HC Deb 02 March 2004 vol 418 cc870-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7.43 pm
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the issue of the freedom of movement of citizens of EU states. The matter has suddenly become unnecessarily controversial, and I hope that tonight we have an opportunity for a far more balanced debate. On 1 May —in fact, in 61 days' time—the EU is set to embark on an historic journey by considerably extending its size and capability. The European Union has been a success story from the very beginning. It has secured peace on the European continent, given member states the benefit of free trade and economic prosperity and set an example of co-operation to the rest of the world.

It is now time to welcome 10 new members We have planned long and hard to prepare Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to enter as full and equal members of the Union. While in Government, I had the great pleasure of visiting each of those states and seeing for myself, despite the pain of the negotiation process, the enthusiasm that Governments and citizens alike have for full and equal membership of the EU.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of short-term solutions have been suggested as a remedy to a number of thought-up scenarios, and the longer-term benefits to the whole of the EU have, sadly, been completely forgotten. It has been predicted that on 1 May masses of people from the eastern European countries will come to Britain to take advantage of our benefits system. The truth is that all the anecdotal evidence suggests that we will not see a mass migration to the UK, and therefore it would be foolish to expect the worst of countries and citizens that are to live and develop side by side with us.

I believe that the people who are coming to the UK are coming to work, not to go on benefits. The accession countries have a troubled past and have not always had the benefit of freedom of movement and speech. Being members of the European Union means that countries as well as citizens should be treated equally. That is the fundamental basis on which the EU has been built. I ask the Minister tonight why we should treat a citizen from Poland any differently from a citizen from Sweden or Portugal when both come here to work, pay tax and make their living. What gives a German or a Spaniard more right of access than a Pole or a Latvian?

The Home Secretary's statement on 23 February was welcome in that he did not pander to the worst prejudices of those who in reality do not support enlargement or the EU, but it was disappointing because he chose to create an unnecessary new piece of bureaucracy —the workers registration scheme. The scheme can only be a deterrent to anybody wanting to come to Britain. I take this opportunity to ask the Minister exactly how the registration scheme will work.

The immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office—the organisation that supposedly would have to deal with the policy and its implementation—cannot be described as a Rolls-Royce service. The backlog of asylum and immigration cases has become something of a clich?. The Minister knows that herself because, before she became a Minister, she was among the fiercest critics of delay. Is it seriously suggested that the public inquiry office at Lunar house will be able to cope with the introduction of regulations to vary leave, when it takes the public inquiry office months to answer letters from MPs and sometimes years to reply to solicitors' cases?

Can the Minister tell us the answers to the following questions? When people arrive in the UK, where and when will they register for work? Will they be put on parole until they have stated the purpose of the visit and produced employment documentation? Will the police handle the inquiries or will that fall on the already overburdened and overstretched Home Office or will it be handled by a jobcentre? Will people then require a certificate? If an accession national should change employer within the time frame of the scheme, will he or she have to re-register? What burden will fall on the relevant post abroad, and what guidance have staff there received? What are the possibilities of reviewing the scheme, and will it be abolished if implementation proves impossible? Will there be a registration fee? If so, how much will it be? If not, what will be the final cost for taxpayers in this country of implementing a scheme that has clearly not been thought through? What sanctions will there be for those who do not register to work?

In the past few weeks, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have changed their minds and imposed restrictions, although they had promised that there would be no transitional arrangements. Ireland has followed the British example and is set to implement rules, despite the fact that until 23 February its position was to wait and see. Germany and Austria are the only countries that may have reasons to impose transition arrangements of some kind, as 80 per cent. of eastern European migrants currently live in those two countries. For the rest of us, there are no legitimate reasons to blow the issue out of proportion, as has been done.

Politicians and commentators from Vilnius to Bratislava have been more saddened than stunned by the way in which the UK has appeared to dance to the tune of the right-wing agendas of the tabloid newspapers and of the Leader of the Opposition. Sadly, the Government have drawn back from their very clear position on the freedom of movement of labour. It is a surprise that the tabloids have not suggested that we lock up our daughters in case of the predatory actions of Roger from Riga. But it is no surprise that the Leader of the Opposition jumped on the bandwagon. The Conservatives cannot talk seriously about Europe because it tears them apart. That is why they have to reach for the box marked "race and immigration": it gives them headlines without having to stake out an intellectual case. Only a few months ago, they were calling for a referendum on the Nice treaty—that was their way of blocking enlargement—yet our country was not given a referendum on Maastricht.

We have to remember that the enlargement process owes its momentum to Britain. The enlargement accession negotiations began under the UK's presidency of the ELI in 1998. In October 2000, in Warsaw, the Prime Minister was the first Head of Government to call for the new member states to participate as full members in the 2004 European Parliament elections. In December 2002, the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Foreign Ministers of the applicant countries confirming that the UK would open its borders to free movement of workers from all new member states as of the date of accession. The Prime Minster and the Foreign Secretary played an enormous part in ensuring that enlargement was on track. Indeed, I observed for myself the pivotal role that the Prime Minister played in the process. Without him, I do not believe that enlargement would be taking place on 1 May. I also pay tribute to the work of Gunter Verheugen, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, for all the good work that he has done.

Successive UK Ministers have highlighted Britain's laudable position as the only big country to accept all as full EU citizens. We staked out a clear position, and that delighted our future EU partners. Our policy was different from, and better than, that of the others. It confirmed the UK as the champion of enlargement and gave the Prime Minster huge moral and political authority. A new Europe was emerging. British companies were warmly welcomed in the capital cities of the applicant states. Since 1990, the UK's trade with future member states has increased nearly 10 times as fast as with the rest of the world. Freedom of movement of labour is crucial for British business. New labour from eastern Europe will boost British gross domestic product, fill vacancies and, most importantly, contribute to the welfare system by allowing those people to pay tax on earned income. That is why it is so irrational to place obstacles in the way of freedom of movement of labour to Britain.

It is a myth that in 61 days' time millions of citizens from the new member states will start up their caravans and head for Dover. A few cases involving asylum seekers have been blown up into major tabloid soap operas. If one speaks to any Pole or Czech in this country working or studying, they will say that their ambition is to get full-time work, not to go on benefits. There is clear evidence of an influx of professional labour into this country, and very little evidence to suggest that Britain's shores will be invaded by benefit tourists. That is simply scaremongering.

A study prepared for the European Commission in 2000 estimated that 850,000 people living in the EU—0.2 per cent. of the total population—were from the 10 accession countries. A second study in 2002 shows that those who declared a firm intention to migrate constitute approximately only 1 per cent. of the working-age population of all 10 countries. That is hardly an overwhelming figure or a threat.

Those shrieking to protect the benefit system from abuse should consider why the system, after all the reforms and reviews, should remain open to abuse in 2004. If there is something wrong with the benefit system, we should change it.

The recent debate also ignores the fact that new member states will receive £26 billion from the EU between 2004 and 2006. That will boost their economies, with a consequent pull on their domestic work force to stay in those countries rather than seek work elsewhere. The desire to work rather than seek benefits will take advantage of chronic skills shortages in Britain and allow our eastern European partners to contribute to the economy and, through returning remittances, to their countries of origin. The new member states mostly fear the brain drain from their countries to western Europe.

Our skills shortages will be soaked up by the highly trained doctors and nurses coming from anywhere between Prague and Cracow. The workers registration scheme should not be used to undermine the fundamental principles that underpin the values of the EU. That should also apply to the solution that is currently being trailed that the scheme should be monitored, with perhaps further changes, if the numbers arriving are greater than expected.

Britain needs the good will of the new member states if it is to move Europe towards the reform agenda. From the breath of fresh air that the Prime Minister and the new Government provided on European issues in June 1997, we have reached a stalemate. To modernise Europe, we need not only to harness the enthusiasm of the new members but to earn their votes around the summit table. Reforming Europe will not be achieved with the support of only France and Germany because their interest is to keep running Europe the way that it is currently run.

I shall go from the debate to join the ninth birthday party of my son Luke. In four weeks, my daughter Anjali will be seven. The Europe in which my children will be citizens will be very different from Europe now. In 10 years, when Luke and Anjali are 19 and 17 respectively, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, and probably even some of the Balkan countries, will have joined as full members. Perhaps even Russia will be applying for membership.

Europe is work in progress, and that is one of its great strengths. It is constantly developing and the countries are moulded by giving and taking and learning from each other. It is a melting pot of ideas and cultures. I am proud to represent part of the great city of Leicester. It is a microcosm of Europe, with many cultures and languages. We already have a Polish centre in my constituency. The people are proudly British but also proud of their heritage.

Leicester is a truly European city with a majestic past and a bright and ambitious future. The city uses all the talents of all its citizens. That is what we must do with Europe: use all the talents of all its peoples. There is so much left to do in reforming Europe, and the new member states are our natural allies in that process. The reform agenda is Britain's agenda. That is why the commitment made to the applicant countries for freedom of movement of labour is so important.

The best thing that the Government can do is stand by what the Foreign Secretary said in December 2002 and what the Prime Minister has said on numerous visits to the new member states, where he is genuinely and rightly treated as the only pan-European political superstar. Writing in June 2003, the Prime Minster said: It is right and fair that the new Member States should enjoy the same rights to work in the UK as existing EU citizens. In closing, I urge the Minister, whom I consider one of the best Ministers in the Government, to reconsider the decision and to stand firm on Britain's commitments to the accession countries. Only if freedom of movement is encouraged will the success of Europe be secured. The basis of that success is equality and freedom. Those are the fundamental cornerstones of the EU and they must never be compromised.

7.59 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department(Fiona Mactaggart)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) for providing us with an opportunity to debate these important issues. I appreciate his passionate commitment to the enlargement of the European Union, which no one listening to him could have missed. The Government share his commitment and vision. EU enlargement is extremely welcome to our country, which is why, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, our Prime Minister was at the forefront in calling for early accession for the 10 countries and is widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent European leader. After 1 May, citizens of the accession states will be free to travel across all EU borders. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary made clear in December 2002, we believe that the United Kingdom will benefit from new EU citizens coming to this country, working legally, and paying taxes and national insurance.

The United Kingdom has one of the most dynamic and successful economies in the world. While America, Japan, and much of the euro area have suffered from recession, the British economy has grown uninterrupted for every quarter and every year since 1997. At the same time, unemployment in Britain is now significantly lower than in all other major European states, at 5 per cent., compared to an EU average of 8 per cent. and a rate of 9 per cent. in Germany and France. Migration both contributes to and has been driven by this success. By increasing labour supply and reducing domestic skills shortages, migration helps to raise productivity and boost economic growth.

In the United Kingdom, migrants make up just 8 per cent. of the total population, yet they generate 10 per cent. of our overall wealth. Similarly, 15 per cent. of trend UK growth stems from predicted migration flows. We currently have more than 500,000 vacancies in our labour market, and we will benefit from the skills, flexibility and willingness to work of these new migrant workers, as we have in the past. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary confirmed on 23 February in the House that we are allowing workers from the eight central and eastern European accession states access to our labour markets, subject only to a straightforward registration scheme.

When we first set out our position, back in 2002, only those countries with high levels of unemployment were planning to introduce restrictions on work for accession state nationals. Since then, other countries have changed their stance. That must influence the way in which we implement our commitment, but let me be clear: our commitment remains. It clearly makes sense for us to ensure that our approach does not leave us exposed.

My hon. Friend is concerned that the workers' registration scheme can only be a deterrent to anyone wanting to come here. I do not believe that this one will be. Under the scheme, accession country nationals will be free to enter the United Kingdom and to take up any employment here without restriction. When they find and start a job, they will need to apply immediately to the Home Office to be registered as a worker. There is no parole period; they will just apply, having found a job. They will do this by post, to our offices in Sheffield. They will need to provide information about what job they are doing, at what wage, and where in the country it is. They will be issued with a registration certificate, as evidence that they have registered. The registration will last for 12 months, provided that they stay in that employment. If they change jobs, they will need to apply to renew their registration.

I am aware that my hon. Friend is concerned about backlogs in processing applications by the immigration and nationality directorate and he referred to some of my past concerns about these matters. He will know, however, that steps are in hand to reduce those backlogs, and I am sure that he will be reassured by the fact that, for this new scheme, the Department is gearing up to provide an efficient and responsive service. We want to encourage maximum compliance with the scheme, and there is no reason why any worker from the accession countries should not comply with the registration requirement, as it will be in their interests to do so. We therefore need to ensure that the scheme works well.

The scheme will be administered within the framework operated by Work Permits (UK), whose performance standards I should like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend. It turns round more than 80 per cent. of applications for work permits within 24 hours. "Ah", my hon. Friend will think. "What about the other 20 per cent?" Nearly all of those, however, are done within a week. Only 2 to 3 per cent. of applications take more than a week, and none takes more than a month. We can aim to achieve the same standards in the workers registration scheme, and I hope that he will find that reassuring, as I do.

We are looking to recover at least some of the costs of the scheme, so there will be a modest fee to cover administrative charges. The cost should be outweighed, however, by the benefit to the workers of access to our labour market. We do not expect the costs to the taxpayer to be significant. Obviously, my hon. Friend is concerned about the details of the scheme and how it will work in practice. Further details will be made available shortly, along with detailed guidance, which he rightly expects, for nationals of accession countries and employers. I will ensure that he is kept in touch with how those are developed.

Keith Vaz

I thank my hon. Friend for all the information that she has given so far. What is the position of someone who makes an application but does not get the certificate back for a certain period? Can they carry on working while they are awaiting the certificate, or must they cease working until they get the certificate?

Fiona Mactaggart

In the scenario that I have just described, such a person would be working before they had applied—they would have found and taken a job. Therefore, this process does not prevent people from working; it is merely a monitoring mechanism.

The purpose of the scheme is to allow us to track properly our commitment. It will give good information to the authorities and the Home Office about how, in practice, the right to work of people from accession countries is operating. They will be able to join our legal labour market in an open way, enjoying equal rights as well as contributing to our economy and society. That will allow us to monitor what is happening to our labour market, and where in the country and in what sectors accession country nationals are finding work. It will tell us where those paediatricians, dentists, dustmen and plumbers from Poland, to whom the Home Secretary referred in his statement, are working. Are they filling that gap in the dentistry market in Scarborough, evident from the long queue that we saw reported in many of our newspapers? We have a good pattern of what is happening, and if, against all expectations, there were adverse impacts on our labour markets—let me reiterate that we do not expect that—we could act immediately to re-impose restrictions.

My hon. Friend may make a reasonable point when he says that a better arrangement for administering our benefits system might have dealt better with these issues. That is not what happened, however. We need to take steps to safeguard our benefits system and ensure that it is not exploited. Accession state nationals who are not working will be expected to support themselves. If they cannot do so, they will not have a right of residence here 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 by those not working, and my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will bring forward regulations to prevent them from claiming child benefit. Access to other benefits, such as social housing, will also be restricted. That is clearly the right course of action. It would not be fair for accession country nationals to come to this country purely to access benefits to which they had not contributed.

I hope that my hon. Friend and the House will agree that, overall, the package announced last week is fair and balanced. It will send a clear message to the Polish community centres in my constituency and in his constituency, which, like us, will be welcoming these new migrants, that they are welcome, that they have absolute access to our labour markets, that we welcome their skills, that we recognise what they have to offer Britain, and that we are providing a sensible and balanced package within which they can offer those skills.

They will be welcome to Britain, to work openly and honestly, and to support themselves. Those who wish to find a job can do so. Those who wish to come for short periods will have to have the means to do so. So the UK will enjoy the benefits of enlargement and the accession countries' citizens will enjoy the benefits of enlargement, but we shall still maintain the ability to control its impact on our labour markets, if necessary.

I believe that that is the wise and practical way to proceed. I do not think that there is any diminution of our commitment to free access to labour. There is merely a sensible process for managing it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to describe further how that will work in practice.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eight o'clock.