national insurance fraud in the construction industry.
Provisional liquidation is an exceptional action and it is worth highlighting one or two statistics. In 2009, five provisional liquidations were instituted by HMRC. In 2010, there were just two cases and in 2011 there were four, while 2012 and 2013 had just one case each. In total since 2009, there have been only 13 applications to put companies into provisional liquidation, although in some of the cases, associated companies were liquidated simultaneously. In not one of those cases has any company successfully argued before the court that the provisional liquidation order should not have been made. Although my hon. Friend has raised concerns in this regard, I could, if I were so inclined, quote judges stating that HMRC’s behaviour in respect of bringing a provisional liquidation was entirely reasonable and well-evidenced.
It can take a long time to bring cases to a conclusion, but I am informed by HMRC that it considers that the 13 actions have prevented Exchequer loss of at least £150 million. I would not therefore wish HMRC to restrict its use of provisional liquidations in appropriate circumstances.
Before a case gets to court, HMRC has rigorous internal processes, which include the involvement throughout of an independent governance team that is separate from the case team. The specialist team challenges and considers the available evidence and strategy. It is made up of externally qualified insolvency specialists with a great deal of experience of insolvency matters. During the whole process, legal advice is provided by HRMC internal solicitors and, where appropriate, additional external insolvency specialist solicitors, and the final sign-off is at senior level. I hope that I have given a degree of reassurance about the general use of provisional liquidations.
Returning to the case that my hon. Friends have raised with me on several occasions, I will deal with the specific issue of the internal report referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. He is absolutely right that HMRC promised an internal review of the case. The review will be conducted by people separate from the operations directorate, and they will report to the HMRC commissioners. The litigation is still ongoing, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, so HMRC’s position is that it would be appropriate for the review to consider the entirety of the issue and to take into account the conclusion of the outstanding litigation. HMRC will consequently be able to respond not only on the litigation and court hearings that have already occurred, but on the one last outstanding piece of litigation. It therefore wants to undertake the review only once that point has been reached.
Will the Minister help me on this point? In correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, HMRC indicated that the review had been commenced, but not concluded. My concern is that some factual matters that must be the subject of the review go back to the very early stages of the process, when assessments were raised in February 2009 or not long thereafter. One would obviously hope that investigations into those matters had taken place already, while the evidence was still fresh in people’s minds, rather than that they should be reviewed five years or so later. Will the Minister reassure me that work has already started on the review? If he cannot do so today, will he write to my hon. Friends and me about the progress, if not the conclusion, of the review?