May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting his urgent question on the second time of trying? He is a model of persistence and I, of course, was over the moon about his persistence.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important question and I want to deal with some aspects of it. First, however, I will set the scene as to what we are trying to deal with. I understand that Labour Front Benchers now admit that they fundamentally got it wrong on immigration, but the scope to which they got it wrong is why we have this issue. Between 1997 and 2010, net migration to the UK was some 2.2 million people—larger than the city of Birmingham. Interestingly, from 2004 to 2010, 1.1 million European economic area nationals registered to work in the UK. After the prediction of what was likely to happen, the scope of the problem is far greater than anything the Labour party wanted to tell the public. Most of all, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and her team in the coalition for having begun the process of reducing net migration to Britain for the first time in a long time.
For the benefit of the House and in line with the right hon. Gentleman’s request—I know he particularly wanted me to answer that bit first, so having dealt with it I will get on with the rest of my answer—let me explain the current arrangement. A lot of nonsense is talked about what we are and are not capable of. First, people must pass the habitual residence test, introduced by the previous Government, before being entitled to claim income-related benefits. The current system was put in place in 2004 and has basically two elements—a legal right to reside and an assessment of factual evidence of habitual residence. As we know, EU citizens have the right to live in another member state as long as they are a qualified person, which basically means a worker, self-employed person, jobseeker, self-sufficient person or student. Tax credits have, I am afraid, been open to abuse outside that system from day one because the rules allow anybody from within the European economic area to claim self-employed status and receive full entitlement immediately. The Government are trying to wrestle with that problem, and I will return to it.
We are currently facing—not for the first time—a legal challenge from the European Commission because our habitual residence test states that people must prove they live in the UK habitually before they get access to benefits. It seems strange to me that anyone should be surprised that a habitual residence test requires that a person should live in the UK habitually, but we sometimes live in that George Orwellian political language world, which the Commission seems to foster with great alacrity.
Secondly, on exportability, under the EU co-ordination rules, benefits under the main categories of social security are exportable—that is, payable elsewhere in the European economic area. So that we clear up the confusion, let me say that that includes, notably, child benefit, for example, and has for a while. We therefore pay child benefit to children who live in other EU states when their parents are working here. That causes a lot of concern, and quite legitimately so. When both parents work but in different countries, the EU rules apparently determine who has primary responsibility for paying, but any difference in entitlement is netted off. So, for example, if someone comes from Poland and works over here, the child support that we pay here is netted out against what they might have received had they been paid in Poland, and the net amount is therefore paid across. That is the existing rule. The UK system is obviously more generous, and that is why it pays people in a sense to be here, getting those benefits.
I recognise there are some real issues here. We are in the midst of looking at those issues with other countries as well, and I want to mention which ones are on the schedule. The Government are concerned that, although some protections are in place, they are not enough. That is particularly worrying given the issue, which the right hon. Gentleman raises, of
I am answering the question. To be frank, the real question for the hon. Gentleman is why he sat with a Government who, for over 10 years, made such a shambles and a mess of this.
The reality is that we are trying, for example, to figure out the rules that allow us to prevent individuals from staying in the UK for only a short time before claiming benefits—a rule that existed under the last Government. We are looking at the tests about accommodation and the length of time people spend here. We want to look at things such the leasing arrangements they have for their housing and over what length of time, and even at challenging the narrow and short-term definition of “habitual” used by the European Court of Justice. In other words, we are trying to lock people out from coming here solely for the purpose of claiming benefits.
I have to tell Opposition Members, who were making a noise just a second ago, that one of the big problems is that the last Government did not collect any data on how many migrants actually claimed benefits here. We have changed that. We are now totalling up who is here and who will claim benefits, and we will be on top of those figures.
In conclusion—I know Mr Field wants to ask some further questions—there are a number of things we need to do. We need to tighten up immediately the rules about habitual residency. We need to tighten up the rules about accommodation and the leasing length of time.
We need to tighten up and start the process of arguing hugely with the Commission that it is quite wrong to net out things such as child benefit and pay the higher level to people whose families do not even come with them into the country to work. Finally, many nations in Europe are just as angry as we are about this, and we have been meeting them since last summer and reaching a common purpose to deal with the Commission and force it to recognise that any further changes it wants to make, including by taking us to court over the British residency rules, are not acceptable. We will tighten up. I refuse to accept the Commission’s rules. I will not give way on the habitual residency test, and we will tighten up on net migration.
May I thank the Secretary of State for his answers, but might I now try to pin him down on four issues? Does he accept that, if the word “crisis” is used, it is a crisis that successive Governments have engendered by moving welfare from the basis that people had to make contributions to receive benefits to one where they receive them if their income proves needs? Is not his universal credit just one more move in that direction? When will the House know what further restrictions will be placed on universal credit to prevent it from being claimed immediately by people who arrive in this country? Does he not accept that the current situation—basically, a means-tested welfare state—is inconsistent with our European Union treaty obligations and is against the Prime Minister’s wish that we should be open for trade but not an easy touch? Are the Government now going to rescind the directions issued by primary care commissioning groups as Parliament rose for the summer last year, which instructed doctors that they had to take people on to their books if they had been here for 24 hours, including people here illegally? When will the Government act on that?
Will the Government use the powers they do have to instruct authorities that in allocating social housing, they must pay due attention to the length of time people have been waiting and to their good behaviour; and that they have a duty to publish data—on which the Government will insist—on whether social housing is being allocated to non-British citizens?
Finally, given that there are already 150,000 Romanians and Bulgarians here legally, and that they are arriving here at a rate of 25,000 a month, does he not accept that the answer he has just given us will prove ineffective against the movement that might well come after
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for a considerable time and have huge respect for him that goes beyond party affiliation. I will deal with those four points, but I want to deal with a point he made right at the end.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is something of a crisis. For the past two years, I have been fighting a rearguard action against what was left to me by the previous Government. [Interruption.] Opposition Members can moan, but let us put the facts as they are: I inherited a habitual residency test that simply is not fit for purpose. We are trying to tighten that up dramatically and I am being infracted by the European Union for doing so. Before Opposition Members start lecturing us, let us remember what they left. The right hon. Gentleman is, however, absolutely right—I am with him on this—to describe this as a crisis.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about the contributory issue on welfare. Tax credits took things faster in that direction, which is why self-employed people coming in to the country are immediately able to claim tax credits even if they are doing only a little bit of work—we talked about The Big Issue sellers and so on. That is one area we have to look at in relation to universal credit, but I take the opposite view from him. Universal credit gives us an opportunity to redefine the nature of that benefit by absorbing the tax credit issue, taking away the right of individuals coming in from overseas to claim on that basis, and redefining it as something much more in line with our obligations, while being able to lock out many migrants who would come and claim immediately. I am happy to discuss that with him further, but I believe we will be able to make that move, which I am looking at at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that GPs and the health service often overstate their responsibilities to migrants. I talked to the Secretary of State for Health about this issue about a week ago, and he is looking carefully at issuing clear instructions that they do not have to do this. It is my view and belief that that is the case, and it is about making it clear that they do not feel they will be challenged. It is a little like health and safety rules—people over-interpret the situation. In fact, things are never as tough as that, and we need to provide strong guidance.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right about being clear to local government. I am working with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ensure that we publish and are clear about the number of people from overseas who are taking social housing ahead of those who have waited a long time in the queue. This is part of what we are trying to change—I agree and I will do that.
I am very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman and to work with any colleague, from either side of the House, to make common purpose to tighten up our arrangements so that we do not have a problem when
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the economic benefit to Romanian and Bulgarian families of migrating to the UK is roughly double that to a Polish family, so the scale of his task is huge indeed? When he meets his European colleagues who share the same anxieties, will he see whether they have a different phrase and judgment for the habitual residence rules?
I will, and I am at the moment. Since last year, we have been talking to colleagues in various countries, including Germany, about the need to deal with the Commission’s view. In a sense, the Commission is using free movement to enter the realm,
I think, of social security, which has never been within its remit, and we have to challenge that. Up until now, Germany has been a little more ambivalent, but interestingly in the past two or three weeks it has suddenly begun to change its tune, and other countries, such as Spain, are coming into the group too. We have asked for urgent meetings immediately with that group—in the next two weeks—and I will raise this matter with it.
The benefits system needs to be fair, and to be seen to be fair. Over many decades, people have come to the UK and made a huge contribution to our economy and our society. The Government now need to look at the benefits and services to be provided, given the prospect of future European migration. We need a sensible and serious debate about credible changes, but the Secretary of State seems only to be floating some rather vague ideas without any sense of whether they can be delivered.
The Secretary of State plans to introduce universal credit from October, but roll-out has already been drastically delayed and fundamental questions are now being asked about the deliverability of the IT. If, as he suggested a moment ago, the Government are to change the rules in the system ahead of implementation, they risk making the delivery of universal credit even more chaotic than it is already set to be. Will he explain how the changes he now envisages will fit in with what is supposed to be being introduced already?
Over the weekend, we were tantalised with hints from Ministers that they wanted the system to be more contributory, but the changes they have made so far, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, are making it less contributory. Has the Secretary of State had a change of heart in favour of a more contributory approach? One other suggestion floated is for the introduction of ID cards. Are these the same ID cards that Ministers announced were scrapped straight after the election? Furthermore, will he and his colleagues do a much better job of enforcing the minimum wage? There have been no prosecutions for minimum wage infringements over the past two years, which has been part of the problem. Will he now put that right?
The changes are long overdue, and I would like to know why the right hon. Gentleman did not explain why the last Government did nothing about resolving the issue. He says that we should not be partisan, but he just has made a very partisan statement when an apology was all he needed to make. He needed only to say that he was sorry for the mess Labour left us in.
What we are talking about will have no practical effect on the implementation of universal credit, which, by the way, is proceeding exactly in accordance with plans. On the contributory principle—this is the point I wanted to make to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead—there is no magic wand. Let us bear it in mind that if it was a blanket contributory principle, we would end up paying a lot of benefits, such as winter fuel payments—an issue that, as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) knows, was not resolved by his Government—to lots of people who had long since departed Britain. We are considering the matter, and universal credit will give us an ideal opportunity to embrace tax credits and, through this requirement, to start the process of change so that we can resist the pressure of paying tax credits—because they would no longer exist—to people who come to the UK for the first time and claim to be self-employed. That is the area I am looking at.
We need no lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about prosecutions for minimum wage infringements. The last Government’s record on this was so bad I wonder why the Opposition bother mentioning it at the Dispatch Box. We are trying to change it, and will change it, whereas the last Government gave way on every single issue in Europe from the moment they arrived.
As I said earlier, that is the direction of travel we are trying to head in. We are trying to change the rules, in order to make the test covering the period someone spends here and the commitment they make to the UK much tougher. We are wrestling with the habitual residence test, but it is weak in parts because it makes no requirements concerning the length of time someone commits to being in the country. That is an area we have to, and will, challenge. I want to change those rules so that the European Court recognises that someone needs to make a commitment to the country they are in before they can start drawing down.
I remind the Secretary of State that it was not just the Labour party that supported the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, but every single Member of the House at the time—there was not even a vote—so this is something for us all to engage with. I suggest that it is deeply irresponsible to keep briefing newspapers and providing lots of hints—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—but then not to come to the Chamber with concrete proposals. In the last two years, there has not been a single prosecution for breach of the national minimum wage, even though 13% of those working in care homes in this country are on less than the national minimum wage. Is it not time the Government sorted that out, so that fewer people choose to come here?
I just do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. It’s great, isn’t it? In government, they wanted to take the credit for everything, but in opposition they do not want to take the blame when things then go wrong. They negotiated the treaty, so they bear the responsibility. I have to pick up the pieces, and we are going to do that. Under universal credit, we will hugely tighten up on self-employed people, shutting the door to many of those whom he allowed to come in and claim benefits in the first place.
The Secretary of State is right to seek to deal with what is clearly a wholly unsatisfactory and confusing situation, but does he agree that some people are seeking deliberately to misrepresent the current reality and so are fuelling fear, which can lead to prejudice and hatred? Does he agree that we need better information about the situation?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I would simply make the point that we have to deal with the reality. Our system does not deal with the problem of people coming here solely to claim benefits. We are always keen for people who have something to add to come to the UK and add their talents and skills to help us build the economy—that has always been the principle—but we do not agree that people should find an open door and a way of coming in just to take money to which they never contributed. That is the key issue. I agree with his point, but responsibility rests with those who used to defend, but now spend their time attacking, the very position they created.
As the hon. Lady knows, given my track record, I bow to nobody in my scepticism about many of these treaties. Under the Prime Minister, we have made it clear that, should my party get elected into government next time round, a very serious renegotiation will take place, with the option of an in-out referendum. Personally, I think that is exactly the right position. This is one of the key areas over which we want to get back a lot of control, and only my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been bold enough to say we will do that, and test ourselves against that.
I love the Secretary of State, but frankly his answer was so long and complicated that one would need a degree in social security to understand it—I did not understand it. As a recent by-election showed, the people are hurting and they want a clear answer from the Government. Why do the Government not do as my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood and Mr Field suggested and either move to a contributory system or say, “We will not pay you benefits until you have stayed here for a number of years”? If the European Court sues us, bring it on, and that will make our case for renegotiation.
I am always grateful for my hon. Friend’s support in these matters. I recall that he used to be in a Government busy voting for the Maastricht treaty when I was rebelling against it, so, with respect, I will do whatever I can and I do not bow before anybody in my determination to say no to the European Commission.
There has been a huge amount of exaggeration of the scale of the problem. Bulgaria and Romania are a fraction of the size of Poland. Most Romanians are more likely to go to Spain or Italy. Is this not more to do with Conservative voters migrating to UKIP?
I am actually a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman makes any reference to the Eastleigh by-election, when the Labour party’s position was an absolute disaster. This is not about that; the reality is simply that we need to ensure that the procedures are tightened up, mostly because of fairness to those who pay their taxes in Britain, who work hard and do not want to see social housing and all these other areas going to people who never made a commitment to this country. This is simply about fairness. We were left a bad position. I am trying to change it, while being infracted by the European Commission and saying no to it at the same time.
The Secretary of State repeatedly talks of the infraction process, which is surely just a fine. No one has ever paid any of these fines. Please, please, please: just say no, tell the Commission to sod off and do not pay the fine.
Order. I can say only that I experienced a moment of deafness—partly because somebody else was wittering on at me—but I have the impression that perhaps something rather tasteless was said. I trust that the person concerned will wash his or her mouth out without delay.
My view is that that is not the case. It is a matter for the Secretary of State for Health. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman will have to raise it with him, but I am not aware of any such discussions or any such facts being placed in front of me. I would certainly not be keen for that to happen, but as the hon. Gentleman will be aware—as will the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, whose track record on this is arguably unimpeachable—we have a big problem and we have to face it, not because we are scaring people, but because we have to deal with it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s toughening up. I certainly trust him to fight in a tough and effective way in Brussels, but does he understand that many of our constituents find it grotesquely offensive that Brussels officials are telling this Parliament who it can and cannot pay benefits to? In that spirit, will he confirm that this is an area of EU competence that this Government will ask to opt out of?
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is invidious that areas that I have always believed were outwith the Commission’s normal competences are being sucked in by using other things—this is to do with the free movement. More could have been done and the issue should have been raised at a much higher level. It is quite good that other nations—mostly northern European nations, but also Spain—are now deeply concerned about the ratchet process. We are meeting them and there are the beginnings of a real resistance to it.
On what will happen in any negotiation, I am clearly not in a position to commit my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on whatever may happen in future.
I welcome the fact that the Government are now tackling the legacy they were left, as far as benefits for foreigners are concerned, but does the Minister not see the contradiction in the Government’s stance at present? We are talking tough at home while—according to Romanian Ministers—giving assurances that those who come from Romania will be given full access to benefits, on the same basis as UK citizens. Does he not see that as an incentive for Romanians to come here and dip into the financial honeypot that they see?
That is exactly what I am trying to deal with, but not just for Romanians. This goes across the board for what anybody in the European economic area can do when they come here. The problem has been in existence for some time, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said. I now have to sweep up after the lord mayor’s show and deal with what has been left behind, after the last Government did nothing at all about the problem. I will do it; I am absolutely determined to.
This is clearly not a problem of the Secretary of State’s making. Given that the average salary in this country is five to six times what it is in Romania and Bulgaria, will he do what he can to ensure cross-departmental co-operation, so that we do not face the situation we had in 2004, when Departments were simply out of the loop?
Absolutely. In fact, we have already had a number of meetings with the Prime Minister and coalition colleagues about tightening up between Departments and understanding where one Department’s position knocks on to another. The first thing is to get rid of the silo mentality that existed and create a pan-Government position. The next thing is not to talk tough here and soft abroad, but to work with the Foreign Office to be as tough over there as we are back here. That is the process that is now being engaged.
The Minister will be aware that large numbers of migrants are bypassing France, Italy and Germany to get to the United Kingdom, almost in haste. What discussions has he had with other EU countries to find the reason for bypassing other countries? Is it that the benefits system in the United Kingdom is much more generous than those anywhere else in Europe?
We have had meetings about this issue with about 17 countries, all at the same time. I would list them all, but they include meetings with officials from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Germany, France and Poland. We have had meetings with all of them. There is no common position for them all, but a sub-set of those most likely to be affected—I understand that Germany and Spain are where most of the Romanians tend to be going at the moment—are very concerned about what may happen.
We are discussing with them exactly how to respond. Reality is now striking many and I think the door is open for us to make a serious move on this issue.
I commend the Secretary of State and the Government for addressing this issue, which has never been addressed before. The principle is simple: UK citizens are entitled to the benefits that come with the contribution system we inherit, whereas EU citizens—those from Ireland perhaps are excepted, because of the common travel area—should not expect greater benefits here than UK citizens should expect in other EU countries. If we could get to that position, everybody would understand it and there would be greater justice and far fewer complaints.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The point he makes—it is one I have made before—is that there is not an easy solution to what the Commission wants, which is to try to drive free movement as the sole and most important element in this process. However, it fails to recognise that all the nation states have very different social security systems. Many of those nations are finally beginning to say, with us, that this cannot be driven through like a coach and horses, because we control our social security systems. We have different ways of contributing and we use tax differently, so the argument we are making—I believe we will win it—is that we must be left to make those decisions. Obviously when people want to come and work, we want them to do that; the issue is when they come not to work. I think we have a strong position on changing that.
I welcome the significant fall in net migration, which is down a third since the general election. It is important to note that 30% of total migration was from European economic area nationals. We have already talked about Romanians and Bulgarians coming here under self-employed status. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key issue is those coming here under self-employed status having top-up benefits?
It has been a problem for some time—this is the point I am trying to make—that the open door comes through on the tax credit system, whereas self-employed people have been able to make that claim. This is the Big Issue seller issue that has been going around—I am very positive about The Big Issue, by the way; this is just about who we pay to do that. The reality is that universal credit opens up an opportunity for us to tighten up those measures, and we will tighten up hugely on access through universal credit for legitimately self-employed people who are unable to declare any kind of income that we might recognise as real.
There is always a danger, when we are discussing a problem such as this, that we give the impression that all immigrants are coming to this country for our benefits system. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the vast majority of eastern European immigrants into the UK are coming here to work and to contribute to our society, and that they should be welcomed?
The reality is that most people who come here come here to work. They come here because they think the job prospects are greater; that is the real attraction. The truth is that, in the last 10 years, we simply did not know what was happening because the last Government refused to collect figures on those from other countries who were claiming benefit. We were therefore unable to answer that question. The first thing we did was to change that, and we now collect the data. We are now beginning to know what the facts are.
For the sake of taxpayers in my constituency, I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State succeeds in his negotiations to redefine the eligibility rules, but does he agree that if for some reason he inexplicably fails it will only encourage more people to vote to leave the European Union when we have the in/out referendum?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reality is that it is issues such as this that drive people away from the concept of the success of the European Union, if that is what they had believed. The more the Commission decides to interfere in areas such as this, the more damage it does to those who are pro-European. I personally have been quite sceptical about the process for a considerable period, but even I can recognise that this damages the concept of a European Union that works for all its members and that is about trade and co-operation and ensuring that the people who live in the European Union get benefits according to what they have contributed.
My constituents will be appalled to learn that the last Government failed to collect any data on the benefits being paid to migrants. Will my right hon. Friend give me a rough assessment of the cost to the Exchequer of the benefits being paid out, so that the British taxpayer can have some idea of the costs that were being imposed on them by the last Government?
I am dying to do that. We want to know who has actually been claiming benefits, but we really do not know that from the figures. The last Government did not want to know. It was almost a deliberate policy not to have the figures available so that people would not know how many were coming in and claiming benefits. That will change. We are an open Government and we will publish the figures. We will be very clear and we will see the size of the problem that we have to resolve.
My constituents are absolutely furious that the UK’s borders are being flung open in this way. Do Her Majesty’s Government have any idea at all about how many Romanians and
Bulgarians might be coming our way? Do they know and are not telling us, or have they not made an estimate? Have they contacted the Romanian and Bulgarian Governments to find out their estimates of the number of their citizens who will be coming to our shores?
As I recall, the last Government put together a set of figures on Polish migration that were fundamentally wrong. The best way to deal with this is to make the systems much tighter and much better focused, so that we can deal with whatever numbers want to come here and ensure that they do not come here to claim benefits. I have said before and I say again that the last Government did not want to know how many of those people were claiming benefits. That is now changing.
The Secretary of State is to be congratulated on his robust approach in trying to build a coalition of European partners to deal with this matter. How confident is he that he will be able to reach agreement before the end of the year? If such agreement is not forthcoming, will he press ahead robustly with whatever unilateral measures he can?
We need to reach an agreement within that time scale, so I really am going to push the accelerator pedal down. I have already called for an urgent meeting with those other countries that have agreed to meet us to discuss the issue. We also need to talk to the Commission. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend Mr Hoban, is hugely responsible for this area, and I will do whatever I can in an arbitrary manner to make sure that nothing else takes place.
We need a society in which immigration takes place at a level and on the conditions that the people of Britain, with their typical generosity, find acceptable. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that unless we develop a firm grip on immigration and pay benefits only according to the rules set by this Parliament, we will not achieve a settled society in Britain?
The whole point is that there is a contract between those who pay their taxes and those who need to receive benefits. That is implicit in everything we do in regard to welfare payments in the UK, and it should be implicit in the way the European Commission looks at individual nation states and understands their relationships with their own citizens. That is the issue that I want to take forward. The Commission needs to think carefully about driving hard just on free movement, without recognising that individual countries have very different systems. We need the leeway to implement those systems as necessary while still observing free movement for those who want to become employed.