§ 1. Mr. Viggers
If he will estimate the number of persons who entered the United Kingdom illegally in the past year. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
By the nature of the problem, we do not know, and estimates may be misleading. It is not possible to establish whether a person is in the United Kingdom illegally until he or she is traced. Provisional figures for 1997 show that 14,150 people were traced and served with illegal entry papers, but many of them may have entered in previous years.
§ Mr. Viggers
If 250,000 people have applied for political asylum in this country in the past 10 years, of whom 10,700 have been granted asylum and 13,000 deported, where does the Minister think that the other 226,300 people are? Moreover, bearing in mind the recent growth in economic migration, does he think that our institutions are strong enough to cope with it?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Our inheritance from the previous Government was pretty appalling; in fact, the asylum system that we inherited was a shambles. There were 50,000 people in the Home Office backlog, there were 23,000 in the appeal system and other people had simply disappeared. We are now reviewing the whole process and ensuring that we put in place a firmer, faster and fairer asylum system.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
To raise an issue that I have raised many times, why do we not seriously consider introducing in the United Kingdom a national identity card scheme, which would deal with very many problems that are being repeatedly raised with all Departments of State, at least during this Parliament?
§ Mr. O'Brien
There is something to be said for a voluntary ID scheme, but a compulsory one might create as many problems as it resolved, as Lord Chief Justice Goddard—of all people—said as long ago as 1952, when he expressed concern about the way in which it could 882 affect the relationship between the citizen and the police. Nevertheless, those issues are a legitimate part of the political debate.
§ Mr. Beith
Although I welcome the Minister's caution on the difficult issue of identity cards, may I ask him what is being done through the EU presidency to make states take a responsible attitude to asylum seekers, instead of dumping them on the Eurostar train as Belgium has done? Does he recognise that we need to ensure that genuine asylum seekers have their cases dealt with quickly to prevent the situation where, as the Minister said, very many people are disappearing into the system because cases have not been dealt with quickly enough?
§ Mr. O'Brien
The presidency is doing a great deal to try to sort out some of the difficulties that we inherited, one of which is the Dublin convention. It was signed in 1991 and came into force in September 1997, and it has caused us enormous difficulties in removing some of the people who would usually have been dealt with in the European country from which they came. That convention must have been appallingly negotiated; we have been left to clear up that mess, too. Much work is being done on it during the presidency.
On the recent events in relation to persons coming from Brussels on Eurostar, we quickly contacted the Belgian authorities, who have assured us of their co-operation and their effective efforts to deal with the problem on our behalf.
§ Sir Brian Mawhinney
After nearly a year in power, the hon. Gentleman must eventually stop wringing his hands and start governing. Given his answer and the new Labour briefing that has been going on, of which I am sure he is aware, to the effect that the Government are considering an amnesty for some people, will he take this opportunity to rule out an amnesty for those who have been in the United Kingdom for many years, but whose permanent residence has not been regularised?
§ Mr. O'Brien
The previous Government—as the right hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly know—had a rule: when someone had been caught in the asylum system for seven years, his or her circumstances would be regularised. He will also know that, in the 1990s, there were periods in which exceptional leave to remain was granted to more than one in two of those in the list. We are, therefore, examining all aspects of the asylum process. I assure the right hon. Gentleman—let me be very clear about it—that we do not plan any blanket amnesty for 50,000 people caught in the backlog, as erroneously reported a couple of weeks ago by The Mail on Sunday.