HC Deb 23 February 2004 vol 418 cc23-36 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department(Mr. David Blunkett)

I wish to make a statement on the Government's approach to the accession of 10 countries to the European Union from 1 May. EU enlargement is extremely welcome to, and important for, our country. It is something to be celebrated. All parties in this House are in favour of enlargement. John Major played an important role in launching the process. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was instrumental in calling for early accession of the 10 countries.

After 1 May, citizens of accession states will be free to travel across all EU borders. Our position has always been clear—that the UK would benefit from all new EU citizens working legally, paying taxes and national insurance. That is an alternative to illegal working, which would fuel the sub-economy and undermine existing conditions of work. But we will take every step to ensure that our benefit system is not open to abuse. We have already tackled benefit tourism by tightening the habitual residence test. Today, we are building on that by announcing measures that will ensure that those who come here from the accession countries but do not work will not be able to claim benefits.

It is important to remember the positive aspects of migration. The UK is already benefiting from more than 20,000 accession nationals who have been granted work permits in the last two years. From 1 May, that requirement will be replaced by a workers registration scheme.

The United Kingdom has one of the most dynamic and successful economies in the world. Since 1997, our economy has experienced growth and prosperity greater than any other large state. Growth has been higher, we have created more sustainable jobs and we have lower levels of unemployment—almost half the levels of France and Germany—which is a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and to the creativity and flexibility of the British labour market. We currently have more than 500,000 vacancies and will benefit from the skills, flexibility and willingness to work of those new migrant workers, as we have in the past.

To say that we will welcome legal migrants is not new. We set out our policy in our White Paper "Secure Borders, Safe Havens" two years ago. We have consistently developed legitimate and legal routes for managed migration, including issuing 175,000 work permits this year, compared with 40,000 in 1997. At the same time, we have balanced that by taking tough measures to clamp down on illegal working, abuse of the asylum system and clandestine entry into our economy.

We have radically overhauled the asylum system. Over 80 per cent. of asylum claims are now processed in under eight weeks. We now have the lowest asylum backlog for a decade—half the level that we inherited in 1997. We have halved the number of asylum claims from its peak in October 2002. We are removing record numbers of failed asylum seekers and illegal migrants. That balanced approach enables us to make the positive case for legal, managed migration.

The accession of new countries into the European Union opens up new opportunities for trade and labour market flexibility. That is why all EU countries and all political parties in the House welcomed expansion. That is why I am confirming today our decision to allow workers from the accession states access to our labour market, subject to certain sensible conditions.

When we first set out our position, only those countries with high levels of unemployment were planning to introduce restrictions on work for accession nationals. Since then, other countries have changed their stance. It clearly makes sense for us to ensure that our approach does not leave us exposed.

We will therefore introduce a new workers registration scheme to replace work permits for accession nationals. That will place an obligation on all accession nationals to register where they are working and for whom. Their right to work in the UK will depend on their being issued with a registration certificate. It will be incumbent on the employer to check that the employee has registered. That will provide a platform for the national identity card scheme under which, in time, all non-UK nationals will be required to register. That will help us to determine accurately how many new workers are in Britain, and in which sectors and types of employment. It will also assist with enforcement and inspection and enable us to react immediately if, against all the odds, there are destabilising effects on the labour market.

It is important to emphasise that the Government retain full discretion to remove all or part of the concessions at any time. We will not hesitate to do so if necessary. We will in any case tighten controls and deal with those who evade their responsibility by the employment of clandestine workers. I know that all decent employers will want to join with us in cooperating and rooting out those who exploit.

We will put before Parliament a set of affirmative regulations that will allow access to the labour market, while ensuring that our benefits system is not open to abuse.

This is a coherent and sensible package of measures that builds on the principles and policies laid out by the Government over the past three years. We believe that proper, legal, managed migration is good for Britain and fair to genuine workers from the accession countries. Whether they are plumbers or paediatricians, they are welcome if they come here openly to work and contribute. At the same time, it is clearly not right that people should be able to come here, fail to get a job and then enjoy access to the full range of public services and social security benefits.

Therefore, the second element of the package that we are announcing today is that those who wrongly believe that they can move here to claim benefits without working should be in no doubt that they cannot do so. They cannot draw benefits without themselves contributing to the rights and entitlements that should go hand in hand with the responsibilities and duties. For two years, possibly longer, we will require accession nationals to be able to support themselves. If they are unable to do so, they will lose any right of residence and will have to return to their own country.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will bring forward regulations to prevent access to benefits for those not working, and my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will bring forward regulations to prevent them from claiming child benefit. We will also restrict access to other benefits such as social housing.

This package reinforces the balanced approach to immigration that I have spoken about within a clear set of rules. I reiterate that we welcome people, as we have throughout the centuries, to come to our country to work, to contribute and to be part of our society. We reject those from wherever they come who exploit our hospitality. This approach takes account of the simple reality that, under the treaty of accession, no EU member state has the right to interfere with freedom of movement. The issue. therefore, is on what basis people come to our country.

By taking these measures, we will ensure that those arriving in Britain can work for their living openly and honestly and are not drawn into the sub-economy. Those who wish to find a job will be free to do so; those who come for short periods will have the means to do so. In this way, we avoid any expensive bureaucracy and, at the same time, protect ourselves against clandestine work and the exploitation of the sub-economy. This is the right approach for Britain in the 21st century—fair on ourselves, fair on our new partners and tough on those who would abuse the system. I commend the new approach to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)

I thank the Home Secretary for early sight of his statement although, frankly, I wish I had seen it even earlier six months earlier to be precise. The enlargement of the European Union is not a concept that has suddenly emerged in the past six weeks. It has been on the agenda for years.

Britain's strategy for the free movement of labour, which impacts on British jobs and our public services, should have been clear, consistent and planned well in advance. Yet in the past few weeks, we have witnessed the astonishing spectacle of the Prime Minister inventing policy at the Dispatch Box, being contradicted by his official spokesman within hours, being put in his place by the Home Secretary and being blatantly ignored by the Minister for Europe. We have seen Ministers rushing to crisis meetings in Downing street to hammer out plans just weeks before enlargement takes place.

Nevertheless, the Government have, at last, recognised that there is a problem albeit that they have misdiagnosed it and come up with a bureaucratic solution that carries unnecessary risks. The problems created by enlargement result from the massive differences in wages between the accession states and the United Kingdom. That is why the Home Office's predictions on new immigrants arc wrong and have been challenged, not least by the Home Secretary's own advisers. A large number of people will come to Britain—some as benefit tourists, but most seeking work. That will put huge pressure on housing and our public services. The most straightforward and fair method of dealing with this is to use the work permit system, which allows us to control month by month how many people come in and the skills they bring.

Today, the Home Secretary has announced that, instead, he is toughening benefit rules by tightening the habitual residence test and access to benefits. We agree that benefit tourism needs to be stopped. Indeed, a Conservative Government introduced the habitual residence test under much criticism from the Labour party at the time. However, is he entirely satisfied that the provisions are compatible with our obligations under EC law? Is he confident that they will be sustainable in the British courts? What will the Government do if people from accession countries come to the UK—as they are perfectly entitled to do but have no employment? Will they deport them? Their record on deportation has not been very successful so far. What will happen if people are left destitute? What if they have children? Will they be left to sleep on the streets? The legal position is unclear and the problem is compounded by the fact that we have only a few weeks before it can be tested.

Have the Government considered what impact large numbers of workers may have on our already overstretched public services? According to the Government's estimates, the UK already needs to build 39,000 more houses every year. Does the Home Secretary not therefore agree that mass migration may exacerbate the housing problem? Considering that London and the south-east is the preferred destination for two thirds of immigrants, has he assessed the impact on housing, health and education services?

Will the Home Secretary explain why he has decided not to use work permits? What are the advantages of reinventing the wheel through this clumsy and bureaucratic new registration scheme? How is it better than the proven, existing work permit scheme? Without any methods of enforcement, this is little more than another headline-grabbing initiative.

The Home Secretary said that it will be incumbent on the employer to check that the employee has registered with the scheme, but only eight people have ever been found guilty of employing an illegal immigrant. Who is going to enforce this system? He doubtless hopes that identity cards for immigrants will give him a tough-sounding headline, but the crux of the problem will arise in the next two years, and it will start in two months. When will his ID card system bite? Not, I warrant, in two months, or even in two years.

If the Government are right in saying that only 13,000 people from accession countries will come to work in Britain, the work permit system would cope perfectly well. After all, in 2002 Britain granted more than 120,000 work permits—`as the Home Secretary said, the figure for this year is 175,000—including almost 14,000 to people from countries in eastern Europe. In other words, we already process 1,000 more eastern Europeans than the Government are forecasting will come here.

A policy of work permits would not mean slamming the door on migration but would allow us to control exactly how many people come to the UK, and what skills they bring, on a month-by-month basis. Why are work permits good enough for Sweden and the rest of Europe, but not for us? Have we not simply adopted the lesser of two options not on the ground of what is best for Britain, but to avoid the accusation of a U-turn or climbdown? Is that not what happens when crucial decisions are taken in crisis meetings at the last minute?

This is not so much a policy of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, as opening it to see whether the horse wants to run. Yet again, the British people have been badly served by this Government. The shambles that we have witnessed surrounding this policy sums up why Britain deserves better.

Mr. Blunkett

I am genuinely bewildered as to whether the hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "The right hon. Gentleman."] I must get it right. I am genuinely bewildered as to whether the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of allowing people to come here to work, or not. Listening to him, there seems to be one difference between us: whether there should be a pre-entry system of work permits, or a post-entry registration scheme. The CBI, the TUC and the British Chambers of Commerce favour the post-entry registration scheme that we propose. The director general of the BCC is on record as saying: We will not support a work permit scheme if it means greater administrative and regulatory burdens". That is clearly what it would mean, and for the reasons that I am about to spell out.

The existing work permit scheme is for those who do not have automatic right of entry to the United Kingdom. They have to apply and to have a preordained job before they come here, and the employer has to apply to the work permit system—it is based in my own city—to obtain a permit to get the person in. That costs the individual a great deal of money, and the employer a great deal of time. Doing that for those who have right of entry—those who can come into the economy and work legally—would simply push them into the sub-economy, where they would be exploited by the worst employers. The minimum wage and working conditions for existing employees would be undercut, and national insurance and tax would not be paid. What sort of economy is that? What sort of politics is that?

It is the politics of despair and immorality because it pushes employers and individuals into an immoral situation in which, in order to compete, they start to undercut the rate by employing clandestine workers. Our policy is to clamp down on clandestine working and allow those who have access to come freely into our country to work freely, but they should do so openly, pay their dues and be entitled to their residency.

Under the residency rules, we should be able to apply stringent tests to avoid people claiming benefits because there can be only two reasons why people wish to come here: to work to earn their living, or to draw down on services. If we are stopping people drawing down on services and benefits yet allowing them to work legally, what on earth are the Opposition talking about? What could be the risk? I have never said that there would be only 13,000 people.

David Davis

Yes, you did.

Mr. Blunkett

No, I have not. We published independent research on the website last summer, with its methodology. The figure of 13,000 has never crossed my lips. We will not know the situation until people apply for the vacancies that exist in our economy, including, it must be said, in construction. Building houses requires construction workers, and if we get construction workers to fill vacancies, we will actually be able to build houses—that is also a simple economic reality.

Conservative Members preach flexibility, free movement of capital and labour and an economy of balance in which labour market forces balance out those who want jobs with the jobs available. They say that that is good for Britain, but the minute we do it, they are against it on purely opportunistic grounds. Well, not all of them, because the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department(Caroline Flint)

He has gone.

Mr. Blunkett

No wonder, because the hon. Gentleman must have known that I would quote what he said on this morning's "Today" programme. He said: if you and I wanted to go to Slovakia or Slovenia to work, that's fine, but if we were to go there and simply claim benefits, most normal, sensible people would say 'that's wrong'. I agree entirely with him. If people want to come and work in Britain openly and legally, that is right. If they want to come and claim our benefits, that is wrong. I commend to the House what we have done.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD)

I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement, but I hope that he will at least acknowledge that the Government have left it very late in the day to resolve these critical issues. With just weeks before the accession countries join, today's announcement is either the result of bad planning, a panic response to tabloid pressure or the sign of a disagreement in the Cabinet. While I welcome the positive language that he used on migration, why has he decided to introduce the measures from 1 May? He acknowledged that he was not sure of the figures involved, so would it not have made more sense to wait and base the policy on fact rather than prediction and to review the situation in six months to determine whether there really is a difficulty with migration and benefit abuse?

With that in mind, will the Home Secretary take it upon himself to produce a quarterly report on migration figures from the new countries so that we can see the facts? When deciding on work registration certificates, will he clarify whether restrictions will be imposed on issuing certificates in areas with job shortages? What right of appeal will individuals claiming those certificates or benefits have if they are refused?

Finally, does not the whole episode show two things? On Europe, the Government must decide if they really want a full Europe or a two-tier Europe, and, on immigration, they must decide whether they want a policy based on facts or on tabloid fiction.

Mr. Blunkett

I did not think that I had announced anything this afternoon that was tabloid fiction. I thought that I had enunciated a policy that we set out two years ago in the White Paper to which I referred and that I have been following ever since. There has been no disagreement between the Prime Minister and me on the Matter— none. We are agreed that we want people to come here to work, and we are agreed that we do not want people to exploit our benefits and social services. That is simple, straightforward and everyone can understand it.

We will not need an appeals system under the rules. If people have a job and are registered, they will be entitled to benefits. If they do not have a job and are not registered, we will be able to disqualify them from benefits under the European accession rules. Those are the rules that we are laying down. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Paymaster General will together lay the necessary orders to enforce that.

I am happy to publish the number of those who register, as we do the number of those who are granted work permits, so that people can see how many people have come to our country and are working. There will be no need for a bureaucratic system forbidding registration in particular parts of the country. A labour market is a labour market: if people can get a job, they get a job, and employers have the opportunity to take them on. My only appeal is that people who do not have a job at the moment in this country are willing to be as flexible and as prepared to move and to work as those who come from other parts of the European Union. In that way, we would ensure that people who can work and who have no disability that precludes them from working get a job instead of being dependent on benefit. To be honest, that has been our policy all the time: welfare to work, make work pay, ensure that people are welcome to work and have an honest, open debate about it.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many editors of tabloid newspapers will very much regret what he said in his statement? He has refused to rise to the bait of the scare stories and race hatred stories that they have published over the past few weeks and produced a reasonably balanced statement. However, what will the position be for immigrant workers who have a work permit and are registered and in employment? Surely they and their families will be entitled to the day-to-day benefits of the national health service, education for their children and so on once they begin to pay taxation and national insurance. Will he confirm that they will not be excluded from that?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not going to speculate on what the morning papers will say, except to say that a number of tabloids that do not take our political point of view are strongly in favour of honest work and of people declaring that they are working and paying their taxes and national insurance. I look forward to them backing what we are doing wholeheartedly and being totally against clandestine exploitation.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I can confirm that that is the case. When someone has worked consistently for 12 months and paid national insurance and taxes, they will be entitled to those benefits.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

Will the Home Secretary say for how long the European Union will allow him to apply the restrictions on benefit entitlement? Is he wholly satisfied that they are legally sound?

People who come here and secure a job will be entitled to housing benefit and, of course, to use the health service. Will that not create major problems in areas such as seaside towns, which already have a major problem? Will the right hon. Gentleman look into that? Finally, as the average income in eastern Europe is one third of what it is in the European Union, does he not genuinely think that the problem could be much greater than he anticipates?

Mr. Blunkett

On the first question, the answer is initially for two years, which is renewable. On people drawing down housing benefit, I have made it clear that social housing will not be available to anyone who is not working. It will not automatically be available to those who are working because they have to take their turn in the queue. However, I expect people who are earning their living to want to live here sensibly and respectably, and to be able to rent accordingly in the private sector. We would want them to do that.

On the hon. Gentleman's third question, I remember people saying exactly the same thing when Portugal, Spain and Greece acceded to the EU. The disparity in comparative wage levels when Portugal and Greece, in particular, entered the European Union was very similar to that which exists now between employment and wage levels here and in the accession countries. That is why we are confident that what we are doing is sensible for both the British economy and our society.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab)

The press and politicians are preoccupied with the lower-wage end of the market, but on the other side of the coin, will the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions deal with some of the professional bodies and royal colleges which are putting obstructions in the way of people with a profession coming here who can meet an unmet need? For instance, there is a surfeit of dentists in Poland, and I want them to be able to come here.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his opposite number in the Irish Republic, bearing in mind our common travel area? Their problems are ours, and vice versa, and if we do not deal with the British Isles, rather than the United Kingdom, these and other measures relating to the control of immigration will not work.

Mr. Blunkett

I said "plumbers or paediatricians"; I should have said "dustmen or dentists", but we are not allowed to say "dustmen" any more. Where there is a market or a shortage, and people have the relevant skills, I am in favour of them coming here, earning their living openly and being able to contribute. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that that is sensible.

Andrew Mackinlay

The Irish Republic?

Mr. Blunkett

We have of course been in touch with our opposite numbers in Ireland, and they are considering today whether they want to replicate the measures that we are taking.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

I welcome the Home Secretary's belated conversion to the habitual residence test, which he and his party so vehemently opposed when I introduced it. However, is he aware that, according to the House of Commons Library brief, the accession treaty contains a standstill clause that ensures that rights to access to the labour market prevailing at the time of accession may not be subsequently further restricted? He says that the Government retain full discretion to remove all or part of the concessions at any time, which clearly is untrue beyond 2007. Is there any truth in his statement or in the Library's statement? If the Library is incorrect, what restrictions would he propose subsequently to introduce if the numbers proved excessive?

Mr. Blunkett

There is a right to withdraw the concession within the time scale to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, because it is a concession.

Mr. Lilley

What about the standstill clause?

Mr. Blunkett

Well, our legal advice is very clear, and we believe that we are not bound from 1 May. We do not believe that there will be a difficulty, but if there were, we could return to the issue and consider it anew. What might be open to us is to do as the Germans propose—I am totally opposed to this—and allow people free entry, which they have to do, not allow them to work, but be prepared to countenance their working in the sub-economy. That is both dishonest and dangerous.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

Will the Home Secretary clarify again the position on social housing? If a properly registered worker enters the country with his family and comes to stay in the borough of Lambeth, where there are thousands of people on the waiting list and people have been told that they must wait seven years for any chance of moving from a two-bedroom to a three-bedroom property, what exactly will be their position?

Mr. Blunkett

The position is as my hon. Friend has just spelled it out: people are likely to wait in excess of seven years to get anywhere near a property, by which time they will have paid plenty of taxes and national insurance and they will be long-standing and valued members of her community.

Mr. Elfyn LIwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the whole argument may be a little overblown? His own figures show that last year 78,000 people from the EU managed to claim habitual residence status in this country. which has a working population of 29 million. Does he also agree that any perceived influx would in any event be shortlived, as the eastern European economies picked up?

Mr. Blunkett

That is exactly the point of all parties and all politicians in the House having welcomed accession. The whole intention was to provide a trade area, lifting the standard of living and increasing the interchange of trade of people between countries that are, mainly, former communist states, and that is what we are doing. The EU has accepted that Malta and Cyprus, with which we have tremendous historical connections, have freedom across the board in every country for both work and benefits and support, as we do.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point entirely.

On the habitual residence test, it is worth reflecting on the fact that that was tightened by this Government in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and in regulations precisely to prevent non-EU nationals resident in the EU from coming here to exploit our system.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's refusal to bow to the hysteria about large numbers of people coming here and adoption of a sensibly system of allowing people to work here legally. I am sure that he agrees, however, that if it is to work he will have to crack down on employers who are prepared to employ people illegally. Employers who do not bother to check up on people under the current system will not bother to check whether they are registered under the new scheme, but will continue to employ people illegally, to pay less than the minimum wage, to fail to pay national insurance and so on. We have not had a good record in dealing with those employers, so I urge that he take that extremely seriously. We should target people who employ illegal workers to ensure that significantly more are prosecuted.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree that we should step up our inspection and enforcement system. Good employers, including those represented through the TUC, British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, are in favour of that. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration chairs an intergovernmental working group to consider how we can improve on section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. That regulatory framework, which was introduced by a former Home Secretary who is now Leader of the Opposition, has signally failed—it never worked and will need radical updating.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con)

Officers of Breckland district council, part of whose area I represent, calculate that some 15,000 migrant workers have arrived in the past two to three years. Some are here legally, but some are here illegally, with, in some cases, the obvious consequences of appalling exploitation and pressures on health and other public services. Does the Home Secretary accept that he has left somewhat late his response to what will happen as a result of the European directive? Can he give the House any idea of the numbers he expects to arrive; and can he reassure the House that the pressures on local services, about which I have warned him, his Department and other Departments for at least two years, will be avoided when we have large numbers of additional people in these islands?

Mr. Blunkett

I know the right hon. Lady well, and I know that she will welcome those people coming to Norfolk legally, rather than illegally; their being registered, rather than unregistered; and their being monitored, rather than left to sink in the sub-economy. Through that regulation and monitoring, we will be able to plan for the requirements that she spells out, avoid the unwarranted pressures to which she rightly draws attention, and ensure that we have a degree of sensible planning within this flexible market system.

On numbers, I cannot give the right hon. Lady a definitive figure. Last June, we published the figures that have been mentioned. We do not intend to be held to those figures. Neither my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration nor I have ever used them—although the Department clearly has, because it funded the research. I have no intention of being held to the 13,000 figure: if I had, I would be a very foolish politician, because in future the only issue raised in this House would not be whether those people were good for our country or had paid their tax or national insurance, but whether I had got the figure wrong.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab')

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and support his balanced approach. That will also be welcomed in areas and constituencies that have experienced large flows of people from eastern Europe—most seeking asylum and most with unfounded claims. However, does he agree that it is important to raise the issue in those eastern European countries and send a signal that people will be welcome to come to seek work but that there will be difficulties for and restrictions on those who want to abuse the system? What measures will he take to get that message across?

Mr. Blunkett

We spelled out our intention some time ago, but I reiterate it this afternoon: we will spend resources on ensuring that the message is clear, especially in those countries where there is misinformation about people's likely entitlements if they reach our shores. That is fair to them, so that they do not trail themselves and often their children across Europe only to find that they are not entitled to benefit, and fair to us to ensure that those people do not make the attempt to exploit a system that we are now closing down.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the best word that can be applied to the measure is "dilatory"? Does he recall that his predecessor announced that the Government would not implement the measures that we had introduced against illegal working in 1996 and then two years later had to admit they were wrong? Now, some two years after that, they have managed to prosecute no more than one person—in 2001—for employing people illegally. They have known for a long time that this particular problem was about to arise, and that it is bound to increase the amount of illegal working, because people will have —

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

What is the question?

Miss Widdecombe:

The question was, does the Home Secretary accept that the applicable word is "dilatory"? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That should be enough.

Mr. Blunkett

I am tempted to say simply that the answer is no. The applicable term is "common sense". Many countries in Europe have not laid regulations or spelled them out in detail. The Germans have done that, but many countries have not set out precisely what they will do. Since I have spelled out precisely the policy that I have enunciated for two years, I can hardly be described as dilatory or contradictory.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

I appreciate everything that my right hon. Friend said in the statement. I want to ask him about the comment that the proposals would provide a platform for a national ID card scheme, under which, in time, all non-UK nationals would be required to register. How will we know who are non-UK nationals if we depend on employers, such as the gangmaster who allowed the men to die in Morecambe bay, to be in charge of registering? Are we reaching the point where we may have to move towards a national ID scheme for us all?

Mr. Blunkett

We are moving towards an ID scheme for us all, as I said at the end of last year. We will introduce a draft Bill in the spring for prior consideration and scrutiny and present it for the House to decide whether it wants to go ahead with the scheme that is being recommended and is now agreed by the Cabinet. Yes, we need to toughen up on gangmasters and ensure that any ID card scheme that commences with overseas nationals takes account of the terrible exploitation of clandestines that I am trying to avoid, through the measures announced this afternoon.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Is the Home Secretary comfortable about being so out of step with our European Union partners? Is it possible that Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece are all wrong?

Mr. Blunkett

Not all of them are wrong. However, some have decided to adopt bureaucratic methods of achieving the same goal. The British Chambers of Commerce has condemned those methods and the Confederation of British Industry has not welcomed them. I have avoided the massive bureaucracy involved in trying to stop people getting in-in the first place by providing for them to register when they arrive and have a job to do. That is a commonsense approach, which I hoped hon. Members of all parties would welcome.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

What has happened in the past few weeks to make the Home Secretary renege on a commitment to which the Government proudly held in the past seven years as the champion of enlargement? He has presented no evidence to suggest either that benefit tourists will come here for those purposes or that the Home Office will be able to cope with the new registration scheme. We have already heard about the backlog. On 1 May, surely we should warmly welcome the new members of the EU rather than rip away the welcome mat from under them.

Mr. Blunkett

You see, Mr. Speaker. the dilemmas amid which we walk. I shall just ask my hon. Friend to consider the way in which we maintain community and race relations in this country, the way in which we have been able to open up a new work permit system and legal, managed migration, and the way in which we shall become able, during the next few weeks, to welcome people openly as asylum seekers to this country, via the United Nations route, rather than in the back of lorries. Those methods are precisely to ensure that people in this country do not believe that their taxes and national insurance contributions are exploited by those who have no entitlement, have not contributed and would come to this country to draw on one of the most generous welfare state systems in the world. That is the balance that I have achieved right across the board in asylum and immigration, and that is what I am seeking to achieve this afternoon. It is not only common sense; it is absolutely critical to the maintenance of decent race relations in Britain.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), if the standstill clause in the accession treaties does not mean that restrictions cannot be introduced after accession, will the Home Secretary explain what he thinks it does mean? Will he make it absolutely clear that he had specific legal advice on the part of his statement that said that the Government retain full discretion to remove all or part of the concessions at any time"? Did he have legal advice on that point?

Mr. Blunkett

That is what I said, and that is what I meant.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)

The Home Secretary said that accession country nationals will have to be able to support themselves for two years. Does that mean a change to the habitual residence test for British-born citizens who have chosen to move to an EU country or to the United States, which would make it more difficult for people to return to this country from working abroad? I should be grateful if he clarified that.

Mr. Blunkett

The statement applies to accession country nationals, not to British nationals returning from overseas. Their entitlement remains the same.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

On access to social housing, can the Home Secretary confirm whether the restrictions that he spoke of earlier will apply purely to members of the accession countries, or whether they will apply to members of existing EU countries as well?

Mr. Blunkett

The changes that we are bringing about in benefits and housing apply to accession countries, but the restrictions that I have already described relate to those who are not working, rather than to those who are working. On that basis, what we are doing in relation to EU nationals as a whole is consistent.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab):

The Home Secretary is to be congratulated on his clear defence of legal, managed migration in the face of much media hysteria; but on the question of clandestine, illegal, exploited labour, the consequences of which we saw in the Morecombe bay deaths, may I again stress the importance of bringing pressure to bear on employers? If my right hon. Friend is looking again at the 1996 Act, will he look at how the law bears down not just on employers, but on those who employ the subcontractors and gangmasters who employ illegal labour? Those subcontractors could not tender successfully without their reliance on cheap, unregistered labour.

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, we will certainly do that, which is why we are backing the Gangmaster (Licensing) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), which will be debated in the House on Friday. We shall give that Bill every support, and good passage.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), is the Home Secretary aware that officers of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, which covers all of my constituency and part of that of my right hon. Friend, have estimated that last summer there were roughly 2,500 illegal immigrants in Norfolk, many of them in the west of the county? Does the Home Secretary agree that as many of those were probably working in a clandestine manner and being exploited in a sub-economy, it is crucial that he stick to his word and back tighter measures against the ruthless gangmasters who are exploiting those people?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, and if any of those 2,500 people are from the eight accession countries affected by my statement, we will ask them to come forward to declare themselves and be registered openly and properly, so that they will be entitled to the rights that go with that.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is right not to overreact to the tabloid hyperbole on this subject. Does he agree that there has been abuse? From the Czech Republic over a five-year period, there were 6,000 so-called asylum seekers, less than 20 of whom were judged to have well founded cases. One of those came to my constituency after a long career in crime in Czechoslovakia. He came with a warrant out for his arrest, and he committed a dreadful crime in my constituency for which he is serving a long sentence now. Can we say that under this new balanced policy people with those intentions will not be allowed to abuse the system in future?

Mr. Blunkett

Certainly, committing crime will not be eligible for registration under the scheme, if I may lighten the tone for a moment. In response to my hon. Friend's question, yes, the scheme will enable us to do so, and we will be able to cross-reference in relation to registration, which will be helpful in that regard.