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I beg to move,
That this House
expresses its very great concern that National Insurance numbers appear to have been issued to illegal immigrants.
Britain today has nearly 5 million people claiming out-of-work benefits. Despite £3 billion spent on the Government's new deal, we have higher youth unemployment than 10 years ago. We have half a million people under the age of 35 claiming incapacity benefit. According to Ministers, a million IB claimants in all want to work. We have parts of Britain where as few as one in four adults of working age are working. We have a greater proportion of children being brought up in workless households than any other country in Europe.
What are the Government doing? They are handing national insurance numbers to tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. Some people might call that incompetence. Just when the Secretary of State thought that things could not get any worse, the chaos spreads to another part of his job. What we know for certain is that 6,000 illegal immigrants have been issued with national insurance numbers by his Department, giving them an official stamp of approval to go and get a job. We have figures that strongly suggest that the real number is much higher. That is Britain today under this Government. All that happened while the Secretary of State was too busy getting on with his two jobs in government to sort out the confusion with his campaign finances. What utter chaos.
To be frank, in the past few months we have seen a whole series of calamities for the Secretary of State on this important issue. We first had a sense that something was wrong last September, during the fiasco over the statistics on migrant workers; you will remember that, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State told us then that only 700,000 of the jobs created in Britain since 1997 had gone to migrant workers. We disputed his figure and suggested that the number was much higher. "No," said the Secretary of State, "It's 700,000." A month later he said, "We've got the figure wrong—it's not 700,000, but 1.1 million." We know that the Secretary of State is not much good at adding up, but losing 400,000 people is almost as improbable as losing £100,000 of campaign contributions. Even the 1.1 million figure may not be right; the Office for National Statistics has since told us that it thinks that as many as 80 per cent. of the new jobs created since 1997 may have gone to people moving to the UK from overseas. No wonder the Secretary of State wanted to keep things private. Can he really tell the House today exactly how many people from overseas have come to Britain to work in the past 10 years?
Keeping things private is becoming a bit of a habit with the Secretary of State. We have been trying to get answers about national insurance numbers and this issue ever since it became clear, two months ago, that thousands of illegal workers were being cleared to work in the security industry. The written questions remain unanswered to this day. On
I believe that yesterday's admission represents the tip of the iceberg of what is really going on with the Department for Work and Pensions' management of the system for migrant workers coming to Britain. We now know with cast-iron certainty that at least 6,000 people, illegally in the UK, have been given national insurance numbers by the Government. Yet nearly two years ago, the Government promised us that in future no national insurance numbers would be issued to anyone who did not have a right to work in the United Kingdom.
If the Government had done their job, those latest revelations should not have been possible. On
"Any individual applying for a NINO"— that is, a national insurance number—
"...who does not have the right to work here legally will be refused one."
They passed regulations that were supposed to enforce that. The guidance notes state clearly that an individual applying for a national insurance number because they are in employment or self-employment must provide a specific document proving that they have the right to work in the United Kingdom. That was nearly two years ago, but we now know that every single one of the illegal immigrants in the security industry who caused such controversy before Christmas had been issued with national insurance numbers. Even when the regulations were passed, the Government strongly implied that the problem was small in scale. They had managed to find only about 3,000 cases in which something was amiss. It is now clear that that was a hopeless underestimate; the figure is much higher.
The hon. Gentleman asked about an outstanding answer to a written question. May I give him the information? The answer has remained outstanding because it has taken time to understand the extent of the national insurance number-related element captured as part of the Security Industry Authority review. As the review is nearing its completion, we now have a better understanding of the issue and we will be making the necessary checks against the SIA data. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question; we wanted to give an accurate one.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. However, given that the Security Industry Authority said yesterday that every single one of those people had national insurance numbers, I am at a loss to see what review needed to take place, as all those people were affected.
The original figure cited by the Government 18 months ago referred to 3,000 cases, but that is a hopeless underestimate of the level of the problem. Over the past three years, the Government have issued work permits to 270,000 people from outside the European economic area.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely impressive case. Is he aware that the Department that is to reply to this debate estimated in May 2004 that there would probably be 15,000 workers from the EU accession countries working in this country, yet in fact the figure is nearly 700,000? Is it not deplorable that a Government Department got its figures so catastrophically wrong?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, which amplify the point that the Department is in a state of chaos as regards dealing with the whole system of migrant workers coming to the UK to work.
That is highlighted by the comparison between the number of work permits issued and the number of national insurance numbers issued. Over the past three years, 270,000 people from outside the European economic area have been given work permits by this Government—
I will in a moment; let me just repeat this figure to the hon. Gentleman, because he may be particularly struck by it. The Government have issued 270,000 work permits to people from outside the EEA, but at the same time they have issued nearly 900,000 national insurance numbers—that is a difference of more than 600,000. Before I give my thoughts on what the meaning of that may be, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to give us his.
I am one of the many Members who wished to come here today to draw attention to the Government's very creditable record on dealing with pensioners. Is it not clear from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that he is denying us that opportunity in order to pursue a nasty, vindictive witch hunt against the Minister?
I look forward to debating pensioner poverty with the hon. Gentleman at the earliest opportunity, as we have every intention of holding that debate. However, I think he will agree that these issues have a direct correlation with levels of worklessness and child poverty, and when we, as the House of Commons, discover that the Government are failing as they now clearly are, it is right and proper that we should bring Ministers to this House to hold them to account as quickly as we possibly can.
My hon. Friend may share my concern that the Government's sheer incompetence in their handling of immigration means that in housing, for instance, we have a situation whereby the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr. Wright, wrote to tell me:
"Information is not available centrally on the local impact of migration on household growth."—[ Hansard, 25 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 516W.]
He informed me, however, that one third of projected new housing would be allocated for new immigration. Is that not a disastrous situation that leads to further problems of community cohesion and delivery of public services?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The reason for holding this debate is that the fact that the system is out of control has direct, human consequences as regards levels of deprivation and the serious challenges faced by many British families in many communities around the country.
Surely this shows the Government's complete incompetence in trying to pursue their stated policy objective of British jobs for British workers. If they do not even know how many people are coming here from outside the EU and how they will control their access to work, that makes it impossible for them to pursue one of the central aims that the Prime Minister has repeated in this House on many occasions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will set out in more detail why this completely undermines many aspects of the Government's current strategy.
Let me return to the gap of 600,000 between the number of work permits issued and the number of national insurance numbers issued—
Could the hon. Gentleman give the House his precise understanding of the difference between a work permit and a national insurance number?
The Government explained that at the time of the publication of their regulations. If we are to believe them, given that it is clearly not the case, a national insurance number can be obtained only by someone who has the right to work in the UK. Is the Secretary of State saying that that is no longer correct? The Government told us that that was their policy, although it is clearly not what is happening on the ground. My understanding of the difference, and I think the understanding of any employer, is that if somebody turns up for employment with a national insurance number, that is taken as a stamp of approval from the Government—the right to work in the United Kingdom. If the Secretary of State wants to tell us otherwise, I should like to hear from him.
I warn the hon. Gentleman gently, and in a friendly way, that he is digging himself into an even deeper hole. I asked him about his understanding of the difference between a work permit and a national insurance number, because he seems to think that they are the same thing.
I have never said that they are the same thing, but the Government's statements show that they regard the issuing of a national insurance number as linked directly to the right to work in the United Kingdom. They have clearly not managed the system properly given that, as we know as a matter of record from yesterday's revelations, national insurance numbers are being handed out to a large number of people who do not have a right to work in the UK. That is the point. Nearly 1 million people have received national insurance numbers: the question is how many of them really have a right to be working in the UK. We know that some of them do—for example, overseas students or dependants of people who have permits to work here.
Lest Members should have any doubts about this issue, let me give a couple of examples of why I sincerely believe that the 600,000 figure masks a significant number of people who should not be here. Over the past three years, the Government have issued 755 work permits to people from Ghana, for example, but over the same period they have issued more than 21,000 national insurance numbers to people from Ghana. Take Albania, with 110 work permits issued and more than 4,000 national insurance numbers issued. Try persuading me that all those numbers were issued under the normal— [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Borders and Immigration asks how many are students. Let me answer that question for him, because I have taken a look at the website of the Higher Education Statistics Agency, whose most recent figures show that a grand total of 235 Albanians are studying in the UK—hardly equivalent to 4,000.
What do we know about the rest of those people? We have sought to do the right thing by probing the Government to find out who they really are. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere asked Ministers whether they could provide us with a breakdown of the gap between the number of work permits that they issue and the number of national insurance numbers that they hand out, their response—surprise, surprise—was that they did not have that information. So how do we take them seriously when they tell us that they know what is going on?
Let me say what I think. I do not believe for a moment that all those national insurance numbers were issued to people who are legitimately in the United Kingdom. I have suspected for a while that the current system is simply out of control—that the Government are handing out national insurance numbers to people who have no right to be here, and that Ministers have told employers that the national insurance number system is something they can rely on when the opposite is the case.
What chance does my hon. Friend think that the average employer has of knowing whether a national insurance number is legitimate, given the sophistication of the scams that illegal immigrants employ to obtain them and the apparent ease with which it is possible to do so? Are they not liable unwittingly to employ somebody who is not entitled to be here?
My hon. Friend is right. If the Government themselves cannot work out who is or is not entitled to a national insurance number, why should we expect the small business down the road to be able to do it?
We now know for certain that this is precisely what is happening, not from the Government, who did not want to answer the questions—we have heard the Secretary of State's explanation, and I will leave hon. Members to reach a view on that—but from the Security Industry Authority, which had no problem in doing so. Yesterday, it confirmed publicly and openly, and Ministers finally accepted grudgingly, that every single one of the 6,000-plus illegal immigrants appointed to security posts had a national insurance number. After two months of not answering questions, in the end the truth had to be dragged out of them. Even as late as yesterday morning, the Department for Work and Pensions was still claiming that it did not know the answer, which, I have to say, stretches credibility. It was another attempt to hide bad news, this time for as long as possible. This comes at a time not just when the leadership of the Department is in a state of chaos but when the Government want more bad news like a hole in the head, and not surprisingly, on a serious issue we cannot get the information from them.
With supreme irony, this revelation comes a week after the Government launched a campaign to warn employers that they face prosecution if they hire someone who does not have a right to work in the UK. The slogans are direct:
"If you hire illegal migrant workers you're as illegal as they are"— an interesting message for the Secretary of State to contemplate. The campaign even points out that offenders can be sent to jail. The Government could not have been more direct about it.
"Illegal working attracts illegal immigrants and undercuts British wages"—
I quote the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who launched the campaign last week. He also said:
"That's why the Government is determined to shut it down. The message is clear for employers—we will not tolerate illegal working."
A week later, it turns out that the Secretary of State's Department is handing out national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. How on earth are businesses and employers supposed to take the system seriously when it is quite clear that the Department has lost control of it? That is what has been so worrying about the revelations from the DWP in the past few months. Almost every month at Question Time, the Secretary of State parrots the Prime Minister's favourite slogan, "British jobs for British workers", even though it was pinched from the BNP, and even though it is illegal under European law. But how does he get British people into British jobs if he has lost control of the system for managing the flow of people into the UK coming from overseas to work?
Let us be clear. The Secretary of State may only have been in his job since last summer, but the buck stops with him, and his grasp of the situation has been sketchy to say the least. In September, when he claimed that only 700,000 of the new jobs created since 1997 had gone to people from overseas, he was obviously wrong. It did not take rocket science to work that one out; one just has to go out for a walk in any of our cities to see the change that has happened. However, when I challenged him over that and told him that I thought he had got the numbers wrong, he was having absolutely none of it. Let me read to the House the letter I had from him. He emphatically stated:
"The net increase in the number of migrant workers is therefore 700,000."
"In future, I am more than happy to provide you with such clarifications in private, to avoid the need to expose such confusion to public scrutiny."
About three weeks after that, he had to make public appearances apologising for getting it wrong, so who is confused now?
Is not the irony of this Government's appalling mismanagement of immigration the fact that the impact is felt most on low-skilled, low-wage people in a small number of communities in this constituency, including my own constituency of Peterborough? They are priced out of jobs by unfettered immigration, which causes enormous resentment and gives succour to the extremist parties on the right. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government are responsible for that. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mrs. McGuire, might think it is an amusing thing to comment on, but it is not. It has ramifications for community relations throughout this country.
My hon. Friend is right because underlying the debate is a real human cost. Getting the system wrong has real consequences for people in communities up and down the country.
If we could all see there was something wrong, why did the Secretary of State not see it? Let me ask him this question. When the security staff story first broke back in December, it was clear that there could be an issue with national insurance numbers. I have a copy of the application form here. It is quite clear, and it says that applicants are required to fill in all their details with a national insurance number. That is why we asked the questions, so why did he not answer? When did he first realise that something was amiss? Why was his Department still claiming that it did not know the answer as late as yesterday morning, when the Security Industry Authority was able to say what it knew? Why did it say that the answer was 100 per cent. when the Department was still trying to find out? Did he actually talk to it to find out what had happened, and what changes has he ordered to the national insurance number system since the matter occurred? Why has no statement been made to the House about what is clearly a problem in the Department?
This is a matter of extreme importance, not for technical reasons related to our immigration system, but because of those nearly 5 million people stranded on out-of-work benefits. Not all of them can or will work again—those who cannot will rightly need the help of the state to support them—but very many of them can and should be working again. It makes no sense to have millions of people coming to work here from overseas, or to be so lax with people coming to Britain illegally, while so many people are sitting at home doing nothing.
I am not sure the Secretary of State has fully grasped the seriousness of that issue either. When we met at the Dispatch Box last week, I pressed him about the level of child poverty in Britain. The academic evidence is clear-cut. Children brought up in workless households are more likely to fail at school, more likely to be workless themselves and more likely to end up in trouble in later life. Britain today has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other country in Europe, including the poorest new entrants to the EU such as Romania and Latvia. The Secretary of State does not seem to know that, because when I pressed him on the issue he said he thought we were "above the average" in Europe. I suggest that he goes back and looks at the figures again. He should cut through the Government's rhetoric, and take a look at the real picture in Britain today, where child poverty is rising again, where young people cycle on and off the new deal without finding sustainable jobs, and where, in some parts of our community, as many as one in three children are being brought up in workless households.
Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that what is before us is a very narrow motion, which he created. Therefore, he must keep to the terms of the motion. He is talking about the problems of families in this country, when the motion clearly expresses great concern about national insurance numbers being issued to illegal immigrants. According to his own distinction, the debate is very narrow indeed.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, but the whole point is that this is the human cost of what the Government are doing. The more national insurance numbers we issue to people who are in this country not by right, the more we cause a knock-on problem for people in communities around the country who suffer from deprivation. Those people are looking for work and those jobs are not always there. There are many people in this country who we need to get back into work, and if the Government are sanctioning, through the inefficiency of the way they operate, a flow of people into this country who should not be here by giving national insurance numbers to them, they are effectively giving a stamp of authority to employers, saying, "Actually, it is okay to hire this guy because the Government's ticked his box. It must be okay for him to be here." That takes opportunities away from people in this country, and it has a huge human cost as a knock-on effect.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly in order to say that, but not in depth. He can touch on that point, but not in the detail he was going into previously.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The fact is that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department that is focused on dealing with those issues, while at the same time it is giving national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. That is not a record of which any Secretary of State of any Government should be proud.
The truth is that the Government's record in managing the flow of people coming to work in Britain is lamentable. They do not know how many people are here. They do not know who is working. They do not know whether or not people have a right to work here, and they seem to be handing out national insurance numbers without question. Yet the Department overseeing all of this is run by a Secretary of State who, by his own admission, cannot add up. He said that he could not manage his own finances because of the pressures of work, but he still thought it was okay to take on the Labour deputy leader's job. He had lost control of the numbers not just in his campaign, but in his Department and all while he was trying to run not one, but two Departments of State. It all appears to be getting a bit much for him.
We know that the system he is overseeing is in a state of chaos. We know that handing national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants will undermine efforts to tackle deprivation and get people back into work. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why he believes that he is still the right man to do the job?
I beg to move, To leave out from 'House' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"welcomes the new checks and controls the Government has introduced to reduce illegal working by foreign nationals, which include measures to prevent illegal immigrants being issued with national insurance numbers."
I am very pleased indeed to be responding in this Opposition debate, and I am even more pleased having heard the speech of Chris Grayling. Up to five minutes to 4 yesterday, the Opposition wanted to debate pensioner poverty today. Now they do not, and I can understand why. They treated pensioners appallingly when they were in power and now they have nothing to say to them. For our part, we will continue to work, speak and act for justice for pensioners.
I welcome this debate, not least because it gives me the opportunity to explain to the hon. Gentleman—and he clearly needs a proper education on this—what national insurance numbers are for and what they are not for, because he does not appear to understand. In fact, when he reads Hansard tomorrow, or online later today, I think he will be embarrassed by what he has just said. The hon. Gentleman makes accusations about national insurance numbers and compares them with work permits, but they are not the same. Total national insurance numbers issued to non-EU nationals and the number of work permits issued cannot be compared, which he tries to do.
National insurance numbers cover categories of people who are not required to have work permits but are eligible for national insurance numbers, such as overseas students, whom we welcome into our universities and who bring the fees that help to finance those universities, and the dependants of work permit holders—relatives who are given permission to come to the UK to join a family who already live here legally. There will always be more national insurance numbers than population, as, for example, national insurance numbers for deceased persons remain on the system to ensure that their surviving dependants can get benefits based on the deceased's national insurance contributions, including the widow's pension. That would also have been the case before 1997, when our Government came to power.
Let me explain the facts that the hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand.
European Union workers are entitled to count on national insurance contributions paid here for their pension in their country so their national insurance numbers and contribution records have to remain on UK systems after they have come and gone. That is part of the reason for the figures for national insurance numbers being greater than the hon. Gentleman might suppose.
I was making a point about national insurance numbers that were issued in the past three years. I assume that the Secretary of State has not been issuing national insurance numbers to dead people.
I think the hon. Gentleman will be even more embarrassed about those comments. Of course we do not do that. The national insurance numbers of people who die remain on the system so that their dependants, including widows, can claim the benefits that flow from their contributions.
As Secretary of State for work, will the right hon. Gentleman explain whether it is in order under employment law for a boss to call a member of his work force "incompetent"? How does it feel?
That question does not merit an answer.
Under Labour today, a national insurance number can never be proof of anyone's right to work, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell appears to believe and as he implied this afternoon. The previous Conservative Government believed that it should be and legislated to that effect. That is a crucial point. The Tories thought that a national insurance number should be a passport to work and legislated to that effect. I repeat that, under Labour today, the national insurance number on its own cannot be an automatic passport to a job. It is an administrative mechanism whereby we can track people's contributions to the national insurance system and record their entitlement to pensions and other benefits.
Of course, when the Conservatives were in power, illegal immigration and working were not the global phenomena they are now. That was not because they had well thought out policies to keep them under control. The main reason was that, under their stewardship, the economy was going to hell in a handcart. No one, especially not the 3 million unemployed, associated Britain with work.
I am listening to the Secretary of State with interest. It is clear from the quality of his speech that it was written by one of his phoney think tanks; we are not sure whether it exists or whether it is a hologram.
The motion deals with immigration. If the Government are worried about immigration, why, two years ago, did they specifically opt out of sharing criminal records data with European Union countries? There are many cases throughout the country of national insurance numbers being given to people who have a criminal record in other EU countries. The Government do not seem to know about that and, what is more, do not seem to care.
Again, I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman's comments have to do with the debate, but I am happy to answer his question. We are putting together systems and procedures to share information with Interpol and I shall tackle directly the subject of illegal immigration, its flow into illegal work and the question of national insurance. I give way.
I keep saying that I am a lot prettier than my hon. Friend.
If someone approaches an employer saying that they are a British citizen, that they have no proof of it but they have a national insurance number, how is that employer to be sure that the person has a right to work in the UK?
Employers must make the requisite checks. I shall deal with the matter shortly because it is another false premise on which the Opposition motion has been framed.
Unemployment was dire under the Conservatives, but it is no longer the case. This morning's figures again show that employment is at an all-time high, with nearly 3 million more people in work. Inactivity is historically low and a million people are off benefits. That is our Labour Government's record. It is a record of genuine achievement and competence, not Tory abject failure and incompetence.
As I have been explaining, employment has gone up, including for British citizens. Wages have risen and prosperity has increased. There are more house owners and the economic picture is completely different from the one that we inherited from the Conservatives.
The amendment announces measures to prevent illegal immigrants from being issued with national insurance numbers—a clear admission that it has been happening. [Interruption.] Does the Secretary of State believe that he is introducing the measures unnecessarily? Their introduction implies that illegal immigrants have been issued with national insurance numbers. What additional measures will he introduce to retrieve or withdraw the national insurance numbers that have been issued to people who are not entitled to them?
I am sorry to say to the hon. Lady that the level of ignorance and misunderstanding among Conservative Members on the matter is astonishing. Given that they chose to switch at the last moment from another topic to this one, I am amazed that they have not checked their facts. I shall describe shortly exactly what happens. I shall also describe the way in which, under the Government whom the hon. Lady supported and who were in power until 1997, the relevant procedures were inadequate and incompetent and could not nearly have dealt with the problems that we have faced with the global flows of millions of people on a scale never previously experienced in advanced European countries such as ours.
The Secretary of State accuses us of not checking our figures. However, his Department's figures show that both the proportion and the absolute number of British adults of working age in employment have fallen in the past two years.
It is important to note when considering proportion that the population has been increased— [Interruption.] The facts are stark: 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives, but record employment under Labour, including record numbers of British citizens.
I agree with Conservative Members that illegal working is an issue and I shall explain what we are doing about it. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell should know that the Conservative Government in 1996 established a clear and unequivocal statutory duty on employers to check that new employees had the right to work. However, it is worth pausing and considering the key issue that, in doing so, they said that the possession of a national insurance number was sufficient proof of a right to work. The Tories said so and legislated to that effect. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that that was a stupid thing for the Tories to do—it was both administratively impractical and left the door wide open to abuse. Yet as we all know, despite the requirements on employers, illegal working has remained a problem. Employers cannot abrogate their responsibilities for that, which is a point to which I shall return later in my speech.
I want to make some progress, because I have been asked specific questions about changes and I want to answer them. Then I will give way.
The situation has evolved over the years. It became apparent to us that some employers, either wilfully or inadvertently, were employing illegal workers, in part because those people had been issued with national insurance numbers. Some of those NINOs will have been issued to students who then overstayed, for example. In other cases, employers will have created their own reference numbers, to record tax and national insurance deductions, which are not recognised by either the Department for Work and Pensions or Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
We have therefore taken action, and I have been asked what we have done. In 2004, we changed the legislation inherited from the Conservatives to provide that a national insurance number alone is not enough to prove an entitlement to work, as it had been under the Conservatives. Since July 2006, all employment-related national insurance number applicants have to prove that they have the right to work in the United Kingdom, which is something that no previous Government—and certainly not the previous Tory Government—ever required. That has made a real impact.
Since July 2006, more than 8,000 national insurance number applications have been turned down because they did not satisfy the right to work. Before someone can be given a national insurance number, they have to undergo an intensive face-to-face interview by a specialist member of Jobcentre Plus staff—I was asked about that by, I think, Angela Watkinson, although it may have been one of her colleagues. Did that system exist when the Conservative party was in power? We all know the answer to that: no.
The fact that we have tightened up the national insurance number system does not mean, however, that we have changed the fundamental responsibility of employers to check that their employees have the right to work. It is positively irresponsible for the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to go on the airwaves and try to mislead employers and the public into thinking that national insurance numbers prove the right to work. That positively encourages rogue or ignorant employers to flout the law. What the Opposition are saying demonstrates not only that they do not understand the first thing about the system, but that they are far more interested in making political points than in doing anything about illegal working.
The fact that some employers continue to ignore the law is the reason we are tightening up enforcement still further, by introducing increased fines from next month and, in extreme circumstances, prison for rogue employers, and why we are telling employers what their responsibilities are, through a major public awareness campaign. Will the hon. Gentleman put his and his party's weight behind those proposals? I give him the opportunity to answer that question.
We would be delighted to see any proposals that tightened up the system. The point that the Secretary of State appears to be missing, however, is that Ministers told the House in 2006:
"Any individual applying for a NINO in connection with employment who does not have the right to work here legally will be refused one."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 5 June 2006; Vol. 682, c. WS68.]
That is clearly not happening. Why not?
But it is happening. The hon. Gentleman is sticking to his pre-rehearsed script. He came to the House brandishing a speech that he thought would demolish everything before him, but it is based on a total misunderstanding of the facts and the realities.
The hon. Gentleman asked about this, so let me remind the House what the Opposition's position was when the Security Industry Authority was established. Also, the motion that we are debating was inspired by problems that the SIA has been seeking to address and which are being addressed by the Home Secretary—
I need to answer this point, and then I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
"The Opposition's approach to the Bill is that it should not place unnecessary, overly complex, bureaucratic or burdensome regulations on the legitimate sector of the industry...A large company can afford to employ people in compliance and administrative departments to ensure that regulations are satisfied. However, for people legitimately trying to run a small company...extra bureaucratic regulation is a huge problem."—[ Hansard, 28 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 980.]
The Conservatives will certainly get the gangmasters' vote with that attitude. Here they are, complaining about a lack of due attention and proper regulation, but when we were putting the necessary legislative changes in place, they spoke out against the tight controls that we introduced.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. If the Security Industry Authority and the Home Office, which has been found to be employing illegal cleaners, cannot determine who can and cannot legitimately work in this country, how on earth does he expect a small shopkeeper, a restaurant keeper or a small business man to do so?
That is exactly why we need compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals, but the hon. Gentleman is opposed to that policy. As I will explain in a moment—clearly he does not understand the situation either—compulsory identity cards will be a crucial weapon in stamping out the illegal working that, in supporting his party's motion, he professes to be concerned about.
I want to return to the Secretary of State's reference to gangmasters. The Government introduced the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, yet there has been absolutely no diminution in the number of unlawfully operating gangmasters, who completely exploit usually illegal immigrants, who are housed disgracefully and paid a fraction of what they should be paid. That is because the Government have completely failed to provide the Gangmasters Licensing Authority with the powers and the resources to do the job that everybody in the House believes it should be doing.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way a second time. He is talking about the importance of employers making the necessary checks. However, if an employer is faced with a legitimate British citizen who does not have a passport, how is that British citizen supposed to prove that he or she has a right to work in this country, and how does that affect the Secretary of State's point about national insurance numbers not necessarily being a guarantee of a right to work?
There are all sorts of documents, including a passport, that employers will be able to inspect. Employers are advised by the Home Office on the correct documentary evidence that can establish the right-to-work status. A British national starting work can establish his or her right to work through a UK passport or a UK birth certificate. The Home Office guidance to employers is to be amended from
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way—he is being most generous. He said that employers still have a duty in law to check their employees' right to work. What would he expect prosecuting authorities to do in the event of an employer claiming that he was just too busy to make those checks?
I need to make some progress and then I will give way. The level of ignorance on the Opposition's far Back Benches, let alone on their Front Bench, is enormous. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, they are back to front.
Ensuring that someone whom one employs has a right to be in this country and has a right to work is not, in my view, asking too much. Neither is it "burdensome" or "unnecessary", as the Conservative party said it was when commenting on the legislation.
To help to deal with illegal workers in future, we will further tighten the system by introducing identity cards for foreign nationals from the end of this year. I can confirm that, as the ID card system for foreign nationals comes in, anyone who applies for a national insurance number must produce their identity card, so we are introducing an extra clamp-down on illegal working. Will the Conservatives support this absolutely vital tool for achieving that objective?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he will tell us whether he will support compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He will know that confidence in a Government, of whatever political colour, is very important indeed. In that regard, will he give the House a guarantee that there are no illegal workers at the Wales Office or the Department for Work and Pensions, so that people listening to the debate, or reading about it tomorrow, can have confidence in his Government?
We have extremely strict procedures in the DWP on these matters. Many Conservatives are intervening on me, and I am happy to take all their interventions, but it is interesting that they are asking me questions on virtually anything except the issue that they have put down on the Order Paper. That is because they are embarrassed now that they have realised that it was based on an entirely false premise. When I—
I am happy to take all and sundry— [ Interruption. ] Most of it is sundry. I am more than happy to take interventions, however.
What is really embarrassing for the Conservatives about this debate is not just that they do not understand the issues, or the fact that the proposition on which they have sought to censure the Government is based on an entirely false premise, but that they will not support the proposals for the single weapon that would stem this problem at the outset—the introduction of compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals. That would enable regulations to be introduced that would be of enormous benefit to employers and everyone else.
The Secretary of State seems to be blaming everyone else for this incompetence. He is blaming the Conservative Opposition and hard-pressed business people. May I take him back to the process of issuing national insurance numbers? His chief economist gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee two years ago, stating that Jobcentre Plus staff routinely issued national insurance numbers to all comers and that
"it is not about ascertaining whether someone is legally in the country or has a right to work".
Is that still the case?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has just traipsed into the House a little late, but he obviously has not heard what has been said. As this is an issue, however, perhaps I can explain the situation to him. The question that he has just asked is based on woeful ignorance. It is worth putting on the record the process for the allocation of national insurance numbers.
To apply for a national insurance number, the applicant will need first to telephone the Jobcentre Plus national insurance allocation service helpline. When initial contact has been made, Jobcentre Plus will ensure that the applicant needs a national insurance number and does not already have one. After confirming that one is needed, a face-to-face interview will be arranged to establish evidence of identity. The customer will then receive a letter confirming their interview date and the types of documentation needed to support their application. The interviewing staff will complete a claim form and establish the applicant's identity by asking a series of questions relating to personal information.
The interviewing officer will also establish that the applicant has the right to work in the UK by checking such evidence as Home Office documentation or a valid passport endorsed with the applicant's entry conditions. Any documents provided by the customer will be thoroughly checked using specialist document-checking equipment, and the completed application form and supporting documentation will be sent to the central control unit, where further checks are undertaken. The central control unit will conduct specialist tracing action to ensure that a national insurance number does not already exist, to check that the information supplied by the customer at the interview is correct, and to decide whether to allocate a national insurance number to the customer. Following the allocation of a number, documentation will be passed to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to register the number.
The checks that we make are extremely scrupulous and careful. It was absolutely necessary to introduce those extra checks and to change the law inherited from the Conservatives—the party that is seeking to attack us—to combat the abuses that would otherwise still be taking place. Yet the Conservatives will not support one of the single most important changes that we want to introduce—compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals. They will not give us the tool to do that.
Our staff are checking and working with the Home Office to establish precisely why that happened, and whether it was because employers were employing illegal workers or for some other reason that has not been identified. We are keeping oversight of the matter at ministerial level, and the Home Secretary has made it clear that she has agreed to report to the House when we are certain what happened.
The Secretary of State keeps referring to the fact that the Opposition have misunderstood the situation. May I take him back to a very short statement—namely, the motion that we are debating today? It states that
"this House expresses its very great concern that National Insurance numbers appear to have been issued to illegal immigrants."
It says nothing about work or employment; this is simply a question of whether NINOs have been issued to illegal immigrants. Have the Government given NINOs to illegal immigrants in the two and a half years since the last general election—yes or no?
It is interesting that that is not what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has been asking. It is not the burden of the Conservative Front Bench's argument. For the benefit of Mr. Paice and for the whole House, perhaps I should explain the safeguards that are in place to ensure that a person has the right to reside and work in this country when they make an application for a national insurance number. I have already explained the procedure.
When an appointment is booked at the nearest national insurance number hub, a customer is advised of the supporting documentation required to make an application. It is made clear that that includes a passport, a birth certificate, a registration certificate, Home Office documents, work permits and identity cards. After all the initial checks are made, the process is followed through in the way that I have described.
I need to finish this point, then I will of course give way.
I have just explained that the most stringent safeguards are in place, and they have been steadily tightened up as the global phenomenon of illegal immigration has increased right across Europe and elsewhere across the industrially advanced, prosperous world. We have tightened them up bit by bit, yet some of the measures that we have introduced have been opposed or criticised by the Conservatives.
I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in allowing interventions. By his own admission, either by omission or commission he has not been straight with the Labour party's national executive. Perhaps today he will be straight with the House. Why does he think that it was not the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats but the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, who was prompted to say today:
"There needs to be immediate action taken to stop the issuing of National Insurance numbers to those who are here illegally. It is not acceptable—especially as this was first seen to be a problem way back in 2006"?
The Government have had two years to take this issue on board and deal with it properly, but they have clearly failed to do so.
The hon. Gentleman has stumbled into the Chamber this afternoon clutching a rehearsed question, but I have already given the answer and I will explain other aspects in a few moments.
I was talking about compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals and it is worth noting that foreign nationals, the subject of today's debate, feature in the Conservative motion. Yet if Conservative Members had the power to impose compulsory ID cards on foreign nationals, they would not do so because they are fanatically opposed to ID cards in any shape or form. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister twice asked Mr. Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, whether he and his party would support the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals—and he twice refused to agree to that. If the Opposition were serious about protecting Britain's borders and about the problem of illegal working, they would support ID cards, especially compulsory ones for foreign nationals. ID cards are supported by Sir John Stevens, the chairman of the Conservative leader's working group on border police, and by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, chair of the Conservative leader's national and international security policy commission. I gladly give the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell the opportunity to say yes or no, right now, to compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals. I gladly give way to him on that point— [Interruption.] I note that he will not rise to say yes or no. I have been happy to take his interventions throughout the debate, but he will not get up to say yes or no to compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals.
Why should the Opposition give yes or no answers to the Secretary of State when he will not give yes or no answers to my hon. Friends about the issue outlined in the motion? Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question whether his Government have issued national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants over the last two and a half years? Yes or no?
I have just explained to the hon. Gentleman that we have put in place the most stringent checks. If we find that a national insurance number has been issued to illegal workers, presumably through deception, we will see whether any further checks and measures are necessary, particularly in the security industry cases. In that case, we hope that, unlike in respect of ID cards for foreign nationals, the hon. Gentleman will support us.
Not for a moment.
It is no good the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell fulminating about illegal working when he wants to deprive Britain of an essential weapon—compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals—to defeat it.
Lest we forget, I shall detail some of the other measures that the Opposition have felt unable to support on this matter: fines for hauliers who attempt to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country to work illegally; limits to benefits for asylum seekers; measures to refuse asylum to convicted criminals sentenced to two years' imprisonment—so much for the high and mighty condemnations of the Government that we have heard this afternoon.
We are now in the middle of the biggest ever shake-up of Britain's border security, intended to tackle these problems: we are introducing a single border force to guard our ports and airports with police-like powers for front-line staff; we are checking fingerprints before we issue a visa for anywhere in the world; we are counting foreign nationals in and out of the country; and we are introducing compulsory watch-list checks for all travellers before they land in Britain and, for high-risk countries, before planes take off. We are also introducing a new points system like that in Australia so that business can bring in legal migrants to work here legally as we need them.
Conservative Members express "very great concern" on the issue of illegal immigration. They are concerned if they think they can get a vote or two out of it, but not concerned enough to do anything about it or to back those such as the Government who will. As has been shown graphically this afternoon, this is a contrived debate. What Channel 4 news ran last night, the Opposition re-heat today, which is a fine example of what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell does best—putting a crust on a soufflé.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State in such an important debate. It is rather disappointing, as Paul Flynn noted earlier, that we do not have an opportunity to discuss pensioner poverty today—a hugely important issue on which so many hon. Members have much to say. I hope that the hon. Gentleman lives up to his commitment to find another opportunity to debate that important subject— [Interruption.] Today's subject is none the less important, but the exchanges so far have generated more heat than light, so I shall do my best to shed a little light on the issue.
I appreciate that this may be a difficult day on which the Secretary of State has to respond to the Opposition motion, given that yesterday, in another context, the Prime Minister used the word "incompetence" to describe him. At the outset, the Prime Minister certainly made it clear that he intended to have a Government of all the talents; we did not expect that incompetence would be among them. Today's debate is certainly about incompetence, particularly historical incompetence, and the question remains whether such incompetence continues today. No one can doubt the extent of the serious problems that arose in the past, so we need to focus on the extent to which the Government's changes are delivering a more watertight system. Or is it the case that the revelations on Channel 4 News last night about security workers suggest that more needs to be done to surmount the problems highlighted?
National insurance numbers are important because they have a number of uses, which the Secretary of State has enumerated in detail. They relate to work and are also important as part of the process of claiming benefits—an issue that I am surprised to note has not cropped up in the debate so far. The relationship between a national insurance number and a benefit claim needs to be addressed if we are to deal seriously with all the questions surrounding national insurance numbers.
We have heard regular and repeated assurances—we heard them again today from the Secretary of State—that the problems identified with the national insurance number allocation process are being dealt with and that new processes are being introduced. I have seen information on a Department for Work and Pensions website, setting out precisely how the Government intend to apply the rules to ensure that all the relevant checks are made. As reported on Channel 4 News last night, however, 6,653 workers in the security industry, who were not allowed to work here as they were in the country illegally, none the less had national insurance numbers. The Secretary of State said that processes were now in place to ensure that workers who are here illegally cannot apply for or receive national insurance numbers. What checks have been made to find out what proportion of those in the security industry gained their national insurance numbers before July 2006, when the new system was brought in, and what proportion received them after that date? That answer is key to establishing whether the system has changed in reality.
In respect of this inquiry, it is important to put on record—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do so—that the Home Secretary advised the House on the basis of further checks that around 70 per cent. had the right to work in the UK. The Security Industry Authority has written to the vast majority of the remainder—more than 10,500 individuals—to advise them that it is minded to revoke their licences. Applicants were given until
I should add that, according to initial indications, many SIA applicants have quoted non-valid national insurance numbers. Those will not have been allocated by the DWP, and as such will not be recorded on DWP systems. Some of the numbers quoted may well be fictitious. For that reason too, I think that the premise on which the motion is based is entirely false.
The Secretary of State makes the important point that there is a range of possible ways in which national insurance numbers have been come by. They may have been invented or fictitious, but equally—and I note that the Secretary of State does not exclude this possibility—they may have been legitimately obtained by means of procedures that the Government have introduced. Given that, as the Secretary of State said, there are people who are here illegally—although I accept that, as he said, many are here legally—if those people had national insurance numbers that were obtained legitimately after July 2006 there is clearly a further problem in the system that needs to be addressed, and it is incumbent on the Secretary of State and his Department to make absolutely certain that that is done. In my opinion, that point could reasonably be made by Members in all parts of the House.
The Secretary of State defended the system staunchly in his speech, and seemed to imply that the problems were no longer occurring. I think it important for the Department to conduct a proper investigation, based on the information that we now have about those workers in the security industry, to establish that that is indeed the case. I hope that the Secretary of State, or the Minister who replies to the debate, can assure us that such an investigation will be forthcoming. The Secretary of State said that some 8,000 applications had already been rejected on the grounds that the applicants were here illegally, and it is clear that some are indeed being rejected, but if—despite whatever changes have been proposed and made—the system for the allocation of national insurance numbers is still allowing numbers to be allocated to those who are here illegally, that needs to be investigated and further changes made if necessary. The Secretary of State does not appear to demur from that, but I will give way to him if he wishes.
The hon. Gentleman is making his points in a reasoned way. He is keeping me accountable to the House, which is his job, and I respect him for that. However, I have explained the way in which we have tightened up the system. If anything that comes to light as a result of the latest episode suggests that we should introduce further checks, we will introduce them. The hon. Gentleman may wish to write to me suggesting possible measures.
It is interesting to note that Chris Grayling has no idea what he would do. He has made no suggestions so far. We inherited a mess from the Conservative party, and if the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions of his own, I will of course consider them.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for what he has said. I will make one specific suggestion now. I think that the Department needs to find out as soon as possible when the national insurance numbers in the 6,653 cases that have been highlighted were allocated, and tell the House what proportions received their numbers before and after July 2006. I realise that the task might be labour or IT-intensive, but it is important to shed light on whether the existing checks work or not. I hope that the Minister will feel able to commit the Government to doing that.
Clearly, national insurance numbers have been issued in the past to people who were not entitled to receive them because of their immigration status—in other words, because they were not entitled to be in the United Kingdom. I confess that I do not know what this would involve, but what steps is the Department taking to ensure that those numbers are revoked and removed from the system and people cannot continue to use them in a way that, while not in itself sufficient to gain them employment, is nevertheless part of the process of gaining employment and might, in some cases, lull employers into a false confidence that those with whom they were dealing had a legitimate right to work or indeed to claim benefit, a subject to which I shall return shortly?
This is, of course, not a new problem. In 2005, serious concerns were raised with Her Majesty's Treasury about people claiming tax credits who, although not in the country legitimately, had national insurance numbers. It seems that in 2000 it was decided, perhaps by officials, that it was too costly to check immigration status before issuing national insurance numbers. In the light of the latest events, the basis and purpose of that decision must be questioned.
We must ask what are the implications of these events. As was pointed out by Chris Grayling, they are linked to the problem of the number of foreign workers in the United Kingdom, and the ability to count people in and out. The Secretary of State announced back in November that the figures had been miscalculated, and that there were 1.1 million foreign workers in the UK rather than 700,000. The aspect of benefit fraud is also important. According to the DWP's website,
"A National Insurance (NI) number is a personal number used: to record a person's NI contributions and credited contributions" and
"because it is needed when claiming social security benefits".
As was shown by a report published just before Christmas, nearly £2 billion is still being lost through fraud and error in the benefits system. That is a staggering figure with which I do not think anyone in the House can be satisfied. The most recent report showed that the amount of benefit being lost through both fraud and error had risen. While it is fair to say that in earlier years there was a steady decline in fraud, that seems to have stopped, and the amount of error is increasing. Given that national insurance numbers are necessary for the claiming of benefit—
They are necessary for the claiming of benefit. I ask the Secretary of State and his colleagues also to investigate whether benefits have been claimed by people who were not entitled to them by reason of their immigration status, but who had national insurance numbers that had been inappropriately obtained. While the position should be viewed in a rational manner, it is important to investigate all the possible outcomes. There seems to be no doubt that at some stage, at least, people have been allocated national insurance numbers when they were not entitled to them.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House. Certainly national insurance numbers are necessary to the claiming of benefits, but they are not sufficient. A range of other checks, hurdles and barriers must be negotiated before entitlement is established. It is wrong to suggest that the two are synonymous.
I did not suggest that they were, as I think the record will make clear. Nevertheless, possession of a national insurance number is an essential starting point for a benefit claim. If the number has been obtained through the proper procedure, even if the person concerned is not entitled to it, that will allow the person to enter the process of claiming, although other information would have to be provided—in this instance, fraudulently—for the claim to be made. If, however, there is still a loophole, a problem, a mistake or incompetence in the system for the allocation of national insurance numbers, there are potential implications for the benefits system that need to be examined. I make no stronger claim than that, and I trust that the hon. Gentleman does not disagree with it.
I could not agree with the tone of some of what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said about the nature of the problem of foreign workers. He was, of course, right to stress the need to ensure that the maximum number of British claimants of incapacity benefit, for instance, are given the skills and support that will enable them to return to work. That is a critical factor. It is also true that there must be strict rules governing which people from other countries are and are not entitled to work in this country. It would be wrong, however, for the tone of the debate to give the impression that the large number of workers in the United Kingdom who are from foreign countries, whether inside or outside the European Union, are not making a valuable and in some cases an essential contribution to our economy, our public services and so on.
In my constituency, a large number of citizens from other European countries—I have discussed this with the Minister for Borders and Immigration—are making an essential contribution to the economy of the highlands and islands. That is not to say that people should be entitled to work if they are here illegally, but we need to conduct these debates in measured tones and to make it clear that those people are welcome in this country and are doing essential work. Of course, the pattern of migration will change over time, and it is critical that we ensure that as many people as possible get off benefit and into work. My point is perhaps more about tone than anything else.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might amplify that point. It is not merely that Inverness is booming and that excellent work is being done in Aviemore by a large number of mainly youngsters from eastern and central Europe. In the past three years, the populations of Dundee and Glasgow have risen after decades of decline, and the population of Scotland has increased, when it was forecast to decline over the long term. By and large, the general experience, both for those coming in and the people already living there, has been a happy one.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That is one of the reasons why both the previous Scottish Executive and the current Scottish Government continue to encourage inward migration to Scotland. Certain essential jobs would not be done were it not for foreign nationals. It is important, therefore, that we do not conflate the two categories of people: those who are here legally and those who are here illegally.
The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, that the tone needs to be appropriate and that we have to be clear in saying that many of the people who come to work here have every right to do so and have made a positive contribution. Undoubtedly there will be others who will do so in future. Does he agree, however, that we need proper and clear controls on the number of people we allow to come here, and that the challenge is exemplified by the city of Glasgow, where people have been coming in to work, but at the same time a substantial proportion of the adult population is not currently in work? That demonstrates the challenge that we face in ensuring that more people who are on benefits in this country have the opportunity to get back into work. Controls on the number of people working here are a part, but only a part, of the challenge that we face in trying to ensure that that happens.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I do not agree—but perhaps he was not making this point—that the two equate. We must work to get people off benefit and into work. He mentioned Glasgow and we could mention many other parts of the country, including my constituency. There are very good reasons to work extremely hard to address the issue. I have a lot of criticisms of the Government's approach to that matter, but they would probably be outwith the scope of the debate. Work is important not just for economic reasons but for reasons of the dignity and self-worth of the individuals themselves and the wider non-financial benefits of working. However, it is not a zero-sum gain. I am not saying that we need to get those on benefit into work, so that we can have fewer foreign workers; I think that we need both.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting point, which is that, away from the heat and light of this debate, there is quite a broad consensus on some of the consequences of the impact of unfettered immigration. Indeed, the Secretary of State's colleagues, Jon Cruddas and Mr. Field, and organisations such as the Scottish TUC have made the point about the impact of immigration in entrenching welfare dependency and exacerbating community tension. Danny Alexander is right to elucidate the consensus on that issue.
I am grateful for that intervention. Without wishing to venture too far outside the scope of the debate, I recognise some of what the hon. Gentleman said. What I do not recognise—I am thinking of the experience in my own part of the country—is the belief that the reason why many people are on benefit is that foreign workers are taking their jobs. There are lots of reasons why people are on benefit when they should not be, and they should be helped back into work. That is critical, but the two things are separate. For reasons of ensuring that this debate is conducted correctly, that separation needs to be made clear. Perhaps in his constituency, those are not separate considerations, in which case I would equally well accept that point from him.
I intervene because the hon. Gentleman made a valuable point for the House, which is that migration adds a lot to the British economy. I am glad that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell for once agrees on that point. In 2006, it contributed £6 billion to the British economy, accounting for about one sixth of the growth that year, so it is valuable. But it has to be legal.
I think that we have said enough on that point. The Secretary of State is right and the point about how the debate is conducted is important.
It is worth pointing out that problems with the administration of national insurance numbers have also occurred under previous Governments. For example, if it were not for the work of my hon. Friend Steve Webb, we might never have known about the failure of home responsibility protection. Because of problems in administration, no checks were made by the child benefit office to verify national insurance numbers until 1994. Women did not have to supply those details on the forms and it was not until May 2000 that it became compulsory for child benefit customers to do so. If it had not been for the work of my hon. Friend in highlighting that issue, many women would have been denied significant proportions of their pensions, because of the absence of proper checks on national insurance numbers. Such important matters must be got right, but at various times and at various levels, different Governments have made mistakes in the administration of the national insurance numbering system, and charges of incompetence could equally justifiably be levelled in both cases.
This important issue must be addressed in a balanced manner. Above and beyond the short-term issue of the damage done to the Secretary of State's political credibility by recent revelations—it is very dear to his heart but it is none the less short term—this is a long-term issue that needs to be resolved, whether by him or by whoever follows him, should that eventuality arise. The Government need to do much more to ensure that there is confidence in the system. I have suggested that some investigations at least need to be carried out. For there to be confidence in the system, competence is required, including from the Secretary of State and his ministerial team.
On the question of a competent series of controls, will the hon. Gentleman support compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals to help to deal with the problem?
No. As the Secretary of State will know, my party has supported the introduction of biometric visas for foreign nationals that would be included in passports and could be used in the checking process. When I looked at the DWP's website this morning and at the process for getting a national insurance number, one of the pieces of documentation that needs to be checked is the passport. A passport with a biometric visa included within it should, if that system is working properly—I see that the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who is responsible for these matters, is in his place—provide the means to check those things that the Secretary of State needs to be verified.
The arguments against ID cards are much more wide ranging than the scope of the debate. To have a competent system, we need the appropriate checks to be in place, managed and administered correctly, and the appropriate leadership from the top. We need to be reassured about that during the debate.
I am delighted to take part in the debate. I was staggered, although I should not necessarily have been particularly surprised, by the news that came out of the Channel 4 investigation and was further highlighted today. It seems to me that the Secretary of State is lucky to have two jobs. There are many people out there—illegal immigrants in this country—who seem to have many jobs, so I think that he should consider himself lucky, at least for the time being, while he ties those two down.
We are talking about very large numbers of people here. We are talking about, in the past three years, almost 900,000 national insurance numbers being issued to non-EU nationals, but in the same period only 270,000 work permits have been issued. The big question before us is: what has happened to the other 600,000 people? As the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, some of them will be students, and others will be here entirely legitimately. Nevertheless, that is a huge number of people, and we need to explore who they are. In my experience, however, when this Government do anything that involves both counting people and the administration of migration it always leads to disaster, so having the two together in counting migrants may combine to make a double disaster.
Immigration casework accounts for an enormous amount of my constituency case load. The Home Office, which, as we know, is pretty much incapable of counting anything, publishes each year a league table of the amount of immigration casework that Members of Parliament do, and I am regularly the top Conservative—I am ranked between sixth and eighth overall. All the Members at the top of that table are London MPs. I currently have between 700 and 800 immigration cases outstanding—cases where the person's status has still not been fully clarified or they are waiting to receive a document. That is a huge number of people in a constituency of 81,000. Some London MPs—particularly inner-London MPs—even have dedicated immigration case workers. The answering machine message of one of my neighbouring MPs says: "If you wish to speak to me on anything else then leave a message here, but if you wish to speak to me on immigration then you need to speak to the specific case worker."
Our country faces a problem. There are many people who are legitimately in this country but who have been left for years waiting to have their status clarified, which cannot be in anybody's interest—either that of Britain as a whole in terms of our national economy, or certainly that of the applicant. On the other hand, there are hundreds of people who should not be here and have been told that they must make preparations to leave. I think of all the letters I have received that say, "Dear Mr. Hands, your constituent should make immediate preparations to leave the country, here is how we might be able to provide assistance and this is what he needs to do". Those letters might date from many months and sometimes years earlier, but nothing has happened as a result. That leaves me with no confidence in this Government's ability to police the people—and the nature of the people—coming in and out of the country.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that at the very time when there is such manifest Government incompetence in dealing with the wide range of people who are here illegally, we are removing to places such as Darfur and Zimbabwe people who should be given a chance to make a life in this country? They are being removed back to persecution and imprisonment, and possibly to death. That is the level of this Government's incompetence.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The disparity between the treatment of different types of migrants to this country is shocking, especially in relation to their country of origin.
Absurd situations can arise. A constituent of mine who is a Bulgarian national was asked only months before Bulgarian accession to produce a set of 25 different documents, including her school records from back in Bulgaria—if only the tests on getting a national insurance number were as thorough. I am unsure what relevance her school records in Bulgaria might have to her immigration status, but that shows that the UK has a perverse inability to get the regulations right.
Hammersmith and Fulham has a long tradition of welcoming migrants. It has an excellent record of harmonious community relations. It is home to a wide variety of cultures and religions; more than 60 languages are spoken by people from literally every continent. We have large communities from Africa, Pakistan and India, and many people from the nations of eastern Europe, notably Poland. I point all that out as background, as I will talk about some of the statistics on the sheer volume of people coming to my constituency and applying for a national insurance number and being given one.
Two points arise from the controversy that we have before us today. The first is a total failure on the part of Government to give accurate figures on the number of people coming in and out of this country—the number of foreign nationals in employment, the number of foreign nationals who are here and legitimately in employment, and so forth. The second point is also important, and it is not just a pure political issue about migration: the knock-on effect on public service provision of failing to account properly for those numbers, particularly in terms of local authorities.
The figures for new national insurance numbers are staggering, even before one considers whether they are legitimate.
I will try to live up to that description. If the Conservative party were in power, what the immigration figures be? What levels would the Conservatives allow? Conservative Members talk about the importance of assessing local service needs and other issues, but what would the limits on immigration be?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is difficult for us to put a number on that. The party says that we will put an annual cap on immigration, but it is difficult to know exactly what will be the economic circumstances at the time. There will be many variables in determining what that number should be, which is right. A lot will depend on the state of the economy come the next Conservative Government, perhaps as early as next year.
My constituency has the fifth highest number of national insurance registrations by overseas nationals as a proportion of the population. As I have said, the figures are staggering. In 2006-07, 9,310 foreign nationals registered for national insurance numbers in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. To put that in perspective, that amounts to 5.2 per cent. of the total population of the borough in just one year. That figure applies only to foreign nationals applying for a national insurance number, and only in a one-year period. If all those national insurance applications are legitimate, it suggests that the work force in Hammersmith and Fulham increased by between 10 and 15 per cent. in just one year. To put that in another perspective, that number—9,310 people—is larger than the number employed by the largest employer in my constituency, which is the BBC. It is also larger than the total number of people working for Hammersmith and Fulham council. Yet still the Government say that 9,310 foreign nationals registered for national insurance numbers.
Surely it is the case—this applies to the settled population as well—that people apply for national insurance numbers for a range of reasons, so such figures are far from restricted to or identical to the number of people who intend to work?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but we cannot get away from the magnitude of those numbers: more than 9,000 is a huge number of people in a small London borough such as Hammersmith and Fulham. That is by no means the worst case; as I said; it is the fifth highest area in the UK for this phenomenon.
There is a huge controversy about properly accounting for population, which this debate exemplifies. Local authorities in particular are either unable to provide services or have difficulty in doing so when they do not know how many people are living in their local authority area. I was interested to note that my council made a good submission to the Treasury Committee on the subject of accounting for population. One of the most popular means of accounting for local population is national insurance number registrations, which is one reason why we need to have absolute confidence in the legitimacy of the national insurance number allocation process.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and compelling argument, and we have worked together on bringing to the attention of Ministers this particularly difficult problem. The methodology that is currently used to allocate block grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government is based on fertility and mortality rates, for example, and it is completely skewed when account is taken of the significant increase of EU migrants in particular into the UK. Let me bring to my hon. Friend's attention the comments of Karen Dunnell, the national statistician, in May 2006, which still stand:
"There is now broad agreement that available estimates of migrant numbers are inadequate for managing the economy, policies and services."
What has changed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he and I have taken part in Westminster Hall debates on this matter. The projection of migration numbers in my constituency is currently based, if I am not mistaken, on a trend from between 2001 and 2003. That is all very well, but if the trend line of migration or type of trend alter fundamentally—as they would have done, for example, following the accession on
"The important role that population data plays for local authorities does not appear to be reflected within the current procedures for producing population estimates. Sample sizes regarding migration levels are remarkably small for such critical information. Local authority funding can go up or down by several million pounds based on a handful of interviews."
Let me just outline how getting one's data wrong can have a big impact. Again, national insurance registration plays an important part. Every council's local development framework is based on its population figures, as are councils' and partners' strategy documents. The statistics are also essential for determining school places. There is controversy in my constituency about surplus places in schools. One of the main arguments being used against any moves to reduce or change the number of schools is an increase in population, yet nobody can be in any way certain or even confident that their data on population increases, such as those brought out by national insurance numbers, can be justified. Not only the sheer numbers involved, but the age groups and also the origin of people coming into a borough, can have a big impact on how a primary care trust and a hospital trust caters for the health of its local population. This is very important stuff. It goes beyond the immediate issue of whether illegal immigrants should be given national insurance numbers to start with, because the results can have a big impact on local authority and other service provision.
The population estimates are so wildly different partly because of national insurance numbers being given out. I shall quote one or two people in support of what I am saying, despite their not being from my party. I am delighted to see that we are joined by one of the hon. Members who represents Sir Robin Wales's borough of Newham, in east London, because he has said:
"Our electoral register has gone up by 23,000 over the past few years yet they're saying"— they being the Government—
"it's gone down...It's ludicrous. We've nothing against migration—it is great for the economy and great for Newham."
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Sir Robin's point was about whether the Office for National Statistics had got its sums wrong, and not about the issue of national insurance numbers?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is right to a certain extent, but one of the sets of statistics cited against the ONS statistical base, sometimes with good reason, is national insurance registrations. The people involved will not necessarily be picked up by the ONS, which has more or less admitted that its population calculation techniques are wrong or at least flawed. One of the alternative sources of such information is national insurance number registrations.
Sir Robin went on to say:
"We would be willing to pay for a census just to rectify these figures. It would cost us a lot of money, but these inaccurate figures are costing us even more."
The ONS estimates that Slough has received 1,100 extra migrants since 2002—those are the official figures—but the local council estimates, partly from national insurance data, that at least 10,000 Polish people alone have arrived to work in the town since 2004. Migration figures released by the ONS in 2007 suggested that approximately 56,000 Poles entered the UK in 2005, but the Department for Work and Pensions issued figures suggesting that more than 170,000 Polish citizens applied for national insurance numbers in the same year.
Such mistakes and inaccuracies in data can have a big impact on the funding and service provision of boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham. As I said, 9,310 foreign nationals were issued with national insurance numbers in the financial year 2006-07, which is 5.2 per cent. of the borough's population, yet the Government perversely say that our population is falling. If they took one look at their own national insurance data, they would ask who all these people are. They say that these people are not living in Hammersmith and Fulham, but they have all succeeded in getting national insurance numbers. Somebody urgently needs to do a study.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge and understand that the fact that someone has had a national insurance number issued to them does not necessarily mean that they will remain in that particular area for ever? Many of those who come to work in the UK from EU countries come for a period and then return to their country of origin. It is thus wrong just to examine national insurance numbers as the basis for population figures, but I agree with the point he has made. That is why, through the migration impacts forum, we are looking much more closely at the impact on local authorities, the communities that they serve and local services of population changes and how static or fluid populations are.
The Minister makes a similar point to that made by Mr. Devine. Of course those are other factors, and there are other reasons why people apply for and are given a national insurance number. I am talking about magnitude. As I said, nobody can be precise or even close on population figures. We can only examine the magnitudes involved. Of course people are coming here and then leaving. I can tell the Minister that Hammersmith and Fulham has a population turnover of between 20 and 25 per cent. per annum, so we are well used to such turnover. The local council tells us that it should be funded to help people who are here for a short time—the fact that people are here for less than one year does not mean that they are not accessing public services.
Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity at the sheer brass neck of the Minister and the complacency shown? We are debating national insurance numbers because they are practically the only way in which we can gauge the level of migration and immigration in this country. Otherwise, we are really talking about a few people with clipboards at airports and ports. No one takes the worker registration scheme seriously; it is completely flawed, as is the accession monitoring report. The Minister mentions the migration impacts forum, but it took the Government three years to establish it. They did so because their own supporters in their own local authorities, diminishing as they are in number, told them that what they were doing was disastrous for community relations.
My hon. Friend is right. He and I have been urging the Government to examine all these problems, as have a number of local authorities, controlled by different parties, from across the country. We still have not got this issue right. I am looking forward to the day when Britain can say with confidence that its population data, both nationally and locally, are accurate.
On the point raised by Mr. Jackson, it is clear this afternoon that Mr. Hands and his colleagues do not support issuing identity cards to foreign nationals and have not supported our plans on biometric visas. Given the previous point made, they clearly do not support the measures that we are taking to count people in and out. I understand that the Conservative party is in favour of a cap. Can the hon. Gentleman say what that cap is?
I was under the impression that interventions, even from Ministers, should somehow relate to the context and content of the speech that is being made, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not believe that I have mentioned anything about identity cards, and they are not on the Order Paper, so I find the whole thing rather peculiar.
I want to continue dealing with the impact that these poor quality data can have on a local authority. As a result of adjustments to estimates of international migration, the population in my borough is estimated at 8,500 people fewer than the previous estimate for 2005—the same year in which the 9,310 foreign nationals registered for national insurance numbers. As a result, there has been a net loss to the borough of a huge amount of money in the calculation of local authority support grants and so on.
The solutions for local authorities must lie in proper and robust population data, including, if not especially, on national insurance registration and on gateway authority funding for local authorities that are facing a big influx of migrants, whether legal or illegal. I want to make a few points on that particular controversy. I think that the Secretary of State was saying that that process is now very stringent when someone applies for a national insurance number, and, if I am not mistaken, he read out a series of hurdles that someone now has to jump over to get their number. I can only assume that the system has changed radically since his chief economist gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 2005, when he said that applicants are essentially issued with a national insurance number and that it was not about ascertaining whether someone is legally in the country or has the right to work, because they are given one anyway.
Some 300,000 national insurance numbers are issued to foreign nationals annually. I was interested in a parliamentary answer given to my hon. Friend Grant Shapps. He asked how many fraudulent applications for national insurance numbers there had been in each of the past four years. The Minister responding said that the number of applications that had been refused in the previous year because there was a doubt about the identity of the individual was only 1,020. So 300,000 national insurance numbers were granted to foreign nationals and only 1,020 were refused across all categories. That seems to me a sign that the processes that the Secretary of State laid out may be all very well in theory, but there is doubt about whether they are happening in practice. If they were, the refusal rate would necessarily be much higher than 0.33 per cent.
The Secretary of State seemed to suggest that business was at fault. Businesses clearly have a role in ensuring that the people who work for them have the legal entitlement to do so, but it cannot be primarily the duty of businesses to determine that. In 2006, the CBI said:
"Employers face real difficulties in vetting potential employees because of the sophistication of scams by illegal immigrants seeking work. The apparent ease with which National Insurance numbers can be obtained makes an already-complex situation even more complicated."
The Secretary of State read out a huge list of hurdles that people supposedly have to get over to get a national insurance number. I question the practicality of employers, especially small employers, being able to vet all that documentation.
My final point is the incredible delay by the DWP in checking the situation. I understand that the Secretary of State has been otherwise involved on several other fronts in recent months, but surely he cannot have failed to notice that there has been an ongoing controversy in Parliament and in the media about foreign nationals working illegally in the UK. I have been given a chronology of all of the events since
Let us contrast the situation in the UK with that in the US. Many of my constituents have worked at one point or another in the US and they know of the elaborate and laborious process that it uses to allocate social security numbers.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about delays and the lack of co-ordination between the Home Office and the DWP, which are jointly responsible. However, he was a little too kind to the Home Secretary when he referred to July. In her statement of
It really is a staggering fact that nine months have passed, and it was only when Channel 4 went on air last night that the DWP seemed to be taking the issue seriously. The Secretary of State has already been called incompetent, admittedly in a different context, but that length of time does not give anybody any confidence.
As I was saying, any British subject who has worked in the US will have complaints about the lengths to which the system goes to check applicants for social security numbers, although most people realise that that is actually in everybody's best interests. It can take months and the tests are strictly enforced, because the US knows that social security numbers are a gateway to its entire benefit and pensions system. That system works in almost the same way as our system, and I hope that the DWP will agree to examine how the US social security number system works. The DWP would learn a great deal and would be able to do something to prevent a similar fiasco from ever happening again.
A couple of months ago I was shopping for a rucksack in Victoria when I heard the gentleman in the shop picking up the phone and speaking in a strong Cockney accent. I was so surprised by that that I had the urge to say to him, as one might in a foreign country if one heard someone from one's own town, "My goodness me, are you from London? What on earth are you doing working in a shop in this place?" I really felt that, because it is so unusual in London or any other major city—even in some of the smaller towns—to meet in shops or restaurants someone who actually comes from the UK. [ Interruption. ] The Minister may say "Disgusting", but it is a fact. She needs to get out of Westminster a bit more and go into shops if she does not think that that is the case.
We now learn today that many of these people are not here legally or entitled to work at all. The Government do not seem to be in the least bit worried about that. They seem to have swallowed their own propaganda and the view that having millions of people working in this country, many of whom are not legally entitled to do so, is somehow good for the economy. It is certainly good if one wants a cheaper meal in a nice restaurant, because it means that lower wages are probably paid to the staff who work there. The CBI has said that immigration has had a good impact in keeping wages down, especially for those at the lower end of the wage structure. However, it has been very bad for unemployment in this country. The Minister may say that only smallish numbers of people are unemployed—just under 1 million—but we all know that more than 2 million people are on various forms of sickness benefit. The Government say that many of those people are perfectly capable of working and are introducing all sorts of schemes to try to get them into work. It is therefore a little rich when we are discussing unemployment figures for the Government to try to pretend, when it suits them, that those people are far too ill to work.
The impact on the environment is vast. Everyone coming into this country will need access to public transport. They want cars and houses. There is an impact on public services, a point that my hon. Friend Mr. Hands just made excellently. People who come here expect their children to be educated. They expect access to health care and legal aid. They want documents translated. Occasionally—I had better say that—they commit crimes, and they have to be investigated and cleared up.
The Secretary of State has left his place—he presumably has other things on his mind today—but he said earlier that the Government had calculated that the net impact of widespread immigration had been an increase of £6 billion a year in the growth of the economy. The reality is that he cannot say what the benefit to the economy is because nobody in the Government has ever bothered to calculate the costs of immigration—the cost of providing the health care, education, tax credits and all the other things that are on offer to British citizens. Therefore, it is impossible for anyone to say that immigration has been a benefit to our economy.
I made a point in my speech about the tone of this debate, and I was pleased that Chris Grayling, the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this issue, agreed with what I said. I have to say that, having listened to the tone of the remarks by David T.C. Davies—including his references to "them" and his implication that all immigration is a bad thing—he has lowered the tone of the debate substantially. Is he aware of the experience of Mr. Nigel Hastilow, who was at one stage a Conservative candidate in Birmingham, and does he expect that the tone of his remarks will lead him to suffer a similar consequence?
I would be the first to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. I like to say things as I see them. I do not believe that anyone should be discriminated against or treated badly because they come from another country; I make that absolutely clear. However, Members of Parliament for all parties have a duty to begin to speak out for many of our constituents. They are concerned about what is happening around them and find that politicians are all too willing to slip into sanctimonious language such as that which we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey rather than standing up for their rights and putting things in the way in which they want to hear them put. The extremist right-wing parties are garnering support in this country precisely because too few people are willing to do that. I regret that very much.
When the Secretary of State was in his place, before he slipped off to do other things, he told us that the Government have put all sorts of hurdles in place to prevent people who should not have access to national insurance numbers from getting them. He listed those hurdles, and no doubt they will be very costly, too. However, he made the point early on that a national insurance number does not mean that one is entitled to work in this country and that employers therefore have a duty to undertake checks such as those that he is putting in place. He seems to think that employers should have another raft of checks to find out whether those with national insurance numbers are entitled to work. That is absolutely ridiculous.
I have employed people in my life, and I assumed that if someone came along with a national insurance number, they were legitimately entitled to work. If we are being told that that is not the case, I have learned something new today. The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform must agree that many employers would feel the same if someone turned up with a national insurance number—the assumption would be that they had the right to work. If the Secretary of State meant that employers have to put checks in place, as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs I have heard that if they decide to run checks merely on non-EU nationals they might become the subject of a discrimination lawsuit. Presumably, employers will have to put in place a raft of checks that apply equally to someone from outside the EU and to someone with a full British passport. Perhaps the Minister can explain that in a little more detail.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1996, the Conservative Government passed legislation to enshrine in the law the employers' obligation to establish the right to work of anyone whom they employed?
That may well be the case, but presumably employers assumed that anybody who was given a national insurance number already had the right to work. If that is not the case, as an employer at the time I was not aware of it. I wonder how many employers were aware. How many are now?
The Home Office has been found to have employed illegal immigrants as cleaners and the Security Industry Authority, which is ultimately answerable to the Home Office, has been doling out security permits left, right and centre to security guards, some of whom ended up guarding the Prime Minister's car. Given that all that is going on, how on earth does the Minister think that someone running a small business will be able to put in place the checks and balances to ensure that someone in possession of a national insurance number is legitimately entitled to work? What checks would an employer have to make to ensure that someone was entitled to work? If the employee has a national insurance number, what else does the employer have to do to establish whether they have the right to work? I look forward to being told the answer by the Minister.
The Department has shown a complete lack of competence. I have asked it whether it runs checks on the national insurance numbers of people who have escaped from prison. Hundreds of people have escaped from prisons over the years, although escaped is probably the wrong word, as they have just walked out of open prisons. They are not all living in the woods like Australian outback men, but are probably back in their flats, claiming benefits. If the Minister checked whether the national insurance numbers of people who have escaped from prison were being used to claim benefits, she would probably be able to round them up tomorrow, but the Department will probably not be in the least bit interested. She will be unable to answer any questions on the subject; I have tried this approach before.
The Department is paying benefits to thousands of people of working age who are not even living in this country. How on earth can we expect it to have any control over who gets a national insurance number? The Department is pushing the whole thing back on to businesses, so that it has an easy Aunt Sally to blame when the next scandal about the number of people working here illegally becomes public.
I am married to someone who came to this country from outside the EU. I know full well how people take advantage of the system, because they openly tell me about it. They have a good laugh about it. If the Minister got out a little more, she would know about that, too. If my language is intemperate in this place, hon. Members should hear how intemperate it is outside when I think about how much money is lost in this country because the Government cannot get their act together.
It is a sign of the political bankruptcy of the Government that they cannot even muster one Back Bencher to defend their record—their only Members in attendance are from the Treasury Bench or are Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Government are arrogant and disdainful of the views of the people of this country as well as those of the people who are elected to represent them. This is a sign of the disintegration of the Government and the hubris that will come to its nemesis in June 2010 when they are thrown out of power.
Immigration is the reason, more than any other, that the Government should fall, because of the sheer incompetence that they have shown in dealing with the matter over a great number of years. If the Government think that they can get away with the disdainful attitude that they have shown today by not fielding any Back Benchers to listen to or contribute to the debate, I promise every single Labour MP in a marginal seat that we will tell their electorate that they do not care about this vital issue of national insurance numbers and illegal immigration. We will share that with the electorate and repeat it, and we will let those MPs face the electorate properly and explain themselves at the coming general election. Of course, they have taken their lead from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who believes that abiding by rules and the law that he and his party put in place in 2000 is only for the little people.
Since the hon. Gentleman is so keen that Government Back Benchers should take part in the debate, will he explain why, as he is concerned about illegal workers getting national insurance numbers, he cannot persuade the leader of his party to come clean about whether he supports identity cards for foreign nationals?
This might, perhaps, pre-empt you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman has had a reasonable lunch and has just ambled in for a little mild peroration for the benefit of the good burghers of Battersea, but the situation that we are debating has nothing to do with ID cards. He will have to ask the Whip for a better brief next time.
This is the Government who gave us one-legged Romanian roofers, who cost the job—
There is no empirical or academic evidence to support that view. That is the rather limp line taken by the Government—although not by Labour Back Benchers, since none have bothered to turn up. As we are talking about clear, unambiguous answers to questions, at the start of the debate my hon. Friend Chris Grayling asked whether the DWP had given national insurance numbers to illegal immigrants. I hope that the Minister will answer that question in her closing remarks, as the Secretary of State failed to do so. I ask again: have the Government presided over the distribution of NI numbers to illegal immigrants?
The present Minister for Children, Young People and Families used to be the Minister responsible for immigration. She lost that job due to the debacle over one-legged Romanian roofers, but this Government have also failed to deport almost 1,000 foreign prisoners, while the Home Office has employed illegal immigrants to guard the Prime Minister's car. We should not be surprised by that, as the memo leaked from the DWP in 2006 made it clear that it was official Government policy not to make any inquiries about the nationality status of people seeking NI numbers. That policy was attacked by the Labour peer Lord Grabiner as long ago as 2000. He made it clear that he considered what was happening to be a scandal, but the Government turned a blind eye and continued to do nothing about the problem.
We should not be surprised either by the dodgy figures used by the Government when they predicted that 15,000 people from the eight EU accession countries would come to the UK from May 2004. That estimate was out by a factor of about 50, as the reality is that some 700,000 people from those countries have come here. That has had a commensurate impact on community cohesion, housing and jobs for low-paid and low-skilled workers, who resent such unprecedented immigration.
I stand here to defend and speak for the people who are being pushed out of jobs, as no one in the Government will do so. Those people do not want to be resentful of incomers from outside their communities, but they do resent them because they see what is happening as a result of the Government's obvious mismanagement of the economy.
Earlier, I mentioned the problem of criminal records. That is important, because giving NI numbers—and therefore de facto citizenship and nationality—to people from the EU who have serious criminal records is something that we need to know about. Again, the Government have turned a blind eye to the matter.
Immigration has had a massive impact on local economies. My hon. Friend Mr. Hands said that the equivalent of 5 per cent. of the population in his borough had received NI numbers. That is a fantastically high figure, but the experience has been similar in my constituency, where more than 8,500 people were given NI numbers in the first two years after May 2004. I am not even talking about the whole of the Peterborough city council area, either. My hon. Friend Mr. Vara represents nine of the city council wards, but the figures that I have quoted refer only to what has happened in the other 15 wards covered by my constituency.
Because keeping track of NI numbers is practically the only way to measure migration from the other EU countries, we have not been able to make proper plans for primary health care, primary education, housing and all the other elements that contribute to community cohesion. At the same time, however, good and decent young men in my constituency—asylum seekers from Darfur—are being returned to their possible deaths in Khartoum because the legal processes that they were using to fight to stay in this country and make a contribution here have been exhausted. They are being forced to eat bread and soup, to sleep on other people's sofas and to rely on the good offices of the Red Cross—an organisation for whose work in the Peterborough area I should like to take this opportunity to express my huge gratitude.
The Government's failure to control immigration properly has given sustenance to the wicked and pernicious drivel that we hear from the British National party. We have heard that drivel already in Barking and Dagenham, for example, and we are beginning to hear it in the west midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire as well. Such talk always emerges when there is a Labour Government in power. It emerged between 1974 and 1979, and it may be emerging again. We do not want that to happen in our towns and cities, and we can prevent it only if we control immigration properly.
The irony is that, in many respects, a consensus exists. The Prime Minister's party political rhetoric and point-scoring has led him to use slogans such as "British jobs for British workers". He knew when he said it that it was illegal and that it could not be put into practice, but when we get beyond all that it is evident that there is a consensus about immigration in this country.
The Conservative manifesto of 2001 supported the points system used in Australia. We were demonised, of course, by people like the Minister and her colleagues, and branded as closet racists, xenophobes and all the rest of it. My party also proposed the establishment of a border agency, and again we were told that we were xenophobes who wanted to keep out everyone who did not look or sound like us. Such claims were absolute nonsense, because we always made it clear that our proposal was based on what the country needed, irrespective of immigrants' creed, colour, religion or cultural background.
What has happened since the Conservative party made its proposal? The Government have adopted our policy and established the Border and Immigration Agency. I was privileged to serve on the Committee considering the UK Borders Bill and I have reservations about the agency's effectiveness, but the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Home Office have made their commitment to it clear. We now have a points-based immigration system that is based on a policy filched from the Conservative party election manifestos of 2001 and 2005. Despite what the Government say, therefore, it is clear that there is some meeting of minds on this subject.
This has been an important debate. The Opposition are committed to debating the issues surrounding pensioner poverty, but we also believe that the news and figures appearing in the media over the past few days mean that we had a duty to bring the Secretary of State and other DWP Ministers to the House to hold them to account for their actions. We also wanted to make the right hon. Gentleman accountable for his plans for the Department's operational direction over the next few years—if he is still in place.
People in some parts of our country feel a sense of alienation and believe that they cannot trust any politician. They feel anger and resentment towards people who do not look and sound like they do, and that is wrong. Most people are decent. Wherever they come from, people come here to make a better life for themselves, and who are we to second-guess that? That applies even to those coming from the EU countries. If people are likely to earn five times what they could get in Estonia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, what is wrong with their sending some money back home to their families?
It is not my place to argue about that, but we can plan our immigration system and the delivery of public services properly only if we know what the numbers are. For that, we need honesty and transparency, rather than obfuscation and duplicity. The Department could make a start by answering questions properly, and it should not respond by saying, "This information is not collected in this format", or "The information could be collected only at disproportionate cost."
The Minister should work with us to defeat the extremists and to ensure that we have community cohesion in a civil society that we can be proud of, where everyone gets on well with each other. After all, the Conservative party is as opposed to the problems with Muslim extremism that have arisen in some parts of the country as she and the Government are, but working together requires a degree of honesty.
I believe that the Minister must concede that the Government's management of immigration in the past few years has been lamentable. If she really thinks that things can change, she must honestly accept that the Government have given some NI numbers to illegal immigrants. If she is not willing to do that, she must give a full explanation of the eminent failure that we have seen over the past few years.
I had hoped that more Labour Members would attend this debate, and I am sorry that they have not done so. This is a vital issue, and we will share with constituents around the country the results of the debate and the Government's disdain for the views expressed in this House. I hope that the Minister is able to show some humility and honesty when she winds up, as we need an immigration system that works. We need a system that will give this country a sound future and decent communities, in which people can work together irrespective of race, religion or country of origin.
I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I want to make a short contribution for the simple reason that I am deeply disappointed that so far no Labour Back Bencher at all has spoken. Sadly, that is an example of the way in which the Government treat the issue. They wish to look the other way and bury their heads in the sand on a particularly important and difficult issue that deserves much greater attention.
By the sound of it, the hon. Gentleman is devoting his speech to the absence of Government Back Benchers. As he is so concerned about the issue, let me tell him that it seems facile for his party to hold a debate on national insurance numbers for illegal workers while opposing the one measure that will, as he must know, do the most to enable the Government to make it impossible for illegal workers to come here, namely the introduction of identity cards for foreign nationals. At Prime Minister's questions last week, the leader of the Conservative party was asked three times whether he supported ID cards for foreign nationals—a measure that is due to be introduced in November this year. There was no reply. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will do Government Back Benchers the favour of giving an answer now: does he support ID cards for foreign nationals?
I am glad to have the opportunity to respond. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have made a proper speech on the issue, instead of just intervening on me. I plan to address the subject, because as he will know, an employer faced with a job applicant who says, "I am a British citizen and I do not have a passport" does not have any way of checking whether the applicant has a right to work. I am sorry, but compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals is no solution to the problem, if the person concerned says that they are not a foreign national. That is yet another example to show that the Government's arguments on ID cards, both on the hon. Gentleman's point and more broadly, are deeply flawed.
As for the history, the Government's approach to the issues over the past 10 years was ably summed up by my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson. Their usual stance is first to deny that there is any problem, and then to say that anyone who points out that there is a problem is in some way giving succour to racists. However, we all know that unless decent, reasonable, moderate people, such as all of us in the Chamber, are willing to debate this important issue in a decent, reasonable fashion, a vacuum is created, which is filled by terrible extremists from parties such as the British National party. The Labour party's next move is to say, "Oh dear, there is a problem, and we need to do something about it. We do not have much idea of what that should be, so we'll spend the next year or so rubbishing the Conservative party's plans, and then we'll put them into action." The Government have suddenly realised that there is a problem. The scales have fallen from their eyes, and they have swiped the suggestions in the Conservative party's 2001 and 2005 manifestos. They are busily trumpeting the fact that they plan to introduce the measures suggested in them.
The problem is not just with immigration and nationality; as has been made clear in this debate, there is a problem with the administration of national insurance, too. The terrible shame of it is that there is no disagreement on principle. As was pointed out in contributions from hon. Members of my party, there is a fair amount of political consensus on how the issue needs to be handled. The Secretary of State said earlier that a modest and controlled level of immigration—the right kind of immigration—is, on balance, good for the country, if it is managed properly. I think that everyone present would agree. Huge contributions are made to the country by people who arrived here recently, and who are working their socks off to make a better life for themselves, their communities and their families. I hope that no one present would disagree with that, and it is right to make that point.
There is no disagreement on principle, but there is a problem with competence. We have a problem with administrative ability, or the lack of it. I am afraid that the Government have a long and undistinguished track record of serial errors. I start with the immigration and asylum systems, which have been hugely overloaded in the past 10 years. Waiting lists are ballooning, and there is an inability to cope with people who overstay and with genuine applications. The system is bogged down, so people who are genuinely in need are having to wait months, and in many cases years, often with no hope of even a date on which their case will be considered and responded to. My hon. Friend Mr. Hands, who has a huge amount of experience on the issue, gave good examples of the kinds of problems that the situation creates.
As we have heard this afternoon, in addition to incompetence in the administration of nationality and immigration matters, there is incompetence in the administration of national insurance numbers. The Secretary of State was faced with the fact that roughly 900,000 people have been issued national insurance numbers, but fewer than 300,000 people have been issued with work permits. He was asked whether he could say, hand on heart, that the missing 600,000—the gap—was made up purely of people who have national insurance numbers but who are not eligible to work, such as students. I found it particularly disappointing and worrying that he ducked the question several times. He basically said, "We're looking into it." What worries me and, I am sure, everyone else who has listened to the debate is that after 10 or 11 years of a Labour Government, we should not be in such a situation—a situation in which the Government do not know the answer to such a simple, basic question.
Of course it is true that the international situation has changed, that there is far more pressure as regards migration, and that there is far more globalisation than there was 10 years ago. The systems have therefore had to be tightened up, but the problem is that they have not been tightened up quickly enough. The Government have consistently not been on the ball. That is why the problems have arisen. The issue is not one of principle but of competence, and when it comes to competence, the Government are sadly and badly lacking.
I think we would all agree that this has been a good, important debate to which there were a number of good contributions—at least from Conservative Members. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we have not had the opportunity to cast a critical eye over contributions from Labour Members. To be fair to Danny Alexander, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, he made a number of important points and asked some legitimate questions—questions that we have already asked, and on concerns that we share. He also mentioned the tone of the debate. I agree it is important that we approach the issues in a measured way, using the proper tone, but there has to be debate about facts, evidence and policy, and talking about tone is not a substitute for that. However, those are perhaps matters for another day. Certainly, the points that the hon. Gentleman made today on national insurance numbers were apt.
We have heard some excellent contributions from Conservative Members, who have shown the depth of their knowledge of both the subject and their constituencies. That is particularly true of my hon. Friend Mr. Hands, who rightly drew attention to the huge number of people involved—896,000 people from outside the European Union have received national insurance numbers since 2004. He posed the question that naturally springs to mind: what has happened to the 600,000 of them who are not work permit holders? Have we accounted for them? I shall say more on that point later. His speech was particularly valuable in bringing the issue down to an individual and local level. He spoke with great knowledge and feeling about different elements of the issue and different people in his constituency.
My hon. Friend spoke about the immense impact that the issue is having in his constituency. He said that 9,310 national insurance numbers have been issued to non-EU citizens in his constituency alone in one year. That is equivalent to 5.2 per cent. of the whole population of the borough. It inevitably follows that there must be important impacts on employment, services and infrastructure in his borough. He drew full attention to all those issues on behalf of his constituents and made some valuable points. He also mentioned a concern that is shared by a number of Conservative colleagues: the incredible delays in administration, which make all the problems so much worse.
My hon. Friend David T.C. Davies also spoke about the scale of the problem. He made an important connection between it and welfare policies—a connection that we have been keen to make throughout the debate. He spoke from the position of somebody who has been a small employer, who serves in the security industry as a special constable, and who is a member of the Home Affairs Committee. He made an important contribution to the debate, examining the issue from those perspectives. We do not hear often enough in the House the authentic voice of small employers, and my hon. Friend certainly put their case today.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jackson also made a valuable contribution. He reminded us of the many previous episodes of mismanagement on the part of the Government in respect of the immigration and asylum system and the work permit system. He recalled the work permit scrutiny fiasco which produced the resignation of one of the predecessors of the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the foreign prisoner scandal which in due course produced the resignation of a Home Secretary, and the failure to predict the numbers of legal migrants who would come from the A8 countries. Some of us can remember back to when the Government produced their original prediction of that. The figure produced was 13,000. Since then there has been controversy about the exact number of legal migrants, but the figure runs into hundreds of thousands. That is important because the national insurance numbers which are the subject of today's debate have been issued since 2004, when that huge and unprecedented influx of legal migrants began. The 896,000 national insurance numbers were issued over roughly the same period, since 2004, which gives us some indication of the huge pressures created. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough made that clear, drawing on experience in his constituency and speaking on behalf of his constituents and drawing attention to the real problems that the Government's policies are creating for his constituents.
My hon. Friend John Penrose made some important points in a brief speech which showed fully his great knowledge of and competence in the subject, as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. He spoke with impressive authority and knowledge of detail when he drew attention to the simple problem of competence which arises in this case.
A number of questions remain, but I begin with a word of congratulation to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He will not have received many congratulations lately, but I offer him mine on the fact that there is such immense satisfaction with his performance that hardly any of his fellow Labour Members of Parliament have bothered to come to the Chamber to listen to the debate and none at all has bothered to speak. It is an achievement for the right hon. Gentleman that there is such a unanimous sense of satisfaction with his performance.
I begin with the straightforward question that was asked of the right hon. Gentleman in a written question back on
I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could give me answers to the other questions that I asked the week before about national insurance numbers issued to UK and non-UK citizens over the relevant period. I will let him into a little secret, if I may. Those questions are the responsibility of his Department, and the Department is expected to answer questions asked of it. Nobody else can be responsible for the answers to those questions.
We wait for the answer to how many of those 6,653 people have been issued with national insurance numbers. We have been given a detailed explanation by the Secretary of State of the new checks that were put in place by the Government as a result of the measures taken on
It is not hard to see why the Government are so reluctant to impart that information. After all, Ministers have been quick to lecture others about their responsibilities in respect of national insurance numbers. We heard a number of lectures today about what employers should and should not do and what is expected of them. The Home Secretary told us on
"Employers are expected to assure themselves that their employees have permission to work".
Employers, especially the small employers mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth, are entitled to ask what duties extend to the Government in respect of the same case. Surely it puts a different complexion on events if we learn that the self-same employees who should have been checked by the employers had been issued with national insurance numbers by the Government.
That is a good point, which my hon. Friend makes from the perspective of small employers. It is easy for Ministers to lecture employers about what they should do. They should spend more time putting themselves in the position of small employers such as my hon. Friend, rather than scoffing at them.
We know that the 6,653 people who were issued with national insurance numbers were employees in—of all industries—the security industry. Some of them were under the Government's nose or even, apparently, guarding the site where the Prime Minister's car was parked. I think that that is what the Home Secretary admitted when she told the House on
I think that is ministerial code for the Prime Minister's car being guarded in the compound. By the standards of the present Government, that was an outstandingly transparent and candid answer.
The questions do not end there. We need to know whether the case of the 6,653 individuals was unique. Was that degree of incompetence over illegality something that the Government reserved for the security industry, or have there been other cases of national insurance numbers being issued to individuals without legal migration status?
I am listening to the strong case that my hon. Friend is making. He is a member of the Home Affairs Committee. We are told that there are many checks and balances to enable illegal immigrants to be weeded out, yet the Home Affairs Committee commented on page 113 of its report on immigration control:
"It is not clear how individuals will prove to the DWP that they have the right to work in the UK, nor whether those who fail to prove it will be reported to the IND for investigation and possible enforcement action."
Does my hon. Friend not think that that is a disgraceful situation after nine years of Labour government?
As a member of the Home Affairs Committee at the time, perhaps a little modesty on my part is called for. Ministers were quick to take credit for the changes made in June 2006, but they did not draw attention to the fact that the Home Affairs Committee held an inquiry into the matter, took evidence and shamed the Government into taking action. Even now, not all the recommendations have been implemented. However, I do not want to go into my career on the Home Affairs Committee too much, not least while the Minister is present. We are entitled to ask about whether the case was unique. It involved the security industry, which the Government were in charge of regulating—that could be an explanation for what happened.
However, is there a wider problem of illegal working? We simply do not know, and I do not think that the Government know. We have not been able to establish from the Government the extent of the problem and we have not had proper explanations today. Are the Government saying that, apart from the 6,630, all the 896,000 national insurance numbers issued to workers from outside the EU are held perfectly legally? Is that the Government's case, or can they tell us how far the problem goes?
We have always accepted that 270,000 of those people may be work permit holders. Whether it is desirable to issue such a large number of work permits to workers from outside the EU when so many workers are entering from within the EU, including from the new member states, is another matter—that debate is for another day. However, the 270,000 are here legally and, as has been said on both sides of the House, they are no doubt hard-working and law-abiding people. The problem is that the Secretary of State appears to have no idea about them either, because he has no idea about the scale of foreign employment, legal or illegal, in the United Kingdom.
To answer a point made in some detail by the Secretary of State in his opening speech, I remind him of what he vouchsafed to the House last year. He was shaking his head in disagreement when my hon. Friend Chris Grayling was taking him through this point, so I remind him of his own words from Hansard. He said:
"The truth is that we have been incredibly successful in the past 10 years in tackling the main problem of those who are in and around the job market, with 2.7 million extra jobs in the past 10 years, about 800,000 of which involve those who have come from outside the country to work in Britain and are contributing to our economy."—[ Hansard, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 3.]
Three weeks later, he had to write a letter admitting that he had been wrong, that he had been less than incredibly successful, that his figure was wrong by 300,000 and that the true number of non-UK workers was 1.1 million. Furthermore, buried in the detailed note that he attached to his letter—the degree of burial would have done credit to the Prime Minister—was an admission that the major part of the increase in employment was due to an increase in foreign employment. The Secretary of State was thus less than incredibly successful, but it turns out that he may not even have been mildly incredibly successful. According to a briefing note from the Statistics Commission, helpfully prepared for Mr. Field:
"The actual proportion of the employment increase accounted for by foreigners/migrants ranges from just over 50 per cent. when looking at foreign nationals and the 16-plus age group to just over 80 per cent. when looking at country of birth and excluding workers who are over state pension age."
Perhaps that puts a different complexion on things; I do not know.
From the Secretary of State's point of view, I suppose that there is another way of looking at it. Even if the UK share of employment is towards the lower end of that range, given the Secretary of State's recent record when it comes to returns on spending, 20 per cent. would be an incredibly successful outcome. For the rest of us, it is clear that when it comes to illegal and legal non-UK employment, the Secretary of State does not know what is going on. He basks in the sunshine of life and spends his time in blissful ignorance of all that is going on around him. Apparently, those near him do not care to trouble him with what little they know about what is going on; even now, he is apparently unaware of the joint plan of his Department and the Home Office—they cooked it up between them, although neither will now admit it—to bypass several million higher-paid skilled workers in this country in favour of non-EU workers, through the relaxation of the resident labour market test.
We know that the Secretary of State may have had other concerns and ambitions, but as far as British workers and taxpayers are concerned, he is the Secretary of State in charge of their interests. He is out of touch in representing them; he has no grasp of what is taking place all around this country—the legal or illegal employment of non-EU nationals. He is the out-of-touch Secretary of State who is failing the interests of British workers and British taxpayers.
If nothing else, this debate has exposed ignorance—that is not a sin—about the nature of national insurance numbers and what contribution they do, or, as in this case, do not make in respect of foreign nationals' proof of identity to work in this country. Interestingly, this week my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration made important announcements about how this year we will continue to embed policies that have led to a reduction in illegals coming to this country and to a reduction in the something like two years that immigration and asylum cases used to take to be processed—now we are looking at less than six months. This week, my hon. Friend also outlined our measures on identity cards for foreign nationals, counting people in and out and introducing a points system. We welcome the insight and experience of other countries such as Australia, which have helped to shape our policies.
I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.
The Conservative party has used the tactic of dumping a debate on pensions late yesterday in favour of a debate that, as I hope to outline, has no substance in relation to the right to work. That only demonstrates that the Conservative party has shown once again that when it wants to score populist points, immigration is its subject of choice.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has been here through the course of the afternoon.
I am delighted that the Minister mentioned populist points, because she supports the "British jobs for British workers" policy. How does that stack up with plans, being considered at the moment, that all jobs earning more than £40,000 should be open to nationals of every country, with the abolition of the resident labour test?
I understand that the test will not be dropped. This country will continue, as and when appropriate, to welcome those with high skills to work here and share their experience and expertise.
In relation to jobs, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to share with the House some very important statistics that were released this morning. I spent some considerable time on regional radio throughout the country, sharing with the UK—I was pleased to include Radio Scotland—the latest labour market statistics, which demonstrate that we have had the highest quarterly growth in the number of people in work since 1997. In the past three months, 175,000 more people have found a job, and—importantly, because this is not just about the numbers who get into work but matching that with the numbers who are coming off benefits—the figures on people claming jobseeker's allowance, incapacity benefit and income support are all going down. I was also pleased to share with the nation independent figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that the numbers claiming unemployment benefit fell for the 15th consecutive month to just over 807,000—the lowest figure for more than 30 years, and a fall of some 812,000, or more than 50 per cent., since 1997. For many Members, that is a world away from the unemployment statistics that hit 3 million-plus on jobseeker's allowance alone. When those numbers went down, they went straight on to incapacity benefit, which trebled between 1975 and the mid-1990s.
The figures demonstrate that more people are in work and that many of them have come off benefits. That has happened over the past 10 years, complemented by people coming from overseas. If we can get it right, that is good for this country—for the British people who live here and the businesses that need workers.
Does the hon. Lady accept that she is unable to tell us how many of the extra jobs that have been created are for foreign nationals, although it is almost certainly between 50 and 80 per cent.? Does she further accept that many of the British people who are out of work are classed as being on the sick because they claim to have bad backs and stress? Is it not the case that British people are on the sick and foreign nationals are coming in and taking the jobs?
The key point is that there are more jobs, more people in work, more people coming off benefits, and wages are up, and that is good. I listened to what Chris Grayling said about benefits. There are measures that can be taken to assist people with ill-health and disabilities into the work place. Many people on incapacity benefit with long-term health conditions and serious disabilities want to work—our task is to help them to get there, but also to work with employers to recognise that they have a continuing contribution to make to the workplace. The hon. Member for Monmouth shows, as he did in his speech, that his choice of words in such debates does not always set the right tone or have the right vocabulary.
I am delighted to see the Minister for Borders and Immigration in his place, playing a cameo role in the Chamber away from his onerous duties as Minister for the West Midlands and Labour campaign supremo for Birmingham.
The hon. Lady's Government have presided over a situation in which we have 5.4 million economically inactive people while we import people who are usually low-skilled and living in slum conditions earning less than the minimum wage. If that is the sort of society that she is proud to have after 11 years of a Labour Government, I suggest that her policies and priorities are completely awry.
All I can do is reiterate that jobs are up, wages are up and the numbers of people on out-of-work benefits are going down. That is a pretty good place to be and a record that I am very proud of.
I have listened with interest to the hon. Lady's remarks about the Government's record on unemployment and so on. Before Dr. Pangloss is confirmed in his role as her chief speechwriter, perhaps she could note that the employment rate, which is the most important measure, is still no higher than it was at the peak of the last economic cycle in 1990. That is not something to be complacent about. In relation to incapacity benefit, numbers have gone down, but by a very small amount—from 2.7 million to 2.6 million. The failure to do that more quickly is one of the greatest failures of this Government's welfare policy.
I certainly do not see more people in work and coming off benefits as a failure. I am totally with the hon. Gentleman in that nobody should be complacent. The job market is constantly changing and evolving, and we have to adjust to that. The skills and training that people need, not just today but down the road in 10 years' time, are changing too, and we must ensure that we are doing what we can as a Government to support employers and organisations that have a role to play.
Importantly, we have to challenge individuals who, if they can work, should work, and we should encourage them to do so.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I would like to make some progress— [ Interruption. ] I think that I have until four o'clock. The main point of today's debate is to discuss the matter of national insurance numbers, and the allegation that we have given individuals a right to work when those have been issued—or not, as the case may be. I would like to clarify that in my speech.
In that case, will the Minister simply tell us whether national insurance numbers have been issued to illegal migrants? A yes or no answer will do at this point.
I will come to that point. [ Laughter. ] No, seriously. I will come to that point, but I just want to preface it by explaining what a national insurance number is not. The national insurance number is a unique, personal reference number that exists to track tax, national insurance, social security benefits, tax credits and payments of student loans. It is not a proof of identity. I am holding a national insurance card in my hand, and on the back it says, "This is not proof of identity". It also says so on the front. In isolation, it does not provide proof of the right to work in the United Kingdom.
On the allegation that numbers appear to have been issued to illegal immigrants caught up in the review and investigation into applications for a licence to work as security personnel, my answer is as follows. At present, and during the course of the review, we have worked closely with the Home Office on that issue. The Home Office is currently checking through each record, and those records will be compared with DWP records. However, the results are not yet ready. Initial indications, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out in his opening speech, are that many SIA applicants quoted temporary national insurance numbers. Those are not official numbers, and they serve no purpose other than to attribute an administrative reference number for employers to use for tax and national insurance contribution deduction purposes. Since April 2004, their use has been actively discouraged by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. They are not recorded on DWP benefit systems, and they cannot be used for benefit claim purposes. We do not recognise some of the numbers as legitimate national insurance numbers, which is why we have to check them all to see whether they have been issued.
The reality is that in 1996, a Conservative Government introduced legislation to put a legal responsibility on employers to establish the right to work of anyone they employed. At that time, the Conservative Government made no changes at all to national insurance numbers, they made no reference to the fact that national insurance numbers should be used as proof— [ Interruption. ] It is all very well to say that it was years ago, but it is the system that operated then, and continued to do so until we tightened it from 2006, meaning that someone applying for a national insurance number had to prove that they had a right to work in this country.
I am pleased to hear that that exercise of comparing Home Office data with the DWP record will take place. Would the Minister confirm that in examining the DWP data, a clear distinction will be made between national insurance numbers awarded before July 2006 and afterwards, so that the point raised during the debate would be answered? If she can do so, it will shed further light on the answers to the questions that have been raised.
As soon as we have the information, we will check as far as we can the date on which they were validated.
I have to say that when I heard the reports last night, the SIA said—and I paraphrase—that the numbers looked like national insurance numbers. We have to determine whether that is the case— [ Laughter. ] Hon. Members laugh, but an accusation has been made that may be found to be invalid. That is not the right way to conduct a debate.
No, I am not going to give way—[Hon. Members: "Give way!"] No, I am sorry. I am not going to give way because a lot of contributions have been made, some of which may relate to the point that the hon. Gentleman wants to make, and I want to respond to them.
Mr. Hands made a point about the failure to get accurate figures for foreign nationals entering and leaving the UK. From 2008, we will start counting foreign nationals in and out of the country and we will introduce checks for all travellers before they land in Britain, and before the plane takes off in the case of high-risk countries. We have established the migration impacts forum, which gives the Government independent advice on the impact of migration. That, too, is important.
The hon. Gentleman also commented on the number of national insurance numbers allocated in Hammersmith in 2006-07. The figure is 9,310 and represents numbers in the borough at a specific time. It does not necessarily remain static—some people may have moved elsewhere, including outside the UK. The 2006 data for the UK estimated gross in-flows of 591,000 migrants set against gross out-flows of 400,000.
The hon. Gentleman also said that only around 1,000 people were refused national insurance numbers. There are separate tests. First, approximately 1,000 refusals, as cited in the parliamentary question to which he referred, were due to suspect identity documentation. More than 360 prosecutions took place in 2006-07. A further 12,602 refusals between April 2006 and November 2007 were for failing the identity test. On top of that, in the context of proof of right to work, a further 8,643 applications have been refused since July 2006, when the much stronger checks were implemented. That shows that our system is not out of control. It works.
No, I shall not give way.
The hon. Member for Monmouth used intemperate language. On his point about employers, I hope that no hon. Member would disagree that employers, whether small, medium-sized or large, have duties to ensure that the people whom they employ have the right to work. We are streamlining and simplifying the employment routes into the UK under the new points-based system. We have launched a major public awareness campaign, which includes press advertising and sending direct mail to approximately 400,000 businesses, to ensure that employers cannot escape their responsibilities but are supported to make decisions when recruiting in their workplace.
I cannot give way; I have not got enough time.
The Border and Immigration Agency runs a helpline, which provides advice and support for employers.
I shall give way quickly to the hon. Gentleman because he has been present all afternoon.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. If she finds that national insurance numbers had been wrongly issued since June 2006 and that individuals who were not entitled to them had faked, forged or stolen documentation that was sufficiently robust to get a national insurance number, does she concede that such documentation would also be sufficiently robust to con an employer? Does she therefore agree that any penalty that might normally be imposed on an employer in those circumstances should be examined and waived if necessary?
If any issues that are found through the investigation warrant further action, we will discuss the matter with our colleagues in the Home Office and in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. However, it is important in such a debate that we are sure of the facts and that we leave it with a much clearer understanding that national insurance numbers are not a right to work. Conservatives' implication that they are is wrong and does not help anyone understand, including employers, who may get the idea, if they simply listen to Tory Front Benchers, that national insurance numbers constitute a right to work. They do not.
I am not giving way. I have Back-Bench speeches to respond to.
Mr. Jackson spoke about planning services. They are important, which is why we set up a forum to address the issue. I visited Peterborough jobcentre not so long ago and saw first hand the work that it does with employers and others to support people into work locally. I only hope that the hon. Gentleman will spend some time discussing with those staff and those partners the good work that they are doing to tackle any abuses in the system and, more importantly, to help the people living in Peterborough to find work.
In many respects John Penrose made a thoughtful contribution. However, with his experience on the Work and Pensions Committee, I hope that he would recognise that it is important to have the facts, rather than spurious allegations, to make good public policy.
The Secretary of State and I have outlined the practical steps that the Government are taking to drive down illegal immigration and illegal working. We will continue to take the necessary action, with or without the support of the Opposition. We will also continue to implement the policies that have seen continued growth in employment, with 175,000 more people in work in the past three months, swelling the total to a record 29.36 million. We will continue to implement the policies that have seen the numbers claiming unemployment benefit at their lowest level for 30 years. We will continue, too, to acknowledge the economic contribution of migration into this country. We are addressing the issues of employment, welfare, pensions, border security and the proper identification of those who should be in the country and those who should not. All that the Opposition offer are allegations based on false premises and distractions. To that end, I seek the House's support for the Government's amendment.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the new checks and controls the Government has introduced to reduce illegal working by foreign nationals, which include measures to prevent illegal immigrants being issued with National Insurance numbers.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you can give me some guidance on how to ensure that Ministers place information in the Vote Office so that it is available to Members in a timely fashion. The report of the Senior Salaries Review Body on MPs' pay, pensions and allowances was made available in the Vote Office two minutes ago, although I understand that information about its content has been available to the news broadcasters throughout the day, and has been made plain on news broadcasts.
The Leader of the House is always saying that information should be made available to the House before it is made available to the media. How can I ensure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Ministers put that into practice?
I think that the literal answer is "By constant reminder". Mr. Speaker has himself endorsed the view that documents of importance to the House should be released as soon as possible, before appearing in any other forum. I can only say that I hope the document's recent arrival does not act as too great a distraction from the debate on human trafficking, to which we now turn.