European Union (Accessions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 7th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:06 pm, 7th February 2006

My Lords, although we on this side strongly favour the Bill, it would be a pity to let it now pass without a few comments on its historic significance and on some of the implications. I hope that the Minister will want to join in with a few comments. The Bill legitimises, at least in this country, our agreement to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union. The plan is that that should take place in January next year, which is only 12 months away—the Bill provides for the possibility that there might be some delay, as indeed there might be, because the schedule is obviously extremely demanding.

Allow me to note one or two implications and facts in relation to the Bill. First, the last big accessions Act, in May 2004, brought in 10 new countries, including eight from eastern and central Europe. In the 17 months that followed, some 293,000 workers from those new member states registered here. It is extraordinary how well the nation, or society, has succeeded in absorbing that colossal number. In that period, we have probably absorbed about three times the size of the entire Huguenot arrivals at the end of the 17th century. It has been one of the biggest and swiftest immigrations ever into this country—into which there have been immigrations for well over 1,000 years—and yet it has been absorbed in a way that has hardly raised any social comment or disruption anywhere. It has been one of the greatest inflows of modern times.

The nation can therefore pat itself on the back as we give the Bill its Third Reading. However, I am not sure that I extend such generosity to the Government, because their estimate of some 13,000 workers registering—which is not the same as immigrants for settlement, which might come later—was, to put it mildly, wide of the mark. Anyway, a very large number—some 300,000—have disappeared or settled into industries across the country. While the availability of the facts is not at all good, and there is a case for more illumination from the Government, we think that those immigrants have gone largely into the construction and service industries, such as restaurants and plumbing—the proverbial Polish plumber has featured on the scene.

My party colleagues and I believe that all of this has been of considerable benefit to the national economy, as will any additional flows that result from the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Why has this huge flow occurred? Why has Britain proved to be the obvious destination of choice? One reason was embodied in the previous accession Bill—namely, that Her Majesty's Government decided against any restrictions during the transition period, both before and after accession by the 10 countries involved, whereas most other EU countries decided to have restrictions. Indeed, 10 of those countries are now reviewing whether they should keep the restrictions, which will lapse if they are not renewed on 1 May this year. I hope that there are many other reasons why this country proved to be so attractive, but a clear reason was that restrictions were in place elsewhere. Presumably, lifting them might make some difference to the pattern of flows.

This is an important moment for Bulgaria and Romania. We all wish the negotiators well—those seeking to make a place for those countries in the European Union at a time when the EU is undergoing considerable transformation and is seeking new directions after the collapse of the ambitions for a detailed new constitution. We hope that Parliament will be kept very well informed as the flow of workers from Bulgaria and Romania who register here builds up, as it will. Indeed, I hope that we are better informed than during the previous round of accessions. We hear many figures and have many debates about non-EU immigration and worker settlement in this country, but my impression is that the availability of figures on the pattern of movements within the EU has not been so good. We might benefit from closer monitoring and more regular reporting to Parliament, which was the idea behind some of the amendments that we moved at an earlier stage.

These newcomers are an asset, as has been the case with most of the migrants who have settled here through the centuries. We welcome the Bill, as we welcome the skills that the new migrants bring, but it would be nice to know that Parliament will be kept closely informed about what happens over the next one, two, three and five years as these countries find their place inside the Union.