HC Deb 18 January 1999 vol 323 cc547-9
1. Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

If he will make a statement on the action he is taking to reduce the number of bogus asylum seekers. [64345]

10. Sir Sydney Chapman (chipping Barnet)

What measures he is taking to deal with the recent inflow of asylum seekers into the UK; and if he will make a statement. [64354]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

We are implementing the comprehensive integrated strategy for reform of immigration and asylum as set out in our recent White Paper. Fundamental to that strategy is a much faster system which protects genuine refugees but which deters abusive claimants. Legislation will be introduced shortly to help speed up the system and to tackle abuse.

Mr. Prior

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the number of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom has risen by about 50 per cent. over the past two years?

Mr. Straw

The figure that the hon. Gentleman gives is correct. The principal reason for the increase is increased instability in parts of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and of Somalia, which account for the vast majority of those who are awarded asylum status in the United Kingdom. Moreover, a comparison of our asylum figures, as a proportion of our population, with those for the rest of Europe shows that we are 11th out of 15 countries, and in absolute terms, many other European countries have many more applications for asylum and are less effective in dealing with them.

Sir Sydney Chapman

At the last Home Office Question Time, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) announced that the number of adjudicators was being increased to deal with asylum-seeking cases. That is certainly welcome. Is it not a fact, however, that the numbers of staff within the immigration service are being reduced? If so, will the Home Secretary reconsider that reduction? Surely there is a need to increase the numbers of both staff and adjudicators to deal with the backlog of immigration and asylum cases.

Mr. Straw

As I discovered when I visited the Hatton Cross adjudication centre, under plans prepared by the previous Administration, the number of presenting officers—who are vital to processing asylum appeals—was to be decreased. I took action to ensure that the number of presenting officers was increased, and a large number of additional presenting officers are in the process of being appointed. A major programme of computerisation was set in hand by the previous Administration, which is bound to lead to some reduction in the number of clerical posts in the immigration and nationality directorate. However, under the comprehensive spending review, to make the system fairer, faster and firmer, we are increasing the overall resources devoted to immigration control.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the Government have a case backlog because we inherited a backlog of 50,000 cases from the previous Government? Does he agree also that, for 18 years, the previous Government had no strategy for dealing with immigration and asylum cases? Does he further agree that one of the most effective ways in which the Government can tackle the issue is by ensuring that decisions are taken as speedily and as efficiently as possible in line with natural justice, so that everyone involved will be informed of the decisions? Is that not the way to cut the backlog?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The previous Administration's rhetoric was entirely belied by their practice. We are aiming, as we said in the White Paper that I published in July, to secure a situation in which initial decisions are made within two months, and appeals are disposed of within four months. Achieving that goal of course depends on our getting the new arrangements and the legislation in place.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

As Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia have achieved the status of, and are recognised as, democratic states with sound judicial systems, cannot applicants for refugee status who have either travelled through or claimed refugee status in relation to those countries be treated in the same way as applicants coming from Berlin, France or Brussels, in relation to whom the presumption is that, as democracy and the judicial system are safe in those places, their applications should be refused? Should not applicants who have touched base with the countries to which I referred request asylum there?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and the immigration service has had considerable success in ensuring that people who have come from such countries seeking asylum are returned whenever it is possible. We have also made increased use of the powers of detention. However, we have not been assisted by the terms of the Dublin convention—which was signed up to by the previous Administration, in a moment of madness, in 1990—in securing the return of asylum seekers who have come through European Union countries. The convention came into force in October 1997 and has made it increasingly difficult for us to enforce the return of asylum seekers to the European Union.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

On the measures to combat illegal immigration, may I remind the Home Secretary of the severe measures that he is proposing against United Kingdom freight transport operators? Is it not a fact that the illegal organisations exploiting that trade are becoming ever more professional in breaking into sealed containers transported by road? Does he agree with the Freight Transport Association that the Government should exert more pressure in ensuring security at the borders of other European countries, and pay particular attention to what is recognised to be very lax security in the port of Calais?

Mr. Straw

Here we have a perfect example of the Conservatives' rhetoric on asylum seekers being belied by their practice and their subscription to clients such as the Freight Transport Association. Of course we accept the need for greater security at Calais. We are taking positive action on that with Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the French Minister of the Interior. Before we listen to the Conservatives' apologies for the Freight Transport Association, let us be clear that in many cases hauliers knowingly or negligently allow their lorries to be used for the transportation of illegal immigrants. We shall crack down on that, just as the previous Administration cracked down on civil aviation carriers.