Immigration (Romania and Bulgaria)

Mark made the following contribution to a Westminster Hall debate on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration tabled by Kettering MP, Philip Hollobone. He is answered by Immigration Minister, Mark Harper. 

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I thank my old friend, my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to say a few words and for his heartfelt speech, which I am sure will be one of many on the issue in the months and years ahead.

I want to say a few words about some of the trends noticeable in my central London constituency since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union in 2007. In spite of the current freedom-of-movement restrictions, which are due to be lifted at the end of 2013, the most obvious example has been the profound problem of organised begging centred on Marble Arch in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.

In such matters, central London is almost a canary in a mine for future problems throughout the country. Difficulties in my constituency with particular migratory waves are magnified by the presence of Victoria coach station, through which many eastern and central European migrants arrive in Britain for the first time. Some 10 million to 12 million passengers use that facility each and every year. Significant amounts of contraband and controlled materials are brought into the UK via that route, and it has become an attractive destination for transient individuals, contributing to a large rough-sleeping population.

Last November, Westminster city council, the Met and the Romanian embassy launched Operation Chefornak to tackle antisocial behaviour and begging in Westminster, much of which, I fear, can be linked to Romanian migrants; 698 offences of begging and 922 instances of rough sleeping were recorded, and the council helped to arrange 169 repatriations, 138 of which were to Romania. That comes at colossal cost and requires enormous additional police time. The council has been proactive in raising awareness and highlighting what is not only a local but an increasingly national problem, which I fear will be even bigger after the beginning of 2014, with real consequences for the reputation of the UK.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend said, real limitations remain on what can be done to tackle effectively the problems caused by people congregating in a particular area if they are not committing criminal or antisocial behaviour. Many of the target-hardening options, in particular around Marble Arch, have been considered and discounted on the basis of cost, practicality or effectiveness. Given that Romanians are not subject to border controls, it is difficult to stem the source of the problem.

From our experience in the centre of London, therefore, I remain unconvinced that the Home Office has robust enough plans in place to tackle the problems that are

likely to flow from the lifting of movement restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians in particular, as my hon. Friend pointed out. I share his concerns, and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), and we seek assurances from the Minister in that regard, in particular on how local authorities can be properly compensated for the financial cost to local taxpayers of national immigration decisions.

Mark Harper (Forest of Dean, Conservative)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone on securing the debate and on making his points in his usual robust fashion. I am pleased to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I will try to address the concerns of my hon. Friend and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), and of my hon. Friend Mark Field, who raised a local issue—we will see how “canary in a mine” it is for the future.

To give some context, the Government’s overall position on immigration is clear. We want to bring down the unsustainable levels of immigration—net migration—that we have seen, and we are taking a range of measures.The Office for National Statistics figures published last week show that the net migration figures, including EU citizens, have actually fallen by a quarter, from 242,000 to 183,000 in the year ending in March. It is also worth remembering, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering accurately set out, some of the misjudgments made by the previous Government, who did not introduce transitional controls so, in effect, the United Kingdom bore the entire burden of the adjustment process.

On the latest figures, about a third of the people coming to the United Kingdom are from the EU, but 55% are from outside the EU, where our policy changes are bearing down, and about 14% are British citizens returning home. The bulk of our net migration, therefore, is from outside the EU and not from our EU neighbours. It is worth saying that to put the matter in context.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering referred to the reluctance of the Home Office to come up with any statistics in that regard. Is it fair to say that that is simply a case of once bitten, twice shy, and is due to a concern that such statistics might be superseded by events, as they were in 2003 and 2004 in relation to the A8 nations? Alternatively, does the Home Office have an idea in mind, but it does not want to go public with it? If the latter is the case, will the Minister indicate the effect on local communities of the overall numbers expected to arrive from 2014?

Mark Harper (Forest of Dean, Conservative)

I assure my hon. Friend that the reason is simply that it is genuinely a difficult exercise. The difference this time is that we had transitional controls, as have a number of other European Union countries. We are not the only country that will have to remove our transitional controls at the end of next year. A number of other countries, including Germany, for example, will be doing that. It is difficult to assess where the Romanian and

Bulgarian citizens who wish to move to another EU member state to exercise one of their treaty rights will choose to move.

The history is relevant, because there is no point in the Government effectively making up a number that is based either on poor data or making a set of assumptions, which are effectively guesses, and bandying around a number that proves inaccurate. That is not sensible. It is more mature and open to say, “It is a difficult exercise and there are a range of factors”, then people can make a judgment about whether the Government are being frank. That is more sensible than picking a number out of the air, which appears to be what happened beforehand, that is used as a defensive mechanism for a period until it is shown to be untrue. That is not a mature way of treating the matter.