Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and to know that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the debate. I hope he will answer all the questions I ask.
The topic of this afternoon’s debate is very important to people not only in my constituency, but in many others. Almost all the British public are concerned, because too many British citizens are out of work, and taxpayers resent their money being used to fund welfare for foreigners. That is why my constituents wish to restrict access to out-of-work benefits that are currently being paid to non-UK nationals from other EU countries. I think that is the wish of the vast majority of the British people, and also, I hope, of our Government. Whatever the gravity of the situation now, it is nothing like as bad as it will be after 1 January next year, when the group of non-UK nationals from other EU countries will include Romanians and Bulgarians, who hitherto have been prevented from getting full access to welfare benefits and the employment market.
Does the Minister agree with the basic proposition that if someone from another European country decides to move to the United Kingdom, they should not expect to receive taxpayer-funded assistance for their housing, health care, education or living expenses? Does he accept that freedom of movement under the EU treaties should be defined as being a freedom to leave, as well as to arrive? If a person who is a non-British EU national cannot afford to live in the United Kingdom without recourse to taxpayer-funded services, should not that person return to his own EU country, rather than rely on UK taxpayer handouts?
How much money is being spent on those handouts? Unfortunately, the Government cannot tell us, because, as the Minister told the House in a written answer,
“the UK’s benefit payment systems do not currently record details of a claimant’s nationality. Looking forward, the Government is considering ways of recording nationality and immigration status of migrants who make a claim to universal credit”.—[Official Report, 14 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 466W.]
I think it will come as a shock to many that after three years of a Government led by a Prime Minister who says that he is determined to take action on this subject, we have not even begun to collect the most basic information necessary to inform public debate. When are we going to start? Why can we not start right now and record the nationality of people when they claim benefits?
Only two months ago, the Prime Minister assured us that he was going to get tough on benefits being claimed by foreigners in the United Kingdom. A month ago, the Home Secretary, along with her counterparts from Germany, Austria and Holland, wrote to Alan Shatter, president of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council, demanding tighter restrictions on immigrants’ access to welfare handouts and other state-funded services.
We are told that the Prime Minister is actively engaged in negotiating a new relationship between the British people and the European Union. I asked him a written question for answer on Monday this week about his top priorities for reforming the UK’s relationship with the EU. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister transferred the question to the Foreign Office, and the Minister for Europe’s reply makes no mention whatsoever of either welfare or immigration as being among the top priorities for reforming our relationship with the EU. That is despite a recent ComRes/Open Europe poll showing that 55% of voters regard those issues as a top priority, and despite the Prime Minister’s recent speeches in which he has indicated that he also sees them as a top priority.
I shall be grateful if the Minister can explain in detail which aspects of access to British taxpayer-funded welfare are currently being negotiated in the EU. What is the state of those negotiations, their time scale, their prospects for success and why, at the moment, are they not a top priority for our Prime Minister?
Please can the Minister also explain how confident he is that we can resolve the issue to our satisfaction, when the European Union Commission is saying that the UK, far from being too generous in welfare payouts to foreigners, is not being generous enough? That was the effect of the decision six days ago, on Thursday 30 May, by the EU Commission, when it announced that it is launching a prosecution against the United Kingdom in the European Court of Justice, because we have different and less favourable rules for access to out-of-work benefits for EU nationals, compared with British citizens. Even the EU-loving Financial Times described, in its leader on 31 May, the EU Commission as having
“lobbed a hand grenade into the political discussion about Britain’s membership of the EU”.
Does that episode not illustrate perfectly the utter contempt in which the EU Commission holds Ministers in our elected Government? In the 20 months since the EU Commission first threatened such action, there has been much huffing and puffing by our Government, but all apparently to no avail. If it has taken 20 months to make zero progress with the Commission on that issue, what hope is there that other issues we wish to renegotiate will be dealt with any quicker or with any greater success?
The background to the debate is the question I asked the Minister on 20 May, which was, what steps are the Government taking to reduce the eligibility to United Kingdom benefits of nationals of other European Union states? In his careful response, he told me:
“We are strengthening the habitual residence test; the Home Office is creating a statutory presumption that European economic area jobseekers and workers who are involuntarily unemployed will not have a right to reside here after six months unless they can demonstrate they are actively seeking work and have a genuine chance of finding a job; and we will prevent those with no entitlement to work in the UK from claiming contributory benefits.”
Analysing each element of the Minister’s response in turn, one can see the credibility gap between his precise words and the overall impression of toughness, which I am sure he was seeking to give. The habitual residence test was introduced on 1 August 1994. I recall my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), as Secretary of State for Social Security, telling the Conservative party conference in 1993 that he wanted to curb spending on benefit tourists. It is almost 20 years later, and have we succeeded in doing so? No. The situation has got worse rather than better. This coming weekend, it will be 30 years since I was first elected to the House, and it is a pity that all I have to report over those 30 years is a continuing decline in UK sovereignty, and ever more powers and decisions over our lives being taken away from us by the EU, despite the brave words of successive Ministers.
In 2004, the habitual residence test was supplemented with the requirement that a person has to satisfy a preliminary test of a right to reside in the UK, but that does not apply to EU and European economic area nationals who are classed as workers or self-employed persons under EC directive 2004/38 and the family members of such persons. On analysis, therefore, how is the Minister proposing to strengthen the habitual residence test, and how will it do anything to reduce the eligibility of nationals of other EU member states to access UK benefits? It does not seem to me as though it will achieve anything.
The second point that the Minister made in his answer, about jobseekers and workers who are involuntarily unemployed having to leave after six months, invites the question as to what is meant by “involuntarily unemployed”. How will one assess whether they have a genuine chance of finding a job? Are we going to introduce a language test? If so, how would that be compatible with current EU legislation? What about those who are self-employed, such as Romanian Big Issue sellers?
The third part of the Minister’s answer is perhaps the most disingenuous. He says that
“we will prevent those with no entitlement to work in the UK from claiming contributory benefits.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 890.]
How many people fall into that category? Every EU national who moves to the United Kingdom has the same entitlement to benefits as a UK national, regardless of their previous tax or national insurance contributions. That principle applies, without qualification, to all those who are “workers” or self-employed, while the qualification of “worker” is so broad as to include those not working but purportedly seeking work. Would it be unfair and going too far to summarise the Minister’s position as tantamount to an admission of impotence in the face of this crucial issue?
Let me emphasise that I do not blame the Minister at all, but do not his answers and the concerns of the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions amount to little more than spitting against the wind and grandstanding? What prospect is there of being able to change the European Union treaties to enable us to discriminate on the grounds of nationality in the way in which we distribute our welfare payments? Indeed, what is parliamentary sovereign democracy if it is not about the ability to treat our own citizens differently from the citizens of other countries?
One of the fundamental freedoms that lie at the heart of the EU treaties is “freedom of movement”. That was sold to the British people on the basis that we would be able to move to another country in the EU without impediment. We would be able to work there and live there and, through reciprocity, citizens of other EU countries could do the same in the United Kingdom. But what has happened is that, as with so many other aspects of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, freedom of movement has been applied as if to a federal superstate where there is no distinction between a British citizen and a Romanian or Bulgarian. The European Union Commission has continued to apply its ratchet of integration—ever closer union—systematically undermining our ability even to decide to whom we give British taxpayer-funded services.
Does this issue not illustrate the fundamental chasm between the European Union and us? The European Union sees itself as one country, with all its citizens sharing the same European nationality. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom sees itself as one of 27 separate countries within a free trade area, but with control over its own destiny and, in the context of this debate, control over those to whom it does and does not pay taxpayer-funded benefits. Does this not illustrate perfectly why my noble Friends Lords Lawson and Forsyth and Michael Portillo, all former Cabinet Ministers with a wealth of experience in negotiating with the European Union, are spot-on in pointing out the utter futility of the renegotiation exercise on which the Prime Minister has embarked? Does this saga not illustrate graphically the extent to which this Parliament has lost control over the most basic elements of national policy?
The starting point for the right to vote in a UK parliamentary election is being a British citizen. Citizenship confers privileges for citizens over non-citizens. Why cannot the same basic principles apply to the allocation of taxpayer-funded welfare benefits? Please can the Minister tell me how we will be able to restore control over our own affairs and give preference to our own citizens over foreigners without leaving the European Union? It seems to me that actions such as we have seen from the European Commission in recent days are driving more and more people to the conclusion that there is no alternative but to leave the European Union and that we would be much better off out, and in control of our own destiny.
There is a big issue about the fact that the European Union originally started off with a whole lot of countries that each had relatively similar standards of living, but now there are countries that are new entrants, particularly Bulgaria and Romania, where the standard of living is infinitesimal compared with that which we are lucky enough to enjoy in this country.
Figures I have obtained from the Library show that the annual household net income of a single-earner couple on the average wage with two children in 2011 was, using purchasing power parity exchange rates, €31,616 in the United Kingdom but only €7,750 in Bulgaria and even less—€7,514—in Romania. That means we have an average annual household net income of more than four times that of citizens in Bulgaria and Romania, so why will the Bulgarians and the Romanians not come to the United Kingdom in large numbers from next January? Apparently, there are already about 1 million of them in Spain, so it will not be very expensive for them to get here from Spain if they want to do so, and once they get here, unless something is done to the existing rules, they will basically have free access to as many benefits as they choose to apply for. They can come. They can try to get work. Even if they are unsuccessful at getting work, they can say that they are trying to get work and then access our benefits system. That can include other benefits that they can then export back to their families in their own countries. Is this not a state of complete farce? Have the Government grasped the political significance and importance of it?
Answering questions in the careful way that the Minister has answered them is absolutely right, because he wants to be intellectually honest in answering them, but could he also ensure that much fuller answers are given and that the areas where we obviously do not have any control at the moment are highlighted? I hope that as a result of this debate, he will assure us that the Prime Minister is serious about trying to do something about all this and that it is not just huffing and puffing, because we cannot carry on like this. There was 20 months between the European Commission saying that it was going to start taking infraction proceedings against us, and the matter now being referred to the Court. Will it take two years—three years?—before the Court decides? Many of us hope that we will have an in/out referendum long before then, but in any event, does this not show that the whole renegotiation process is a complete charade?
One example can be worth a thousand generalities, and the example highlighted in this short Adjournment debate is one the Government need to take really seriously.