HC Deb 01 February 2001 vol 362 cc471-500
Mr. Speaker

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister and that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

2.11 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I beg to move, That this House condemns the Government's failure to deal with the total chaos in the asylum system, which is detrimental to the interests of genuine refugees and the people of the United Kingdom; notes the failure of the Government's measures introduced under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; further notes that the number of asylum applications made in 2000 reached the record level of 76,040, and that the proportion of unfounded claims increased to 78 per cent of all applications; notes with concern the continuing backlog of asylum applications and undetermined applications for British citizenship; and calls on the Government to take action to put in place measures which would both deter unwarranted claims and assist genuine refugees.

Before I embark on my speech, it may help the House if I say that as we have had an important statement, to which it was quite proper to allocate a large amount of time, there is less than two hours for this debate, so I ask for the indulgence of the House because I shall not take interventions from hon. Members on either side of the Chamber.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)


Miss Widdecombe

It is intended to help as many Members as possible to speak in the debate.

From April 2000, the new system will be in place, with new rules on benefit and new holding centres being opened up, so that claims can be processed quickly and we shall be able to get the numbers back down again."— [Official Report, 2 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 1035.] Those are striking words, as are the following: We are getting on with restoring the asylum and immigration system to proper integrity, so as to ensure that it deals firmly, fairly and swiftly with asylum and immigration applications."— [Official Report, 2 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 1067.] Those were the promises made earlier this year by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary respectively.

The reality has been totally different. This country's asylum system is in utter chaos. That chaos not only continues to devalue the promises made by the Government in the House, but most of all is detrimental to genuine refugees. The Home Secretary is once again faced with a crisis of his own making—something with which he is all too familiar. Last year, we saw the implementation of his so-called flagship legislation, which he assured us would reduce the number of asylum claims. However, Home Office figures released at the end of last month show that the number of those seeking asylum in this country is the highest ever, with 76,040 applications for asylum received last year, compared with 32,000 at the end of 1997.

The Government might claim that the number of applications has fallen this month, but that is a fall from a record number in November, when we saw the highest ever number of monthly applications. The number of applications in the last quarter of last year was the highest in the year and is an increase on the figure for the last quarter of 1999.

We left office with the number of asylum seekers falling. Our tough measures led to applications falling by 40 per cent., but under this Government we have seen huge increases in the number of applications every year. Those figures demonstrate once and for all the abject failure of this Government's asylum policy. They claimed that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 would cut the number of unfounded applications and tackle the abuse of the system.

Despite the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, and despite the claims made by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), that the Government's policies were beginning to work, there has been a month-on-month increase for seven of the eight months since April 2000, when the policies came into effect.

The Prime Minister stated in the House that: the key factor is that the measures that were introduced in April will make a difference."—[Official Report, 10 May 2000; Vol. 349, c. 837.] He also promised: The new system will be fairer and faster and will deter the bogus asylum seeker."—[Official Report, 16 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 386.] The Government's measures have indeed made a difference: they have increased the total number of applications in every year since 1997, and since the measures that were supposed to tackle the problem came into force, there has been a further increase in the percentage of asylum seekers whose claims are judged to be invalid.

Since April 2000, things have got worse. The Government have failed in their aim of reducing the number of unfounded claims on our asylum system. Whereas the previous Government saw falls in the number of applications, this Government have propelled the country to the top of the league table in Europe for the number of asylum applications. Other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have taken measures that have led to a fall in the number of applications. Under this Government, all we have had is year-on-year increases. Those figures show that our asylum system under Labour may be spun as successful but is in fact a total failure. It is not fairer; it is not faster; it is not firmer.

Claims have not been considered fairly. The huge backlog of unprocessed claims continues. The dispersal and support system is in a complete mess and is failing local authorities and those whom it is supposed to be helping. The immigration and nationality directorate is beset by bureaucratic blunders. The Home Secretary's flagship policy is now an expensive farce.

Rather than there being a fairer policy, which we were promised, case files are routinely lost and Home Office lawyers are left without vital information. The Minister of State admitted to the House that the immigration and nationality directorate has lost an incredible 15,855 files. According to the Home Office, vital files have gone missing with increasing frequency. However, it is so desperate to get itself out of this mess of its own making that instead of allowing adjournments in cases where files have been lost, it has pushed ahead with asylum appeals when lawyers have not had the files to challenge applicants' stories. What is fair or firm about asylum tribunals not being presented with all the available evidence, or about initial refusals of unfounded applications being overturned because the material to challenge the case is not available?

The backlog of asylum applications rose from 51,000 in 1997 to 66,000 in 2000. In between, in 1999, the number rose to a horrific 101,000. In March, the Minister of State said: Speeding up the asylum process is a major objective in our reform of the asylum system. People who come to the United Kingdom may be fleeing terrible persecution and it is important that their claims are dealt with swiftly. So that rather than being stuck in an administrative limbo they are able to get on with rebuilding their lives. I am sure that the whole House shares that sentiment. However, asylum seekers are still faced with enormous delays before decisions are made.

The Home Office is so desperate to get out of the morass of backlogs and delays that it has created since 1997 that it has had to resort to using an amnesty. In a 1998 White Paper, Labour stated: We reject the concept of amnesty". The Government might claim that the backlog has been reduced, but is it fair that thousands of asylum seekers have been allowed to remain in this country without a full consideration of their case or, in many instances, after their claim has been refused? More than 21,000 asylum seekers have benefited from the amnesty. Is that a fair way of dealing with the problem? As well as the Government's inaction in taking measures to discourage the number of unfounded asylum claims, they have done little to remove those whose claims have been found to be bogus. Why is it that the number of removals and voluntary departures of failed asylum seekers was only 7,610 for the first 10 months of last year, against a total number of refusals for that year of 76,850?

Yesterday, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is Labour dominated, in a report which we may all pay tribute to and respect, accused the Government of being dilatory in removing rejected asylum seekers. It reported that during the first 10 months of last year, 58,885 asylum claims were rejected, but only 7,610 claimants were expelled in the same period. A recent report on Channel 4 news referred to at least 18,000 people who were officially listed as having been refused asylum last year, but who were for various reasons allowed to stay.

What is the point of an asylum system that, having rejected applications as unfounded, does not remove the applicants from the country? It is no wonder that thousands of asylum claims are being made in order to get round immigration controls. It is well known that it will be months before a case is decided and that there is little chance of the Government getting round to deporting asylum seekers, even after their claims have been rejected.

Another part of the Home Secretary's flagship policy was the dispersal and new support arrangements that were introduced as part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. We were told that the introduction of the voucher system would cut abuse. Instead, the voucher system and dispersal schemes have been beset by problems and have failed to do what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister claimed, which was to reduce the number of claims and deter abuse while providing support for genuine asylum seekers.

In June 2000, the Minister of State said: The arrangements for dispersing asylum seekers are working well."— [Official Report, 26 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 652.] However, in the same month the Audit Commission, on the implementation of the dispersal scheme under the 1999 Act, concluded that there were significant problems with the Government's—

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Audit Commission report was on the interim arrangements—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)

Order. The hon. Lady must know that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Miss Widdecombe

We are used to bogus points of order from a Government who have no intention even of getting on top of bogus asylum claims. I shall tell them what they do not want to hear.

The Audit Commission's report stated that there were inadequate support services outside London— [Interruption.] Yes, it did. It added that that presented a major barrier to successful dispersal. Large groups of asylum seekers have been sent to distant parts of the country where appropriate social, language and legal support has not been available.

The Government's actions have caused suffering for genuine refugees. The dispersal system is being implemented cruelly. Applicants are dispersed by a chaotic system that sends them to areas often without appropriate support. They are often exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Is that fairer? It might be faster, but it is certainly not fairer.

The Guardian—no friend to the Opposition—reported on asylum barons in May 2000. They were growing rich on providing substandard accommodation for the Government's dispersal programme. [Interruption.] Apparently, substandard accommodation for the dispersal programme is of amusement to Labour Members. When they talk about genuine refugees in future, we shall remember that they laughed about a report that some people were growing rich at the expense of others.

The report by Shelter, which was published yesterday, again reported that the Government's actions were still leading to taxpayers' money being used to house asylum seekers in substandard property. Is that a fair or kind way for the Government to fulfil their responsibilities?

The dispersal scheme has been a disaster. The Government set targets for the dispersal of 65,000 asylum seekers, but the number dispersed has been a fraction of that. Meanwhile, local authorities are picking up the bill for the Government's failure. Kent county council has reported a backlog of more than 1,000 people waiting for dispersal. That same council says that spending on asylum has increased from about £250,000 in the year 1996–97 to a forecast £50 million in 2000–01. The council had to deal with only 50 asylum seekers in the last six months that the Conservative Government were in office, whereas it is now dealing with 10,000.

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

That is the previous Government's fault.

Miss Widdecombe

The right hon. Gentleman has the gall to call out from a sedentary position that that is our fault. We left a manageable situation, with applications falling. The Government have imposed on local authorities and on genuine asylum seekers a miserable failure of a system for which they alone are responsible.

Another news report in October last year was that the relationship between local authorities and the Home Office was at breaking point because of the lack of co-operation between the two. The Government are trying to palm off their responsibilities on to local communities.

In addition, the Government's voucher scheme for asylum seekers has ended in disaster. Refugee Action— [Interruption.] Perhaps Refugee Action is also a source of amusement for Labour Members. It was forced to close its office in Liverpool at the end of last year because workers there had been inundated with asylum seekers whose accommodation was unsafe and who had not received vouchers for essential items such as clothing and food. The charity said that it could not cope with the demand and it refused to compensate for what it called "Home Office inefficacies". The Government should be ashamed that they have put a charity that is devoted to helping refugees in that position. Instead of apologising, they continue in their intransigence, claiming that a system which everybody can see has failed is successful.

Once people have been cleared for citizenship, they face another backlog—possibly with the exception of those who make large donations to the Labour party. The number of undetermined citizenship applications has risen under the Government from 54,970 in 1997 to 73,000 at the end of last year. The current waiting time for applications for naturalisation is almost 20 months—that is, unless one is bailing out the dome, when the waiting time is reduced to six months.

Is that not evidence of the Government's record? We have a serious crisis in our asylum and immigration system. Thousands of people are stuck in backlogs, but the Government do nothing except sit and laugh. The thousands have to grin and bear the Government's empty promises. I visited Croydon 18 months ago and spoke to the queues of desperate people who had been waiting for months. They had been obeying the law and making due applications for visas and renewals of their leave to remain, or requests for citizenship. Every one of them was doing what he or she should be doing. Many of them were on their fourth or fifth visit, and they were being told, "No progress." What can the Government say? They can say only that since then the situation has become much worse.

Our policy, as announced last year by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, would be to provide secure reception centres, which would reduce the incentive for unfounded applications. As the former head of the Immigration Service Union commented: In my study of immigration controls, it was apparent that those countries who maintained a policy of detention had a far smaller proportion of bogus, as against genuine, refugees. Guy Goodwin-Gill, professor of international refugee law at Oxford university, said that if all new asylum seekers—

Mr. Straw


Miss Widdecombe

I think that I made my intentions— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady made it clear at the commencement of her speech that she had no intention of giving way.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand why Labour Members do not want to hear such things, but they are going to hear them.

Professor Goodwin-Gill— [Interruption.] The House is going to hear what the professor said, because it is important. He is professor of international refugee law at Oxford university, and he said that if all new asylum seekers were held in secure reception centres while their claims were processed, the system would be speeded up. Furthermore, he said: I have no doubt in my own mind that those who come without reference to refugee status would be deterred".

Our policy of secure detention would mean that Britain would no longer put down a welcome mat for those who abuse our asylum system with unfounded claims, and it would aid genuine refugees. Instead of the Government's disastrous dispersal policy, reception centres would provide legal, linguistic and medical support for those seeking asylum. That policy, along with our national removals agency, would make sure that those whose claims were judged to be unfounded would be removed.

It is often said that that policy would be highly expensive. The Government are providing a reception centre which, when fully up and running, will cater for a fifth of all applicants. It cost £6 million. Are we really to believe the Home Secretary's extravagant claims that, as one fifth can be dealt with for £6 million, somehow the remaining four fifths will cost between £2 billion and £3 billion? That costing is nonsense, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it. He looked at the possibility of universal reception centres himself, and knows that they would work. He is simply not taking the single step that other countries have taken, which has proved to be successful.

Our policy will really produce a fairer, faster and firmer asylum policy. We shall know where those whom we are going to reject are and we shall be able to remove them. We shall be able to provide those whom we are going to accept with a proper resettlement package, which will mean that they go out with the necessary support. That is a hit-and-miss business with local authorities at the moment. We left a 40 per cent. fall in applications because we took measures that had a deterrent effect. We shall repeat that success when, in a few months time, we take over the asylum system. It will be a good day, not just for the British taxpayer, but for the man genuinely fleeing persecution.

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

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: reaffirms the obligations of the United Kingdom under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to provide asylum for those fleeing from a well-founded fear of persecution; approves the Government's strategy for reform of the asylum system and welcomes the practical improvements which have already been delivered, including substantial additional investment to provide the Immigration and Nationality Directorate with the staff and other resources essential to operate an efficient and humane asylum system; congratulates the Immigration and Nationality Directorate staff on their recent achievements including taking 110,000 initial asylum decisions in 2000; welcomes the effect which the provisions of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and other measures have had in reducing unfounded asylum claims; welcomes the successful introduction of a coherent, national system of support for asylum seekers to replace the chaotic arrangements created by the previous Government which imposed an intolerable burden on local authorities in London and the South-East; notes that the civil penalty, a measure which was opposed by the Official Opposition, has successfully encouraged hauliers and ferry operators to introduce additional security measures to tackle clandestine and illegal entry to the United Kingdom; welcomes the Government's expansion of detention capacity to support substantial increases in the number of asylum seekers with unfounded claims who are removed from the UK; and supports the Government's commitment to working closely with other countries to deal more effectively with asylum pressures affecting the whole of Europe.

I always welcome the opportunity for a serious debate on asylum policy, to discuss how we might make the system a little more effective. I was looking forward to that, but as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) finished her extraordinary speech, the image that was conjured up was of a fairy godmother, dressed as Widow Twankey, waving a magic wand, and suggesting that with one bound, it would be possible to solve the asylum problems that have affected every single European country.

Instead of serious, constructive proposals, we heard the usual mixture of the unworkable and the unthinkable from a party which, while mouthing its supposed commitment to the rights of the genuine refugee, adopts an approach with an altogether more sinister motive. That approach is designed for one purpose only: not to deal with the issue, but to exploit it in the hope that fear will encourage some voters to support the Conservative party. That approach has nothing to do with principle or even workable policy; it has everything to do with prejudice.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

No. When the Opposition first announced their choice of debate for today, they put it on record—I ask my hon. Friends to weigh these words carefully—that it was to be about the Government's failure to run an efficient and humane asylum system. I checked the motion last night when it went down to the Table Office, and noticed that the word "humanity" had disappeared. So the Conservative party's commitment to humanity on this issue lasted exactly seven days. In the intervening period, one can imagine the scene in the shadow Cabinet. That loyal body of people in the shadow Cabinet, who spend most of their time dropping the proposals of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald like hot bricks, might have said, "Do you really think it's a good idea for us to mention humanity? Do you think that will really appeal to our core voters?"

For the Conservative party to talk of humanity on this issue takes us into high Orwellian regions of double-speak. I shall take two examples, one from the Conservative party's past and one from the future that it promises. Five years ago, when the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was dealing with immigration matters, the Conservative Government passed into law provisions with the sole aim of ensuring that asylum claimants who, for whatever reason, applied inside the United Kingdom, were denied any means of support at all. Under the plans and legislation of the right hon. Lady, there was to be no food, no shelter and no housing whatever. Those provisions were included in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. There was to be no support whatever. But for the incompetence of the Conservative party, that is exactly what would have happened. Because the right hon. Lady failed to draft the legislation properly, the courts held that the responsibility of providing for all those asylum seekers would land on local authorities.

Today, the right hon. Lady said that, at the end of 1996, Kent had a responsibility for only 50 asylum seekers, but that it is now responsible for 10,000.

Miss Widdecombe

The Government let them in.

Mr. Straw

That is because, under the right hon. Lady's legislation, it was intended, first, that asylum seekers should have no support. Then, under the legislation, the responsibility for dealing with thousands of asylum seekers fell indiscriminately on local authorities in London and the south-east. That was the result of the right hon. Lady's policy, and the dispersal policy is there to put that right. If the right hon. Lady has any complaints about those 10,000 asylum seekers, the person who has to answer for those complaints is none other than herself.

The right hon. Lady was fortunate to have an excuse for not taking interventions in an extraordinary speech that was riddled with even more inaccuracies than usual. Towards the end, she presented her policy to lock up all asylum indefinitely seekers in what are called secure reception centres. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition has said that the next Conservative Government will detain all new applicants for asylum, whether port applicants or in-country applicants, in reception centres. That claim applies to everybody, rather than only to those whose claims appear to be unfounded or to young single men. It applies to elderly people, and to women and children, regardless of their circumstances.

Leaving aside the fact that it would take years, if not decades, to build the number of centres that the right hon. Lady would need to implement that proposal, I point out that its cost would run into billions of pounds. It is extraordinary to suggest that she can base her plans on Oakington, which is a processing centre, and to argue on the basis of its costs that indefinite detention would be a matter of millions of pounds. At least 50 centres would be needed, many of them in the green belt and in Conservative constituencies, in Kent and elsewhere.

I attempted to intervene on the right hon. Lady to remind her that we are trying to build additional detention capacity in Aldington, which is just outside Ashford. We have looked around the country for sites that will enable us to increase detention capacity to 2,500 places. That increase is necessary because of the inadequate detention capacity that was left by the previous Government. We searched the country for sites and found Aldington—but what is the result? The Conservative party, which supports the expansion of detention centres nationally, opposes it locally. The Member of Parliament for the area is a Conservative and opposes the centre. The Conservative council opposes it so much that it has even invoked the Human Rights Act 1998 to argue against it.

We know that local Tories are opposed to the centre, but what of the right hon. Lady? She knows the area and may know the 14 other sites that were considered. After 18 months of careful work by officials, we decided that Aldington was the best available site. Given her prominence in Kent and her policy of establishing more detention centres, about which we have just heard, should she not have been able to form a view on this one centre? However, when she was asked directly whether she was for or against Aldington, she ducked and dived pathetically: I have not looked at the merits and demerits of the Aldington site". Whether it is my policy or hers, the simple fact is that, if she wants 50 extra detention centres, she must start with one centre. Aldington is the first one, so I offer her the opportunity to tell us whether she supports it.

Miss Widdecombe

First, if one detention centre can cope with one fifth of all applicants, why will it take 50 to deal with all of them? That is nonsense arithmetic. Secondly, I shall consider the merits and demerits of every site, including Aldington.

Mr. Straw

That is why I said earlier that the Tories do not have any serious policies to deal with the problem. I assume that the right hon. Lady has more influence with Kent Tories than I do. One word from her to tell them she would certainly establish a centre in Aldington, since 50 centres are needed, would change the current circumstances. The simple truth is that she wills the end, but not the means. It is utterly disreputable of her to call for detention space in general, but then to oppose it or sit on her hands in respect of particular details.

I say to the right hon. Lady that there is a huge difference between processing centres such as Oakington—

Miss Widdecombe

Why 50?

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Lady asks why there should be 50 centres. That is the case because, on any basis, she would have to hold 30,000 applicants if she wanted any chance of success. I am happy to share those figures with her. Furthermore, to understand the sheer incredibility of what the right hon. Lady proposes, we must try to accept not only that she is going to build a network of centres throughout the country and find the necessary money, but that she will magic into existence safe, stable Governments in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia, to allow unfounded applicants to be immediately sent back once their claims have been rejected.

Even the most cursory scrutiny of that fantasy policy exposes its deceit. There is not the slightest chance that such a policy could ever be implemented. It is completely and utterly unworkable. I know that, as does anybody who knows anything about the issue, and the right hon. Lady knows it too. Of course, however, that is not the point for the Opposition. It is not a question of whether their proposals are workable, but of whether they appeal to people's base prejudices. The truth about asylum is that it does not lend itself to her glib pronouncements. It is a hugely complex matter, for which a solution cannot be provided overnight. Instead, it requires concerted and long-term efforts, both in the United Kingdom and with our European partners.

As the Select Committee on Home Affairs recognised in its report on border controls, which was published yesterday, action is necessary at a European level to deal with the asylum issues that affect all European countries.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Why here?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman keeps asking why the problem has not affected other European countries. The answer is that it does affect them. In the three months from July to September last year, UK asylum applications increased by 6 per cent. on the previous three months. Sweden saw an increase of 48 per cent., Belgium 52 per cent., Germany and Austria 24 per cent., Denmark 23 per cent. and the Netherlands 16 per cent.

One of the reasons why we happen to have more asylum applicants in absolute terms—this is another point that the right hon. Lady may not have noticed—is that we have a bigger population. If she wants to refer to league tables, let me tell her about the league table on asylum applications per thousand of population. We are not first, second or third in that table, but eighth, which is in the middle of the asylum league. Belgium has more than two and a half times our rate of asylum applications. In Ireland, the rate is almost twice ours, and in the Netherlands it is getting on for 60 per cent. The rates in Switzerland, Austria and Denmark are all greater than ours. They have significantly higher proportions of applicants per head of population than this country. This is a European problem that can be resolved successfully only by European action.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Dublin convention is one of the obstacles to the quick removal from this country of asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected? Will he tell the House which Government signed that convention?

Mr. Straw

The Dublin convention was and is one of the major problems in removing applicants from this country. [Interruption.] As it happens, I was not dealing with immigration and asylum when the matter arose in 1990. The Opposition approach the matter as if we were responsible for a measure that they introduced. The convention was signed in 1990. Notwithstanding the fact that the previous Government, including the right hon. Lady, knew exactly what it would achieve—or not achieve—they did nothing to try to reverse it or to limit its operation. When the Labour Government came to power in May 1997, we knew that the convention would inevitably take effect in October of that year. Worst of all, in addition to establishing the convention, the previous Government were willing to tear up the gentlemen's agreement with Belgium and France that had previously allowed this country to send back most asylum applicants to those countries.

Mr. Fabricant

Get rid of it, then.

Mr. Straw

We would like to get rid of the Dublin convention, and quickly. The problem is that it is currently the only EU agreement that enables us to return applicants, so disowning it altogether would leave us with no agreements whatever with other European countries. I dearly wish that we could return to gentlemen's agreements; indeed, that is exactly what we are working on. However, if ever there was a single factor that helped to cause the increase in the number of asylum applicants who enter this country, and the greater difficulty in removing them, it was the Dublin convention, for which the right hon. Lady was responsible.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

How many more genuine asylum seekers would have come to this country without the military campaign to liberate Kosovo? Many Conservative Members, including many who are in the Chamber, strenuously opposed that campaign.

Mr. Straw

Thousands more would have come to this country, just as Germany had to bear the brunt of almost 500,000 applicants a year in the early 1990s because of the chaos in Bosnia.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) draws attention to another point. Fundamental pressures for asylum arise not from the circumstances in the receiving state but from disruption, civil strife and worse in countries hundreds of miles away.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to the drop in figures in 1996. I have corresponded with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary. Numbers declined early in 1996; they fell throughout Europe. However, by the end of 1996, they were rising, and they continued to rise in 1997. The right hon. Lady cannot escape the fact that the increase throughout Europe was due to growing civil strife.

Mr. Fabricant

They came to us first.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. Asylum seekers could not have come to us first. Instead of fanning his prejudices, he should examine the figures and concentrate on the fact that, notwithstanding recent increases in this and other countries, we were in the middle of the European table last year, and we remain in that position this year.

The right hon. Lady suggests that there was a dramatic change in asylum and immigration policy in May 1997.

Miss Widdecombe

You came to office.

Mr. Straw

Yes, not least because people recognised that our immigration policy would be fairer, firmer and faster. However, the legislative and administrative structures remained exactly as the previous Government had left them until the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 came into force last year.

The biggest difference between our two Administrations was investment. When the right hon. Lady was immigration Minister, she did not provide for an increase in resources to reduce the record delay in processing asylum applications. Instead, she agreed formal plans with the Treasury for a reduction of 1,200 people—almost half the staff—in the immigration and nationality directorate. When numbers rose from late 1996, as the previous Government knew they would, they adopted the most irresponsible policy of all: a scorched earth policy. They tried to ensure that we were unable to cope with the increase by degrading the system and staff at Croydon. At the end of 1997, there were fewer than 100 skilled case workers left. It is no wonder we faced so many problems.

Our approach was to recognise the administrative and legal chaos that the right hon. Lady had left, and the financial problems that existed. We proposed a root and branch reform, in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It was the most comprehensive reform of the system ever introduced.

Miss Widdecombe

It was a total failure.

Mr. Straw

It was not described in that way at the time. Indeed, it received substantial scrutiny in a Special Standing Committee, which was notable for two or three reasons. First, the then Opposition spokesman put on record his support for the dispersal policy because he recognised that it made more sense than secure reception centres. He realised, because he has more sense than the right hon. Lady, that they could not be afforded or introduced for many years.

Secondly, the proceedings were notable because Conservative members of the Committee opposed only one measure. It could not be described as soft; indeed, the Conservative spokesman in the other place, Lord Cope, described it as tougher than any measure that the Conservatives had devised. The right hon. Lady did not mention that policy in her opening speech; it has proved the most effective in a range of effective measures. It is the civil penalty.

The civil penalty has made a significant difference to enforcement. It has resulted in a decline in the number of clandestines who come through docks such as Dover. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) nodding. It has contributed to reducing the number of unfounded applications from places such as eastern Europe, to which it is much easier to return applicants than, for example, Iran and Afghanistan.

Applications from eastern Europe have fallen by 50 per cent. as a direct result of our measures. Our policies are working, but neither the right hon. Lady nor anyone else could have anticipated the huge increase in civil strife, disorder and violence in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka, which account for the bulk of applications not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout Europe.

The right hon. Lady implies that a policy of locking up asylum seekers—some of whose claims are unfounded—from the countries that I mentioned will enable us to get them back quickly to the countries from which they have come. That is incredible and wrong. Despite the best efforts, not only of the United Kingdom but of other European countries, it is difficult, whatever the system, to get rejected asylum applicants back to the countries from which they came. We work hard at the problem, but those people are often here for many months, sometimes years, after their applications have been refused.

That problem affects every country in Europe. In Germany, the Minister for the Interior, Otto Schilly, told me only three months ago that 500,000 rejected asylum applicants are on welfare. They cannot be returned to their country of origin despite the rejection of their applications.

What are the right hon. Lady's proposals for speeding up the removal of rejected applicants to Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and China?

Miss Widdecombe

Deter them from coming here in the first place.

Mr. Straw

Two replies today have revealed the bankruptcy of the right hon. Lady's policies. This is another example of the magic wand. Her policy is a zero policy. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Lady's answer was important. She claims that she would deter all applicants. Despite having detention centres in which to lock up applicants for ever, there will be no applicants, genuine or otherwise.

Almost all asylum applicants from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Sri Lanka, even if their applications turn out to be unfounded, are fleeing from what they regard as disruptive circumstances. They are not living in happy circumstances. Why is it that people with similar economic circumstances in, say, India do not flee to this country, while people from those other countries do? The result of the right hon. Lady's policy would be to lock out every asylum applicant.

Miss Widdecombe

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I shall give way in a moment.

Earlier today, the right hon. Lady admitted, when she said that some reception and detention centres would be needed, that some people coming in would have their claims rejected. I put the question to her again. How would she return rejected asylum applicants, in a better and quicker way than we or other European countries are doing, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka?

Miss Widdecombe

One could be forgiven for thinking that no asylum seekers were ever returned to those countries, yet the Home Secretary told the House only a few months ago that the Afghan hijackers and all involved in their case would go back to Afghanistan as soon as possible. They are still here, although the Home Secretary said that it would be very easy to deal with them.

The right hon. Gentleman is failing to distinguish between the genuine and the ill founded cases. We will welcome the genuine cases, but we will deter the ill founded ones by sending out a simple message: "If you come to Britain without a well founded claim, you will be detained. You will be dealt with speedily, and you will be sent back." If that is the message going out, it will be a deterrent.

Mr. Straw

In a more charitable moment, I might have thought the right hon. Lady had not thought this through. She is an intelligent woman who is capable of a perfectly intelligent contribution to a debate on some issues. Yet on this crucial issue, she implies that with one sweep she would be free, having produced a solution that she would never be able to produce in government.

The right hon. Lady's answer exposed another interesting point. She assumed that the world was divided, almost literally, into black and white: that there were applicants whose cases were genuine and well founded, and those whose cases were not genuine and, therefore—although she did not use the word on this occasion—abusive. There are a number of applicants—I have seen some in my constituency—whose fear, subjectively, is perfectly genuine, but who turn out to be unable to meet the objective test of the 1951 convention. The right hon. Lady would still have the problem of having to return those applicants to their country of origin. She has proposed no policy for doing so, despite being given every opportunity.

As for the right hon. Lady's suggestion, to which she keeps returning, that all one needs is reception centres and detention centres—even on her own analysis, that would take years to achieve. It would not work, in any event; it has not worked in other countries. She would still have the problem that our and every other European country has had—dealing with the realities of the world. They are: that it is straightforward to return people to some countries, in which case we are doing so, but that with other countries, although we are doing our best and will continue to strengthen our work on removals, it is much more difficult.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, and for his recent correspondence with me on this subject, although I am disappointed at the outcome.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what effect he believes the treaty of Nice, and enlargement, will have on migration pressures? When the Home Affairs Committee was told by the Home Office that it was reasonable to assume that the internal frontiers between the new member states and the Schengen states would remain in place for many years to come, what basis was there for that assumption?

Mr. Straw

The admission of the new states to the EU will, almost by definition, have the effect of reducing unfounded claims from the applicant countries—for example, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. [Interruption.] I hope that the right hon. Lady will allow me to continue. This is an important question and I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman.

One of the tests that the Interior Ministers have determined should be set for the applicant countries is that their justice and home affairs systems should have integrity, so that there could not, for example, be the kind of abuse alleged to have been perpetrated in the past against the Roma gypsies in the Czech Republic. In a sense, that is a plus.

My answer to the hon. Gentleman's second question relates to the Schengen countries. The Schengen countries that currently maintain a border with eastern Europe are all absolutely clear that they have to maintain border controls—for example, at the eastern perimeter of Germany, Austria and Italy—for many years to come.

Although we are not formally a member of the Schengen area, we take part in Schengen. One of the reasons that I want to do so is to stiffen the resolve of my fellow Interior Ministers. Although the central and eastern European countries have improved their human rights record, countries further to the east may not have done, and their borders may be leaky. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but the EU is putting in place measures to deal with those issues.

I mentioned the civil penalty earlier. That has made a huge difference to dealing with clandestines. I notice that the right hon. Lady made no reference to it. I also notice that, notwithstanding the effectiveness of the civil penalty, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, has said on a number of occasions that he would withdraw the penalty and abandon it altogether. If the Conservative party goes into the next election with that pledge, as well as the fantastical pledges that we have heard today, it would expose even more the bankruptcy of their policies.

Mr. Wardle

We are going to win the election.

Mr. Straw

No, you are not.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)


Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)


Mr. Straw

I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Prosser

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it were not for the civil penalties, the recent huge overhaul of security—not only in the trucking companies but in the port of Calais, and particularly in the P&O Stena company—would never have taken place? That operation has been lauded as highly successful and effective.

Mr. Straw

There is no question but that my hon. Friend is right. He has experienced the chaos that was produced by the previous arrangements under the Conservatives, and the pressure that it produced across Kent. He also knows the effectiveness of the civil penalty. There is no doubt that the imposition of the civil penalty has strengthened security at Dover and is now adding greatly to the strengthening of security where we really intended it to: at dispatching ports such as Calais. The port of Calais has strengthened its security, as have major carriers such as P&O Stena.

On the asylum support system, the right hon. Lady came up with a lot of quotations that were wholly tendentious because they referred to the Conservatives' asylum system, not to the new one that we have put in place. So far as the Shelter report is concerned, Chris Holmes, the director of Shelter, wrote to me to stress that a study that it had carried out was done before the establishment of the national asylum support service, and that the specifications of the NASS system represent an improvement on the situation to date. The Audit Commission report also referred to the previous system, not the new one.

What the Conservatives did—I now think that they did it deliberately—not only left chaos in the administration and the legislation, but collapsed the resources available to the immigration and nationality directorate, even though numbers were rising. We have increased— [Interruption.] Well, it was either deliberate or utterly incompetent. On this occasion, I happen to think that it was deliberate. We have increased the resources in the IND dramatically. We have doubled the number of IND staff. As a result, we have reduced the time taken to process applications. The backlog has come down, too, from 100,000 early last year to 66,000, and falling fast.

I have said before, and I am happy to say it in the House, that the asylum issue presents me with more acute ethical issues of principle than any other aspect of my work as Home Secretary. I wish, therefore, that we could engage in a serious debate about how we can make our system more humane and effective. Such a contribution was made from the Opposition side when the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle asked a question based on his experience as an immigration Minister.

We attempted to secure such a debate, not least with our decision to commit the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to a Special Standing Committee. That is what makes the recent pronouncements of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald so absurd. If the Conservatives were serious about the alternatives to our reforms, why did they do virtually nothing to amend that legislation? Indeed, aside from the civil penalty, all they did— [Interruption.] Aside from the civil penalty, which they opposed, the only other thing they did— [Interruption.] Well, the right hon. Lady is twittering, as usual. I have got used to it, fortunately. I took interventions, but, unsurprisingly, she was ready to evade them. She does not want to be questioned on her policy.

Aside from the civil penalty, all the Conservative party was willing to do at that stage was not to wind up cash support, but to propose a £500 million increase in it. By contrast with such disreputable, ill thought out and ill judged proposals, the Government are engaged in the long-term process of reform. Those reforms and the investment that we are putting in place have laid the foundations for a fairer, faster and firmer asylum system. I invite the House to reject the Opposition motion and support the Government amendment.

3.12 pm
Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I cannot say that the debate so far has been either constructive or educative, and even to call these proceedings a debate may not accord with the "Oxford English Dictionary" definition because I do not believe that a lot of listening has been done on either side. However, the debate is timely as it comes the day after the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report and in the week during which hon. Members will have received the Shelter report on housing asylum seekers in the private rented sector. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred to the report only in passing, not in detail.

Miss Widdecombe

I had no time.

Jackie Ballard

We choose our priorities for the little time available.

I notice that the Chairman of the Committee is no longer in his place, but the report makes 22 detailed and serious recommendations that are worthy of serious consideration. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches would support many of them, particularly better co-ordination between the different services and better use of technology. The report refers to push and pull factors, and I shall discuss first some pull factors.

If people in other countries know of a backlog of applications in the United Kingdom, how long it takes to process applications and the inadequacy of the system to monitor the departure of failed asylum seekers, that may act as a pull factor that draws them to the United Kingdom. So may a faulty perception of what they will receive under the benefits system. Many think that they would get many times the amount that they would really receive and do not realise that people are given vouchers, not cash. Knowledge of the language, cultural and historical links and family links are also pull factors. However, no matter how bad the country of origin of an asylum seeker, it must be difficult to leave behind one's homeland and home, so asylum seekers naturally seek somewhere with which they are familiar in terms of people, place or language.

The standard of accommodation for asylum seekers cannot be a pull factor. The Home Secretary said that the Shelter report was undertaken between January and March last year, before the system changed, but it says that asylum seekers largely live in houses in multiple occupation. I would be pleased to hear his assurance that those details have changed measurably.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Surely the hon. Lady accepts that, however substandard or undesirable we may consider such conditions to be, many of those seeking refuge in this country would consider them to be a zillion miles better than the equivalent accommodation in the countries from which they are fleeing. Therefore, that is one pull factor that she should not ignore.

Jackie Ballard

Asylum seekers largely live in HMOs, and 17 per cent. of those were found to be unfit for human habitation. Such conditions may or may not be better than those which some people have left. Many people are persecuted for their political views or for membership of certain organisations and they may have lived in houses that are much better than my house or that of the hon. Gentleman. The fact that some people come from worse conditions does not justify their living in inhuman conditions when they reach this country.

Furthermore, 86 per cent. of those HMOs were unfit for the number of occupants that they held and more than 80 per cent. were exposed to an unacceptable fire risk. I readily accept that many people who are indigenous to this country live in substandard HMOs, but the one does not justify the other.

I do not know how many Members of the House have the time or the inclination to watch soap operas, but I happened to watch "EastEnders" on Sunday, immediately after the Home Secretary's appearance on another channel. One character was trying to persuade another to buy a house and turn it into bedsits. The person being persuaded said, "Look at the state of the house; it is disgraceful. No one would live in it." The person doing the persuading said, "Yes, but we can pack it full of asylum seekers and students. People who are desperate will live anywhere."

Soap operas often reflect real life and I suspect that the authors of that scene were reflecting the attitudes of a number of landlords across the country, and perhaps of people who have listened to the Conservatives on the subject of asylum seekers. The Shelter report concludes by saying that there is a need for an urgent review of housing and greater support from the NASS system, especially in relation to homes subcontracted from private landlords. I hope that the Home Secretary will take note of that.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is the hon. Lady aware that asylum seekers in Liverpool, particularly in the Inn on the Park, the Landmark and Sunnyside, live in deplorable physical conditions and under a regime that provokes£indeed, organises£intimidation and causes great concern? Can she shed any light on why the Liberal Democrat city council has not used its powers under environmental health laws to take action?

Jackie Ballard

Clearly, I do not know the details of what is happening in Liverpool. The hon. Lady, as a representative of Liverpool, will know those details. If she wants to speak to me afterwards, I shall be happy to ask my colleagues on Liverpool city council about that.

The demeaning and ineffective voucher system cannot be a pull factor and I hope that the Minister of State will tell the House when the results of the voucher system review will be made public. She will know that there is a lot of anxiety among her Back Benchers about that. Perhaps she will also tell us how many submissions were received and how many of those opposed the system.

We believe that the asylum dispersal system needs urgent review. According to the Refugee Council, it has led to a massive increase in the number of applications not being considered at all. When the Conservatives cite their statistics, they do not take that into account. There was a huge increase last year in the number of applications rejected on the grounds of non-compliance. Many asylum seekers have difficulty in completing the statement of evidence forms. That difficulty is compounded by postal delays, and problems in finding a legal representative and in access to translation services.

We must treat people who come to this country humanely and fairly. I hope that no hon. Member would disagree with that statement. However, the Conservatives speak as though the most important issue was the number of people coming to the UK seeking asylum. They imagine that asylum seekers can be deterred from coming to the UK by an even tougher regime than we already have. How can asylum seekers be deterred from coming from countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan? The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald did not have an answer to that.

I shall spend a little time considering the push factors, which get less airing in debates about asylum. In his evidence to the Select Committee, the Home Secretary said£I paraphrase£that the primary determinant of the number of people seeking asylum was not the attitude or competence of the UK Government, but pressures in other parts of the world.

There are an estimated 30 million displaced people across the world. EU countries make up 6 per cent. of the world's population and last year took only 4 per cent. of the world's refugees. We had more than 70,000 applications in the UK last year, but as the Home Secretary says, pro rata that puts us only 10th in the league of European countries. We host a small fraction of the world's refugees.

The poorer countries in the southern hemisphere receive the most refugees. We cannot expect the developing world to absorb all the problems of refugees. The UK contribution pales into insignificance compared with much poorer countries, such as Pakistan and even Iran, which have taken, respectively, 1 million and almost 2 million refugees from Afghanistan.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jackie Ballard

No. Time is short and others want to speak.

As the Select Committee said, we should focus on conflict resolution and on an EU-wide effective development aid policy, if we seriously want to deter asylum seekers by reducing the number of people who need to flee from conflict and poverty. We need to establish in this country an open and clear immigration policy. I welcome the Minister's recent remarks on the positive contributions of immigrants, and on the need to attract skilled workers to our shortage areas.

People, particularly Conservative people, speak about economic migration as though it was somehow immoral or sinful for people to seek to better themselves. [Interruption.] I should have thought that Conservatives would applaud economic migrants, rather than criticising them. We need also to establish nationally and internationally the legal methods of claiming asylum.

In conclusion, I shall ask the Minister a specific question, which I hope she will have time to answer. What advice would she give to a woman persecuted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, who speaks English and wants to come to the UK as a refugee? How does she do that legally? The Minister's answer to that woman will be the true test of the fairness of the Government's policies on asylum.

3.23 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I might be the only Back-Bench Member who speaks in the debate, so I might be the only hon. Member restricted to 10 minutes.

I respectfully ask those on both Front Benches, particularly the Opposition Front Bench, to get together quickly, to see whether the debate can extended by at least an hour. That would take an hour out of the debate on agriculture, in which not enough hon. Members have applied to speak, as I understand it. That would enable us to deal with the serious matter of asylum at slightly greater length.

As there will be only one or two Back-Bench speeches, I wonder why the two Front-Bench spokesmen need 20 minutes to reply. I realise that my remarks are of great importance to them, but—

Miss Widdecombe

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We considered seriously whether we could extend the debate, but as I am sure the House will appreciate, there is an equally important debate to follow. The reason why time has been so short is that a whole hour was taken up by, admittedly, a very important statement. As a Front-Bench Member, I regret that. I tried to gallop through, but those on the Government Benches were not entirely appreciative of that, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) will recall.

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for the Chair. I know that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 10 minutes. In the brief time that is left, perhaps hon. Members will impose an even shorter time limit on themselves.

Mr. Corbyn

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Injury time for that intervention, please.

We have a responsibility in the House, as does anyone in public life, to be very careful about the language that we use when describing asylum seekers and the problems faced by them. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) mentioned, the topic even gets into soap operas. Hon. Members should think about the language that they use, and the racist abuse that is meted out against asylum seekers on the streets of our big cities every night of the week. I think of the stabbing of Cumali Sinangali that took place over the Christmas weekend, and going back some years, I think of a Kurdish man, Shiho Iyuguven, whose family I got to know well, who took his life because of the way in which he had been treated in this country, and the family's fear.

We should remember that most asylum seekers have come to Britain to seek a place of refuge and a place of safety because of the abuse of their human rights in the society from which they came. The abusive language used towards asylum seekers encourages racist attacks, xenophobic attitudes, and very bad attitudes, right down to the school playground, in respect of asylum seekers' children. We should remember that and be extremely careful.

If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has any doubts about the reasons why people seek asylum, I urge her to take a few hours to read the Human Rights Watch report 2000. The opening pages are dedicated to a series of maps showing countries where there are major abuses of human rights, lesser abuses of human rights and very few abuses. The right hon. Lady will see that in the majority of countries of the world, people suffer major abuses of human rights.

Nobody willingly, lightly or easily goes into exile and seeks asylum from his own society. Many people have sought and received asylum in the area in which I live. I know them well and I talk to them. It brings tears to my eyes when I hear the abuse that they have been through in prison systems in various parts of the world, and their wish to make a serious contribution to this society. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail routinely run headlines condemning asylum seekers for whatever reason, and that is parroted by the Conservative party.

I hold the principles laid down in the Geneva conventions and the UN convention on human rights to be extremely important. They lay down the right of asylum for people seeking to flee from persecution and personal danger. We should be careful that the way in which we deal with asylum seekers in Britain does not, to some extent, perpetuate that abuse of human rights.

I refer anyone who is concerned about that to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report dated 8 August last year, which contained the concluding observations of the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination. I shall quote briefly from the report. It states: The Committee expresses concern that the dispersal system"— that is, in western Europe and Britain— may hamper the adequate access of asylum seekers to expert legal and other necessary services, i.e. health and education. It recommends that the State party implement a strategy ensuring that asylum seekers have access to essential services, and to ensure that their basic rights are protected. That is a serious statement from the UN, and we would do well to remember the importance of it.

I am sorry to have to mention that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is keen to ensure that all asylum seekers are imprisoned as soon as they arrive in this country, so that their applications can be processed.

According to the latest information that I have, there are 1,195 asylum seekers held in various establishments around the country. I do not believe that it is necessary to hold those people in detention. I do not believe that it is right to put them in prisons. We should beware of abusing human rights, as those people have not committed any crime; they have merely applied for asylum in this country. The immigration service has an overwhelming power to detain people.

Many asylum seekers are facing poverty. Under the Social Security Act 1986, income support was reduced to 90 per cent. for people seeking asylum. The Government of the day offered no explanation. That has been followed up by the voucher system and the small amount of cash that goes with it, with the result that many asylum seekers and their children are living in desperate poverty.

Many of those people's asylum applications will ultimately be granted. Their children will grow up in this country and will become citizens of this country; they will live here for evermore. What right have we to punish the children of asylum seekers? What right have we to make them live on less than what we know to be the poverty level? Teachers in local primary schools tell me what life is like for asylum-seeking children who do not even get enough to eat.

The Shelter report on the housing of asylum seekers is a welcome document. I have not time to go through all of it, but I shall give the headline facts. Nearly a fifth of all dwellings examined by Shelter were unfit for human habitation; 19 per cent. of occupied dwellings were infested with cockroaches, fleas and bedbugs; nearly half the bedsits were unfit for human habitation; and 83 per cent. of houses in multiple occupation that were visited were exposed to unacceptable fire risks.

Those landlords are making millions out of the asylum system and the misery that goes with it, as they are through the housing benefit system. It is time we got a grip. It is time we imposed rent control on these people, and imposed tough regulation on the conditions in which they make their tenants live. It is outrageous that profits should be made from such conditions in this day and age.

As for the voucher system, it is divisive, inefficient, expensive and entirely ineffective. The other week, a man who had been a prominent professional member of his community told me, with tears in his eyes, that he had been forced to flee his country because of the way he had been treated there. He told me how, having been burnt out of his house at 3 am, he had eventually made his way to this country. Once a week he must walk a long way to a supermarket with his vouchers, because he has not the cash to pay for a bus ticket and he cannot get change. In any event, he cannot get change when he uses the voucher in the supermarket.

I hope the Minister will tell us that the report of the examination of the system will appear soon. I hope she will also say that we will return to a system of cash benefits. That system is more efficient: it often means that children are fed more, and are given more appropriate food.

Finally, let me say something about the economic contribution made by asylum seekers here. Two weeks ago, along with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and a number of others, I attended a meeting of the Tamil community in the House. I knew many of those people: I had known them when they were seeking asylum here in the mid-1980s. The contribution that they have made to this country—the professional work they have done, the way in which they have brought up their families and all the efforts they have made—is a credit to them and their community. Why does the Conservative party consistently denigrate people who seek asylum, and seek to make a contribution to our society?

Many have written much about asylum. I am sorry to say, however, that when the history of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is written, many others will say, "Yes, you rightly remember the victims of the Holocaust and all the horrors that went with it, but what about the people who are now routinely abused and deprived of their human rights? What about those who are forced to flee and to seek a place of safety elsewhere? What about those who are badly treated by racist groups all over Europe, as a matter of routine?"

Can we please have a sense of humanity, and understand just what the abuse of human rights is like for so many people in so many places around the world? Can we put the emphasis on a foreign policy initiative, an economic initiative, to give people better rights and a better standard of living, rather than the constant condemnation of those who merely seek what we all want for ourselves—a decent home, a decent job, enough to eat, and some hope for our children?

3.34 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Let me say at the outset that I have genuine sympathy for real asylum seekers. I have been to Kosovo and Bosnia, and I helped to organise a conference in Beirut while bombing was going on there. I have no doubt—and figures show this again and again—that a proportion, albeit a minority, of the many people who make asylum claims in this country are genuine cases.

It is, however, difficult to exaggerate the way in which the current tide of refugees claiming asylum status is affecting the country, and will affect the country if the torrent of people with unfounded claims continues. In my east Kent constituency, we are already beginning to run out of options for planning decisions. We have no brownfield sites left; I know of three housing estates that are, at this moment, being built on flood plains. It is absurd to see new houses being built with, in one instance, up to 6 in of water lapping around the doors. Our infrastructure in southern England is overloaded: 100,000 people in a single year will mean 1.5 million over the 15-year planning cycle. Those are not racist considerations; they are the considerations of a country—Britain as a whole—that now has a higher population density than China.

Mrs. Ellman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brazier

I will not, because of the shortage of time.

Much of Scotland consists of highland country that is not easily built over. England on its own is now nearly as crowded as India, and southern England is particularly crowded. There is a duty—which, to be fair, the Government have recognised—to try to prevent the flow of unfounded asylum applications.

Time considerations force me to confine myself to four concrete points about the workings of the asylum system. First, I firmly believe that we should reintroduce the white list. In the time available, the Library has been able to give me only the figures for the first year after its introduction, but it appears that in that period the number of applicants from democratic countries on the list, where there is little risk of human rights abuse, fell from 7,000 to 5,500 in 1997, although the tide of applications from non-white-list countries was still rising sharply. Surely it makes sense to reintroduce the list.

Let me give an example of a country that I think should be on the white list, if the list still existed. By November 1999, the horrendous exodus of genuine refugees that followed the commencement of bombing in Kosovo had, in terms of numbers, already been reversed; with substantial reconstruction under way, people were returning to their homes. Yet last year people claiming to come from the former Yugoslavia formed the third highest category of applicants for asylum in this country. That cannot be right when we have invested so much time and treasure in trying to make the area secure, especially as there is plenty of evidence that a large proportion of the applicants were Albanians pretending to be Kosovars. I refer to entrants in 2000, not 1999.

My second point relates to the point of entry. The Minister emphasised the imposition of civil penalties on lorries. I think that it is right to accept those penalties now, and I do not believe that there will be another vote on the matter; but if it works to have civil penalties that involve a certain amount of self-regulation, in the long term it must be worth the extra resources to extend spot checks to every lorry. Such a system would pay for itself many times over.

Thirdly, I think that we need a proper mechanism for return. The Select Committee report makes a constructive point that, curiously, has not featured in the debate so far. It points out that there are plenty of relatively stable but very poor third world countries that, in many instances, neighbour the countries we are debating. Surely it must be possible, as part of our overseas development programme—which, rightly, is a large programme by international standards—to offer grants to some of those countries to take some asylum applicants who could comfortably be housed there. The report touches on the point only fairly lightly, although I have dealt with it in more detail, and it proposes consideration of various options.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I remind my hon. Friend that, at paragraph 157 of our report, the Select Committee states: In particular we ask whether people fleeing persecution in their own country should be found refuge in nearby safe countries rather than in countries far away. Is not my hon. Friend also making that point?

Mr. Brazier

Precisely; and there is no reason at all why we should not use aid funds to support that.

My fourth and final point is about a court ruling that has not figured at all in the debate. Our international undertakings on asylum, which I take very seriously, must in most circumstances deal with persecution by Governments. If we allow those undertakings to be extended to cases in which people claim that they are persecuted by their neighbours or by criminals—the courts have chosen to do so in various rulings in the past 12 months—we will simply be opening the floodgates. Are we going to say that people living in high-crime areas in the United Kingdom should be able to claim asylum in other parts of the country? We have to take a tough line, and it is reasonable that we do so.

The United Kingdom has a long and honourable record on asylum. It is right that we should have such a record. However, the tensions that are building up in southern England in constituencies such as mine are unacceptable and are working against the interests of racial harmony. [Interruption.] The best way of ensuring racial harmony and decent treatment for the minority of genuine applicants is to tackle abuse by using the measures that I have suggested.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), may I enjoin the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) to silence? We do not want a running commentary from a sedentary position.

3.42 pm
Mr. Lidington

Like many hon. Members, I regret the lack of time available to debate this subject. One way of dealing with that might be for the Government's business managers to make time available for a debate on the report published yesterday by the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

On a first, quick read through, I have been very impressed by the quality of the argument and some of the proposals from the Committee. I tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) that, having been Chairman of a Select Committee that managed to produce a unanimous report on asylum subscribed to by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), his future as the Government's special diplomatic envoy must be assured.

One of the matters that the Select Committee and other hon. Members have acknowledged is that external pressures for migration across continents are continuous and are not likely to diminish in future years. They arise partly from the political instability in many countries, especially in the developing world; partly from the natural desire of people who are not entitled to refugee status to move to a place where they can seek a better life for themselves and their families; partly from the availability of relatively cheap international travel compared with previous decades; and partly, as the Home Secretary has acknowledged many times, from the activity of organised criminals—racketeers who trade in human beings.

The Select Committee pointed out that, as well as those external pressures, there are "pull" factors. Paragraph 14 of the Committee's report states: It is probable that the UK's interpretation of international law and the delay in reaching asylum decisions in recent years have also made the United Kingdom an attractive destination.

The Opposition selected this subject for debate again today because, although we acknowledge the immense difficulties for any Government of any colour in handling the issue, there has been the most remarkable and conspicuous gap between everything that the current Administration promised and what in practice they have been able to deliver.

Something is wrong when, last month, almost one in six asylum applications were from European countries, excluding Turkey from the definition. Something is wrong when, last year, the United Kingdom recorded not only the largest number of asylum applications in our history, but the largest number of applicants of any country in Europe, and—according to figures published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—significantly more than Germany in every month of 2000. On the United Nations method of counting, the figures for the United Kingdom were 97,900, compared with 78,800 for Germany and 43,900 for the Netherlands.

Delay is undoubtedly one of the reasons for that. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister of State repeats the Government's pledge that by 1 April 2001 the backlog of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision will have been reduced to what the Government term "frictional levels". I hope that they succeed, but the record so far gives me considerable cause for doubt.

It is not only Conservative supporters who have been pointing out the relationship between chaos in the administration and decision-making process, and the incentive that it gives people to try their luck in the United Kingdom rather than elsewhere. That issue was addressed directly by Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, of the university of Oxford, to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred. Professor Goodwin-Gill, who has worked with the UNHCR and has no political axe to grind on the subject, told the Select Committee: I think one has to recognise that the 70,000 persons we had last year"— in 1999— is a function of inefficiency on the part of the present decision-making procedure. There is no doubt that an ineffective and inefficient procedure will act as a magnet. That is a common-sense view, endorsed by someone who has devoted a considerable part of his career to dealing with the problem in detail.

Something is wrong when, in the first 10 months of 2000, only 8,000 failed asylum seekers were removed from the United Kingdom. In those 10 months, approximately 63,000 new applications were made. Something is wrong when just under 2,000 asylum refusals have been issued against people held at Oakington reception centre, but—according to the Government's evidence to the Select Committee—only 254 of them have been removed or have left voluntarily after those decisions had been taken. It is a matter not only of effectiveness, important though that is, but of humanity.

I should like to deal with a point that the Home Secretary made—that a system that embodies delay, inefficiency and ineffectiveness is unfair to the genuine refugee who has to wait in the queue with everyone else. In practice, a dispersal system that was introduced for perfectly good motives, and that I certainly hoped would work effectively, is causing tremendous difficulties for all types of asylum seekers.

Evidence from the Immigration Advisory Service describes applicants having to travel by night bus from London to another city, then having to wait after a sleepless night for three or five hours before a detailed interview that will be the basis of a decision on their application. I have no idea whether those cases are well founded or not, but that is not a sensible way of organising our asylum policy. That is why a system under which people are housed in secure reception centres with board and lodging and legal advice, and interpretation and translation facilities available, would be not only a deterrent to unfounded asylum claims, but in practice a much more efficient and humane way of dealing with asylum seekers who claim on British soil than the current, shambolic arrangements.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in the borough of Hillingdon? It has the biggest port of entry into the United Kingdom, through which a quarter of the total number of people seeking asylum in the UK come. The number of asylum seekers recorded in the final quarter of last year was larger than in previous quarters, which shows that the dispersal policy is simply not working. Our local authority cannot cope.

Mr. Lidington

My hon. Friend makes the point about Hillingdon well, and I could support it by saying that Kent is talking about having a backlog of 1,000 asylum seekers in temporary bed-and-breakfast hotels. Moreover, Northamptonshire county council has stated that the volume of asylum seekers coming to Northamptonshire shows no signs of reducing, despite NASS statements to the contrary following the roll-out of the national dispersal arrangements. Before I conclude, I want to make one further point of detail, to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond. It has to do with the Government's much-vaunted figures on the number of initial decisions. What is striking about the figures for 2000 is the number of refusals for what is termed "non-compliance". In practice, that term refers to an applicant's failure to fill in the form correctly.

As I understand it, an applicant has 10 working days to complete and submit a 19-page statement of evidence form, which must be completed in English. Dispersal and the general shambles affecting the administration of the system mean that access to interpreters, translators and legal advisers may be interrupted or even rendered impossible. In 1999, 1,085 claims were rejected on grounds of non-compliance, but the total rose to 26,635 in 2000.

My fear is that perhaps the statistics are being pumped up and made to look good—to look as though many people were having their cases considered and determined and refused—but that in practice the refusal is purely technical. If that is so, there has been no gain, as it means that the substantive consideration of a case has to be dealt with further down the line by the adjudicator at the appeal hearing. That would not be a sensible way to run the system, and I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) rightly reminded the House of the importance of the central principles of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. It is the one point on which I agree with him. Our asylum system has degenerated into a shambolic state, which reduces our ability to deliver the promises that we signed up to when we acceded to that convention. It also undermines public support for the principle that we should give succour to people who are genuinely fleeing persecution, which the hon. Gentleman was right to argue that we should seek to uphold.

The policies of the present Administration are neither fast, nor firm, nor fair. It is time that we had fresh policies, and a new start.

3.53 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I shall begin by picking up some themes developed earlier in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He was right to say that asylum poses some of the most acutely difficult ethical problems that he has had to deal with. I am sure that many other hon. Members could say the same. The polarised nature of the debate in our country does us no good at all.

It is appropriate to refer to the 1951 convention in this debate, given last weekend's commemoration of the holocaust. The convention came into being because, after the horrific events of the holocaust and the second world war, people said, "Never, ever again will we turn our backs on those fleeing persecution." I salute the people who drew up the 1951 convention, which we mark and commemorate this year. Our guiding principle must be that we should not turn our backs.

However, the asylum debate is difficult, and it stirs strong emotions. I feel very emotional, and very strongly, about it. That is because the people who framed the 1951 convention and the principles on which it was founded could not have imagined the situation that exists today. Today, we are faced with smuggling, trafficking in human beings and the exploitation of mass travel. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred to that.

The traffic in human beings is a despicable activity. Women are taken for prostitution and children are taken to be used in criminal activity. People make billions of pounds a year from the traffic in human beings.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Northampton is a major destination for the traffic in human beings, and in particular for people from the former Republic of Yugoslavia? Will she agree to look at the situation, and ensure that the national asylum support service reinstates registration for asylum seekers in Northampton? Registration is due to end tomorrow, but the service is essential if we are to deal with the 15 to 20 people who come into Northampton every week.

Mrs. Roche

I know that my hon. Friend has made representations about that matter before. We have spoken about it, and I shall certainly look at the matter again and take very seriously what she has to say.

For those people who make well founded cases under the convention, we must have a proper process of refugee integration. I am delighted that we now have a national strategy. I chair the working group on that, and it had its first meeting yesterday. However, we must also recognise the difficulties associated with return—difficulties that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) could not resolve. When one turns down a person's application, one must decide how to remove that person.

I cannot say that my aim, when I came into politics, was to remove people from the United Kingdom. It certainly was not my aim, but removal must happen when a person who has made an unfounded application reaches the end of the process. It can be very difficult. For some countries in eastern Europe, there is no problem at all but, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, we are now dealing with some of the most difficult countries in the world. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said about the need for moderation in this area. However, I must tell him that that is why we need increased detention space at the end of the process.

I turn now to some of the other points made in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), who, speaking on asylum for the first time from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, made a very good speech. She was right to refer to the Shelter report. Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald would not allow me to intervene to point out that the report was compiled before the Government's system came into operation. Of course people have to be housed properly, and we need high standards to ensure that the housing is available.

The hon. Member for Taunton asked me a very important question about cases involving Afghanistan. The problem that she raised highlights how right the Home Secretary was to talk, in his Lisbon speech, about the need to view the 1951 convention in the modern context.

I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said about his constituency, which borders my own. In both our constituencies, many people from all over the world are seeking asylum. It is important that we look after people properly while their claims are being processed, and that is our aim.

I very much welcomed the speech by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and what he had to say about his support for the civil penalty. I thought that his remarks about returns and the need to see the problem in the context of international development were very well made. I understand completely what the hon. Gentleman said; he demonstrated his understanding of this complex procedure.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She heard the quote that I gave from the Select Committee's recommendations about dealing with the victims of persecution in the region where they suffer persecution, a point that the Home Secretary mentioned. Do the Government propose to take that recommendation forward, as it would unquestionably help to alleviate some of the pressure on the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Roche

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The whole debate, which is being addressed by the European Union, and by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in its worldwide consultation on the convention, has been taken forward as a result of the Home Secretary's speech in Lisbon. In the developed world, we spend a fantastic sum of money on considering and processing applications for asylum. In the developing world, which has the majority of asylum seekers and refugees, we spend comparatively little. Of course there is an imbalance, but many other factors apply.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury spoke about dispersal. The national asylum support service replaces the shambolic arrangements previously in place, under which many boroughs in London and the south-east could not cope. We think that the system is working reasonably well. That does not mean to say that there are no teething difficulties, as there are with any new organisation. However, what Shelter has to say about standards shows that NASS officials should be congratulated on their very hard work.

As far as the backlog is concerned, the hon. Gentleman talked about non-compliance refusals—but before we put standards in place, there were none. Under the previous Administration, files were simply left to gather dust on the shelves of the immigration and nationality directorate. There was no processing whatsoever. That is why we have made 110,000 decisions in the past year—the largest number of decisions that the Home Office has ever taken.

The House will probably debate no more important moral issue than how we treat asylum seekers and deal with the problem of refugees. We must ensure not only that we get the statistics right, but that we place the issue in an international context. We are determined to deal with the problem and are putting measures in place to do so.

I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 126, Noes 304.

Division No. 97] [4.3
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Leigh, Edward
Amess, David Letwin, Oliver
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Lidington, David
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Loughton, Tim
Baldry, Tony Luff, Peter
Beggs, Roy MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Bercow, John MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Beresford, Sir Paul Maclean, Rt Hon David
Blunt, Crispin McLoughlin, Patrick
Body, Sir Richard Madel, Sir David
Boswell, Tim Malins, Humfrey
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Maples, John
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Brady, Graham Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Brazier, Julian Moss, Malcolm
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Nicholls, Patrick
Browning, Mrs Angela O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Ottaway, Richard
Burns, Simon Page, Richard
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Paice, James
Pickles, Eric
Chope, Christopher Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Clappison, James Prior, David
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Collins, Tim Redwood, Rt Hon John
Cormack, Sir Patrick Robathan, Andrew
Cran James Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Curry, Rt Hon David Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Day, Stephen Ruffley, David
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen St Aubyn, Nick
Duncan, Alan Sayeed, Jonathan
Duncan Smith, lain Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Evans, Nigel Shepherd, Richard
Faber, David Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Fabricant, Michael Soames, Nicholas
Flight, Howard Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Spicer, Sir Michael
Fowler, Fit Hon Sir Norman Spring, Richard
Fox, Dr Liam Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Gale, Roger Steen, Anthony
Garnier, Edward Swayne, Desmond
Gibb, Nick Syms, Robert
Gill, Christopher Tapsell, Sir Peter
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Gray, James Taylor, Sir Teddy
Green, Damian Townend, John
Grieve, Dominic Tredinnick, David
Gummer, Rt Hon John Trend, Michael
Hammond, Philip Tyrie, Andrew
Hawkins, Nick Viggers, Peter
Hayes, John Walter, Robert
Heald, Oliver Wardle, Charles
Horam, John Waterson, Nigel
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Wells, Bowen
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Whittingdale, John
Hunter, Andrew Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Wilkinson, John
Jenkin, Bernard Yeo, Tim
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Tellers for the Ayes:
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Mr. John Randall and
Lansley, Andrew Mr. Peter Atkinson.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Darvill, Keith
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Alexander, Douglas Davidson, Ian
Allen, Graham Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Ashton, Joe Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Atkins, Charlotte
Bailey, Adrian Denham, John
Baker, Norman Dobbin, Jim
Ballard, Jackie Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Banks, Tony Doran, Frank
Barnes, Harry Dowd, Jim
Barron, Kevin Drew, David
Battle, John Drown, Ms Julia
Bayley, Hugh Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Edwards, Huw
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Efford, Clive
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bennett, Andrew F Field, Rt Hon Frank
Benton, Joe Fisher, Mark
Bermingham, Gerald Fitzpatrick, Jim
Best, Harold Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Flint, Caroline
Blears, Ms Hazel Flynn, Paul
Blizzard, Bob Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Borrow, David Foster, Don (Bath)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Bradshaw, Ben Fyfe, Maria
Brand, Dr Peter Galloway, George
Breed, Colin Gardiner, Barry
Brinton, Mrs Helen George, Andrew (St Ives)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Browne, Desmond Gerrard, Neil
Buck, Ms Karen Gidley, Sandra
Burden, Richard Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Burnett, John Godsiff, Roger
Burstow, Paul Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Cable, Dr Vincent Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Grocott, Bruce
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Grogan, John
Caplin, Ivor Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Caton, Martin Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Cawsey, Ian Hanson, David
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Chidgey, David Harris, Dr Evan
Clapham, Michael Harvey, Nick
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Healey, John
Heath, David (Somerton & Frorne)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hendrick, Mark
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hepburn, Stephen
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heppell, John
Clelland, David Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clwyd, Ann Hinchliffe, David
Coffey, Ms Ann Hodge, Ms Margaret
Cohen, Harry Hoey, Kate
Coleman, lain Hood, Jimmy
Colman, Tony Hope, Phil
Connarty, Michael Howells, Dr Kim
Cooper, Yvette Hoyle, Lindsay
Corbett, Robin Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Corbyn, Jeremy Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Corston, Jean Humble, Mrs Joan
Cotter, Brian Hutton, John
Cousins, Jim Iddon, Dr Brian
Cranston, Ross Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cummings, John Jamieson, David
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Jenkins, Brian
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Perham, Ms Linda
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Pike, Peter L
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Plaskitt, James
Joyce, Eric Pond, Chris
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pope, Greg
Keeble, Ms Sally Pound, Stephen
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Khabra, Piara S Prosser, Gwyn
Kidney, David Purchase, Ken
Kilfoyle, Peter Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Rammell, Bill
Lammy, David Raynsford, Nick
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Laxton, Bob Rendel, David
Lepper, David Robertson, John(Glasgow Anniesland)
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Roche, Mrs Barbara
Livsey, Richard Rogers, Allan
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rooney, Terry
Llwyd, Elfyn Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Lock, David Rowlands, Ted
Love, Andrew Roy, Frank
McAvoy, Thomas Ruddock, Joan
McCabe, Steve Russell, Bob (Colchester)
McCafferty, Ms Chris Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield) Ryan, Ms Joan
Salter, Martin
McDonagh, Siobhain Sedgemore, Brian
McDonnell, John Shaw, Jonathan
McFall, John Sheerman, Barry
McGuire, Mrs Anne Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Mclsaac, Shona Shipley, Ms Debra
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Singh, Marsha
Mackinlay, Andrew Skinner, Dennis
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McNamara, Kevin Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McNulty, Tony Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
MacShane, Denis Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
McWalter, Tony
Mahon, Mrs Alice Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Mallaber, Judy Soley, Clive
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Steinberg, Gerry
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Stevenson, George
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Stinchcombe, Paul
Martlew, Eric Stoate, Dr Howard
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Meale, Alan Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Merron, Gillian Stringer, Graham
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Stuart, Ms Gisela
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stunell, Andrew
Miller, Andrew Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mitchell, Austin
Moffatt, Laura Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Moonie, Dr Lewis Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Moore, Michael Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Timms, Stephen
Morley, Elliot Tipping, Paddy
Mountford, Kali Todd, Mark
Mudie, George Tonge, Dr Jenny
Mullin, Chris Touhig, Don
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Truswell, Paul
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Twigg, Derek (Halton)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Tyler, Paul
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Tynan, Bill
O'Hara, Eddie Walley, Ms Joan
Olner, Bill Ward, Ms Claire
O'Neill, Martin Wareing, Robert N
Öpik, Lembit Webb, Steve
Organ, Mrs Diana White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr Alan Worthington, Tony
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W) Wray, James
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Wilson, Brian Wyatt, Derek
Winnick, David Tellers for the Noes:
Woodward, Shaun Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe and
Woolas, Phil Mr. Clive Betts

Question accordingly negatived

Question, That the proposed words be there added,put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31(Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 268, Noes 152.

Division No. 98] [4.15 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cummings, John
Alexander, Douglas Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Allen, Graham
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Ashton, Joe Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Atkins, Charlotte Darvill, Keith
Bailey, Adrian Davidson, Ian
Banks, Tony Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Barnes, Harry Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Barron, Kevin Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Battle, John
Bayley, Hugh Denham, John
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Dobbin, Jim
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Bennett, Andrew F Doran, Frank
Benton, Joe Dowd, Jim
Bermingham, Gerald Drew, David
Best, Harold Drown, Ms Julia
Blears, Ms Hazel Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Blizzard, Bob Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Borrow, David Edwards, Huw
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Efford, Clive
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bradshaw, Ben Field, Rt Hon Frank
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fisher, Mark
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Browne, Desmond Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Buck, Ms Karen Flint, Caroline
Burden, Richard Flynn, Paul
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Caton, Martin Fyfe, Maria
Cawsey, Ian Galloway, George
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Gardiner, Barry
Clapham, Michael George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Gerrard, Neil
Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Godsiff, Roger
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clelland, David Grocott, Bruce
Clwyd, Ann Grogan, John
Coffey, Ms Ann Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Cohen, Harry Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coleman, lain Hanson, David
Colman, Tony Healey, John
Connarty, Michael Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Cooper, Yvette Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Corbett, Robin Hendrick, Mark
Corston, Jean Hepburn, Stephen
Cousins, Jim Heppell, John
Cox, Tom Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cranston, Ross Hinchliffe, David
Hodge, Ms Margaret Mullin, Chris
Hoey, Kate Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hood, Jimmy Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hope, Phil Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Howells, Dr Kim Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hoyle, Lindsay O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Hara, Eddie
Humble, Mrs Joan Olner, Bill
Hutton, John O'Neill, Martin
Iddon, Dr Brian Organ, Mrs Diana
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Perham, Ms Linda
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Pickthall, Colin
Jamieson, David Pike, Peter L
Jenkins, Brian Plaskitt, James
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Pond, Chris
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Pope, Greg
Pound, Stephen
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Prosser, Gwyn
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Purchase, Ken
Joyce, Eric Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Rammell, Bill
Keeble, Ms Sally Raynsford, Nick
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Khabra, Piara S Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Kidney, David Roche, Mrs Barbara
Kilfoyle, Peter Rogers, Allan
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Rooney, Terry
Lammy, David Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Rowlands, Ted
Laxton, Bob Roy, Frank
Lepper, David Ruddock, Joan
Levitt, Tom Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Ryan, Ms Joan
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Salter, Martin
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Sedgemore, Brian
Lock, David Shaw, Jonathan
Love, Andrew Sheerman, Barry
McAvoy, Thomas Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McCabe, Steve Shipley, Ms Debra
McCafferty, Ms Chris Singh, Marsha
McDonagh, Siobhain Skinner, Dennis
McFall, John Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McGuire, Mrs Anne Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Mclsaac, Shona Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Smith, Miss Geraldine(Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Mackinlay, Andrew
McNamara, Kevin Soley, Clive
McNulty, Tony Starkey, Dr Phyllis
MacShane, Denis Steinberg, Gerry
McWalter, Tony Stevenson, George
Mahon, Mrs Alice Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Mallaber, Judy Stinchcombe, Paul
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Stoate, Dr Howard
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Stringer, Graham
Martlew, Eric Stuart, Ms Gisela
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Meale, Alan
Merron, Gillian Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Michie, Bill (Shefld Heeley) Timms, Stephen
Miller, Andrew Tipping, Paddy
Mitchell, Austin Todd, Mark
Moffatt, Laura Touhig, Don
Moonie, Dr Lewis Truswell, Paul
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Morley, Elliot Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Tynan, Bill
Mountford, Kali Walley, Ms Joan
Mudie, George Ward, Ms Claire
Wareing, Robert N Woolas, Phil
White, Brian Worthington, Tony
Whitehead, Dr Alan Wray, James
Williams, Rt Hon Alan(Swansea W) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Wyatt, Derek
Wilson, Brian Tellers for the Ayes:
Winnick, David Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe and
Woodward, Shaun Mr. Clive Betts.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Harris, Dr Evan
Amess, David Harvey, Nick
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Hawkins, Nick
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Hayes, John
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Heald, Oliver
Baker, Norman Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Baldry, Tony Horam, John
Ballard, Jackie Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Beggs, Roy Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Bercow, John Jenkin, Bernard
Beresford, Sir Paul King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Blunt, Crispin Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Body, Sir Richard Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Boswell, Tim Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Lansley, Andrew
Brady, Graham Leigh, Edward
Brand, Dr Peter Letwin, Oliver
Brazier, Julian Lidington, David
Breed, Colin Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Livsey, Richard
Browning, Mrs Angela Llwyd, Elfyn
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Loughton, Tim
Burnett, John Luff, Peter
Burns, Simon MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Burstow, Paul MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Cable, Dr Vincent Maclean, Rt Hon David
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
McLoughlin, Patrick
Chidgey, David Madel, Sir David
Chope, Christopher Malins, Humfrey
Clappison, James Maples, John
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Collins, Tim Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Cotter, Brian Moore, Michael
Cran, James Moss, Malcolm
Curry, Rt Hon David Nicholls, Patrick
Davey, Edward (Kingston) O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Öpik, Lembit
Day, Stephen Ottaway, Richard
Duncan, Alan Page, Richard
Duncan Smith, Iain Paice, James
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Pickles, Eric
Evans, Nigel Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Faber, David Prior, David
Fabricant, Michael Redwood, Rt Hon John
Flight, Howard Rendel, David
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Robathan, Andrew
Foster, Don (Bath) Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Fox, Dr Liam Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Gale, Roger Ruffley, David
Gamier, Edward Russell, Bob (Colchester)
George, Andrew (St Ives) St Aubyn, Nick
Gibb, Nick Sayeed, Jonathan
Gidley, Sandra Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gill, Christopher Shepherd, Richard
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Gray, James Soames, Nicholas
Green, Damian Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Grieve, Dominic Spicer, Sir Michael
Gummer, Rt Hon John Spring, Richard
Hammond, Philip Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Steen, Anthony Viggers, Peter
Swayne, Desmond Walter, Robert
Syms, Robert Wardle, Charles
Tapsell, Sir Peter Waterson, Nigel
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton) Webb, Steve
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Wells, Bowen
Taylor, Sir Teddy Whittingdale, John
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion) Wilkinson, John
Tonge, Dr Jenny Yeo, Tim
Townend, John Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tredinnick, David
Trend, Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Tyler, Paul Mr. John Randall and
Tyrie, Andrew Mr. Peter Atkinson.

Question accordingly agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House reaffirms the obligations of the United Kingdom under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to provide asylum for those fleeing from a well-founded fear of persecution; approves the Government's strategy for reform of the asylum system and welcomes the practical improvements which have already been delivered, including substantial additional investment to provide the Immigration and Nationality Directorate with the staff and other resources essential to operate an efficient and humane asylum system; congratulates the Immigration and Nationality Directorate staff on their recent achievements including taking 110,000 initial asylum decisions in 2000; welcomes the effect which the provisions of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and other measures have had in reducing unfounded asylum claims; welcomes the successful introduction of a coherent, national system of support for asylum seekers to replace the chaotic arrangements created by the previous Government which imposed an intolerable burden on local authorities in London and the South-East; notes that the civil penalty, a measure which was opposed by the Official Opposition, has successfully encouraged hauliers and ferry operators to introduce additional security measures to tackle clandestine and illegal entry to the United Kingdom; welcomes the Government's expansion of detention capacity to support substantial increases in the number of asylum seekers with unfounded claims who are removed from the UK; and supports the Government's commitment to working closely with other countries to deal more effectively with asylum pressures affecting the whole of Europe.

4.25 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate that we have just concluded was foreshortened by the very important statement made before it began. Nevertheless, in 111 minutes of debate, only 19 minutes were left for Back-Bench contributions, so that many hon. Members on both sides of the House who wanted to take part were unable to do so. I appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you cannot control the length of Front-Bench speeches, but in your role as guardian of the rights of Back Benchers, might you seek to use some influence in that matter so that it does not happen again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman says, but as he will appreciate, it is not a point of order for the Chair. In recent years, it has become a convention that Oppositions split Supply days; that in itself reduces the amount of time for Back Benchers. There were obvious reasons why the statement was made today. I know that it is usual for the Government of the day to try to avoid statements on Opposition Supply days, but there was a powerful reason for that particular statement. Perhaps I should waste no more time by adding to that.