Immigration — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 7 January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 2:45, 7 January 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what preliminary assessment they have made of the recent lifting of restrictions on citizens coming to the United Kingdom from Romania and Bulgaria.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, it is too early to provide such an assessment. We have taken the advice of the independent Migration Advisory Committee, which concluded that it would not be sensible or helpful to policymakers to make predictions about likely volumes. The Government are doing everything they can to ensure that people who come to the UK from the EU do so for the right reasons—to work hard and to contribute to our economy and society.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

I thank my noble friend for his reply. Does he accept that migrants from these countries, many of them highly skilled, come to Britain because the expanding, vibrant and welcoming economy gives many opportunities for self-advancement? Secondly, has he sympathy with Romanian Ministers who have pointed out that, with 866,000 persons in the UK being registered unemployed for more than a year, the UK Government might be well employed in reviewing benefit levels for the UK unemployed to a level at which they might be encouraged to apply for some of the vacancies currently being filled by the migrants?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first question: yes, this is one of the benefits of the free movement of labour around the community, so if one country is doing better than another we can get a flow of labour to equalise things. On the second point, on benefit levels, it is not my responsibility to answer for the Home Office on migration issues.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour

My Lords, amid all the unpleasantness in parts of the media over the past few weeks about Romanians and Bulgarians, has the noble Earl had the time to see the study recently published by a team from University College London, which shows that immigrants from the EU over the past 10 years have contributed far more in taxes and national insurance contributions than they have consumed in public services and in benefits, unlike the position of the native population? In other words, they have supplied us with a substantial financial and fiscal surplus, to the benefit of every taxpayer in this country. Is there not every probability that hard-working Romanians and Bulgarians will follow in the same footsteps?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord’s last question is yes. On his first question, I handled business on that particular report. I cannot remember the precise details, but I broadly agree with the noble Lord’s thrust.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub Committee F - Home Affairs, Health and Education

Can the noble Earl confirm my recollection that all three main parties supported the seven-year transition period that expired last week for Romanians and Bulgarians, and gave it wholehearted support when this House and the other place ratified their accession treaties?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Again, the noble Lord is right. This is what we signed up to in the accession treaties for these two states. However, we need to stimulate a debate within the community about how best to manage transition in the future.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, as I am, of the benefits of free movement enjoyed in the past, now and, I hope, in the future, by British citizens in the EU? Is it not a case of, “Do as you would be done by”?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend is absolutely right. There is two-way traffic, both to and from member states in the EU. There are great benefits from the free movement of labour.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, Soft Power Committee, Chair, Soft Power Committee

My Lords, would my noble friend remind the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that when we debated the question of former satellite countries joining the European Union, some of us were considerably less than wholehearted. In fact, we queried whether the figure of 13,000 likely new arrivals was accurate. As it turned out, of course, it was nearer a million than 13,000, so our reservations at that time were fully justified.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend may have been talking about the accession of Poland. A very large number of Poles came to this country. I was talking about Romania and Bulgaria, where we expect that the numbers will not be so large.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the Minister said in his Answer that it was too early to make an assessment of the numbers. However, some of the language from the Government has been quite alarmist rhetoric. Would it not be better to look at measures to stop any workers being exploited, such as stronger and better enforcement of the national minimum wage, and also to tackle those loopholes that allow agency workers, often from overseas, to be employed at much lower rates than home-grown employees?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. One thing that we have done is to increase very significantly the fixed penalty for employers for not paying the minimum wage. We also need to look at a number of instances where immigrant labour is being abused—for instance, agricultural workers from eastern Europe. The noble Baroness is right; we need to keep a grip on this.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, whatever reservations we might or might not have had concerning the expansion of the European Union, will Her Majesty’s Government give an undertaking that unless and until we extricate ourselves from the Union, we will loyally and honourably accept all our legal obligations in respect of it?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government do have a policy of adhering to treaty obligations. That is why we are very happy with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU, and with the free movement of those peoples, from 1 January.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Am I having an aberration? The opposition Front Bench complained about loopholes introduced by the agency workers scheme. Will my noble friend confirm that the scheme was introduced by the previous Labour Government?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord is right—but, equally, we must close the loopholes and avoid the abuse of low-cost labour from eastern Europe.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, if what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said about the seven-year accession arrangements was correct, why do Mr Cameron and government Ministers go on television and accuse the previous Labour Government of acting irresponsibly?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, it is important to make sure that we have transitional arrangements for future accessions that work properly and do not have undesirable effects, especially when the acceding state has a lower GDP per capita than the rest of the community.