Priti Patel is an elected Member of the Conservative Party Board, the 1922 Committee’s Executive and the Public Administration Select Committee. She is also a member of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Witham.
Later this week, restrictions on Romania and Bulgarian migrants working in Britain will be lifted, amid widespread public concern that they will be entitled to benefits and access to public services. The impact of the removal of these restrictions will become clearer after the transitional controls expire at the end of the year. These are the controls that the last Labour Government and the EU agreed and the pressures and problems that Britain will face from a new influx of Eastern Europeans will be as a result of their policy failures. The removal of these controls should now spark a healthy debate on EU immigration controls and one the Conservative Party should lead.
With unrestricted free movement rights, we can expect migrants from these two countries – the poorest in the EU with average incomes many times lower than the UK to travel across EU member states including Britain. While the numbers coming into the UK may not be on the scale of those witnessed a decade ago when Poland and seven other Eastern European countries were granted free movement rights to the UK, it is inevitable that their impact will still be felt. Additional EU migrants to this country place new pressures on infrastructure, housing and on public services. It is, therefore, completely understandable that the public would like to see restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians extended further and greater controls placed on immigration.
The blame for the problems caused by immigration from the EU rests firmly with the last Labour Government who negotiated these inflexible arrangements. At no stage did they ever when in Government or now in Opposition make the case for substantial reform to the very EU immigration rules they imposed upon the United Kingdom regardless of the long term impact upon communities across the country.
This will now surprise few people as the population has become increasingly aware of the consequences of excessively high and unsustainable rates of immigration. Under the last Labour Government, the numbers of immigrants entering the UK soared to more than half a million each year. The legacy of Labour’s discredited immigration policies include their failure to control immigration from new EU member states, the backlog of asylum and immigration cases, and the crisis-ridden UK Border Agency. As a result, controlling immigration has ranked alongside the record deficit in the public finances and economic mess left behind by Gordon Brown as being among the most difficult and important problems the Government has had to address since 2010.
While inroads have been made in reducing the annual net change in migration numbers by clamping down on migration abuses from outside the EU, Conservatives in Government are right to seek reform of the EU’s immigration laws to control numbers. The new rules the Prime Minister is introducing to stop EU nationals immediately claiming housing benefit and to limit the payment of out of work benefits unless there is a genuine prospect of them finding employment sends a clear message that the free movement principle in the EU Treaty is not meant to be a licence to hand out benefits and the Prime Minister is right to stand up for hard-working taxpayers, who are fed up with the benefits system being abused.
The new Immigration Bill also provides a clear dividing line between the positive actions Conservatives are taking in Government to control immigration and the shambolic, ineffective and failed system Labour presided over. The Bill introduces many new measures that will accelerate the deportation of foreign national criminals, clamp down on the abuse of the appeals system, deport illegal immigrants residing here, introduce new charges to temporary migrants for using the NHS as well as seek to deport foreign criminals before hearing their appeals. These measures will send out a strong signal that Britain is no longer the soft touch we became under the last Labour Government.
The stance taken by Conservative Ministers is a stark contrast to that of the Labour Party who cannot be trusted on immigration and lack the commitment and willpower to restrict numbers, safeguard our borders and control the people who can enter the UK. The Labour Party and their left wing supporters in the trade union movement have also shown they’ll never learn from their past mistakes.
At a time when the public are anxious about immigration, it is scandalous that the Unite trade union – Labour’s biggest donor – has been caught red-handed encouraging Bulgarians and Romanians to join their union to receive help and advice in maximising the amount of benefits they can claim. Unite are also campaigning against the current Immigration Bill. This legislation increases controls on immigration through sensible measures, such as streamlining the immigration appeals process. But Unite prefer to scaremonger and mislead by falsely claiming that this is “one of the most regressive bills yet to be introduced” and would lead to ethnic minorities facing discrimination when seeking housing.
Despite efforts by the left to shut-down discussion on immigration policy, and the recent intervention by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in relation to the Immigration Bill, it is right that we discuss this issue. EU immigration has had an impact on this country and the Prime Minister deserves credit for the action Conservatives have already managed to take in Government and for championing reform of the European Union’s outdated free movement rules. Reform of our relationship with the EU is needed on many fronts, but changes to EU immigration controls should remain firmly at the forefront of our negotiations because it is in our national interests to exercise more control over our borders.