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Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill

Volume 605: debated on Friday 5 February 2016

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Again, this Bill is a reiteration of one I introduced to the House previously, but that was first brought forward two years ago, rather than one. It sets out clearly what we need to do in relation to the benefit entitlements of those who are not UK citizens. It would:

“Make provision to restrict the entitlement of non-UK Citizens from the European Union and the European Economic Area to taxpayer-funded benefits.”

Interestingly, the Bill is put in identical terms to the one introduced in the 2013-14 Session. When I introduced that Bill on 17 January 2014, it received a lot of sympathy from the Government at the time, and I shall briefly cite some of the things that were said.

I said that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whom I am delighted to say is still in post, had the week prior to the introduction of my Bill been quoted in The Sunday Times with a big headline saying “Ban migrant welfare for two years”. When that issue was examined, it turned out that it could not be done then and it was an “aspiration” rather than a “policy”. I quoted the following:

“Sources close to Mr Duncan Smith stressed he was expressing an aspiration for the future, rather than spelling out a policy.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 1138.]

The background is, therefore, that the Government at that stage were keen on limiting welfare for migrants from the European Union and the EEA.

One interesting aspect of that debate was that the problem had also been referred to by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. He had pointed out that none other than Milton Friedman, that great free market economist who believed in open borders, had asserted that one

“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.”

That is the issue that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been trying to address in his negotiations with other members of the European Union; we cannot have both open borders and unrestricted welfare. Of course, if we believed in a single superstate, as our European colleagues do, the issue would not arise, because we would all be living in one great state, with people moving freely from country to country with uniform benefits systems. That is not the policy of the present Government, and it is certainly not the wish of the British people.

Two years ago, we were hoping for a renegotiation, followed by a Conservative victory in the general election, with the promise of an EU referendum. The renegotiation is now taking place, but it is very sad to see the extent to which our aspirations have been watered down. Even the then Deputy Prime Minister said that it was wrong that people from countries elsewhere in the European economic area should be able to access child benefit for children living in another country. That issue was addressed specifically by the Conservative party at the recent general election, because our manifesto stated that we would ensure that nobody could access child benefit from the United Kingdom taxpayer for a child living elsewhere. Again, that seems to have been rejected in these renegotiations, which is very disappointing.

How does my hon. Friend think the general public feel about the current renegotiation and the watered-down benefit reforms?

I think that the opinion polls tell the story—I am told that another one was published today. I think that the British public are enormously sceptical about the outcome of the renegotiation, and enormously concerned that those aspects that were spelled out precisely in our manifesto have so far not been realised.

What does my hon. Friend think about the fact that the watered-down version we were presented with seems to have been watered down even further, with countries such as France and Germany suggesting that they might not support the legislation that the Prime Minister has already agreed?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I am not going to go down that route, because my view is that, even if the high watermark of what the Prime Minister said in his recent statement, which is reflected in the documents produced by the European Commission, is maintained, it still falls significantly short of what we promised in our manifesto, and we will still be a million miles away from being able to remove access to benefits, which is what this Bill aspires to achieve and what the British people overwhelmingly support.

The Prime Minister answered questions after his statement to the House on renegotiation on Wednesday.

He said:

“40% of EU migrants coming to Britain access the in-work benefits system, and the average payment per family is £6,000…I think that more than 10,000 people are getting over £10,000 a year, and because people get instant access to our benefits system, it is an unnatural pull and draw to our country.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2016; Vol. 605, c. 939.]

There is a dispute about the extent to which such access brings large numbers of people in, but in any event the British people find it an affront that the money of those who have paid their taxes and into our insurance system for years is being used to fund people from another country who have not made such contributions.

There is a big issue here. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), I am not convinced that the Government have achieved enough, even at the high watermark, to satisfy myself and others. The only solution is to leave. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is laughing, but she will see that clauses 2, 3 and 4 of the Bill have to include the words

“Notwithstanding the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972”.

In other words, in each of those clauses I acknowledge that, under current European Union law, we cannot change our own law as we would wish.

In answering the debate that we had two years ago about this issue, the Minister then responsible, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said that, although he might be tempted, he could not support the Bill because he would be in breach of the ministerial code in supporting a policy that could give rise to infraction proceedings. I fear that the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), whom I am delighted to see on the Front Bench today, is in exactly the same position: despite the temptation, he could not support the Bill because in so doing he would be in breach of the ministerial code for raising the prospect of infraction proceedings.

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that, in a couple of weeks, when it seems that the Prime Minister will allow a free-for-all for Government Ministers, this Minister will be able to say that he agrees with the Bill?

That is an interesting point. Perhaps the ministerial code will have to be adjusted to take account of the fact that those who remain Ministers while supporting notwithstanding clauses, for example, should have an exemption. However, I am sure that there are more important issues at stake than the ministerial code.

I hope my hon. Friend agrees that the decision will not be for this House, but for the country. I am grateful that the Conservatives went through the Lobby to put the referendum on the statute book and give people a say on whether we should be part of the European Union. Does my hon. Friend think that the decision will be made by this place or the great British general public?

The people will decide. We trust the people: that is why we are Conservatives. We look forward to the referendum whenever it comes.

I know other hon. Members wish to participate, but before closing let me turn to the issue of declaration of nationality. All the responses from the Government suggest that the scale of the problem is as the Prime Minister described it on Wednesday. However, the Government do not know at the moment how many people from the European Union or the European economic area are claiming benefits because there is no information about nationality in benefit claims. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead responded to the Bill two years ago, he said this would all be put right under universal credit. Well, that is great, but universal credit is taking a very long time to roll out.

That is why I would be interested to hear what the Under-Secretary of State says about my suggestion in clause 1:

“From the date of the coming into force of this Act no national insurance number shall be issued unless the applicant provides a declaration of nationality…no application shall be made for a taxpayer-funded benefit unless the applicant provides a declaration of nationality.”

At the moment, we do not really have detailed information; all we have are some rough and ready calculations.

We know there are large numbers of people in our country claiming from the benefits system who are not UK nationals. The Bill would address that problem full on and ensure that non-UK citizens from the European Union and the European economic area were not able to access our taxpayer-funded benefits. That is why I have the pleasure of begging to move that the Bill be read a Second time.

May I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about my former colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, Harry Harpham? I did not know him well, but at the engagements we did have, he was an absolutely delightful man. I pass my condolences to his family. He will be missed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I believe this is the third time he and his supporters have managed to get the Bill, in its various forms, read on the Floor of the House. He will have to give me his secret, because I have had no success with private Members’ Bills. I think we can say it is congratulations to the tenacious sextet—not Tenacious D, but Tenacious S.

On more serious matters, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that his timing with the Bill was perhaps a little surprising, given the state of the EU negotiations and the draft settlement that has been produced. I appreciate that the negotiations are tentative and that there are varying interpretations of how successful the Government are being, but hon. Members surely want to wait until the final settlement is known. After all, Mr Tusk has hardly digested the apple crumble and custard he had courtesy of No. 10.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet produced an impact assessment of the Bill’s potential effects, which he also failed to do on the previous occasions. I am deeply concerned about the apparent lack of an evidence base to support the measures in the Bill. We must all strive for better, evidence-based policy.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s desire to have evidence-based policy. Surely she will recognise that it must be the first duty of the Government to let us know how many non-UK nationals are currently accessing these benefits. I have put down parliamentary questions on the issue and received answers to the effect that the information is not available.

The hon. Gentleman makes a relevant point, but all of us, as Members of this House, must make sure that whatever speeches we make, and whatever proposals or Bills we bring forward, they are evidence based. I would encourage him to do that.

I am incredibly proud to be British, but I am also an internationalist and an unabashed Europhile. Part of that is due to my personal experience. My great-grandparents were migrants from Poland and Germany. My grandmothers were French and Irish. My dad’s wife is Dutch, and she and my dad have retired to Spain. My brother’s wife is American, and she and my brother live in the US. My husband was born in South Africa. Before I became an MP, my work as a public health consultant took me across the world, and predominantly across Europe. I have seen the immense benefits of that cultural diversity and those employment opportunities, not only in my own personal life but in the economic benefits to the country as a whole.

The EU is our biggest trading partner, alone contributing £227 billion to the economy last year, with £26.5 billion in investment coming from Europe every year. There are 3.5 million associated jobs, of which 14,000 are in my area of Oldham. Britain’s EU membership makes us a major player in world trade. As an EU member, we are part of a market of 500 million consumers that other countries want to do business with. The UK is stronger in negotiating deals with countries such as China and the US as part of the EU group of 28 nations than we would be on our own.

It is not just Britain’s prosperity that depends on our EU membership. After the horrors of two world wars in the previous century, the EU fosters greater ties and supports struggling regions. I was working on Merseyside in the 1990s when European objective 1 funding was made available to that area. Our working together across Europe with our member state partners has ensured 70 years of peace between European states. Cross-border co-operation is essential for Britain’s future safety and wellbeing. Viruses such as Zika and Ebola do not recognise borders, nor do organised crime gangs and tax evaders, or carbon particulates and nitrous dioxide emissions. All those issues require our working closely with EU and other international countries, and the best way to achieve that is by being part of Europe, not on the fringes. That does not mean that we should not be striving for reform within all the EU institutions in strengthening governance, democratic accountability and sovereignty, but if you are going to change the rules, you need to be part of the club.

But surely we, in our country, should be able to decide for ourselves how our taxpayers’ money is spent on benefits. If we choose not to allow that money to be given to people from outside the United Kingdom, we should be able to decide that for ourselves.

I think the hon. Gentleman is waving a red herring.

Let me move on to the specifics of the Bill. I regret that the same effort that is rightly being put into ensuring that our social security system remains contribution-based is not being put into preventing the exploitation of workers and stopping UK-based employment agencies recruiting solely from abroad, undercutting wages for British workers. Why is that not a focus of the Government and of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill? Although there are many benefits associated with migration and migrants, not least the net positive contribution to the Exchequer—as shown in recognised evidence—we must also recognise that there are associated costs for areas with higher levels of migration, which puts pressure on local services and local communities. That has to be recognised and addressed, and local authorities must be provided with financial support to enable effective migration management and to maintain social cohesion. That was a focus of our manifesto offer at the last election. Again, could it not have been a focus of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill?

I object to the tenet underpinning this Bill, which is a failure to consider the evidence that the number of migrants who have been claiming tax credits while working is small. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the data. He will be aware that because of a freedom of information request, HMRC has had to publish the number of migrants who are in receipt of tax credits. It has been shown that in the past year only 84,000 have been involved—just over 16%, not the 40% claimed by the Prime Minister on Wednesday. I look forward to his correcting the record, although I think I could be waiting some time. That does not even take into account the fact that one in 10 couples defined as “migrant couples” include a UK national. The UK Statistics Authority has said that the DWP data the Prime Minister used were “unsatisfactory”, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has called the figures “selective and misleading”.

The evidence is that social security is not a pull factor—jobs are. We need to protect and secure our contribution-based social security system. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. It is there to provide basic support if someone is living in and contributing to this country’s endeavours.

The Bill has little evidence base—that is being kind—and represents a bad case of scaremongering. The Conservative party must be more responsible in its approach to maximising our association with Europe and the economic benefits it brings. It should not deploy the negative divide and rule narrative that is unfortunately prevalent at present. That should not be the language of or the tenet underpinning the Bill. We must respect migrants and social security claimants, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the Bill.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on his persistence, as the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) put it. I am very proud to be one of the Bill’s supporters. Although this is, regrettably, going to be a very short debate, it has been a useful one. My hon. Friend has set out a case that will strike a chord with many people around the country, and certainly with many people in the Shipley constituency. It has also been helpful to hear the hon. Lady entrench the Labour party as the party of welfare and keep up its 100% record of opposing any attempt to restrict this country’s welfare system. At least the Labour party has always been consistent on that matter.

The hon. Lady said she was against the Bill, which is about restricting benefits for foreign nationals. I presume that means that she wants to continue to give benefits to foreign nationals, which means that she is against welfare reform. If I have misunderstood her, I apologise, but I do not think that is a controversial interpretation of her remarks, which were of no great surprise to any of us who have known her for a number of years.

I want to make a few points. The hon. Lady said that she opposed the Bill because it is not evidence-based. The whole point about the Bill is that it is about principle. It is about the principle of who should be entitled to claim benefits in the UK. Should foreign nationals who come here without having made any contribution to the UK economy be able to claim benefits straight away?

I will press on, if the hon. Lady does not mind; time is short, and she made her case earlier.

We do not need evidence to discuss matters of principle. In principle, surely it cannot be right that foreign nationals come to the UK and start claiming benefits straight away. We do not need any evidence about that. I am not even interested in how many people do that. I am arguing that, as a matter of principle, that should not be allowed to happen.

I specifically said that we should protect and secure our contribution-based system and that those people who contribute should be supported.

But this country does not really have a contributory system in the same way as other EU countries. That is part of the problem. It is no good the hon. Lady wanting to protect something that does not exist and opposing something that would actually do what she claims she wants to achieve. Her actions on this issue are more important than her words, and if she opposes the Bill, her actions clearly do not follow on from her words. I do not see the need for evidence. This is a Bill about a principle that is important to many people. It is about fairness, not evidence.

I would have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s opinion if we had to give all these benefits away to secure a free trade agreement with the European Union, and that had a net benefit for our economy. If we had to give away something in order to achieve that, it might be worth doing. Given that we had a £62 billion trade deficit with the European Union last year, and that if we were to leave the EU we would be its single biggest export market, it is perfectly clear that we could have a free trade agreement with the EU for nothing. We do not have to give it access to our benefit system, and we do not need to give it a £19 billion a year membership fee. We can have what we want from the EU—free trade—for nothing. That is the deal that we should be seeking to secure. I do not think anybody can sustain the argument that if we were to leave the EU and stop giving benefits to EU citizens when they came to the UK, Germany would want to stop selling Mercedes, BMV and Volkswagen cars to people in this country. Of course they would not; it is complete nonsense for anybody to suggest that.

Does my hon. Friend accept that people’s aspirations for retaining control over our own benefit system are gradually being eroded? It is extraordinary that back in 2014, the then Deputy Prime Minister said that he could not understand

“why it is possible under the current rules for someone to claim child benefit for children who aren’t even in this country.”

That was his view then, but he seems to have resiled from even that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, because the situation regarding child benefit is probably one of the most indefensible in the benefit system. It does not matter how much evidence there is of how many people it applies to; it cannot be right, as a point of principle, that somebody can come into this country from Poland to work and claim child benefit for their children, who still reside in Poland and have never set foot outside Poland. It cannot possibly be right, on principle. We do not need any evidence to know that that is wrong; it is clearly and palpably wrong. It is strange that the Labour party is so wedded to its European credentials that it will inevitably have to see restrictions in benefits for all UK citizens to pay the bill for benefits to European citizens. I am sure that that does not go down very well in many of the estates in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

I do not intend to speak for long, because I appreciate that we need to press on, but I want to make a point about clause 3, which will ensure that nobody is paid a level of benefit above that of the equivalent benefit in their own country. I think I am right in saying that the Prime Minister is trumpeting something similar in his deal regarding child benefit. As I understand it—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who is far more knowledgeable on the matter than I am, will correct me if I am wrong—the Prime Minister is saying that under the great deal that he has secured for the nation, Polish people, for example, who claim child benefit will be able to claim only the child benefit rate in Poland, or whichever country the children reside in. That seems very similar to clause 3.

My understanding of the documents that were published this week is that it would not be as simple as that. The amount of child benefit that could be claimed would be related to the difference in the standard and cost of living between this country and the other EU country. That, of course, would be incredibly bureaucratic.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but the Prime Minister is trying to secure the same kind of principle that my hon. Friend seeks in clause 3. For the benefit of not only our deliberations on the Bill but those who are trying to weigh up the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, I want to say that there is a huge danger in this aspect of the Bill. We have said that if somebody comes from Poland, they can claim child benefit at the UK rate for their children in Poland. If that is changed and the amount of child benefit that they can claim becomes only £2 or £3 a week, or whatever the equivalent might be in Poland, there is a danger that rather than saving the taxpayer money, as we all intend—including the Prime Minister, I might add—we may inadvertently increase the bill to the taxpayer. We are working on the basis that people will just carry on doing as they do at the moment. Who is to say, if we limit the child benefit to the rate in the home country, that they will not take the opportunity to bring their children to the UK in order to claim the higher UK rate? On top of that, there is the cost of schooling, any medical care and all the rest of it. We must be very careful about what we wish for.

A much more sensible approach to matters such as child benefit would be that if a foreign national comes to this country but their children still reside in the home country, they should not get anything. Whether it is the UK rate, the Polish rate or any rate whatever, the UK Government should not give them anything. That would avoid the unintended consequence of more and more people bringing more and more of their children to this country at a higher cost to the taxpayer.

Having made those points, I will sit down, because we all want to hear from the Minister. We all know that he is a very good man. The Bill did not find any favour with the shadow Minister, but as he is far more sensible, we hope he will have warmer words to say about it.

May I, too, echo the tributes to Harry Harpham, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough? He was a long-standing servant of his community, including as a councillor for 15 years. I know that he will be greatly missed by all.

It is a privilege to serve in the House today as the duty Work and Pensions Minister, and to respond to my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). Their forensic, constructive and diligent work has certainly kept the focus of attention on this area. The British public have sent a clear message that they are concerned that migrants are incentivised to come to the UK because of the attractiveness of our welfare system. That was clearly set out in the speeches of both my hon. Friends.

The Government share those concerns. That is why, during the past two years, we have introduced several far-reaching measures to restrict or remove access to a range of benefits for migrants who come to the UK without a job and who have not contributed to our economy. For example, EEA jobseekers can no longer access housing benefit at all. Their access to income-based jobseeker’s allowance is limited to the minimum we argue is allowable under EU law—just 91 days, in most circumstances—and even then only after they have waited for three months. We have also made similar changes to child benefit and child tax credit. On the specific point about declaring a national insurance number, it is the case that the number must be declared when making a benefit claim. It cannot yet be collected through the payment system, but that will be corrected with the introduction of universal credit. As universal credit rolls out, we will remove even such elements, meaning that EEA jobseekers have no entitlement to means-tested benefits whatever.

The Bill goes even further by proposing restrictions that would apply to EEA migrants who are working and contributing in the UK. The current framework of EU law would not allow us to deliver that, since clear European rules compel us to treat EEA nationals working in the UK no less favourably than UK nationals. However, the Prime Minister is renegotiating in Europe so that we get a better deal for Britain. That includes cutting the benefits EU migrants get to prevent our welfare system from acting as a magnet and to create a fairer system for people who work here and play by the rules. That is just part of our ongoing work to make changes.

No, because I am short of time and we want to make progress.

Other key measures have already been taken by the Government, such as capping economic immigration from outside the EU; clamping down on non-compliant immigrant students while remaining open to the brightest and the best; restricting the right of non-EEA nationals to work in this country and bring in dependants; introducing a maximum fine of £20,000 per employee—more than four times the previous penalty—for employers who pay below the minimum wage ;and making sure that only those who secure graduate-level jobs stay on at the end of their studies. The Immigration Act 2014 will clamp down on those from overseas who abuse our public services, and make it easier to remove people with no right to be in this country.

Although the Government clearly share the sentiment behind the measures in the Bill, we are unable to support it because it goes beyond what the EU legal framework currently allows and cuts across the Prime Minister’s renegotiation. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) said, this Government and this Government alone trust the British public and have offered an EU referendum. The parties now in opposition opposed such a referendum throughout the last Parliament, but we trust the British public. I have set out how we are making considerable progress in this area, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will not feel the need to press the Bill further.

In responding briefly to this debate, I thank everybody who has participated, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who supported the Bill.

I join everybody in the House who has paid tribute to Harry Harpham, whose tenure in this place was far too short. He had a distinguished period of public service over many years and it is extraordinary to think that he was deprived of the opportunity to spend longer as the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough.

The Minister basically said that the Government are very sympathetic to what I am trying to achieve in the Bill, but at the moment their hands are tied by European Union law. That point was reinforced this morning in an interview on the “Today” programme, which you may have heard, Madam Deputy Speaker, in which a former advocate-general made it clear that the only way in which we can regain control over our own laws in this House of Commons is to leave the European Union, and that no side deal can be done that would remove the sovereignty of the European Court of Justice in deciding these issues for us.

In looking at the rights of people from the EU and the European economic area who are not UK citizens to access our benefits regime, we are completely stymied by the fact that the European Union regards everybody inside the boundaries of the European Union as effectively members of one country with a common citizenship. I believe that the citizens of this country have a distinct and, frankly, superior citizenship right to those from other European Union countries. Why should we not be able to decide, in our own sovereign Parliament and our own sovereign country, who should and who should not have access to our benefits system? That is the principle at the heart of the Bill to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley referred.

A couple of years ago, the then Deputy Prime Minister, whom I have quoted, expressed amazement that people from outside the United Kingdom could obtain child benefit for their children who were not even living in the United Kingdom. We have not even resolved that matter in the draft agreements that the Prime Minister has brought back from his negotiations.

What is contained in the Bill needs to be introduced and implemented by this Parliament, but that cannot be done until we leave the European Union. Recognising that sad reality, but hoping for the best in the referendum, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.