‘Oooh, your statement was so much more partisan than mine!’ Iain Duncan Smith almost said to Stephen Timms this afternoon as the pair sparred over Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. The Work and Pensions Secretary was answering an urgent question from Labour’s Frank Field on the government’s readiness for the end of transitional controls. The debate veered towards the two men accusing the other of making party political points on this issue, but it also offered those in the House of Commons a number of useful opportunities.
The first was an opportunity for the Secretary of State to indulge in just a little bit of Labour-bashing. He pointed out that the previous government’s estimates of the number of migrants who would appear in this country in the last wave turned out to be humiliatingly wrong. ‘I understand the frontbench opposite now admits that they fundamentally got it wrong on immigration, but the scope to which they got it wrong is really why we have this issue,’ he told MPs, adding that the problem was ‘far bigger than anything they ever wanted to tell the public’. And he dropped a little praise in for his colleague Theresa May in driving down net migration. None of this had anything at all to do with the Tory party’s non-lurch to the Right after Eastleigh, just in case you were wondering.
But as IDS spoke and took questions from other MPs, behind him on the Tory benches, Edward Leigh was producing a series of rather impressive Confused Faces. He began to loll against the bench like an angry version of Jacob Rees-Mogg (who for those who don’t watch these sorts of proceedings constantly, treats the green bench as a chaise longue, folding himself up on it, clearly half-hoping that a backbencher sitting above him might drop the occasional grape into his mouth) then sat bolt upright, pulled a few more faces, and launched himself into the debate:
‘I love the Secretary of State but frankly his answer was so long and so complicated you’d need a degree in social security to understand it, and I didn’t understand it. As a recent by-election showed, the people are hurting, and they want a clear answer from the government, so why doesn’t the government do as my right honourable friend suggested, and the right honourable member for Birkenhead, and either move to a contributory system or say we will not pay you benefits only if you’ve stayed here for a number of years and if the European Court sues us, bring it on, and let us make our case for renegotiation.’
And this was the most important thing that Tory MPs wanted to talk about: not just the symptom, which is the lifting of the controls, but the problem itself, which is Europe. So a minute or two later, James Dudderidge rose to say this:
‘The Secretary of State repeatedly talks of the infraction process: the infraction process is surely just a fine. No-one’s ever paid any of these fines. Please, please, please, just tell the Commission to sod off and don’t pay the fines!’
Iain Duncan Smith of all Tory ministers would sympathise with that wish. But there’s an interesting desire on the Conservative backbenches not just for a new, better relationship with Europe in the future, but also for some rude gestures at its institutions now.
It also gave Frank Field an opportunity to push for a greater emphasis in the benefit system on contributions. He said:
‘It is a crisis which successive governments have engendered by moving welfare from the basis you had to make contributions to receive benefits to one where you receive it if your income proves needs. And isn’t his universal credit just one more move in that direction? Might he tell the House when will the House know what further restrictions will be placed on universal credit to prevent that being claimed immediately by people arriving in this country.
‘Does he not accept that the situation we now have of a basically means-tested welfare state is inconsistent with our European Union Treaty obligations, and is certainly against the Prime Minister’s wish that this country should be open for trade but not be an easy touch.’
Oddly Stephen Timms, who has a habit of going a little further than his frontbench colleagues would like when suggesting what Labour might do, pushed pretty hard for further commitments from IDS on a contributory system, when it’s currently only something Liam Byrne and Jon Cruddas are toying with as part of their review. But largely Labour stayed quiet, save for the standard outburst from Chris Bryant, and Kate Hoey calling on Britain to leave the EU. Which just goes to show the damage that the party’s problems on A8 immigration has wrought on its ability to debate immigration in the House. Labour frontbenchers are attempting to address this problem over the next few days.Tags: Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, Iain Duncan Smith, Immigration, Labour, UK politics