[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair] — Backbench business — Immigration (Bulgaria and Romania)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:25 pm on 22nd April 2013.

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Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 5:25 pm, 22nd April 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker. I hope that you and right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me, but I have to attend a Committee meeting later, so I will not be here for the conclusion of the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard on a first-class speech. I cannot say that I agreed with all of it, but I agreed with a great part of it, and he reflected well the grave concern that is felt outside this Chamber. I am sorry to say that I cannot follow the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz. I think that we all remember the rather lowering period when he was a Minister at the Foreign Office. I agree with the general tenor of his approach, as to moderation, consulting and all the rest of it, but I think that the public are looking for a more robust approach to the matter than he offers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said, has, together with the Home Secretary, pushed the debate forward and taken important steps. They have so far succeeded in driving down the numbers significantly. I am grateful to him for several meetings. He knows that is important for the credibility of government—not party Government but government of the country—that the Government should be seen to reflect the great concern about the question of immigration and the way it has been allowed to run riot. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said about the debt that this country owes to immigrants, who have played, and will continue to play, an important role; but that is not what we are talking about today.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there is a serious risk of a significant inflow of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants. There is no shadow of doubt about it. The unbelievable cupidity and foolishness of the last Labour Government in not dealing with the matter beforehand is shaming to the Government of this country and shows how feeble they were. The problem lies, as they should have understood, in the huge difference in the standard of living between those countries and the United Kingdom. The reaction is an entirely understandable one to the opportunity to come. People will take that opportunity—I am not in any doubt about that.

There are two wild cards that have not been mentioned this afternoon. First, there are nearly 1 million Romanians and Bulgarians in Spain, and a similar number in Italy. There must be a serious risk that some will relocate to northern Europe—perhaps to Germany, France, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom. Secondly, there is the possibility that minorities who are heavily discriminated against in their own countries will seek a better life in the United Kingdom. That is most clearly a possibility in relation to the Roma.

There are no easy solutions. The cross-party group on balanced migration has suggested that consideration should be given to whether EU members should have powers, during periods of high unemployment, to restrict the free movement of labour, which is at present guaranteed by EU law. To me, that is one of the fundamental reforms that the European Union needs to look at without fear. If Europe is to survive as an entity, it must be able to move forward and break out of the silos in which it currently runs itself. It is folly not to consider that kind of suggestion: it may find very good reason to shoot it down, but it should look at it.

The role of the welfare state needs the most careful consideration. The payment of in-work benefits, such as tax credits, to low-paid workers contributes substantially to the financial incentive to migrate. There is again no doubt whatever about that. Access to the UK benefit system is primarily based on residence. An EU national who moves to the UK and is considered habitually resident has the same entitlement to benefits as a UK national, regardless of their previous tax or national insurance contributions. Currently, habitual residence is automatic for workers and the self-employed, and qualification is easy for jobseekers.

The cross-party group recommends that there should be a requirement of a period of time—or contributions—of, say, six months before in-work benefits are paid. On jobseekers, there seems to be no reason why EU citizens who do not find work should be entitled to benefits in the United Kingdom when they have the simple option of getting on a bus and going home. We should encourage that, perhaps even by going so far as to offer them a ticket. To implement those policies successfully the habitual residence test needs to be tightened and centrally administered by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Many other Members have more to say than me. I simply conclude by earnestly and truly congratulating the Minister and the Home Secretary on the progress made so far on this fiendishly difficult issue. One thing on which I most congratulate him is the very sane way in which he has approached the debate, making the point about the importance of keeping the vocabulary and language moderate and sensible. This is not a war; this is a national problem for this country that must be addressed. We will only be able to deal with it probably—possibly even—at the margins, but deal with it we must in a frank way, in the interests of our country.