§ [Relevant documents: The First Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2000–01, on Border Controls, HC 163.]
§ Order for Second Reading read.3.48 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I had looked forward to complete unanimity on the Bill, but I read in this morning's papers that it is likely to be questioned, in that some of the measures have been misinterpreted by colleagues and opponents alike.
First, I want to put on record the considerable help that was given in drafting the original White Paper on 7 February and the Bill—help given by organisations including pressure groups with a long-standing interest in these issues, and by parliamentary colleagues as well as my office and officials in the Department and Nick Pearce, my special adviser. I say that because, building on the White Paper proposals that received almost unanimous support, it is important that we get the legislation right. From the beginning to the end of the process, we must offer to potential refugees from oppression, economic migrants or other visitors a warm welcome to a country in which the systems can be trusted to operate fairly, competently and robustly.
Today's Second Reading builds directly on the measures in the White Paper, many of which do not require legislation but which require greater competence in the carrying out of our immigration and asylum procedures than has been demonstrated in recent years. I said that on 7 February and I repeat it today, because if we do not get the process right—if the measures put in place are not carried out properly, competently and speedily—it will not matter how we legislate, and we will have to return to the House to seek legislative means of redress.
We need a balanced approach, and I believe that Members on both sides of the House are committed to achieving that. Managed migration allows those throughout the world who have a contribution to make, and who are seeking a better life for themselves, to enter this country through a system of economic migration that is properly organised and trusted by the British people.
The doubling of the number of work permits issued this year must be accompanied by measures to ensure that new forms of economic migration can meet the needs of the service economy and of those who have high skills, so that they can take advantage of the new programmes that were put in place in January. In enabling people to come to this country for a short or a long stay, and to contribute their diversity and strengths to the well-being of our country, we must also strengthen the welcome for those who seek asylum from death and persecution. The new gateways for economic migration and the gateway that we are establishing with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will enable those who face persecution to apply for, and to be granted, such status from outside the country. Those gateways will be crucial 342 in ensuring that we avoid scenes—such as those witnessed last summer and since—of clandestine attempts, often at great personal risk, to enter the country through the channel tunnel and via ferries.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
Is my right hon. Friend saying that, through the UNHCR, people who are suffering oppression and seeking refuge outwith their own country will have access to the new work permits and can enter the work force directly? In other words, can they proceed through the UNHCR door and enter the country through the work permit system, or will they be excluded and have to choose between one door or another?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am pleased to be able to clarify any misunderstandings. I am proposing that those who currently enter the country clandestinely, with inappropriate papers, or by applying for refugee status "in country" will be able to enter on a managed basis through the UNHCR without needing to put their lives at risk or to present fraudulent papers. In that way, as we gradually build up the process, we can ensure that people can approach this country honestly if they are at risk. Separately, we are expanding the work permit system dramatically—as I shall spell out later, to do so more rapidly we will need to charge employers—so that more people can apply for permits outside the country, as well as within it, when they are seeking a longer stay.
I use the phrase "outside the country" because, at the moment, the work permit system operates when employers seek people who can become skilled and valued workers. However, as I said on 7 February, with a degree of care we can develop in some sectors of the economy and regions of the country a system of entry for reasons of economic migration that would not rely on a person having a job with a specific employer beforehand. Such a system would rely on the ability of employers and trade unions to meet needs on a managed basis in a particular sector. We talked about expanding the agricultural workers scheme, and about the way in which young workers could enter the country on an expanded Commonwealth scheme.
With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I am exploring how that approach could apply to people with lesser skills or no skills at all. The service economy, especially in London and the south-east, relies on clandestine and illegal working. That is unacceptable, and it undermines the wages and conditions of work of those involved and of other workers. It also leads to bad employers undercutting good ones because they do not pay tax or national insurance. There are therefore two ways we can operate that gateway.
In addition, we need to secure trust and confidence in the system for people who have applied for asylum. In the White Paper, I spelled out an end-to-end revision of the process. In the future, the new reception and induction process will allow us to assess the needs of applicants very quickly, to determine their likelihood of success, and to refer and register them As a result, applicants going through the process will receive the support that they need. They will also be monitored and tracked, as we need to know where they are when we want to call them for interview. That information will also tell us what resources they are entitled to, and what they are receiving.
343 Earlier this year, we introduced the new smart card to make that monitoring possible and ensure security. We also set in train an end-to-end review of the audit of the system to ensure that we can eliminate unnecessary expenditure, including fraud.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark. North and Bermondsey)
In addition to resettlement programmes under the United Nations, does the Secretary of State envisage working continually with his European colleagues to try to make sure that asylum seekers do not have to try to smuggle themselves aboard trains crossing under the channel? At present, such people have to get here illegally before they can make their case. Will they be able to make asylum applications from other countries across Europe, on the basis of shared responsibility?
In that context. Home Office figures show that over the past decade about 45 per cent. of applicants were accepted, either as refugees or as people granted exceptional leave to remain. Will the Home Secretary confirm, however, that that proportion has fallen to just under a third in the past year? Does he agree that the figures show that there has always been a significant number of people whose cases have been accepted as valid, and that we have a duty to resolve their cases in the most humane and efficient way possible?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I certainly have a clear commitment to meeting those people's needs in the most humane and efficient way possible.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we in the Justice and Home Affairs Council are engaged in a debate about how we can move forward rapidly the agenda set out at Tampere in Finland three years ago. That agenda set out a Europewide approach to a problem that is international.
Australia's Immigration Minister visited London earlier this week, and he made it clear that this is a global issue. Countries across the world are having to deal with it as worldwide movements of refugees and people seeking a better life place a strain on mechanisms put in place in a very different era. Unfortunately, it is difficult to iron out the disagreements between 15 member states about how that should be done. In future, of course, that number will be much larger as countries accede to the EU. However, I am hopeful that the improvement in overall border controls will become evident soon, as that is crucial for all EU members.
Secondly, I hope that the more managed, more sensible and more balanced approach to dealing with, assessing and being able to support asylum seekers in Europe will take effect soon. Thirdly, I hope that we will be able to establish a sensible system that ensures that asylum shopping and benefit shopping do not take place. I shall speak about both those activities later in my contribution.
I heard the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on "The World at One". The figures that I gave this morning were correct for those who are eventually agreed to be refugees. He is right about those who receive agreement on the right to stay in our country, many of whom receive exceptional or indefinite leave to remain. That applies to countries where we have been unable to return people even when we do not accept that they are refugees under the 1951 convention—I choose my words carefully—and which are at the top of the league in terms of those who come to 344 Britain. I refer to Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has the largest inflow, followed by Afghanistan—they seem to change places—and both pose a major problem, even if no individual case is being made through the appeals process, in returning individuals to the region. So there is an issue on which we agree and the statistics add up.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
Before we leave applications from other safe countries, does the Home Secretary agree that as we move towards the second Dublin convention, the aim should be to make it impossible for people to apply for asylum here if they are resident in another safe country?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I do not think there has been a principled disagreement about the importance of people simply passing through other countries and, as I said a moment ago, asylum shopping. The issue is how we reach agreement on those matters. With the House's indulgence, I shall spend a moment dealing with the substantive issue. We debated it on an Opposition day a couple of months ago, and I thought that we had a rational and intelligent debate, led by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I respond in kind today.
After the elections in France, we will need to reach agreement with the new French Administration, whichever party is in office—obviously, I hope that the Administration will be led by the Socialist party—on a sensible system of dealing with those who need to he returned because they should have sought asylum in France, or a country they had passed through prior to reaching France, rather than the United Kingdom. We have an agreement that predates the implementation of the Dublin convention, signed at the beginning of the 1990s but not implemented until 1997. The agreement in 1995 reached by the then Home Secretary was a gentleman's agreement that related to those who are returned but have not, at the point of return, claimed asylum. The agreement is still in place and, as I spelled out two months ago, about 6,000 people have been returned under it in the past year.
The agreement also covers people who claim asylum in the United Kingdom, having come from France where we believe—rightly, in my view—that they should not have been a tolerated illegal presence, as the term is there, but should have sought asylum or been returned to the country from which they were in transit. However, the opening paragraph of the gentleman's agreement said:With respect to asylum cases, it shall be superseded by the relevant provisions of the Dublin Convention once that convention has entered into force".I am grateful to my Department for finding that quote this afternoon; we were not able to lay our hands on it when we had the debate two months ago. We make slow progress, but at least it is progress.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am always honest about these matters, if nothing else.
We are all agreed that we need to renew that original commitment so that we can have a bilateral agreement with France. I shall take every possible reasonable step to achieve it. At the time, I explained that pending the presidential and Assembly elections, it was a delicate matter, although even I—who had realised that there were 345 problems in Europe—did not realise just how delicate. Regrettably, the events of last Sunday show how dangerous the issue is for the French, but there will be danger for us all if we do not get it right. With the agreement of the House, therefore, I shall turn to part 2 of the Bill before dealing with part 1.
I want to address an issue that has come up during the past 48 hours in relation to the proposals that I set out in the White Paper two months ago. They have been debated since then; indeed, questions were taken about them on the day that they were announced. They relate to the way we deal with people who claim asylum once they have come through the reception and induction process.
§ Mr. Connarty
My right hon. Friend was talking generally about the relationship between other European countries and the UK. Does he agree that there should be some change to the current regrettable position whereby our approach to immigration law differs from that adopted in other parts of the European Union, and we experience immigration and asylum shopping? The Foreign Office has expressed a wish for change. Does my right hon. Friend anticipate that a change will occur and will it assist his aims in the Bill?
§ Mr. Blunkett
There are discussions on agreeing common standards and reasonable benchmarks on common procedures. I do not want to be tied into a definitive set of conditions and procedures so that every country in Europe follows exactly the same process—I am sure that hon. Members would not want that—but to have a benchmark and a foundation for the way that countries deal with and support asylum seekers and enhance their well-being, so that people would not be able to undercut between countries. To that extent, my hon. Friend is right.
However, the majority of countries in Europe say that asylum seekers take the view that the United Kingdom is the most attractive place for them. I am trying to deal with that point through some of the processes that will be enhanced by the Bill. Asylum seekers come to this country for a variety of reasons, which we have debated on several occasions, including the use of the English language and the fact that we do not have identity cards. There is communication from host communities in Britain, which offer sanctuary and a welcome to those from the same parts of the world. All those factors contribute to the collage of reasons why people are likely to seek asylum status in this country.
We are trying to achieve the right balance to ensure that people receive sanctuary and a warm welcome, and that they have the confidence to integrate and to provide the diversity that we welcome. In addition, we want to be confident that the system is working, that it is robust and achieves what we say it should achieve and that we thus provide the reassurance that is crucial for good race and community relations, social cohesion and the reinforcement of the overwhelming commitment of the British people to providing sanctuary.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I shall give way to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).
§ Mr. Lansley
The Home Secretary will recall that in the White Paper he emphasised the key part played by the Oakington immigration reception centre in the scrutiny of asylum applications and in ensuring that an initial decision is taken within seven days. Can he say anything more about what is to happen to the centre? Can he confirm that the intention is to close it in the latter part of 2004? If a similar facility is to be opened elsewhere, can he tell us when we might know where that would be and how that might affect the staff at Oakington, many of whom are my constituents?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I have to repeat what I said when he rightly questioned me about that issue on 7 February: we are awaiting the court judgment on the further challenge. We are therefore being circumspect about what we say in relation to Oakington, other than to say that the site is in doubt, not the facility.
The site will need to be replaced, but we will need to do that in a way that is commensurate with securing the well-being not only of those who go through Oakington, but of those who work there. I pay tribute to the exemplary job that they do. Everyone agrees that it is an exemplary facility in terms of what it provides and the way that it works. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have other hon. Members of all political persuasions, that I will engage him in the process when we know the time scale and the benchmarks for making those changes. That would be a fair thing to do.
Before I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, I want to make some further comments so that we know what we are about to debate. I want to reinforce the fact that I have either done or set in train the things that I said on 7 February that I would do. I said that we would replace vouchers with cash and that we hoped to do so by the autumn. We did so on 8 April. It is amazing how easily and silently even those things that people have been pressing us to do for a very long time slip into being, but there we go—so be it.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I shall use the opportunity of the hon. Gentleman's sedentary intervention to say that I do not expect any accolade for anything in this connection, but I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats welcome that change. That is very good, and it has cheered me up enormously this afternoon.
On 7 February, following the way I spelled out the new induction registration reporting process, I said that we would run a trial of accommodation centres because we 347 were seeking a seamless process from induction, through registration, to accommodating asylum seekers, thus speeding the process of integrating those who were welcomed as refugees and using removal centres where appropriate for those who had to leave the country.
Incidentally, we shall use this measure to facilitate proper resettlement on return—I shall touch on that later—so that we can use resources legally to enhance people's ability to resettle in the country from which they came, in a more seemly and acceptable fashion than is obviously now the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, has made representations to me on that point, and I am pleased to he able to respond positively to him.
We also said that although we were creating a more efficient and robust system of reporting and tracking where people were, we recognised in the report that I published alongside the White Paper that the dispersal system had received, to say the least, considerable questioning. In fact, last August and early September, not a single day went by when national newspapers or BBC and ITV television news broadcasts did not cover the dispersal problem in one form or another, tragically, because of a murder and some attacks that took place on asylum seekers in communities.
There was a substantial debate, and demands were made that I should do something radical about dispersal. I responded to those demands in the autumn on 29 October, when I made the statement about the future revisions of the system. I said that I would enhance the dispersal system and learn from other European countries and elsewhere to do so. Having dealt with the dispersal report published alongside the statement, I turned my attention to the White Paper. Dispersal will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future and I said that we will improve the system, although we have a long way to go. I also said that I would trial accommodation centres. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor was good enough to allocate resources for that. We are in the process of setting up those centres, which are dealt with in part 2.
§ Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that without dispersal, the situation in Dover would have been insufferable and impossible to manage. We appreciate the practical remedy that that provided for us. Is he aware that Dover already has an induction centre, a removal centre and accommodation for many hundreds of unaccompanied minors? Is it sensible and appropriate that so many facilities of that nature should be concentrated in such a small town? Does he think that that is fair to my constituents? Does he agree with the Prime Minister who, long before the additional facilities were provided, said that Dover had suffered an unfair burden?
§ Mr. Blunkett
The people and the services in and around Dover have carried a considerable burden. I pay credit again to my hon. Friend for the stand that he took in the period leading up to the general election last year when the atmosphere was not the same as it is today. We did not have the unanimity that now exists across and within parties. It was difficult to hold the line and he deserves credit for the rational and exemplary way he dealt with the situation.
There is nothing that I can do at this juncture about the geographical position of Dover, although I have mentioned the agreements on the number of people 348 arriving clandestinely. We all understand that. What we can do is consider how to use the induction process to speed up the movement of people through the system of dispersal and proper registration elsewhere. We must ensure that people are not put in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, as they are at the moment, because that is the wrong way to disperse them quickly into the immediate area. I want to work with my hon. Friend on achieving that solution.
We must ensure that the speeded up and more efficient process deals with minors. Young people arriving unaccompanied is a major problem for Kent county council and the area around my hon. Friend's constituency. We are spending £1ll million a year on unaccompanied young people under the age of 18. When we debated this matter before, I said that it was highly questionable whether they are unaccompanied all the way across Europe, but that is a problem of trafficking. The Bill increases the penalty for trafficking to 14 years because it is a dirty, nasty and illegal trade that needs rooting out.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I promised, with bated breath and trepidation, to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington.
§ Ms Abbott
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that whatever might have been said in the House, tens of thousands of asylum seekers, especially women and mothers, are grateful that vouchers have been abolished. People had to endure the humiliation of using them in supermarkets, often walking miles to find the nearest one that would take them. They note what has happened and are glad.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. I hope that we can progress in that spirit now that I am about to deal with accommodation centres, and I shall try to respond in a like-minded way.
§ Mr. Dawson
On unaccompanied young people who seek asylum, surely the problem is eminently soluble. Why cannot we require every social services authority in the land to have some responsibility for those extremely vulnerable young people? Why cannot we ensure that they get the effective and thorough assessment of their needs and experiences when they are dispersed? They need to be set on a good course, whether in this country or elsewhere. Surely we have the means to provide for unaccompanied children in section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and do not need to use bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend is right to say that we should not have to use bed and breakfast, but, as with everything to do with nationality, immigration and asylum, there are complications. Over the years, the need to find a place where those young people will be accommodated in circumstances where their language and other needs are met has led to attempts to find a geographic placement that is near enough to a host community that can provide support. That has meant not 349 only that Kent has faced an undue task as regards dealing with the immediate needs of those young people, but that other authorities that already host large numbers of people from a community from a certain region of the world have had to be prepared to help and to work with them.
My hon. Friend was right about the ideal, which, with the help of the Local Government Association, we shall try to work towards in a much more coherent fashion than has been possible in the past.
§ Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
Does my right hon. Friend realise that some unaccompanied minors, who may have undertaken college courses and subsequently established themselves in their new community, are dispersed to areas where they do not have such links when they reach adulthood and are ready to make a contribution to that community? That practice has created problems for many such youngsters. I know that my right hon. Friend has exercised his discretion in relation to particular cases on which I have made representations to him, but will he ensure that those youngsters are given more security in future?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am in danger of dealing with just about every problem on the immigration and asylum front as part of the Second Reading debate, so I must move on shortly.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and we need to deal with it. I entirely accept that there is an anomaly. Getting the young person's placement right when they enter is crucial to ensuring that we do not end up with the unacceptable practice of further dispersal after adulthood is reached.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I must make more progress on the Bill so that hon. Members have the opportunity to debate it and to question me on its more controversial elements.
On accommodation centres, I want to explain what we are doing so that there is no misunderstanding. From the dispersal report, we learned of the difficulties that arise where large numbers of people awaiting clearance through the appeals process are clustered together because of the nature of the dispersal centre. Hon. Members who have such a centre in their constituency, as I do, will be aware of the problem that it is effectively an accommodation centre, but without the forward planning and provision that enables the community adequately to support and work with the individuals concerned.
We are trialling the system because we know that we need to get it right and that we may not have all the answers, and because we need a comparator between the best and the worst of dispersal and accommodation centres to determine what is appropriate. We may require accommodation centres that are not closed and secure, but open; that provide facilities on site that are needed for families, as well as for individuals; and that are designed to fast-track people through the system, not to hold them for long periods. We are happy to concede that where there is a danger of people being held in accommodation 350 centres for long periods—I mean for more than six months—we should consider whether they should be moved out.
The whole objective is to avoid the unacceptable position at the moment in which people wait an inordinate length of time to be dealt with administratively through the appeals process, or their legal and other advisers counsel them such that the process is dragged out, as we know, for months and sometimes years.
The accommodation centre trial is designed to give people the support that they need and to give them full education, health and language provision on the premises. The humanitarian requirements under the 1951 convention will be met at the same standard or, in some cases, at an even higher standard because centres will be able to take account of people's very specific language requirements. We can cluster services in such centres and provide extra interpretation and support services based on those language needs.
The trial is designed to find out whether, if we can do that, we can ease the challenge posed to schools and GP practices in areas through which large numbers of transient people pass. The number of places available in schools determines where children are placed, and challenged schools often have more places. For the same reason, centres, including accommodation centres, with available places are often in the most difficult and disadvantaged areas, which reinforces the difficulties.
I shall read to the House what a GP practice said to me, referring to the need, as the GPs saw it, for massive extra resources to deal with asylum seekers. I ought to stress that they are not griping about doing the job or complaining about asylum seekers coming to this country; they are merely pointing out the enormous task that they have and its knock-on effect on their work. They said:Last week, we conducted an audit of all consultations and found that 32 per cent. required an interpreter. Conducting a consultation through an interpreter takes about twice as long. Due to the continuing rapid rate of increase of patient numbers and in particular the increasing proportion of patients requiring an interpreter for consultation, we find the quality of service we are offering is falling and staff are under intolerable strain.That is what I meant when I used the word "swamped" this morning. I could have used an equivalent word, "overburdened", but I think that people would have objected to the idea of a burden. I could have used the word "overwhelmed", and I will now, because overwhelmed is how GPs feel, as do some schools—I stress that it is only some—that are having to deal with language requirements that accommodation centres will be able to fulfil.
§ Tony Baldry (Banbury)
I hope that the Home Secretary accepts that there is probably not a single Member of the House who does not wish to be reasonable and supportive of him in what is clearly a shared responsibility for us all.
I hope that the Home Secretary is aware of the Refugee Council's suggestion that accommodation centres should not have more than 100 bed spaces and should not be in remote rural areas. I accept that we can all make value judgments about what is remote and what is rural, but I hope that he is willing to consider suggestions about limiting the size of accommodation centres. He has just used words such as "swamped" and "overwhelmed". An accommodation centre for 750 people proposed for my 351 constituency will be the size of the nearest two villages. I hope that he will understand if the people in those villages feel that such a centre would be somewhat overwhelming for them. If he wants the trials to work, may I suggest that the size—
§ Mr. Blunkett
I shall not respond in the usual knockabout debating terms. It has been put to us, in particular by the Refugee Council, that we might consider a different configuration in one of four trial centres. I have agreed that it might be sensible to do that, provided we do not fall into the trap of having a centre that is so small that it is not possible adequately to provide the services that I have just described, not possible to provide language and interpreting support, and not possible, because of economies of scale, to provide the sort of facilities, including leisure facilities, that make it possible for people to stay comfortably in an accommodation centre. We are considering that now.
Wherever we put a trial accommodation centre, there will be people who are worried or who complain. I pay tribute to hon. Members whose areas have been considered for an accommodation centre, run either by the immigration service or a private operator, and who have taken on those who have issued scurrilous leaflets and sought to whip up hate and prejudice. We need to take on that sort of thing wherever it arises, whether from large-scale dispersal under the existing system or from the prospective siting of accommodation centres.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I will give way to all three of my hon. Friends, provided they are quick. It is important to get this right. If we can get the process and the accommodation right, we can overcome people's fears.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Is the Home Secretary bothered to think that people might be disadvantaged by the shortage of interpreters in certain languages? If he is, which languages is he bothered about? I do not want to lead him down a line that he does not want to take, but it is an important matter.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, I am bothered. That is why being able to pull together those with a particular language requirement and provide the necessary interpreting skills on site is the most common-sense approach. At lunchtime, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said that it did not like what I had said, but that it was perfectly prepared to accept that, for example, a medical centre that offered interpreting services might have to be established to serve an area. The disagreement between the council and me appears to be that it does not want such a facility 352 on the site of an accommodation centre, but it is happy to have one off site. I understand that in the context of having an argument, but not intellectually.
§ Mr. Lammy
I am grateful for much that my right hon. Friend has said, because my Tottenham constituency bears much of the brunt of the existing problems: with more than 5,000 homeless families and as many as 20,000 asylum-seeker refugees, there is great pressure on local services such as schools and GP surgeries. Is my right hon. Friend suggesting that children in accommodation centres will receive an education that is not only equivalent to the education that they might receive in schools, but rather better, because they will have specialist teachers who understand the needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children? That is a specialist area, as we in Tottenham see daily.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, it is. My hon. Friend knows a great deal about the subject because of his constituency experience. I am grateful for his support and help for our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Contrary to the story that appeared in one of our national newspapers this morning, which was put about by someone trying to create mischief, she has welcomed the proposals and worked with us on the preparation, and she will be wholly involved because we have asked her Department to be responsible for implementation. I hope that that lays to rest the myth that has been peddled for the past 48 hours.
§ Ms Abbott
On the question of schools and education, with all due respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), I have represented the constituency of Hackney, North and Stoke Newington for 14 years, for almost all of which time many of the schools in my area, including my son's, have had to deal with large numbers of transient pupils and pupils speaking a wide range of languages. Of course that is challenging for both the teachers and the children, but surely the answer is to devise ways of providing those schools with the resources and support that they need. I do not buy the doctrine of separate but equal; we know what that is about. It cannot be right to segregate the children of asylum seekers.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I regret the language of separate but equal, but I also regret the language that my hon. Friend used on Radio 4 at lunchtime. I did not use deliberately emotive language. I am not withdrawing the language that I used because it was part of a very balanced interview which people can tap into by accessing the "Today" programme on the BBC website. I simply wished to indicate that there is a major problem for some schools and some GP practices in limited parts of the country. It is nothing to do with our country's intake of people seeking asylum or wishing to immigrate; we are not swamped in our country, but some schools face real difficulties, as do some GP practices.
All I would say to my hon. Friend is that I know a great deal about Hackney's education provision because I was the Secretary of State for Education and Employment for four difficult years. I know what happens in Hackney and that additional resources are required in some schools. I also know about the distribution of resources in London boroughs like Hackney compared with other parts of 353 the country. Migrants who are not asylum seekers are seeking support as they learn English and make up the bulk of the ethnic diversity of Hackney and other central London boroughs. That, of course, is the reason why there was a request from London's representatives in both national and local government for a better dispersal system and why there have been constant approaches from London boroughs, which are asking for additional resources.
I propose to concentrate on providing resources for language skills, education and health care as a temporary measure until people reach the point at which they are either granted asylum or have been refused it. When asylum is granted, it is our job to integrate and support people and welcome their children into the local school. The difficulty sometimes with families whose removal has been attempted is that their youngsters have become part of a school, making it virtually impossible in some circumstances to operate the managed system to which we should all sign up unless we believe in completely open borders, which would be an interesting free enterprise experiment—eventually the system would give and people would not want to come here any more as it would no longer be attractive, which would be crackers and a crazy piece of politics.
Accepting as a given the need for a managed system and to return people, we must undertake those tasks as humanely and carefully as possible. Accommodation centres may—just may—facilitate that, as they do in some of the most liberal countries in the world such as Sweden and Finland. There is therefore nothing draconian about the measure at all.
§ Simon Hughes
I hope that the Home Secretary is aware that although the issue is sensitive, on the substance of the argument I understand his position and support it. Speaking from personal experience and more generally, if accommodation centres are intended to be used for a limited time, about which the Home Secretary was very clear, there is a benefit in being able to deal with all needs together, provided that he is introducing a trialled species of options—again, I have received confirmation that he is—with dispersal still being used for the majority of asylum seekers.
Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that for the foreseeable future he is willing to consider various options, and that an accommodation centre choice is one reasonable alternative, but that the majority of families will be dispersed and their children integrated into the local schools?
§ Mr. Blunkett
That is the case, practically and inevitably. It is also right that for the foreseeable future we will need to implement an improved and acceptable dispersal system within the community. That means that the GP practice that I mentioned and the schools that face the challenge need our help in the immediate future. I am not ducking or moving away from that reality.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Unless my hon. Friend is burning inside, I should like to make some progress, or no one will be able to get in. I want hon. Members to be able to make speeches rather than interventions.
§ Part 1, for instance—
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am only giving way, as I must, to those who have sat through the debate so far.
Part 1 deals with the issue, which I hope is not as contentious as people have tried to make it, of those who obtain refugee status and then seek naturalisation and want to be integrated into our community. It gives effect to all the measures that I announced on 7 February relating to the acquisition of the English language, the ability to understand our systems of governance and our social processes, a revised and modernised oath and a ceremony in which people will be welcomed into our country for naturalisation.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I welcome what he said about inclusivity of citizenship, but there is one aspect of citizenship that is not dealt with in the Bill—the position of British overseas citizens who were able to come to this country under the quota voucher scheme. Will he take action to ensure that British overseas citizens who have no other citizenship will be able to enter and stay in the country of their nationality?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I know and respect my hon. Friend's interest in the matter and the way in which she has campaigned on it for as long as I can remember. It is important that we get it right. In recognition of the fact that the old special quota scheme had ceased to be used for the purpose for which it was originally designed, we abolished it. I will examine the possibility of an alternative arrangement for British overseas citizens who have no other nationality but who, under the existing complex historical circumstances, cannot enter the country. It would be right for us to do that, as we have a moral obligation to them going back a long way, and it is unfinished business.
That relates to the point that I was making. The people to whom my hon. Friend referred have a deep commitment to this country and a heritage linked with it. Those who seek naturalisation and who want to be part of our community will welcome the measures that I am announcing in part 1.
§ Annabelle Ewing (Perth)
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. On the introduction of an oath of loyalty to the United Kingdom, does he not think it strange that a new applicant should be expected to pledge loyalty to the United Kingdom, whereas in similar circumstances the official Opposition in the Scottish Parliament would not be prepared to swear a loyalty oath? What constitutional implications does the Home Secretary believe that has for the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Blunkett
None at all. However, we are recognising the Gaelic language—I have pronounced it correctly this time—and ensuring that, where appropriate, people will be able to demonstrate their understanding of and competence in Gaelic. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Lady, who I think was making a rather pyrrhic point. The oath stands for all of us here and it will do so for those seeking naturalisation, which even Scottish nationalists have not denied themselves.
355 Part 3 deals with the gateways that I described earlier in terms of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, regular reporting and registration procedures. Part 4 substantially deals with proposals for removal centres and the way in which we can use a variety of staff. On the burning down of Yarl's Wood, we discovered that it was not possible, without legal challenge, for those who had worked in and gained expertise in the prison estate to assist us. That is silly, so we are doing something to put that right as quickly as possible.
Clause 58—I draw attention to this because we had an intervention from the shadow Home Secretary, which I hope that I satisfactorily reflected—gives the Secretary of State power to agree bilateral agreements which might not be possible under the existing law and the Dublin convention. We must also take account of the Roth judgment in terms of civil penalties, and we shall table an amendment for a variable penalty for rail and road with a maximum of £4,000 but with a ceiling of £2,000 for any party engaged in the penalty. We will give the county court the power to release vehicles and to appeal to the county court where appropriate in order to comply with the legislation.
Part 5, which involves schedules 3, 4, 5 and 6—so it is a substantive measure—deals with appeals and the dramatic speeding up and rationalisation of the process. The White Paper put forward the idea of making the appeals tribunal a superior court of record. The Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and I have had discussions about an alternative and more manageable way of providing a one-stop appeals process following the initial immigration and appeals adjudication system.
At the moment the system is virtually unworkable. People can bring a judicial review during the process of the initial appeal, and when they reach the right to appeal to the tribunal they can judicially review the tribunal for not allowing the appeal to the tribunal. They can then judicially review the tribunal's decision and they can judicially review whether they are entitled to go to the court of appeal following failure at the tribunal. The whole system is riddled with delay, prevarication, and, in some cases, deliberate disruption of the appeals process. Then they can judicially review the decision on removal even when the appeals have been gone through.
It is no wonder that people do not have confidence in the system and I am determined to bring forward proposals. When the draft is available, I shall talk to my colleagues on the Select Committee and to the main Opposition parties about whether they will agree to unanimity on that process. It is a difficult issue because we must maintain people's rights, and ensure that we adhere to convention rights and that the process does not disadvantage people in the way that is always possible in administrative processes. At the same time, we must ensure that people cannot, literally, make a monkey of the process.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. The Home Office press release on the Bill contained some indication that such changes might be made, but can he be any more precise about when we will see the proposals, as they will be very significant? According to the programme motion that we 356 will consider later, the Committee stage will be finished by 16 May, so there is a very short time scale for people to consider what may be very complicated changes.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I had a meeting on this matter this morning in which I indicated that by the beginning of next week, we must be able to make available the proposals for consideration in Committee and to listen and respond at that stage to those making reasonable suggestions and representations about the process. We all approach the matter with the intention of retaining reasonable and acceptable rights of appeal. Let us also bear it in mind that we are talking substantially about the second appeal, not the first, and a system with greater rights of appeal than are available anywhere else that I know of in the developed world. Getting it right for the appellant and the community as a whole will be crucial to the system working well.
I think that "working well" is the underlying phrase, as it is important that we put aside the notion that addressing real issues somehow plays into the hands of the British National party and the National Front. Scurrilously raising fears and developing insecurity and prejudice plays into their hands, but seeing a problem and dealing with it takes away the meat and drink of those who would capture the agenda for their own dangerous purposes. I say with all the fervour that I can muster that it is not dangerous for the left or liberals to address real issues that concern people, whether in relation to crime or nationality and asylum; it is only dangerous if we do not listen, respond, indicate that we recognise fears and insecurity and then overcome them by introducing balanced, tolerant and reasoned measures.
The next measure that I want to deal with has only recently been drawn to my attention. I am happy to give way to any hon. Member who has spotted the issue over the years, raised it and made proposals to do something about it. I refer to those who come to seek refuge in our community, ask for our hospitality, commit a severe crime and then claim human rights and asylum protection because they want to stay here even when they have committed that crime. I do not think that it is acceptable for an old lady of 78 to be mugged for £60, as happened in my city, and for the three people who mugged her to continue to claim that they require asylum in this country.
I believe that people who are found guilty of committing crimes and are given a custodial sentence of more than two years forfeit their asylum rights, and I think that we should legislate to take them away. As long as people understand that, they will also understand that, as I said on the White Paper's publication, this country is a welcome home and haven in which we celebrate people coming here, as we have done over the centuries, but we are tough when people abuse that hospitality. In that way, we can ensure that people understand the rules and that those who would whip up hatred know that we understand where they are coming from and will deal with them vigorously.
On the back of the changes that I am introducing in the Bill, I should like to take up a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) two months ago and mention the abolition of fees for family visitor appeals, which is necessary because they were not working and because of administrative incompetence. I am laying the order today so that we can abolish those fees as quickly as possible. We want to ensure that the 357 immigration procedures of managed migration, which are dealt with in part 6, provide the ability to offer people throughout the world the opportunity to come to this country and work with an even more efficient work permit system. That is the best possible part of the nationality, immigration and asylum function that we currently have.
We are also bringing in new methods of using biometric data to stop fraud. The Operation Hornet system that we are piloting will be able to scan passports to check for forgeries and capture information on closed circuit television, including evidence of those who have made multiple applications for asylum.
All those measures are intended to ensure that the British people can be assured that, with the new spirit and the new measured, tolerant approach across the parties, we can get this matter right. If we can take nationality and asylum out of the political football arena for the main political parties, not by ignoring the subject or by burying our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away—or by ignoring people's fears or the criticism that comes from the media—but by tackling it head on, everyone of good will who wishes to ensure that we never see what happened in France on Sunday happen in our country will join together to give the British National party, the National Front and their apologists the farewell that they deserve in our country, and the come-uppance that they deserve in the elections on 2 May.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
I begin by welcoming the tone in which the Home Secretary has addressed the House, which continues the record of rational discussion on this matter that has been the hallmark of our proceedings over the past few months. I wholly concur with him that any analysis of what has happened in France—and, indeed, in other European countries—and is happening in some of our own cities today makes it clear that we have to go on discussing these issues seriously and that we have to tackle them. He is right to say that we cannot escape from them, that we do no service to a liberal democracy if we seek to do so, and that, in tackling them, we have the means to reduce the appeal of those who wish to use these issues for nefarious purposes that neither he nor I wish ever to see prevalent in this country. We are at one on the aim of the Bill, and on the manner of debate.
It is also true to say that the great majority of the measures in the Bill are welcome. That is no surprise, because we welcomed the White Paper, which the Bill faithfully implements in almost all respects. We wholly applaud the naturalisation provisions. In fact, I think that they are long overdue. Neither the Home Secretary's Labour predecessor nor his Conservative predecessors moved as well in this direction as he has sought to do. This will be a bipartisan policy that I hope will last for many years.
I do not suppose that this is by any means the end of trying to create a centre of attraction and loyalty which all of us—of all persuasions, colours, creeds and origins—can share. The Americans have been much more successful in creating that than we have. This country needs to be able to accommodate wholesale diversity with a lack of friction, by having at its centre a set of 358 institutions, understandings and acceptances that all of us share. That is vital to the future of our democracy, and I wholly share the Home Secretary's desire to see that aim furthered in the naturalisation provisions.
It is also unsurprising that we support the idea of introducing accommodation centres, because it strongly echoes the propositions that we made before the last general election.
§ Tony Baldry
Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be sensible to give careful consideration in Committee to the size of accommodation centres, and, particularly in relation to trial accommodation centres, to give local people, deliverers of local services and local communities the proper opportunity to be heard at a public inquiry?
§ Mr. Letwin
My answer is yes. I shall dwell on those matters and several others of practical importance in relation to accommodation centres in a moment. My welcome for them is a welcome for the idea and not for all the details in the Bill, which, as I shall explain in a moment, are in some respects deficient. The two points that my hon. Friend mentions are among the most important.
We also welcome some—indeed, most—of the detailed provisions elsewhere in the Bill. In that context, I mention particularly the consolidation and streamlining of the appeals process. There is no doubt that if people are enabled to make several different concurrent or serial appeals, the system will remain in chaos. It is right that the whole appeal system should be consolidated, and the measures that we are considering, the drafting of which we want to inspect in detail, tend in the right direction and will carry our support—not that the Home Secretary requires our support in this House, but, perhaps more importantly, they will carry our support in the other place, too.
We have concerns about a particular class of asylum seeker—those who have not been refused appeal or lost an appeal, but who are in the course of appeal and are detained. If we understand the Bill correctly, they will not have an automatic right of bail at any time—by that I mean even an automatic right to have the proposition of bail considered. We have received representations about that and we share that concern.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Because of the length of my speech, I was not able to deal with every single item in the Bill, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. It is correct that the automatic right—whereby anyone who applies for bail will automatically be granted a hearing—will be ruled out by the Bill, but not the right to put a case for a bail hearing. Those concerned will be dealt with on the same basis as other people who applied in similar circumstances. At the moment, there is an automatic right, irrespective of what case is put, for that bail hearing to be heard in circumstances that might allow people to go for bail the day before they are flying out of the country. That is ridiculous. It has therefore been used as a method of ensuring that people could avoid being held temporarily while their removal from the country was being organised.
§ Mr. Letwin
The House will not forgive the Home Secretary or me if we continue this detailed discussion, 359 which is clearly more suitable for Committee. I merely signal that we will want to raise this issue in Committee and tease out the extent to which the position for that particular class of asylum seeker is reasonable.
§ Mr. Gerrard
On the question of the automatic bail hearing, was not that one part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 that was never implemented? People do not have an automatic bail hearing at present. The concern is that, although an application can be made for bail, it has proved extremely difficult in the past for people to get it.
§ Mr. Letwin
That is correct. Part III of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was never brought into force, which is why that provision is not yet implemented. That is one of the reasons why I raise this issue. We shall debate the matter in Committee, and perhaps the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman will be ad idem on it.
§ Simon Hughes
May I press the hon. Gentleman on his and his colleagues' view on this issue? Is it his view, as it is ours, that, until the end of the process, or just before it, the presumption should be that asylum seekers are not detained and are at liberty—that the loss of liberty should come only at the end, or just before the end, of the process of applications?
§ Mr. Letwin
Subject to the requirement for judicial oversight and to there being particular cases in which it is judged that there is a serious risk, my answer is yes.
§ Mr. Blunkett
To be even more helpful, may I clarify a point so that there is no misunderstanding? Habeas corpus still applies. People are entitled to that, and the real problem is those who are held inappropriately before they reach the point at which removal is required.
§ Mr. Letwin
That is exactly my view.
Having said that all those things are welcome and having congratulated the Home Secretary on the manner in which he is pursuing this whole endeavour, I must add that good intentions and an appropriate means of debate are not enough. To produce the results that he and I desire—namely, to create harmony where there is discord and to deny the extremists the purchase that they have or might have on the minds of some voters—we must not merely try hard and in the right spirit, but succeed.
We must take a system that the Home Secretary has correctly described as chaotic—it was not in perfect working order in 1997, but it has got substantially worse—and turn it into an orderly system that achieves the two results that he and I share the desire to achieve. Those are the rapid, effective admission of refugees fleeing dreadful persecution and the equally rapid and effective removal of those seeking to use this as opposed to other, legitimate means to enter the country, getting round rather than facing the immigration rules.
Those are joint aims, and we must succeed in delivering them to the British public—not 20 years from now, but very soon—if we are to achieve the effects on our democracy that the Home Secretary and I want to achieve. Therefore, it is important to consider whether the practical aspects of what is proposed will rapidly achieve those 360 results. There, we have significant concerns, and those relate, in the first place, to two aspects of the accommodation centres.
I make no apology for repeating certain points, because I still believe them to be true. They did not enter the White Paper and they have not entered the Bill. Now, as the Bill progresses, we have an opportunity to include them in legislation and administrative practice. Everything that I shall say about the accommodation centres springs from a difference of view between the Home Secretary and me about what they ought to be in their first incarnation.
As I understand it, the Home Secretary envisages about 3,000 places in four accommodation centres of 750 inhabitants each, which, on average, will take about six months to process the applications of their inhabitants. Therefore, they will constitute no more than what he accurately described as a trial, leaving the overwhelming bulk of applications to be processed on the same basis as at present and with the dispersal systems as at present. Although his welcome changes on vouchers and the appeals process are exceptions, he is, on the whole, making no significant alterations.
Three years from now, the accommodation centres that the Home Secretary envisages will, I guess, probably only just have been constructed and established, given the planning constraints—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that those must be fairly intense—and the consultative procedures involved. Even then, they will process only some 6,000 applicants out of 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 or 90,000 a year. So, they constitute not a major shift from chaos to order, but, as the Home Secretary envisages them, an experiment on what might later be a means of doing so. The Home Secretary understates the urgency of the problem.
The difficulty with the six-month period arises essentially because the Home Secretary or his officials have not thought of these accommodation centres seriously as one-stop shops. I want to spell out what we mean by a one-stop shop.
We believe that a large part of the chaos of the present system is engendered by the paper chase and the people chase around the United Kingdom, as appeals move people and paper from place to place. What has gone wrong at the initial stages of applications arises from two causes. First, there is an insufficiency of appropriate legal advice—I stress the word "appropriate". I share the Home Secretary's doubts about the behaviour of some of the lawyers. Secondly, there is an insufficiency of reliable, accepted and judicially accepted country risk assessments.
We will not have an effective system for processing applications until we gather together in one place the relevant legal expertise that the Bill envisages—that is the intention, but we will tease out in Committee how far that is true—the relevant medical expertise and the relevant interpretive expertise, both of which are also signalled in the Bill, the caseworkers who make the initial decisions and the adjudicators. We will not eliminate the paper chase and make the whole process last weeks rather than months unless present on that site is the whole array of expertise required to reach the end of the consolidated appeals process. That is perfectly doable. No doubt there would be expenses, but vast savings would also be made.
We will not make the process work merely by having a one-stop shop if the decision makers, the lawyers and the adjudicators—in effect, the judges—do not believe the 361 country risk assessments. The Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I had an interesting encounter not long ago on the Zimbabwe risk assessment, since when we have reviewed a number of others. The Home Secretary knows as well as I do that the Zimbabwe assessment was ludicrous. That is not his fault, but it is the fault of the current system. The assessment had probably not been ludicrous at some previous date, but it had become ludicrous.
Many other risk assessments are not so evidently ludicrous, but are nevertheless questionable. I have been dealing at some length with cases relating to Congo Brazzaville, which is a country that I happen to know well. From what I gather, I have a rather closer acquaintance with developments in that country than those responsible for the risk assessment have. My view is that the risk assessment is not very well assessed, and I suspect that that is the view the courts would take of it.
We will not solve this problem until an independent body, which has the highest possible qualifications for the job and is unchallengeable by the bureaucracy, is responsible for risk assessments. That is mainly because an independent risk assessment would not be influenced by a desire to achieve a particular result in appeals. Paradoxically or ironically, such a body would thereby more frequently achieve a result consistent with the initial decision, which would save time, money and misery.
We believe that one-stop shops should include everyone from the decision makers through to the adjudicators, with all the expertise required, and against the background of proper, independent risk assessments. If that were to happen, and if the energy that the Home Secretary displays in conducting the political battle against us and others were displayed by the people responsible for winning the job of running those centres, those individuals could bring about the miracle of processing claims not in months but in weeks. Much would then alter.
§ Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)
The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points about the current dispersal system. On the creation of reception centres, he seems to think that the changes do not go far enough. Is he proposing the creation of more reception centres, or the contradictory approach of widening the dispersal areas, which currently take in largely urban areas? Is he suggesting that the spa towns that surround certain urban areas be included?
§ Mr. Letwin
I shall discuss the size of the centres in a moment. I am not advocating that they house more than 3,000 inhabitants in the first instance, but I am advocating that, by the means that I have described, we institute a system that stands a chance of processing applications in, say, an average of five weeks. According to the Home Secretary's officials, at the moment some 3,000 people are taken through the system twice a year, but under my proposal, the same amount would be processed 10 times a year. In other words, some 30,000 applicants would be processed each year, instead of 6,000. Rather than making an approximately 10 per cent. difference to the current level of applications and dispersals, a vastly greater difference—30, 40 or 50 per cent.—would be made.
362 In short, I want an experiment to be conducted on a far greater scale, so that much more can be done to relieve the pressure on the dispersal system. I shall describe later how we hope that the remaining pressure on the system might be taken care of, so that it virtually disappears by the end of this Parliament. That must be our aim.
§ Mr. Dawson
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the phrase "one-stop shop" is perhaps a slight misnomer for the type of institution that he describes? In referring to a process in which all needs are met, all assessments are completed and all judgments are made, he is describing something more akin to a total institution. That is somewhat foreign to the liberal democracy to which the Bill seeks to welcome people, and which it recommends as the way forward.
§ Mr. Letwin
No, I simply do not agree. I accept entirely the Home Secretary's point that people will be able to come and go from accommodation centres, but I see no reason why the addition of adjudicators and better legal services on site would make such entities less attractive from a democratic point of view. If we resolve the chaos in the system, we will succeed vastly more quickly in allowing the victims of persecution to enter this country. That would be a triumph for tolerance and democracy.
§ Mr. Letwin
I will in a moment, but I want to deal with the question of size, which is very relevant.
Much of the problem alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is caused by the proposed size of the operations. As I said, a total of 3,000 inhabitants is a reasonable aim if the other adjustments that I described are made, but four vast centres, each housing 750 inhabitants, is not a sensible way forward. I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary mention the possibility that at least some centres will be significantly smaller, and I take his point that a minimum scale is sensible. We should not seek to lay down particular sizes for ever, because the economies of scale will doubtless differ over time and across languages, for example. It would be sensible to try to create centres that specialise in particular kinds of asylum applicant from particular places, so that, for example, specific translation facilities and expertise can be developed.
In short, economies of scale are determined not merely by the numbers of people being processed, but by the aptness of institutions to the particular character of the people whose cases they are processing. I do not want to offend the Home Secretary's hard-working officials, but I sense that the establishment of four centres each holding 750 people is an example of the Home Office's characteristic desire that such projects should be neat, large and systematic. What we really need is a set of centres that are effective because they are tailored to the characteristics of the human beings with whom they are dealing.
Smaller units would make it much easier for my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the other hon. Members who are affected—and, more importantly, their constituents—to accept accommodation centres in 363 their back yards. Smaller units could also be constructed more quickly. The Home Office may be suffering from the old illusion that the fewer there are of such units, the more quickly they can be prepared, as there will not be so many concurrent processes to go through.
All my experience—which I suspect that the Home Secretary shares—of watching Governments at work suggests that they take a very long time to put large projects in place. That is because we in this country increasingly, and rightly, respect local rights whenever a large project is about to be dumped on a local population. There is no getting around the fact that the local populations involved will feel that they have been dumped on, even though the construction of these units is very much in the national interest. For all sorts of reasons, therefore, it would be very helpful if the Home Secretary were to reconsider the centres.
The combination of one-stop shops, the reduction of scale that I have outlined, the introduction of independent assessments, the speeding up of the proposals for establishing accommodation centres and quicker processing of applications in those centres once they have been established will, I believe, vastly alleviate the problems to do with education described by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), among others. It seems to me to be perfectly tolerable that specialised education should be available on site if people are staying in the centres only for a matter of weeks. Her complaint seems to arise from the fact that the Home Secretary is envisaging that people will stay for a pretty long time, in separate educational establishments. The approach that I have set out might not solve the problems to which the hon. Lady has referred, but I believe that it would vastly alleviate them.
§ Ms Abbott
If I seriously thought that people would be staying only a few days or weeks, I would not take such a strong line. However, this is the fifth Bill on immigration and asylum during my time in the House. When Ministers say that people will stay in such centres for a maximum of six months, I know that one should think in terms of a year.
§ Mr. Letwin
The Opposition have made the same assessment. In our more pessimistic moments, we believe that people could stay even longer. I am delighted that the hon. Lady has said what I speculated that she would—that the problems to do with education might not arise if people stayed only a short time in such centres.
The Opposition's proposals would be better for the country, and for the Home Secretary. They would allow him a more peaceful time with his Back Benchers. What could be better? In fact, I can think of many things, but there we are.
My final point about the scale of the accommodation centres trumps all the others that I have made. The memory of the ghastly episode at Yarl's Wood is seared on the Home Secretary's mind more than it is on anyone else's because he has had to deal with the aftermath, even though he was not responsible for its origins. No living individual created that problem. I am sure that the report, when it appears, will show that there is no villain of this piece, and that no individual performed a series of evil acts that led to the problems at Yarl's Wood. No doubt, the report will show that a series of unfortunate elements came together.
364 I am sure that lessons will be learned, but I am persuaded—I admit that I have no empirical evidence on this matter, just a human instinct that I suspect that the Home Secretary might share—that the chances of such disruption happening are vastly reduced when human institutions are relatively small and on a human scale, when they deal with people from roughly the same part of the world and have translation facilities in good working order, and when there is a sense that human beings are being dealt with as human beings. These huge centres, for 750 men, women and children, stand far too great a risk of creating, or recreating, the friction which, if they do not lead to the events that we saw at Yarl's Wood—and I hope that they never do—may generate other problems. That is the biggest single reason for making the centres smaller, although there are many others.
Let me turn to matters that are not in the Bill. Some of them cannot be because they are not matters of legislation, but we continue to believe that they are critical. I was encouraged by the Home Secretary's attitude to these matters earlier this afternoon. I wholly concur that he was right, when we last debated this issue, to draw the House's attention to the need to await the results of the French election before proceeding to renegotiate the bilateral agreement. I believe, however, that the only way to solve the problem of our current system is by combining the tactics that I have described which might, if they worked appropriately and took just a few weeks in each case, accommodate about 30,000 applicants. I believe that we will solve the problem only if we can reduce the number of applicants by many thousands more by reinstituting the bilateral agreement. That is the second part of my answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I hope that we can see the withering of the dispersal system by accommodating about 30,000 applicants in the accommodation centres and that the number of applicants will, over time, be reduced by another 30,000 or so after reinstituting the bilateral agreement. I do not think that there is any other way of getting to where we need to be.
I am delighted that the Home Secretary seems to be moving towards a negotiation with the French after their election. I profoundly hope that it will deliver Mr. Chirac—in which hope I guess the right hon. Gentleman and I are joined—and a conservative rather than a socialist Government, but certainly not one composed of evil persons. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will appeal to his colleague, the former Home Secretary—now Foreign Secretary and responsible for our diplomats—to exercise some ingenuity in achieving that result. Indeed, I hope that he will do more and achieve a renegotiation of the Dublin convention in Dublin. That convention should be systematically altered so that it reflects what is possible and practical rather than what is imaginary and theoretical.
It is imaginary and theoretical to suppose that one can trace the first port of entry to a safe country. It would be practical and useful to have a general agreement across Europe that when asylum applicants come from a safe country to another safe country, they should return to the safe country from which they started their travels to have their application processed there. If we could achieve that on a Europe-wide basis, our desire to see the dispersal system wither, the whole process take weeks and the system return to a state of order would be deliverable.
365 In short, we hope to see the Bill not so much change as evolve. We hope that it will be improved as it proceeds through its stages, and we shall support it tonight. We hope that the French election will be won by the right candidate and that the Home Secretary will, through the agency of his colleagues, achieve the renegotiation of which I spoke. If we can do all those things, the Home Secretary will be able to enter the next election not just with a chain of well-intentioned moves or a reputation for having maintained a robust but rational discussion of these matters but with a reputation for resolving them. As a matter of political expediency, that would be a disaster for me, because I would have to go into the next election conceding that he had succeeded. However, as an Englishman, I would welcome it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. I remind the House that the Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
§ Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)
I shall not pursue the arguments of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), but he may not object if I tell him that I found his contribution a radical change from those that we have heard from his predecessors on the Tory Front Bench. Speaking as an individual supporter of the Government, I certainly welcome his general tone and his argument for rational discussion. That can do nothing but improve our future debates on the general questions of nationality, immigration and asylum. He adopted a most moderate attitude and tone and he should be complimented on that.
At the end of the hon. Gentleman's speech, he said that he and perhaps other Tory Opposition Members would support the Government in the Lobby if there is a vote. I can only say that previously that would have driven me into the other Lobby, but on this occasion it is not likely to have that effect.
The Home Secretary reminds me greatly of his predecessor, now the Foreign Secretary, in the way that he introduces and responds to debate. His technique—like that of his predecessor—appears to be to take the venom out of every punch that is delivered to him. He offers himself as a punch-bag, so that at the end of an hour, when he has absorbed so much punishment and all his opponents on his own Benches are so exhausted by presenting their points and having them refuted, we go away feeling not only that he is an honourable gentleman—we know that—but that he is also one of intellectual stature who, despite apparent differences of opinion, agrees with us all anyway. His approach certainly appears to work.
The House will probably have gathered that while I cautiously welcome the Bill, I am not an ardent supporter. For the first time in 40 years, however, we have a measure on nationality, immigration and asylum that tries to address the current and future economic and social problems of the United Kingdom rather than being predicated on the need to prevent non-white immigration. That is to be warmly welcomed.
366 If I may, I shall introduce a discordant note as regards some of the comments made earlier by my right hon. Friend. I heard his explanation for the use of the word "swamping". He claimed that he could have used other words, such as "overwhelmed" or "overburdened". Although I understand his need to address the real issues, I think that it is a mistake, in the context of the more rational debate that we are conducting at present, to introduce the word "swamped", which is redolent of remarks made in opposition by a former Tory Prime Minister.
I want to address my remarks to those parts of the Bill that deal primarily with nationality and immigration. I want also to draw attention to factors that should have been included in the Bill and to factors that will, I hope, be addressed in later immigration rules.
I welcome the easing of entry controls for unmarried partners and those in long-term relationships. I also welcome the speeding up of the decision-making process on naturalisation applications and the need, in future, to give reasons for refusal.
I now have no difficulty in accepting citizenship classes if they are intended, as appears to be the case from paragraph 2.2 of the White Paper, to improve civic participation and awareness, not to promote cultural uniformity. I have no problem with those classes if the intention is carried out as outlined in paragraph 2.2.
I wish that I could say the same about the language test, but I cannot, especially given the decision to apply it to the spouses of existing British citizens. I certainly have strong reservations about that. British citizens should be free to marry and choose as their partners whomever they wish and those partners should, after a suitable period, be able to become British citizens without having to show linguistic ability in English. I also believe that there is a need for great sensitivity towards dependent relatives, the disabled and others who may have little enthusiasm or capacity to learn English, especially people who are in their declining years.
One thing that should have been tackled in the Bill but has not been is the position of British overseas citizens. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). The Government have made a great mistake—it is certainly an error—in not including future provisions for British overseas citizens. As the House will know, those people have no status apart from their British overseas citizenship, which does not endow the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Although it can be argued that those people are technically British nationals, they are effectively stateless and have no automatic right of entry or abode in any state in the world.
I also believe that the Government made a mistake when they announced the abolition of the special voucher system some weeks ago, but I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement today that he will take a fresh look at that problem. I hope that, in the not too distant future, he will introduce a modified replacement for the special voucher scheme if he cannot offer all British overseas citizens full British citizenship. That will not create future problems for the United Kingdom. We are dealing with a dwindling number of ageing people and if we were to offer all of them British citizenship, and they were to accept it, the effect on net migration into the United Kingdom would be negligible.
367 I hope that the rules will also cover the probationary period on marriage and that, rather than increasing the period to two years, the Home Secretary will reduce it from 12 to six months, or abolish it altogether. I have always opposed the probationary period on marriage. The argument for it has always been that bogus marriages enable people to gain entry into the United Kingdom. No evidence has ever been adduced to show that bogus marriage provides a large number of people with entry into the United Kingdom. I do not believe that any evidence has been adduced to support the Home Secretary's decision to increase the period from 12 to 24 months.
Those who have come to see me in my constituency to complain about the probationary period share my view that increasing the period to two years will adversely affect all such marriages, especially as all couples will need to show an ability to maintain and accommodate for up to two years. In certain circumstances, an intolerable burden could be imposed on couples if they have to give such a financial commitment for two years. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider that problem.
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's decision to lay down orders today to abolish the payment of fees on appeals against the refusal of family visiting visas. We have argued for that in the past. I am delighted that he has seen reason and accepted that it is both unfair in principle and acts as a disincentive to those people who want to exercise a right of appeal.
There is one glaring problem that the White Paper and Bill fail to address: the appalling delay in the immigration system, and in particular, the time that it takes to appeal against a refusal to be brought before the Immigration Appellate Authority. The Government have shown, especially in asylum cases, that the process can be speeded up if there is the will to do so. I just hope that the Home Office shows the same regard to people who are waiting in the immigration queue for their appeals to be settled.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I welcome the debate. The Home Secretary was generous in giving way and his speech took 68 minutes. His Conservative opposite number took 34 minutes. I cannot promise to take only 17 minutes, but I shall try hard, not least because many hon. Members want to participate in the debate.
Before the last general election, the Liberal Democrats called, and were too often frustrated, for a rational and calm debate about immigration and asylum. It is encouraging that the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary spoke in such measured terms, and we welcome that greatly. I hope that everything I say will be similarly measured. Indeed, that has been my experience since the general election of most exchanges with the Home Secretary and his colleagues, including the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). We propose to continue in that vein.
In our manifesto last year, my party began its section on asylum and immigration by saying:Immigrants are too often labelled as a problem for British society. Britain has benefited hugely from immigration, in the same way that many Britons who have emigrated have benefited from their experience.368 That sets out our approach to the debate. We are a country of people who have migrated within Britain and who have emigrated from, and migrated to, Britain over hundreds of years. That has made us the rich, varied and successful country that in many respects we are today.
At the last election, we put some specifics on the agenda in the context of asylum and immigration. We proposed, as we did when we debated the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the abolition of vouchers and their replacement with a more cash-specific system. We therefore welcomed the announcement that vouchers were going. I am sorry if I was not more profuse in that. Next time, I shall send the Home Secretary my press releases and mark them "personal" so that he is even more aware of my views. We were grateful for that change of policy.
We support the piloting of what the right hon. Gentleman calls accommodation centres. He would be right to rebuke us if we did not because we had proposed the piloting of regional reception centres in our manifesto. We believe that people should be gathered together in one place where all the processes are undertaken. I welcome the programme to run different pilots around the country.
The Home Secretary sensibly responded to the call for a more inclusive and widespread review of immigration policy so that more people can enter the country lawfully to do the jobs that British society and our economy need them to do. I was also encouraged by the Home Secretary's comments about considering with his colleagues in other Departments how to ensure that we get not only enough doctors of philosophy and computer scientists, but enough people to carry out the manual and technically unskilled jobs that many of us also rely on recent immigrants to do. The example that I often give is the people who do the car wash at the Elephant and Castle, who are almost all from Kosovo. They are filling a gap in the market. When I went to the Royal Surrey County hospital some time ago, I was told that they could not get people to clean the floors. There is a huge demand for immigrant labour in south-east England. We rely on it greatly, as do most other European countries.
§ Bob Russell (Colchester)
Does my hon. Friend agree that is odd that the Home Secretary did not echo the sentiments expressed by Lord Rooker, who said that people who have settled in this country collectively contribute more to the public purse, through the taxes that they pay, than they take out of it, so they are net contributors to the national economy?
§ Simon Hughes
I have not done that calculation, but my hon. Friend makes the point well. I believe that that is accepted by all Home Office Ministers, and that if the Home Secretary did not mention it today, that does not mean that he dissents from it. We all realise the net benefit provided by people who come to Britain to work.
We generally welcomed the Government's proposals when they announced them on 29 October, as we generally welcomed the White Paper on 7 February, and we have been as positive as possible since then. There was then a short consultation period, which ended on 16 March, and the Bill was published on 12 April.
As my first request I therefore ask if, before the start of proceedings in Committee, Ministers will put into the Libraries of both Houses the replies to the consultation, which were still not there when I checked this morning. 369 It is important that hon. Members who conduct the detailed scrutiny of the Bill know what people have said, not least because some of the issues are technical and detailed and we would benefit from their advice.
§ Simon Hughes
I am grateful to the Home Secretary; that will be helpful.
Since the Bill was published however, many people have expressed disappointment that some measures that could and should have been included were left out. The Home Secretary explained the delayed inclusion of proposals for the appeals process. I understand that that is a difficult issue, but such complicated matters require the maximum amount of time for proper scrutiny, and the Bill will be in Committee for only a short time, ending on 16 May. According to the programme motion, the Bill must complete its passage through Committee, Report and Third Reading very quickly. We object to that, as I have made clear to Government Whips over the past few days.
Our overriding concern is that although much of the Bill is acceptable and worthy of support, significant aspects need to be changed. Last night, when I collected together all the documents from agencies and organisations that have sent submissions, I noted the recurrent theme of disappointment that many issues that the Bill could have dealt with are not included. I therefore encourage the Home Secretary and his colleagues to work over the next few weeks with Opposition Members, and others with an interest, to change the parts of the Bill that are wrong.
The Immigration Advisory Service, a good and respected organisation based in my constituency, says at the beginning of its briefing on asylum policy:We regret that the Bill continues to base asylum policy on deterrence rather than an understanding of the reasons why asylum seekers come to the UK.Amnesty, although it welcomes several of the Government's proposals, notes:we believe that the progressive elements of the reforms contained in the … Bill … are outweighed by measures which will undermine the quality of protection afforded by the UK to victims of human rights violations.The Immigration Law Practitioners Association
regrets that this Bill makes no proposals for improving the basis of making individual decisions on asylum applications—the foundation of the system, without which other alterations will not work.A series of further organisations, all entirely respectable, make similar points. The Refugee Legal Centre, which used to be based in my constituency but has now moved north of the river, says:Perhaps of most concern is what is not in the Bill",including the proposalsrestricting the right to judicially review poor decisions",whichare still … the subject of consultation with senior judiciary.The Home Secretary has now indicated that those proposals will be made soon.
370 The Commission for Racial Equality has considerable concerns about the way in which accommodation centres will be managed. The Law Society says thatan opportunity has been missed to ensure the quality of the determination process in asylum claims.The Churches Commission for Racial Justice, which has always taken a particular interest, having cautiously welcomed the proposals, says that the tone is
negative, and shows an intention to deter and prohibit the small numbers seeking refuge in the UK.I have taken a sentence from each of half a dozen of the submissions that came my way, unsolicited, but perhaps the two that most effectively put the case are those from Justice and the Refugee Council. Justice, from which I have just accepted an invitation to become a council member, so I declare an interest, found itunfortunate that the Bill does not make any radical changes to the asylum determination process itself".We may argue about that, but that is Justice's view. The Refugee Council, having, like everybody, welcomed many of the measures in the Bill, is concerned above all that it concentrateson the control and the removal of rejected asylum seekers",rather than on the real purpose of asylum, which is to protect refugees.
I set out that background to add non-political and non-party political strength to what I am about to say. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, since she and I have been in this place, we have seen a succession of Bills on this subject. This is the fourth in 10 years. My party voted against the Second and Third Readings of each of the other three Bills—two Conservative and one Labour. In an attempt to be constructive, as I have said we will always be, we will however not vote against the Second Reading tonight. We shall reserve our position today because the Bill contains good news and improvements.
We shall vote against the programme motion because we think that it will be impossible to complete the work in the time allocated, and I hope that the Whips will agree to the request for more time. They have said that they will consider it, and it will depend on how much progress we make. However, I hope that the Government will take a constructive attitude to dealing with the serious objections that I am about to identify, because with major changes in those areas, some of which were touched on by the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the Bill could be significantly better and ensure much better protection of the rights of people coming to this country. As it is, the Bill reduces the rights of some people who are often the most vulnerable and needy in our society.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I want to reflect on what has been said about the timetable by the shadow Home Secretary and the Liberal Democrat spokesman. During the course of the evening I shall consult with my Whips and with Opposition Whips on the provision of additional days for the Committee stage. If that would assist, we could make much better progress and have a much better spirit in the Committee proceedings, particularly given the additional substantive amendments that I shall introduce on the appeals process and other matters. If we genuinely mean to try to achieve a consensus across a wide range of the 371 political spectrum, that would be opportune, and I shall see whether we can avoid the necessity of voting on the programme motion.
§ Simon Hughes
The Home Secretary's intervention is extremely welcome, and it is taken in exactly the spirit in which it was made. My colleagues and I are determined to get this right—much more right than the last three attempts were. It is in nobody's interests that we have another Bill in three years to put right what we get wrong this time.
The Home Secretary will know, but I point it out for the record, that there are many people with a proper interest and expertise in these matters, such as the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, who need time to work alongside us in Committee, to give advice and to respond to initiatives made by the Government. That is why hon. Members, even those as experienced as the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), will need a little time between Committee sittings if we are to be able to do our job properly.
§ Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)
May I just say how much Conservative Members welcome what the Home Secretary said about the programme motion?
§ Simon Hughes
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
On the substance of the Bill, I shall be brief about part 1, about which the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) understandably went into more detail. These are difficult and sensitive issues, and we need to make sure that we strike the right balance of rights and responsibilities for people who come here to be citizens. The issue of the oath and the pledge goes wider than that of new arrivals to this country, and we need to debate it in that wider context.
Others have proposed that in the medium term we should move to follow the Canadian system, in which such matters are managed independently. I am not being provocative, but the best parallel that has been made is that of exchange rates and the Bank of England, as an example of where the Government are hands-off. There is a strong argument for those matters being outwith party political manipulation, and I encourage that.
I make one linked proposal to the Home Secretary, to which I think he will be sympathetic. If we are to have a process of affirming citizenship, not by tests and exams that make sure that people can do an English comprehension exercise, but by a sensitive method of assimilating them, there is an equal need for that to apply also to young people growing up in this country. My experience is that the need to understand the obligations of adult citizenship is much higher among some of our own young people than among people coming from other countries, who often display much better behaviour and respect for other people than, sadly, do some of the people who were born in this country and who have grown up in our community.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree entirely, which is why, as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, I brought in the compulsory teaching of citizenship and democracy, which starts this September.
§ Simon Hughes
I know and welcome that. I know also that the Citizenship Foundation has thoughts on the Bill, 372 and I hope that the Home Secretary will be willing to hear and respond to them. However, I am serious—we ought to go further than the Home Secretary did in his previous guise and ensure that adulthood, when one gets the right to vote and other rights, is accompanied by a recognition of responsibility for all British citizens too.
The difficulty with the nationality and immigration parts of the Bill is in clauses 105 to 110, and there is a coalition of concerns about those issues. The CBI, the TUC and others are very concerned that private sector employers should not act as immigration officials. I am keen to ensure that information properly acquired by an employer, a family or a landlord is not passed, without any controls, to others in the private sector, or to other individuals and organisations. The protection of data personal to an individual should be similar whether they are an immigrant or British-born. I am keen that we do not have new and draconian powers to intervene or to break into a person's home or office which are in any way different from those that would apply to a British-born person who was breaking rules on health and safety or employment. I hope that the practice will be non-discriminatory, and we need urgently to look at part 7.
The most controversial subject of the Bill is, however, asylum rather than immigration or nationality, and it remains so in this Bill. The hon. Member for West Dorset was right to say that the crucial issue is getting right the decision making. We need good initial decisions that do not need to be appealed against, and therefore people should be legally represented from the beginning of the process so that everybody has confidence in the system.
I have never understood—Ministers might say that I never will unless I become a Minister in a Department like the Home Office, which is why I am trying so hard to get there—the reason why the targets set are so often not reached. The Home Secretary was very honest when he said that the Home Office makes progress slowly; I think that that is true. Let me give an example from the most recent targets set for the immigration and nationality directorate at Lunar house. The Government set themselves a target of 60 per cent. of asylum claims dealt with within two months; the latest performance figure is 45 per cent. [Interruption.] The Minister says it is now 48 per cent. A target of 70 per cent. of claims dealt with within four months was set; the figure for Lunar house posted on 25 March was 61 per cent. I realise that we often fall short of our aspirations, so let us concentrate on making sure that we set and meet realistic targets, and above all on making decisions quickly—and properly, so that there are not lots of appeals.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)
We have high aspirations and hope to meet the targets. I agree that we need to improve the standard and quality of initial decisions. The hon. Gentleman says that, if we did, there would not be appeals, but does he recognise that in the context of asylum and immigration, if there is an appeals process, the vast majority of people involved will use it? There will always be appeals: every part of the system that allows appeals will be used because, as the evidence shows, that is how asylum seekers use the rights that they have.
§ Simon Hughes
I understand that, but that is why I point out to Ministers that quicker recent initial decisions 373 have led to more appeals. Although the Home Secretary and I cited different facts, we agree that although people who are granted permission to stay might initially comprise less than 20 per cent. of the total, by the time other factors have been considered and appeals have happened, that figure rises to 30 or 40 per cent. I understand the Under-Secretary of State's point, but we must continue to try to get the process right.
We welcome the pilot of accommodation centres, but there are problems. There must be access to legal advice from the time that people arrive. Although that was mentioned in the White Paper, the Bill does not mention it, and it should. That is a major defect. The Bill also leaves other services listed—for example, transport, education and training—as optional. I hope that they will become requirements.
The Conservative spokesman spoke about the size of the centres. There might be a case for trialling some large accommodation centres, and there is certainly a case for having some smaller ones. It is important that they work in themselves and that they are not isolated from the rest of the world. It is no good having a non-detention centre if there is nowhere outside for its people to go. People have to have some links with the local community.
My colleagues and I are unhappy about the idea of privately run detention and accommodation centres. Whatever the arguments that apply to the Prison Service, the asylum seeker centres should be kept in the public sector, especially while they are being trialled. We hope that that will be possible. We look forward to seeing the regulations as soon as possible, because that is where all the details will be found.
There is a problem with the conditions of residence. Currently, most people are dispersed around the country. In theory, people will have a choice between going to an accommodation centre and remaining with family or friends. There should be no financial penalty if people choose to go to family and friends. I will be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that the Home Office will look again at that matter. I understand that currently between 20 and 40 per cent. of people do not look to the Government to provide accommodation, choosing instead to provide for themselves; clearly, however, they need income to cover food and other necessities of survival.
Earlier, I said that there were arguments in favour of education at the beginning of the process that addresses the interests of refugees, normally non-English-speaking children. However, that depends on there being a six-month upper limit to the time that people spend in accommodation centres.
§ Mr. Coleman
I will be grateful if the hon. Gentleman clarifies the Liberal Democrats' position on the education of child asylum seekers in accommodation centres. From the remarks that he made just now and when he intervened on the Home Secretary, it appears that the Liberal Democrats support the proposal to withdraw mainstream education from the children of asylum seekers. Is that the official Liberal Democrat position? Before he replies, perhaps I should advise him that last night, when my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and I were asking people to sign 374 early-day motion 1187 condemning that proposal, I asked 10 Liberal Democrat Members whether they would sign it, and every single one did so with considerable relish.
§ Simon Hughes
That is a perfectly proper question. I was extremely careful in my intervention on the Home Secretary. There should be no withdrawal of state education or any other state provision from asylum seekers or immigrants. The question is at what stage they enter the mainstream system. I put my question to the Home Secretary to elicit an assurance that there will be a maximum period that people will spend in the transitional arrangements, as he put it, before going on to mainstream schools. I made clear my understanding, and the Home Secretary confirmed it, that Government policy is to have a maximum of 3,000 people in accommodation centres. If the hon. Gentleman has read the figures, he will know that currently about 90,000 applicants enter this country each year. The vast majority will therefore be dispersed around the country and the children will go to local schools in the normal way.
§ Mr. Coleman
I am well aware of those figures and I understand them. Does the hon. Gentleman and do the Liberal Democrats officially regard it as acceptable to remove mainstream education from hundreds of asylum-seeker children for up to six months? Yes or no?
§ Simon Hughes
The answer is no. I have never said otherwise.
The proposal in our manifesto was to trial reception centres around the country, with the implication that all the services would be provided in the centres as long as people remained there, but that the people would be moved on to other accommodation as soon as possible. The arrangement is temporary and transitional—a post on people's way, whether or not they are accepted for permanent settlement, to the mainstream system of education, health and so on.
In a Committee debate, the Minister said that she would examine the level of income support available to asylum seekers. The proportion currently available is 70 per cent. of that given to British citizens. I shall be grateful for an assurance that there will be an independent adjudication to determine the right level, and that the Government will reconsider the matter. I hope that we will also get the answers from the dispersal review as soon as possible, because we cannot judge the best system until we have seen the results of the investigation of the process.
The Bill still reflects real confusion about detention and removal. The Government propose to create new removal centres, but under the existing arrangements many of the people in such centres have not completed all the processes—not the initial process, and certainly not the appeals process. According to all independent assessments, more people are detained for longer and with less scrutiny in this country than in any other European country: thousands of people are affected each year in a rolling programme.
I shall be grateful therefore for much greater clarity in the legislation about the fact that detention will be possible only at or just before the time that the final decision is made, and that the rest of the people who come to this country will not be detained. In addition, I want it to be clear that the presumption will always be that there 375 is an automatic bail application. Having to apply for bail does not work because legal advice is not always available, or because the advice given is wrong or delayed, or because people decide that applying might be of disbenefit to their status. In the light of habeas corpus, the European convention on human rights, the Human Rights Act 1998 and other such provisions, it is important that the presumption at all stages is that persons who are detained have an automatic chance to make a bail application.
In addition, there must be a limit to the time that someone can be detained. Such limits do not appear in the Bill, even though after visiting Campsfield House some time ago, Her Majesty's inspector of prisons recommended that there should be limits.
My final substantive point concerns appeals, on which it is difficult for us to comment yet because we have not seen the Government's final proposals. It is wrong, however, that there is an absolute bar after a certain time on adjournments to cases, which are often called for, not by the applicant or asylum seeker in my experience, but by the Home Office or other parties who want extra time. It cannot be impossible for there to be proper procedures all the way through the process of determining whether somebody can stay here or not.
I hope that I have made clear some of the significant items in the Bill that remain to be improved. We reserve judgment tonight; the Government have said that we may get more time in Committee, which is welcome. We hope that important changes to the Bill can be made in Committee and on Report. Indeed, that must happen if we are to get the Bill right. In the meantime, we must continue to use moderate language if these issues are not to risk in the near future provoking extreme political reactions like those they have provoked across the channel. We all have an interest in making sure that that does not happen here.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was right: the tone of this debate is quite different from that of previous debates on immigration and nationality including, I remember, the first parliamentary debate on the subject in which I spoke 15 years ago.
Our debate is timely because, looking across the channel, we see the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French elections. That awful result gives credence to the anti-immigration policies of that man and that movement. We should note what has happened in France and deal with it in the right way. We need to do several things, including confronting the far right openly and positively. As the Home Secretary said, we should confront and challenge its arguments; that is the only way we can deal with the pain and hate that it creates. We should continue our engagement in European debate; we should not assume that just because that particular man got many votes, he represents the true feelings of the French.
We need to engage in debate and show that the black and Asian population of this country has made and will continue to make an enormous contribution. You yourself know, Madam Deputy Speaker, from your visit with me last Saturday to the temple in Dudley that there was literally dancing in the streets as the procession went through the town centre, which would not have been possible 15 years ago.
376 We have a particular responsibility as we have the largest settled black and Asian population in Europe, and need to continue our leadership role. Le Pen will argue that immigrants are spongers, so we must show that they are contributors to society and make sure that their contribution is recognised. I speak as someone who came to this country as a first-generation immigrant, aged nine, from the former British colony of Aden and Yemen, where I was born. My parents went from India to Yemen as first-generation immigrants, and about a third of my constituents in Leicester, East are from families who came to Britain as first-generation immigrants from east Africa.
§ Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that parts of the British media, particularly the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, would do well to take a bit more time and effort to promote the view that asylum seekers and people who migrate to this country come here to contribute and achieve, rather than to sponge? Some headlines in those papers do a great deal to foment race hatred and racism in our society, when the media could do a great deal to promote an inclusive and integrated society that recognises the value of all people.
§ Mr. Vaz
My hon. Friend is right; the media play an important and powerful role, and I hope that they will heed his words.
There are a number of essential points about the measure that are worth remembering. During the 15 years that I have attended immigration and nationality debates in the House, I have heard Conservative Home Secretaries say at the Dispatch Box that there is a link between tough immigration policies and good race relations. I have never believed that there is: good race relations in this country are based on what individuals feel about one another and Governments' ability to carry people with them. If we keep people out because they are black, Asian or of a different colour or culture, race relations are not improved. I do not believe that that link exists, and I hope that the Government will repeat that they do not believe it does either.
We must be careful about the language that we use. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) mentioned the Home Secretary's comments. I accept what the Home Secretary says, but my hon. Friend is right to be concerned because, for those of us who remember Lady Thatcher speaking about "swamping" in 1978, the use of that word is worrying. However, I know that that is not what the Home Secretary meant, and I am glad that he took the opportunity in our debate to clarify the issue because, as we have seen, the media can pick on a particular word, take it out of context and try to make it more important than it is.
We must respect cultures. The Home Secretary has been quoted as saying that he is against arranged marriages. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that my right hon. Friend's remarks were taken out of context. Many of my constituents have arranged marriages and live happily with their partners.
§ Angela Eagle
I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify the Home Secretary's words. He did not question the practice of arranged marriages at all, but asked whether, now there are substantial numbers of British-born Asians who embrace the cultural practice of arranged marriage, it might not be more appropriate for 377 more arranged marriages to be conducted within the country rather than for people always to go back to the country of origin—[Interruption.] That is what he said, but he made no comment, adverse or otherwise, about the cultural practice of arranged marriage. With forced marriage, of course, it is quite different.
§ Mr. Vaz
The Minister has made it much worse. It is not up to the Home Secretary to decide who people should marry; they must make that decision themselves, and if they choose to marry someone from another country that is a matter for them. I hope that the Minister will reflect on what she has said; perhaps when she replies to the debate she will realise that people should marry whoever they want, not someone whom the Home Secretary and the Government decide they should marry.
I do not have a problem with ceremonies and the need for people to feel more British when they acquire citizenship. People in immigrant communities in Britain want to be part of this country when they get nationality and will welcome the idea of a ceremony. However, we must be careful to acknowledge differences; we cannot make everybody the same. Hon. Members who are old enough to remember the 1960s may recall a song by Blue Mink called "Melting Pot", which described people being put in the melting pot and producing a certain type of individual "by the score". Le Pen and the far right want us to eliminate difference, but we should celebrate it. Of course we want to be British, but we also want to make sure that different cultures and religions can express themselves and enjoy recognition.
As hon. Members have said, many aspects of the Bill will require careful scrutiny. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South about the probationary period, and was concerned about its extension to two years; knowing that there is another lever on them would put applicants' partners under intolerable pressure. However, all the representations that I have received suggest that people think the proposal is a good idea, so I will not object to it. I welcome the streamlining of the immigration process, but the Home Office has the worst departmental record for administrative delay. I do not blame Ministers or civil servants but the system. The delays are intolerable, but we do not need legislation to improve the chaos that is the immigration and nationality directorate.
I shall give the House several brief examples, the first of which concerns a constituent who wants to leave the country. He is in detention and wrote to me saying that because he is not happy to stay here, he wants to be sent back to his country before the end of the month, otherwise he will go on hunger strike. However, the Home Office still has his passport and will not release it.
There is another constituent who wants to stay but is not allowed to do so. After making an application three years ago for indefinite leave, she is still waiting for an answer. There is a real problem of lack of co-ordination between the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over cases that come from abroad. The appeals section of the Home Office should be renamed room 101. Files just disappear in there and hon. Members spend all their time trying to find out what happened to explanatory 378 statements. If we are in favour of streamlining, we should start by dealing with the IND. We must make sure that something is done.
The private office of the Home Secretary was extremely helpful when I said that I would raise these cases. A lady called Rebecca rang my office and said, "Why is Mr. Vaz upset? All cases are delayed." That is exactly the point. If we want a good system—a streamlined system—and if we want to deal with these cases quickly, we must make it as efficient as possible.
Passing legislation on immigration and nationality is not enough. We can all pass legislation. That is what we do. In the end, we must explain that legislation to the communities and make sure that we carry people with us. In our system, we must treat people fairly, properly and with respect. It is on that basis that we shall judge the Bill.
§ Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)
I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). I recall the great contribution that he made when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and we jointly worked to help the victims of BCCI—the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. I agree with a great deal of what he said today.
We are discussing important and sensitive issues, made all the more sensitive by the events in France, by the forthcoming local elections in this country and by the disturbing—albeit isolated—successes of the British National party at the last general election when, for the first time in a general election, it got double figure percentage votes in Oldham and neighbouring seats.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and his colleague on the Front Bench today, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), on the tone that they have taken in this and preceding debates and on the leadership that they have given on the issue. It is important that we all adopt a similar tone and I shall endeavour to do so.
When we speak about the problem of asylum and immigration, we must recognise what the problem is and is not. The problem is not asylum seekers as individuals. We owe sympathy and have an obligation to offer a safe haven to those who are genuinely fleeing from persecution abroad. We should sympathise even with those who are essentially economic migrants, as they often come from poor, disturbed and distressed countries. We should admire them because they have shown considerable enterprise and endeavour to get here, and we should recognise that they can make a major contribution to this country and often do.
The problem is not individuals. There are as many and as few bad eggs in every group of people, whatever their race or ethnic origin. The problem is simply one of numbers. There is clearly some limit—here I disagree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East—to the number of people we can absorb, the speed with which we can absorb them and the concentration in different parts of the country with which we can cope.
There is a limit and there are perfectly legitimate concerns about those problems and about the impact that large numbers of people can have on the fabric of society, the environment, housing and so on. If there were no such problems resulting from numbers and speed of inflow, there would be no rationale for the Bill, so implicitly we all recognise that those are the intrinsic problems.
379 The numbers are substantial. About 180,000 net immigrants were received by this country in the past couple of years for which we have figures. Probably less than half were asylum seekers. The other half were—
§ Mr. Lilley
I am sorry; I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he was against firmness and just in favour of fairness. I am glad that his remarks did not have the implications that I thought they had.
There is a large net inflow of immigrants into this country, perhaps half of whom are asylum seekers. The others are from the rest of the European Community and the rest of the world. After declining for many decades, in little more than the past decade, the population of London has increased dramatically by 600,000 people net—more than the entire population of Frankfurt. Many of those people are, of course, bankers from Germany, oil magnates from America, Greek shipping magnates from Athens or whatever, and contribute enormously to the wealth and prosperity of London—the point that I made last night at the Mansion House.
§ Mr. Dhanda
The right hon. Gentleman is making a rather misleading point, in the first instance by speaking of the net number of immigrants, and then by speaking about population. Population is not on the increase nationally. He cites the example of London. Population may be increasing in London, but there are various reasons for that. It is not all down to immigration.
§ Mr. Lilley
The population of London has increased by more than 600,000 in little more than a decade and is expected to go on increasing at that rate. We must recognise that there are strains and stresses arising from an increase in population, and we must accept that there can be legitimate concerns about that that must be taken on board.
We can learn some lessons from the French experience. I have a house over there and was there just before the elections. I was surprised by the outcome, but I should not have been. Every extended conversation that I have had with people at every level of society in recent years has inevitably got on to the subject of immigration and crime. The French are obsessed by it; they positively bore me with it.
I should have realised that although immigration dominates private discussion, it is largely excluded from public debate. As a result of that, and because the moderates have been silenced by accusations of racism whenever they raise those issues, the voters have been driven into the arms of the thugs and people like Le Pen—extremists of that ilk. We must make sure that the same thing does not happen in Britain. I entirely agree with the Home Secretary when he says that it is very important to discuss these issues and to articulate the concerns.
For all but two years of the past three decades I have lived in areas of London surrounded almost entirely by neighbours living in social housing. I have listened to them, and their conversations tend to be dominated by issues which most politicians are reluctant to discuss. 380 That can have dangers. It is important that we undertake the delicate task of articulating concerns without inflaming fears or arousing hatred.
It is odious for anyone to try to play the race card, but there is a balance to be struck. It is equally odious for anyone to play the racism card and try to silence those who express the concerns of their constituents by labelling them as racism, or to try to stir up the fears of a minority against an element of the majority, as has been done before elections in this country.
Just before I came into the Chamber today, I was goaded by an interviewer on a television programme to attack the Home Secretary for using the word "swamped" and to accuse him of racism. I would not use that word myself, but it is ludicrous to accuse the Home Secretary of racism—as ludicrous as it was to accuse my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) of racism or to accuse, as one of the speakers did, the noble Lady, Baroness Thatcher, of racism. We must distinguish between moderate, sensible politicians discussing important issues, and attempts to silence our political opponents by playing the racism card.
Dual standards also provoke resentment. We rightly condemn and should continue to condemn anyone or any party, such as the BNP, that appeals to the concerns of, or claims to speak for, the white majority, yet we seem to patronise people who claim to speak for ethnic and racial minorities.
Many years ago when I was a candidate for Tottenham, a House of Commons Select Committee that was considering immigration was carrying out a study of the West Indian community. It came to Tottenham and, with great publicity, met the leaders of various insignificant black power groups—self-appointed, self-proclaimed leaders of the West Indian community. I was incensed by that and afterwards telephoned the Chairman to ask why the Committee had met people who were unelected who claimed to represent a racial group, yet did not meet me who represented the Conservative West Indians, of whom there were a considerable number. He said, "I am terribly sorry, Mr. Lilley. I didn't realise you were black." There is often the view in the race relations industry that only black people can represent black people.
I am happy that although I fought Tottenham and Tottenham fought back, the present representative of the people of Tottenham is there manifestly on his extremely considerable abilities and his willingness to represent all the people of Tottenham. That is the attitude that all of us must try to reflect in the House. We represent everybody, of all the ethnic groups in our constituencies, not just those who share our own colour.
There are genuine concerns about numbers and I want to be sure that the Home Secretary thinks that the Bill, which I largely support, will deal with the problems sufficiently effectively. In particular, I want to raise one issue that came to my attention when I was Secretary of State for Social Security, and that is the difference in the treatment of those who were subject to removal proceedings and those who were subject to deportation proceedings.
Those who come to Britain and declare at the point of entry that they are here to seek asylum are technically subsequently, if they are found not to have a valid claim, liable only to removal proceedings, which are much easier for the authorities and subject to fewer appeal processes. 381 If they enter Britain saying that they are here for some other purpose and once in the country claim asylum, they can subsequently be removed only by deportation processes, which are infinitely more complex and can be dragged out almost indefinitely.
Has the Home Secretary considered whether that duality is right or sensible and whether the procedures that those who are knowledgeable enough to delay a claim for asylum until they are in the country can then take advantage of are sensible and wise? If he thinks that efforts are needed to change that, I hope that he will amend the Bill correspondingly.
Whatever one's views, the most important factor, to achieve both sensible limitation on numbers and the most humane outcome for those who are subject to the asylum procedures, is expedition. Anything that can speed up the process must be in the interests of genuine asylum seekers as much as it is of the indigenous population and those already settled here.
§ Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)
I supported the Immigration and Asylum Bill in 1999, warts and all, because it provided much needed relief for places such as Dover and the south-east, which were having to deal with, accommodate and provide health care for thousands of asylum seekers and educate their children—all proper provisions of a tolerant society. However, we had little help and support at that time from the Government. Neither did we have the powers to direct people to more appropriate areas in other parts of the country.
Before that Bill was enacted, Dover and the south-east towns were blighted by BNP marches, National Front demonstrations and the mass distribution of obscene and fascist literature—all inspired from outside the constituency. That legislation certainly eased the pressures, but it fell short of solving all the problems. Serious problems remain and the present Bill, which I support in general, still fails to address them.
I welcome the provision of induction, accommodation and removal centres. They offer structure and services to asylum seekers and they allow asylum seekers a measure of support and the National Asylum Support Service a certain measure of control—but great care needs to be taken in deciding the location of those centres.
I make no apology for using my constituency as an example of bad decision making. It has been seen fit to site an induction centre, a removal centre and an accommodation centre for unaccompanied asylum seekers in Dover. We understand the obvious necessity of housing the induction centre there. That is only to be expected as it is a major port of entry, with 20 million passengers every year, and we have the migrant help line and the infrastructure. However, there is no need for other centres to be there. If people were rational about such decisions, they would accept that there is no need for the removal centre to be in Dover and no reason for unaccompanied minors to be housed in the same street as the induction centre. That adds difficulties to our present problems.
Nothing undermines people's support and acceptance of the important principles of asylum more than the perception that the system is not working, the process being abused and our borders not being properly 382 controlled. If people feel that their hospitality is being abused, they will want to withdraw that hospitality and, sadly, through their everyday experiences, many people in Dover perceive all those failings nearly all the time.
If Dover is a test bed of people's tolerance towards asylum seekers, I regret to report that we are close to failing that test. For five years I have listened to the people's concerns, worries and anxieties about the asylum process and its weaknesses, and I have told and re-told them all about the awful history of the 20th century and the horrors of the holocaust. But many of my constituents find difficulty in making a connection between the flight for life of people fleeing from the Nazis and the flow of fit young men illegally entering Kent through the channel tunnel from France.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to the scenes of disorder and the near riotous behaviour of people trying to gain illegal entry to Britain through the channel tunnel. Most people become aware of that disorder only when the numbers become great or when they hit the headlines, but my constituents experience it every day. They work on the ferries and in the channel tunnel and they are part of the border controls working as immigration, customs and police officers.
The residents who do not work in those areas see it every day because they see large groups of asylum seekers on the motorway verges. They even see asylum seekers waving from the backs of lorries and signalling from the backs of trains as they come into Kent. So it is not altogether surprising that they will look with some scepticism at the niceties contained in the latest Act of Parliament on securing border controls.
I was encouraged by my right hon. Friend's repeated statement today that he would seek to persuade his opposite number in the French Government to reinstate the bilateral agreement that would allow us immediately to return illegal immigrants to France. I know from first-hand experience that that system worked well. I was a seagoing officer with Sealink when the arrangement was in place. On most occasions clandestines were interviewed on board and returned on the return trip to Calais. We talk a lot in debates such as this about reducing Britain's so-called pull factors which encourage asylum seekers or asylum shoppers to risk life and limb night after night to gain entry from the safety of France. Nothing would deter that traffic more than the prospect of immediate return to France.
I come now to unaccompanied children seeking asylum who are accommodated by social services under the Children Act 1989. The Bill provides little practical help to alleviate the problems associated with accommodating and caring for these young people. Ostensibly, they are all under 18, but many are much older in reality and make false claims to be considered as minors. Of course, such classification is an advantage to them, but it brings problems for us. Locally, Dover has experience of housing more than 150 such young people. They were all in the same hotel, which was situated in the same street as the induction centre. That is not sensible management and it needs sorting out. The presence of the centre is stirring up all sorts of new tensions in the community. We have seen such tensions in the past and they have spilled over into the streets of Dover and caused violence. We do not want that to happen again.
383 Countrywide, Kent has the biggest casebook by far with regard to unaccompanied minors. More than 50 per cent. of the total number of children who are currently in care in Kent are asylum seekers. Kent is now accommodating 1,400 asylum-seeker children and the numbers are growing. Some 100 to 150 of them come into the port of Dover every month, and only last week 25 young people entered in just one night. Serious pressures and problems are building up in my constituency. I have asked my right hon. Friend urgently to meet me to discuss these matters. Unless discussions can start early and solutions can be found, we will stoke up problems for the future and find ourselves heading into a crisis.
I support the general thrust of the Bill, but I believe that it will be successful only if due care is taken by those making the decisions on locating the accommodation centres. They must take into account recent histories and sensitivities, which are important if they are to make the right decisions and ensure proper, firm and sensible border controls.
§ Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), who spoke knowledgeably about circumstances in his constituency. I, too, wish to concentrate on detention and removal issues, principally in the light of my experience as the Member of Parliament representing the Yarl's Wood area.
First, I want to make one or two general remarks. I welcome this further attempt to ensure the practicability and acceptability of legislation on immigration and asylum matters. Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that it is important to have this debate and for it to be conducted in the tone that has now firmly been set, especially by Front Benchers on both sides of the House. That consensus of tone is welcome, but it is important that in proceeding with that consensus, we do not gloss over any difficulties that may lie under the surface. Failure to conduct our examination rigorously and with great scrutiny would be an error with regard to the Bill, just as it would be in any other aspect of this matter.
I welcome the attempts to deal with nationality and citizenship. If a nation is to be anything more than a collection of its parts, it is essential that we find those things that are common to us so that we can group around them and create some form of identity. Britain has a great deal to be proud of in its values and history, but it is important to recognise that what is happening now is just as important as what happened in the past, and that as a nation we have enough values to use them in looking forward. For youngsters, 2045 is just as important as 1945, but all too often we look back rather than forward. I see this debate as a way of looking forward, and it is important that we should seek to do so.
I want to raise one delicate matter in the same tone in which we have spoken about other issues, and ask the Government about their view on the greater use of national emblems—especially the Union flag and the cross of St. George. I raise the matter for two particular reasons. First, I resent deeply, as I suspect most hon. Members do, the attempts made for at least a couple of decades and probably more to appropriate the Union flag and the cross of St. George exclusively for parties of the 384 far right. We have all been much too relaxed about the matter and have found ourselves in very sensitive areas with regard to it. If I may say so, it has been especially difficult for Labour and Liberal Members to speak out and be bold on it because of its associations with the far right.
Secondly, I raise the subject now as we have never had a better opportunity to deal with it, because of two events this year. With a bit of luck, we will be swamped in the jubilee celebrations with red, white and blue for all the best reasons. The World cup is another such opportunity, with regard to which I am thinking especially of the English aspect of the Union. These events give us all a great opportunity to take back the Union flag and the cross of St. George and make widespread use of them.
Do not the Government believe that if we encourage greater use of flags in our schools, town halls and courts, and even in MPs' offices, we might start to make a dent in this aspect of life? Our relaxed attitude to the flag has allowed people with whose views we have no truck to gain an advantage that they should not have. If we can use the opportunity that we have this year—we will have to be in it together, so no party will seek any advantage—we will strike a positive and powerful blow against people whose views we reject but who understand the value of a national symbol. It should be ours and not theirs.
I welcome very much the increased penalties suggested for traffickers and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) in that regard. I served with him in the then Department of Social Security when these problems first became apparent. He was required to take some very difficult steps at that time, when general understanding of the trafficking of human beings through Europe was perhaps not as good as it is now. He took some of the first steps along the road. If there had been as great an understanding then as exists now, we might not be in quite the same difficulties.
As a final general remark, I also welcome very much the attempts to restore the bilateral agreement between this country and France. In terms of public opinion, one of the things that the public least understand is how people can come from an apparently safe country and go through all the processes here rather than on the other side of the channel. If something could be done about that issue, we would all feel much more comfortable.
I should now like to concentrate on the impact of the Yarl's Wood incident on policy in general. In doing so, I want to raise three particular issues: the detention process, practicality and transparency. I remember saying at the time of the incident that its impact was far greater than what happened to the buildings themselves. Two months on, I am still convinced that I was correct. The duty of any Members of Parliament in whose constituencies any form of detention or accommodation centre is planned or situated is obviously for the safety and security of those whom they represent, so we have a duty to the people who work at the centres and live close to them. We also have a duty in respect of the welfare, safety and security of any people who are detained in the United Kingdom for any reason whatever.
On the night of 14 February 2002, those assurances on safety and security were broken for all those whom I represent. In order to restore trust in the process, it is essential that all the lessons are learned. Indeed, they have a direct bearing on our discussions, and I should like to pay tribute to people in my constituency who experienced 385 the events at Yarl's Wood because they worked at the centre, lived close by or were caught up as innocents in the fire, as well as the local county councillors who have been working hard with the public services ever since the incident to put things right. I shall speak about the police in a moment.
On the detention process, soon after Yarl's Wood began to receive its first detainees, I was called to the centre on account of a hunger strike there. That was the start of a regular series of contacts from detainees. During the next couple of months, I built up an idea from them and the people who represented them of the sort of glitches and difficulties that were arising. I think that those problems led to the frustrations that were part of the reason for the Yarl's Wood incident, so they need fully to be taken into account.
The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) and I had arranged a meeting with Lord Rooker, the Minister for Asylum and Immigration, on 14 February, quite by coincidence, to discuss some of the things that we had found out. That very evening, things were on the move at Yarl's Wood. Some of the points that we put to him are still entirely relevant. First, I found that I lacked an independent source of advice on the welfare of detainees at Yarl's Wood. Typically, I would get a contact alleging something. Naturally, my only source of information was the Home Office. I trust the Home Office in such circumstances, but it is understandable that a detainee who comes from a different culture might not find it quite so easy to do so. To have an independent source of reference at the centre to assure the detainee that practices were correct and that their welfare was being properly looked after would assist both the Member of Parliament and the Home Office. I hope that that can be taken into account.
Secondly, it is vital that access to legal advice means access to good legal advice. The charlatans and those who have sought to make money out of innocent detainees and asylum seekers must be identified, and should be deprived of that work. Too many people have been let down by them. Thirdly, it is essential that the Home Office should be completely frank about who is coming to each of the centres, in terms of the policy behind those decisions and other criteria. We know from remarks that the Home Secretary has been gracious enough to concede that there were some problems in relation to those who eventually ended up in Yarl's Wood, as opposed to those who were originally to have gone there. That helped to build up the tension in the place and led to some of the problems in February.
If local police forces, such as the Bedfordshire police, offer to carry out background checks into the circumstances of detainees who have been in the community, those offers should be accepted, not rejected, as they were in the case of Yarl's Wood, by the immigration services. Those who are looking after people in a confined area need to know everything there is to know about them, and we need to get to the bottom of why inappropriate placements were made at Yarl's Wood.
On my second point about the implications of the events at Yarl's Wood, we need to be certain that the practicalities are dealt with in the new system described by the Home Secretary today. Local authorities need to be more involved in planning procedure than they were at Yarl's Wood. In terms of security and safety, we need to 386 know whether fire drills take place, what planning exists to deal with major incidents affecting safety, and how that would impact on security. It is clear that none of that took place at Yarl's Wood as the numbers there were building up, which helped to cause some of the problems that night in February.
Practicalities such as how to raise the alarm in the area around a centre if people have escaped from it need to be dealt with. Residents near Yarl's Wood say that they found people sleeping in outbuildings on their properties the morning after the events there. There were no incidents relating to those detainees, but there could have been, so it is essential to take note of those issues. I also urge the Home Secretary to take note of the caution that has been expressed over the size of detention centres.
On transparency, because of the circumstances at Yarl's Wood, it is important that the inquiry asks the questions that need to be asked as soon as possible—not least the questions on why the police were prevented from gaining access to the site quickly, and on the extraordinary insurance aftermath. Bedfordshire police are being presented with a bill for £96 million by the insurers. That is the amount being demanded of the police force in Bedfordshire and, potentially, the council tax payers of my constituency. It is nonsense that insurance matters were not immediately apparent to those putting the centre together, and that is one of the practicalities that now has to be dealt with.
A whole series of things, alas, went wrong at Yarl's Wood. It would be helpful for those looking after detainees if they had a timetable for when Yarl's Wood will come back into service, and information on the scale on which it will operate when it does so. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House anything about that. Some of my constituents were placed at extraordinary risk at the time of the incident, and many people performed heroically that night—particularly the police force, the fire brigade and other public services. It is important that lessons should be learned if the integrity of the system is to be preserved for the detainees who are passing through, those who advise them and those who live in the areas concerned. Transparency—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up. I call Mr. Neil Gerrard.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
The Bill sets out a comprehensive range of provisions to deliver an efficient and robust immigration system.The Bill will achieve a better system for making prompt and fair decisions when we receive applications to settle in this country."—[Official Report, 2 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 22.]The Bill will provide the United Kingdom with a modern, flexible and streamlined system capable of dealing with the ever-growing pressures and demands placed upon it."—[Official Report, 22 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 50.]Our race relations are as good as—if not better than—those of any other country in Europe. Firm but fair immigration control is a necessary condition for such a society. That is the context in which this Bill should be seen."—[Official Report, 11 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 699.]Before some of my hon. Friends think that I have taken leave of my senses, let me explain that those are all quotes. One is from a press release for this Bill which was put out by the Home Office—I did not have a copy of the 387 Home Secretary's speech from which to quote—and the others were quotes from the speeches of former Home Secretaries on Second Reading of what were to become the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. I shall give a prize to anyone who can tell me exactly which one was which without looking them up.
The point that I am making is that this is the fourth piece of legislation on these issues in 10 years. Every one of them has been introduced by a Home Secretary saying that it will solve all the problems. Hearing that for the fourth time in 10 years tends to make one a bit cynical. I think that I am the only Member of the House who served on the Standing Committees that considered all three of those Acts. I am also one of a handful of Members who voted against Third Reading of all three, and it is tempting for me to say, "I told you so." In fact, I think I will say, "I told you so; I told you those Bills would not work."
In one sense, it almost does not matter what we do in terms of legislation, if the Home Office does not get its act together to make decisions within a reasonable time scale. That applies to immigration decisions as well as to those on asylum. It does not matter what legislation we have if decisions are not made in reasonable time, if they are not acted on, or if people whose passports have been lost, or who have waited two years for a decision when they want to go to visit a sick relative, are treated with complete indifference to what is happening in their lives. Someone might turn up at my advice surgery, four or five years after their asylum claim has been turned down, and when I ask them what has happened in the meantime, the answer is, "Well, nothing." The system will fail when such things happen, no matter what legislation is in place.
It is critical that efforts be made to address these problems, because there is still systematic failure in the Home Office's administrative systems. My staff and I are sick and tired of spending time in my constituency office having to deal with call after call about these problems. People get fed up with us because we are not getting answers from the Home Office.
§ Ms Abbott
May I confirm what my hon. Friend has just said? I have been a Member of the House for 14 years, and I know that, while the text of any legislation is one thing, the systemic administrative failures in the Home Office are the cause of more misery and unhappiness to my constituents than anything else.
§ Mr. Gerrard
I agree with my hon. Friend.
A further point in relation to the legislation of the past 10 years is that we ought to have learned that, if we try to put in place systems that are cumbersome, expensive to set up and fundamentally unfair, we will fail. That was the problem with each of the last three Acts. This Bill is very different in some ways. It is the first Bill of its kind for 10 years that contains measures that I can say that I positively welcome. Parts of the Bill, however, may still present problems, and we might risk falling into exactly the same traps as we fell into before.
I welcome the fact that this is the first time in many years that we have had a sensible debate—in relation not only to the Bill but to the White Paper—in the House and in the country about immigration policy, about providing 388 economic routes for migration, and about nationality. There are some welcome changes in the Bill that follow on from that debate. The White Paper also identified a great deal that needs to be done that does not need legislation. For the first time, it has been suggested that there should be mechanisms by which people could make asylum claims from overseas. That is very welcome.
I recognise that some of the proposals in the Bill to deal with trafficking are only stopgap measures, and that we shall need to come back and do more on that in terms of criminal justice legislation. Those provisions are, none the less, very welcome. There is a lot in the Bill that everyone in the House will support. I have a few areas of concern, however, and I hope that I will be forgiven if I concentrate on those for the rest of the time available to me.
The section on nationality and citizenship is, in the main, positive, but I have a few problems with it. The one major issue that concerns me is whether we really need to have compulsory language testing. What is that going to achieve? That is a question that I have not seen answered. I know one thing that it will achieve: discrimination against certain types of people—against elderly people, against women in certain communities and against people who, for instance, have learning difficulties. That is what will happen. Why do we need to include that in what is otherwise a positive package?
I agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) about doing something about British overseas citizens—people who are often, effectively, stateless. We could have used the opportunity presented by a piece of nationality legislation to do something about that.
On accommodation centres, I am convinced that if we go down the road of setting up four large accommodation centres with 750 or so people in each of them, it will not work. It will turn into a disaster. Some of the problems flow from the size. Because of their size, they will be located outside the main urban areas, which draws us into the question of withdrawing children from mainstream education. That flows directly from the decision about size and location, because local schools in such areas would be overwhelmed if children were allowed into mainstream education. I do not see how we can justify saying to any child in this country that they will be out of mainstream education for months on end. How does that sit alongside the proposals in the White Paper and in other parts of the Bill about integration? It is completely contradictory.
§ Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only an issue of quality of education but of the personal and social development of the child? That is why it is so important that children should be in mainstream education and not educated separately.
§ Mr. Gerrard
Absolutely. Of course, not all the people in these centres will be children, and the majority of asylum seekers do not have children. What is the likely impact of having 750 people, mainly young men, who have very little to do in some of the areas that are being suggested? If they do not have much to do, and they are there for months on end, that will be a recipe for disaster.
389 We ought to consider what has been working in the present system of dispersal. Some projects have worked and some good work has been done. There are already places that are almost accommodation centres—the hostels and hotels that are being used—and I have no problem with the idea of groups of people living together; it is happening now. Why do we not put effort into making those places work, and into examining what they need in terms of support, medical help and legal advice? We have such groupings now, and the majority of people will remain in the dispersal system. We are in great danger of spending a lot of time, energy and effort on something that will cost a fortune, that will probably be delayed much longer than it is supposed to be, and that, in the end, will not work. Instead, we could concentrate on dealing with problems in the dispersal system, and we could use some of the ideas about accommodation centres to develop existing places.
On support, one clause of the Bill gives the Government the power to remove the option for people to have support only—not vouchers any more, which we very much welcome, but cash. What is the justification for that? I would like to hear it. Given that 40 per cent. of applicants choose that option, what do we expect them to do and where do we expect them to go? Are we going to say, "If you do not go into an accommodation centre, you will be cut off from all support"? That is my suspicion about why that power is included in the Bill—to be used against people who say that they will not go into an accommodation centre.
On detention, will the Government say, once and for all, that they are not going to detain children? Children and families are still being detained and all the signs are that the numbers will increase over the next few years if there is a move to increase the rate of removal. Why are figures no longer available on what has happened to people who are in detention? Until four or five years ago, it was possible to find out whether people who were in detention had had a decision made on their case, were still waiting for a decision or were still waiting to appeal. When I ask those questions now, I am told that the information is too expensive to obtain and is not held centrally. It used to be available, and I want to know why it is not any more. If we are expected to accept that detention centres become removal centres, and that that is their purpose, we ought to be able to establish clearly that the people in those centres are waiting for removal, not for an initial decision on their claims.
The resettlement programme and the UNHCR gateway constitute a positive move, which I very much welcome. We need to get that right, because I do not want a view to develop that people who come in by that route are legitimate, whereas people who claim asylum by any other route are not. That is one of the dangers of which we must beware.
We all want a system that works. We can make the system work—although the Bill contains deficiencies, which I hope will be dealt with in Committee—but, this time, please let us have a system that delivers.
§ 7.6 pm
§ Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)
I add my voice to those who have praised the largely constructive and consensual tone of this debate. That is particularly 390 important as the very ugly head of racism is raised just a short way across the channel. The way in which the House and this political process addresses sensibly, positively and constructively the real issues thrown up by asylum and immigration is in stark contrast to what has happened in France. We all deserve some credit for the way in which our political process is handling those issues in a responsible way.
I come to this debate with much less experience and expertise than many other Members, who have been here for much longer than I have. Nevertheless, I have some knowledge from my constituency of the asylum process, of the problems that asylum seekers face once they have arrived in Britain, and of the problems of the communities in which they are housed. Although we do not have the large asylum population of the neighbouring seaside resort of Hastings, there are asylum seekers based in my constituency, particularly in Bexhill.
In January, two young lads who had sought asylum from Afghanistan came to see me at my advice surgery. That brought home to me the failure of the asylum system. These two young lads had been smuggled into this country in a lorry, and the grandfather of one of them had paid £10,000. They had come into the country in November 1999. One of them, after he had been to my surgery, told our local paper:In 1993 the Mujahaddin killed my father because he was a midwife. They believed it was not for man to do that job. One day they came to our house and they really hit my brother badly and broke his leg. My mother got sick of the situation. That is when my grandfather decided to send me out of the country. He found someone to arrange for me to be taken to another country. I came to Dover first. The police sent me to a camp in Kent. After one night they sent me here, to Bexhill. Now it has been two years without a decision on if I can stay.He came to my advice surgery in a state of desperation; he had yet to have an interview. Although I believe that there has now been some progress, he has still not had an interview. His colleague is also in that position. For years, he has lived with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, not knowing whether he had a future in this country, but, at the same, being a real burden on the taxpayer and the community in which he lived—unable to work, unable to study properly and unable to plan a future.
I welcome the clear distinction in the Bill between asylum seekers fleeing persecution and economic migrants. Receiving asylum seekers is the hallmark of a civilised society, and Britain has a long and proud tradition of doing so. We have also received economic migrants. We cannot blame those who come from other parts of the world that are far less wealthy and successful than our own and often plagued by oppression for trying to make a better life. Who of us, were we in the same position as many of those young lads, would not take that opportunity?
There is, however, a fundamental difference in the position of those people. Whether they are fleeing persecution or coming here to try to make a better life, the key point is that they deserve to be dealt with civilly, promptly and efficiently, but as the Home Secretary acknowledged in the House today and at the last Labour party conference, the current system is a mess.
Arrangements for dispersing asylum seekers are in chaos and the National Asylum Support Service bureaucracy has 391 become something of a legend. I note a recent press report about a standard NASS letter to asylum seekers, the bottom of which bears the statement:If you have not yet received this letter you should contact NASS immediately on the number above.Such inept handling of the number of asylum seekers entering Britain has impacted badly on all concerned.
The system put in place by the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 has failed to address the high number of people seeking asylum and the necessary provision of services to those claiming refuge here. The list of problems, which is endless, has been alluded to by other Members—overwhelmed GPs, inadequate legal support and long journeys to and from Croydon for interviews, often without travel warrants or sufficient money—but it is worth remembering that the current system was put in place only two years ago.
The Prime Minister claimed that the 1999 legislation would sort outthe problem with the asylum system".—[Official Report, 19 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 974.]In fact, a record number of asylum seekers have entered Britain—more than 80,000 in 2000. Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said:
We welcome legislation if it will provide stability for a long time. We have all had to live with a major new Act of Parliament every three years … The whole system is in turmoil as a result.I am glad that the Bill attempts to sort out the current chaotic system, but I have clear reservations, which I look forward to clarifying in Committee, about how it will do that. How long will people be held in the accommodation centres? That is a key question, as it underpins the provision of suitable services in centres and their effectiveness in taking more than a tiny proportion of those who enter Britain claiming asylum.
I, too, share the concerns about the size of the centres, perhaps because, as a Conservative, I innately distrust large-scale projects imposed by central Government. Intuitively, I prefer smaller, human-sized projects that are in step with their local communities. What risk assessment have the Government made in setting capacity at 750 people? The House needy no reminding of Yarl's Wood, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has described the tragic consequences that followed at that centre.
What provision is there for legal advice to be made available to residents of the centres? On-site legal services are essential for asylum applicants and for processing cases quickly and efficiently. What provision has been made for appeals? A quick, one-site system risks becoming nonsensical if appeals are not held at the centre. Will the proposals have a significant impact on the poor removal rate? Will the Home Secretary give a new indication of how many failed asylum seekers will leave Britain after the reforms are fully implemented?
The Bill, despite its many virtues, fails to address the crux of the issue—namely, the constant flow of asylum seekers across the channel and into this country. Asylum shopping is a genuine problem in the European Union, and as other Members have pointed out, the Dublin convention is little help in addressing it. I am in good company in being baffled by its uselessness. 392 In 2001, the Home Secretary's predecessor himself told the Home Affairs Committee:You are in very good company if you do not fully understand the operation of the Dublin Convention.It is complex, bureaucratic and burdensome, and those who attempt to operate it would concur with that description. However, in one sense, people understand it perfectly. All those resident at the Sangatte camp understand it. They understand that they can enter Britain and, de facto, not be returned to France. That is making a mockery of the system. Until 1997, a bilateral agreement ensured that asylum seekers could be returned to France within 24 hours. Now, we have problems returning any of them at all.
Reform of the asylum system must be accompanied by reform of the underpinning agreements, which govern our admission of asylum seekers. If an asylum seeker has genuinely suffered oppression, it is right and important for our country to be able to offer refuge. If asylum seekers come here with an ability to contribute to our economy, it is right that we welcome them. However, without the ability to remove asylum seekers back to France, the system simply will not work. The Government must act now to reinvoke the bilateral agreement and put our asylum system on a manageable footing.
In all our interests, everyone—asylum seekers, economic migrants or just plain, old-fashioned immigrants—must be shown tolerance and understanding, but perhaps most importantly, they must be dealt with efficiently and promptly. I hope that the Bill takes good strides towards that goal.
§ Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)
It was particularly pleasing to hear the Home Secretary's words on fees for visitor visa appeals, as I asked a question about them during the February statement. It followed a campaign to have the fees removed that, frankly, went on far too long, especially as they should never have been imposed in the first place. The work done by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and others has been rewarded at last, but we should not have had to wait so long.
The situation with visitor appeals epitomises the problems with the administration of immigration and asylum. About 75 per cent. of oral appeals are successful, which begs a question about the quality of the decisions made in the first place. Even more worryingly, about 35 per cent. of appeals decided on the papers alone are successful. They involve an adjudicator looking at exactly the same evidence that the entry clearance officer saw when issuing a refusal. No additional information is provided and no representations or sponsor's declarations are made, but 35 per cent. of decisions are overturned. We must call into question the training given to ECOs, and perhaps even their motivation in arriving at decisions.
I have made this point many times, but I shall make it again in the hope that it will register: it is nonsensical to give as a reason for refusing a visitor's visa the fact that the person has never travelled before. That argument is self-defeating, but it still appears all too often, especially in my favourite place in the whole world, Islamabad, which must have the worst decision-making record in the entire immigration system. Not to worry; we have a success.
393 One of the great bugbears of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is the fact that the more we legislate, the more we add to the complexity of the system, the more delays we create and the harder it is to get to the bottom of the problem. However, the Bill is a step forward, not a step back, as we have suffered in the past. It contains many good measures, including some administrative arrangements, such as the abolition of vouchers.
Under the present system, 22 per cent. of appeals against refusal of asylum succeed. In an ideal world, no appeals would succeed. It seems to me that 22 per cent. is a high figure, and it calls into question the decision-making process.
There is a question mark over the length of time that it takes to get to appeal, and the consistency of decisions arrived at by adjudicators. The White Paper foreshadowed a significant increase in the number of Immigration Appellate Authority adjudicators. Where will they come from, how will they be trained and how soon will they be any good? Many adjudicators have been in the system a long time, but are not of the required quality.
One of the first acts of the previous Home Secretary after 1997 was to abolish the primary purpose rule. We had campaigned for that for many years, so it was very welcome. It is not often that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), but I am afraid that I think that he is wrong about the probationary period. I have spoken to people from all communities, and its extension to two years has been widely welcomed. That is also my view.
Unfortunately, some spouses come to this country from abroad and the marriage breaks down. British spouses, especially women, come under intense pressure to sign a false declaration that the marriage is subsisting to allow the husband to obtain indefinite leave to remain. If they refuse to do that, and they send information to the Home Office, they immediately become a third party as far as the Home Office is concerned, and are not entitled to any information.
I have a case in which the spouse has provided evidence of domestic violence, including medical and police records, evidence that her husband has remarried and illegally brought his second wife into the country, and evidence of where he is living and working. The Home Office has told me off the record, because it is not allowed to talk to third parties, that the evidence is insufficient to take any action against the husband. This man regularly beat his wife, who had to have hospital treatment. He has previous convictions. It has been proved that he forged her signature on a document to obtain indefinite leave to remain. He has illegally brought another person into this country. He has illegally married that person: the marriage took place in the United Kingdom. However, that is insufficient evidence for the Home Office to take any action. That woman lives in fear of that man coming back and repeating the domestic violence because she is trying to get him removed.
Frankly, people who risk physical attack and intimidation to bring such cases to the Home Office's attention deserve better than a two-line letter saying that they are a third party and it cannot give them any information. We must find a way of ensuring that people get rewarded for being honest citizens, not punished.
394 I am not very good at reading Bills, because I am not a lawyer. I think that clauses 53 and 55 will allow action to be taken to remove people without the degree of proof required in a criminal case. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain those provisions.
There has been a lot of talk about the need for fairness in the immigration and asylum process, and the need for confidence in the system. Not just the host community, but all communities in this country should be able to have confidence in the system.
I make no apology for referring once again to the position of people who are now classed as over-age applicants. In the 1980s, children were refused admission because it was said that they were not the children of their parents. Subsequently, they proved their parentage by DNA, but they were then told that, as they were 18, they were too old and could not come into this country. That must be the only part of public policy in which, even if people prove their case, they are still losers.
In 1993, when I first went with a delegation to the Home Office, we were told that such a move would confer rights on 120,000 people. That was a typical Home Office response. By 1998, the figure had dropped to 60,000, but the same reason was given for not putting right that injustice. It was argued that it would open up the possibility of a huge number of people coming into the country, because those 60,000 would by now be married with three or four children, so the figure would be 300,000.
We are actually talking about some 1,000 individuals. Many of those people have settled into a new way of life and do not want to come to this country, but many families, mainly Bangladeshi, have been divided for 20 years because of the brutality of the British legal system and its inability to admit that it was wrong and to correct that wrong. Today would be a good time for the Home Office to agree seriously to consider this issue with compassion. Let us get it sorted, and we can all move on.
There are many concessions and exceptions in our immigration system, and it is about time that they were codified. About three years ago, the previous Home Secretary introduced a concession for overseas spouses who were victims of domestic violence. They were allowed indefinite leave to remain. There is conclusive proof that that concession has not been abused, and it is time that it was codified so that those people can feel safe.
I shall conclude on citizenship and language. My city has many communities, and 64 different languages are spoken in our schools. I think that it is an advantage for children to share a language in which they can all talk to one another. However, I wonder why, in all our pronouncements, such emphasis has been placed on learning English. Since 1981, it has been a requirement for people to have a reasonable command of England before they can get citizenship, so that is nothing new. The only new thing in the Bill is the provision that people may have to go on a course or produce a certificate. I fail to see why we are making that—
§ Annabelle Ewing (Perth)
I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate. Like many who have spoken, I and others in the Scottish National party-Plaid Cymru group 395 feel that the Bill contains some provisions that we can support, including, of course, the good and important measure to tighten sex trafficking offences. I also add my congratulations on the abolition—albeit belated—of the disgraceful and shameful voucher system. However, many aspects of the Bill are problematic, and certain other elements should have been covered. It is on those points that I want to focus in the time available.
It is worth noting at the outset that this is the fourth Bill on asylum in the past decade. As I understand it—I am a relatively new Member—the legislation that led to the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was supposed to be the asylum Bill to end all asylum Bills. The then Home Secretary appears not to have got it right, and I wonder whether the current Home Secretary has got it entirely right either.
On the new citizenship pledge, as I said in my intervention on the Home Secretary, new applicants will be required to swear loyalty to the United Kingdom, and to take a "British" test, the parameters of which have yet to be set. As an SNP Westminster MP, I wait with bated breath, because I am not entirely sure that I would pass such a test.
§ Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)
So far as claiming their salaries is concerned, the hon. Lady's colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have not been unhappy about swearing the oath of allegiance. The Bill contains proposals relating to a sufficient knowledge of life in the UK, but I see nothing remotely like a test of Britishness. Where in the Bill is there such a proposal?
§ Annabelle Ewing
If one reads the whole Bill, including the initial clauses, it is clear that regulations will elucidate the degree of knowledge required. To that extent, they can loosely be referred to as a British test. As I said, I await with interest—as the hon. Gentleman doubtless does—to discover its parameters.
I have serious concerns about the oath of loyalty to the UK, not the least of which is that it stigmatises, and is potentially an unnecessarily divisive way to address important race relations issues.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
Is the hon. Lady aware that we already have a loyalty oath that no one has described as divisive? Why does she consider the oath in the Bill divisive?
§ Annabelle Ewing
I direct the hon. Lady to the terms of schedule 5. At the moment, we have an oath of allegiance to the Queen, which presents no problem whatsoever, but the new oath involves swearing loyalty to the United Kingdom. According to several recent polls, only 13 per cent. of Scots and people in Scotland regard themselves as British. According to polls conducted at the beginning of April, one in three people in Scotland support the SNP as the party of independence for Scotland. Unlike the Home Secretary, I think that the new oath raises potentially serious constitutional issues. He seemed to pooh-pooh that notion, but on reflection he may agree with it.
396 For example, a substantial number of people in our ethnic communities in Scotland support a group called Scots Asians for Independence. Would a new member of that group be required to swear loyalty to the United Kingdom?
§ Annabelle Ewing
I am sorry, but I have given way quite a bit and I want to make progress.
Under the terms of clause 4, citizens who commit acts that seriously prejudice the vital interests of the United Kingdom can be deprived of citizenship. That raises some very serious issues. As I asked the Home Secretary, will an asylum seeker who seeks residence in Scotland be expected to swear an oath of loyalty to the United Kingdom, given that the official Opposition in the Scots Parliament would not be prepared to swear such an oath? The loyalty oath is a complete non-starter in a 21st-century United Kingdom, and I hope that it will be removed from the Bill.
§ Annabelle Ewing
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) as he sought to intervene first.
§ Annabelle Ewing
I was drawing an analogy. The Home Secretary is trying to introduce a new requirement for those who seek to reside in Scotland to pledge an oath of loyalty, yet the official Opposition in the Scots Parliament would not be prepared to do so. That is a very serious issue.
§ Annabelle Ewing
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not give way further as I want to make progress.
On the treatment of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, I am pleased that the voucher system has gone, but I am concerned that the level of support that will be offered in certain circumstances appears to be less than the basic income support. If income support is a basic subsistence level, how can giving people less be justified? Perhaps the Minister can comment on that in the winding-up speech. Surely a temporary green card system, whereby asylum seekers are allowed to work while their cases are being processed, would be a better solution. The vast majority of asylum seekers want to contribute to society; they do not want simply to take. If we allow them to work, we can unleash the talents that many of them possess, which would benefit us all. Initially, most asylum seekers were dispersed to the Sighthill area of Glasgow, which was the focus of the dispersal programme in Scotland. At one time, about 40 per cent. of the asylum 397 seekers in Sighthill had university degrees. Not allowing them to contribute to the society in which they live is an unpardonable waste of talent.
Much has been said today about accommodation centres. I shall not rehash the arguments, but I am concerned about their scale and the length of time that, in practice, people will stay in them, given the numerous problems relating to the processing of asylum applications. For the reasons that have been stated, I am particularly concerned about the fact that children will be excluded from mainstream education. That will have a very negative impact on their development.
I want to mention clause 33, which will affect Scotland. It seeks in effect to claw back devolved powers from the Scots Parliament in respect of the education of children in trial accommodation centres in Scotland. The Home Secretary will be empowered to disapply Acts of the Scots Parliament to exclude its jurisdiction. That is unacceptable, and I hope that the clause will be removed.
Finally, I turn to the important issue of detention centres, or removal centres, as they will now be known.
§ Mr. Connarty
I am deeply concerned about the hon. Lady's analysis of clause 33—I hope to speak on it myself—which clearly states that consultation will take place with Scottish Ministers. If Scotland had a different system, in which many asylum seekers were placed in mainstream education, the impact on the people of Scotland would be disproportionate. Does she really believe that Scottish people would commend her for arguing that Scotland should have a system for asylum seekers—a UK matter—that differs from that in the rest of the UK?
§ Annabelle Ewing
We are talking about the education of children. The premise on which the accommodation centres are founded is a period of no more than six months, but our constituency work shows that the asylum application process is a disgrace. In what magical way the situation is supposed to improve quickly, I do not know.
On resources, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), said in a written answer dated 25 February 2002 that the Home Office would fund health care and educational facilities in the trial accommodation centres. I hope that that covers the matter.
§ Annabelle Ewing
No, I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already. I have little time left. I have been very generous. I think that I have taken more interventions than any other Back-Bench Member.
A key problem with the detention centre proposals is the secrecy that surrounds their operation. That may stem from the fact that private-sector companies are in charge. Certainly, that is the case at Dungavel.
Last week, the Scots Parliament's cross-party group on refugees and asylum seekers visited Dungavel. I understand that the report that it produced has been submitted to the Home Office, and I hope that responses to it will be made public. Its key findings were that there was no justification for holding children in detention centres, that the length of 398 time for which people were held was unacceptable, and that there was a lack of clarity about the grounds on which people were being held.
I hope that the Minister will tell the House whether the Home Office's response to the report will be made public. I hope that she will also say whether the Home Office will address the concerns raised about Dungavel, and whether the chief inspector of prisons in Scotland has a role to play in inspecting the facility.
§ Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South)
The debate has been remarkable for the broad consensus evident on the matters that have been discussed. I suspect that this will not be the last asylum Bill to occupy my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), as there will probably be another four such Bills in the next decade.
I shall concentrate on children, and how they are to be protected. I shall speak too about the apparent disparity between children who are UK citizens, and those seeking asylum.
Hon. Members may have seen last year's excellent report from Save the Children entitled "Cold Comfort". The charity spoke to 125 young people who were either seeking asylum or were refugees. All the young people had been separated from their parents. One of the report's major findings was thata significant number of the young separated refugees had chaotic and disturbing experiences on arrival and received little or no support. This pattern of experience continues in their contact with services, including education, health and social services.The Bill will alleviate those children's chaotic experiences, and that is to be welcomed, especially because the care of young people will be tightened up as a result of the creation of specific offences to deal with the traffic in prostitution.
One of the major difficulties that we face in protecting young asylum seekers and refugees is that there is a lack of co-ordinated information. Last year, the social services in West Sussex—an authority responsible for significant numbers of unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children—did some important and detailed work with regard to the number of children being trafficked through its services.
The authority identified a pattern. It looked at the cases of children from a particular geographical area—in this instance, they were girls from west Africa, and especially from Nigeria—who had entered the UK unaccompanied. It found that girls were passed on to residential care homes, often in the south-east of England, but that they simply disappeared after that. Often, the girls went to other parts of Europe after they had been contacted by a trafficker.
In West Sussex alone, 66 children went missing between 1995 and 2001. They simply disappeared from the authority's care. The authority's investigation revealed that dozens more had been at risk. The authority believes that the vast majority of those who had disappeared were unaccompanied asylum seekers, and that they had disappeared because of the traffic in prostitution.
That is a particular problem in London and the south-east, because most unaccompanied and accompanied children live in the area. Last year's Save the Children report estimated that more than 4.000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were being supported by the London boroughs. For the UK as a whole, the figure is two or three times as large.
399 As a result, clause 113 is very much to be welcomed, as its aim is to outlaw trafficking. For the first time, it establishes the explicit offence of trafficking in people for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The provision follows from the Government report entitled "Setting the Boundaries", which was published in July 2000. My only disappointment is that the Bill does not go as far as that report encouraged people to expect. The report stated:The review considers that the commercial sexual exploitation of children should be dealt with by specific offences in which 'child' should refer to any person under the age of 18, and where sexual exploitation means the use of child in prostitution or in the making of pornography.I hope that the Home Office will give some consideration to taking matters to their logical conclusion and introducing a specific offence in relation to children. The maximum penalty imposed by the Bill is a sentence of 14 years, which is both welcome and appropriate. However, we should recognise that the offence extends beyond the prostitution of a person, and that it should include the trafficking of children for the purposes of prostitution.
The Government are right to introduce the proposed penalty, but we need more information if the policy is to be effective. We need more studies such as that carried out in West Sussex, which has helped to reduce dramatically the numbers of children going missing through the introduction of a multi-agency approach involving social services, the police and others. The problem is that there is still no comprehensive database of separated children that includes both accompanied and unaccompanied children and states whether they were seeking asylum.
The creation of such a database would go a long way towards dealing comprehensively with the problem of trafficking. The production of separate data on asylum decisions concerning young people would also be helpful.
Last year, a group of Members of Parliament was invited to meet some of the young people to whom Save the Children spoke in compiling its report, and we were deeply moved by their stories. Many of their problems stemmed from the fact that the children had been unaccompanied. In part, that was because our system has not kept pace with the scale or diversity of the problems involved. Fairly or unfairly, local authorities bear most of the burden of responsibility for those children's care.
The Save the Children report recommended that the Home Office should increase grants to local authorities for the support of young separated refugees so that they would be able to meet the reasonable costs of support. Clause 36 goes some way towards that. Crucially, it removes the age distinction that previously meant that payments could not be made by the Secretary of State to people under 18. However, there is still concern that the provisions in the Bill will be insufficient.
Will the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), who will wind up the debate, say whether she will consider removing the distinction between the amounts available to children under 16 years of age, and to those over that age?
Young asylum seekers or refugees under the age of 16 who enter local authority care usually come under sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989. When they reach the age of 18, because they have come under section 20, those young people will not be dispersed. There are 400 very good reasons for that: the young people involved have built up ties with the community and are supported by a network of care.
However, a young person of 16 or over who enters the care of a local authority usually is covered only by section 17 of the Children Act 1989. The ludicrous result is that they can be dispersed at the age of 18, as happens very often.
The consequence of that is that all those dispersed children's community supports disappear, and that many of them are tempted to go underground. At the moment, age is the prime determinant of service provision for those young people. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will consult with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to strengthen guidance on how and when section 20 of the Children Act 1989 should be applied, as the Save the Children report recommends.
Children and young people who are asylum seekers present us with special problems and special responsibilities. Article 3 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child makes it clear that the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration. We signed up to that convention because it is right, so in dealing with this group of young people we must be sure that we are acting in the best interests of the child. It is difficult to see a justification for distinguishing what is the best interest solely on the ground of whether a child is a UK citizen or a refugee and providing different standards of care, protection and services accordingly.
Others have spoken about the impact on children placed in accommodation centres and the opportunities for them to participate in social, leisure and other activities that may not be available to others. My concern about this potential disparity is also about the inspection regimes and frameworks for child welfare that will apply in the accommodation centres. How will the provisions of the Children Act 1989 and the Care Standards Act 2000 apply? If there were to be an accommodation centre in Wales, as has been proposed in south Glamorgan, would the powers of the children's rights commissioner be extended to such a centre? In short, will the Home Secretary guarantee that there is no possibility of less rigorous procedures and practices being undertaken towards children in accommodation centres?
My final concern, to which other hon. Members have referred, is education. Many people are genuinely concerned about whether it is appropriate to educate children in accommodation centres. We are talking about 750 people of various ages gathered together from different places, with different cultures and speaking different languages. Is it practical to believe that we could provide a comprehensive education service for children in these centres? Even if they are there for only six months, that is a very long time for a frightened and vulnerable group of people. I hope that the Home Secretary, in the spirit of openness, will be prepared to listen to the words of other hon. Members.
The evidence in the Save the Children report is that young people who came here unaccompanied or accompanied value, above all else, being integrated into full-time education. We will therefore be taking something away from those people that we currently provide. It may be right; there may be very good reasons for doing so, but I have not heard them. The onus is on the Government to make a clear, coherent and 401 compassionate case for why children will be better served by being educated full time in accommodation centres for those six months than in the community.
Overall, I welcome the Bill. I am sure that it will not be the last of the asylum Bills, but it is a good step. It is pleasing to see the degree of consensus that has emerged and the spirit and tone in which this debate has been conducted across the House.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
There is little doubt that our current immigration and asylum system is unmanageable. It does not serve the genuine immigrant, asylum seeker or British taxpayer well. I welcome the opportunity for constructive debate that will lead to the introduction of measures to bring the situation under control as quickly as possible.
One of our greatest challenges is to separate, among all those arriving in our country and seeking to stay, those who are entitled to do so from those who are not. Under the present system, this is virtually impossible. The numbers arriving are too great for immigration staff to cope with and the process takes far too long.
This country has a long and proud tradition of accepting genuine refugees from all over the world and will continue to do so, but we must have a manageable system that enables us to identify them readily. Support services must be in place to enable them to settle and become independent contributing members of society.
So many people choose to seek asylum in the United Kingdom because it is a much more attractive destination than many other European countries. Why else would they travel through so many other safe, democratic countries without seeking asylum along the way? Why else would so many gather at Sangatte without seeking asylum in France—another safe, democratic country—awaiting their chance to smuggle themselves into Britain on lorries, freight trains or Eurostar, often in extremely dangerous circumstances? There have been several deaths on these excursions. A recent United Nations survey showed that more refugees select and reach Britain than any other European destination.
Between 1995 and 1997, there was an agreement with France that allowed the swift return of asylum seekers who had crossed the channel illegally. It was very effective. When it came into force, applications for asylum fell by 33 per cent. The advantage was that of those who arrived in this country, the percentage of eligible applicants was much higher.
The year after the bilateral agreement was replaced by the Dublin convention, applications increased by 41 per cent. However, the Dublin convention did not deliver on its intention to solve the problem of "asylum shopping", where people claim support from local authorities here when they have already been granted refugee status or leave to remain in other European Economic Area countries. There is an urgent need to renegotiate the bilateral agreement; it would facilitate the efforts made here to improve the asylum system.
The agreement alone, however, would not be enough. There are many circumstances that attract such large numbers of asylum seekers to our shores in preference to 402 neighbouring countries. Those include the availability and perception of social security benefits, more generous interpretation of asylum law, slow decision making on asylum cases, lack of an efficient removal system for people refused asylum, access to public services such as free health care, education and housing and scope for living here without documentation or the need for proof of identity.
§ Ms Abbott
The hon. Lady gave the availability of benefits as the number one reason why economic migrants—bogus asylum seekers, if you will—choose to come here. Economic migrants come here, whether as asylum seekers or anything else, for the same reason they have come here down the centuries—to work.
§ Angela Watkinson
Four years ago, 20,000 refugees with unresolved appeals, who had been here for at least two years, were allowed to stay indefinitely. That was a great incentive to others to hope that they might receive similar treatment. If the system is to be made fairer and faster, no further amnesty must be allowed.
Controlling the cross-channel flow of asylum seekers is important for two reasons. First, a reduction in numbers would enable a faster, more compassionate service to be provided to those fleeing persecution in their own country, whose human rights have been violated and who are in fear of their lives. The proposed accommodation centres must offer comprehensive on-site services, including reliable legal advice. I use the word "reliable" advisedly. I know from my surgery and from telephone calls to my office here from my constituents that so-called legal practitioners have been engaged whom I suspect may not be qualified but who offer advice on immigration matters. Individuals seeking asylum have spent large sums of money on advice that is virtually useless and, in some cases, they have spent it on no advice at all. That should be brought under control.
The on-site services should include reliable legal advice from qualified practitioners so that asylum decisions and appeals can be made accurately, humanely and speedily. The Bill is deficient on that point and I hope that the opportunity will be taken to amend it to include a one-stop shop style of accommodation centre that will deal quickly with genuine claimants—that is, in a few weeks. Six months is far too long and it should certainly not take years. The centre should remove equally quickly those who are not entitled to remain.
As the accommodation is intended only to be very temporary, it would be acceptable for the children of asylum seekers to receive their education on site and not in a mainstream school. That would be much more difficult to justify if the stay were a long one. However, that is not the intention; indeed, if the stay was long, the system would be failing.
Secondly, the cross-channel flow of asylum seekers has had a devastating effect on freight transport between the United Kingdom and France.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
It may assist the debate if the hon. Lady were to distinguish between asylum seekers and economic migration. She keeps referring to asylum seekers, but many of the people coming in through 403 the channel tunnel are economic migrants and the Bill sets out different policies to deal with different groups of people.
§ Angela Watkinson
I accept the hon. Lady's point that not everybody falls into the same category. However, I was pointing out that the education services were intended to be provided for only a short period. If the stay were longer, the children would need to be in a mainstream school.
I was referring to the effects of the cross-channel flow on freight transport. In November last year, SNCF suspended all cross-channel rail freight services through the tunnel after repeated attacks on the staff at its Calais terminal from people trying to enter the United Kingdom illegally. The French Government increased police protection at the terminal and a reduced service was resumed.
Unfortunately, however, 54 illegal immigrants were found on a train that had entered the United Kingdom, so in just one night, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways became liable for fines of more than £100,000, as the Government have reintroduced fines of £2,000 per immigrant. The industry as a whole faces losses of £500,000 a week due to cancelled trains on both sides of the channel. Both Governments have a duty to ensure the free movement of goods between EU member states. It is unreasonable to place the whole responsibility for controlling stowaways on rail operators; a much greater official presence is required at terminals. Ferry operators and individual lorry drivers experience similar problems.
Part 3 and the proposed capacity of accommodation centres make it clear that the existing dispersal system will continue for the majority of asylum seekers for the foreseeable future. The system has been fraught with problems, including the fact that people were sent to places to which they did not want to go, away from people they knew, and then they moved on without informing the authorities. Many "disappear" in that way, so the power to ensure that the whereabouts of asylum seekers are reported is welcome. However, further details are needed as to the reporting requirements and the penalties for non-compliance.
The target for the removal of failed asylum applicants, set at 30,000 in 2001, has been abandoned. The most recent figures show that only about 1,000, including dependants, are being removed each month, despite the fact that about three quarters of the 70,000 applicants each year are refused asylum status. The proposed improvements in the dispersal, reporting and removal systems are welcome.
I very much welcome the increased penalties, set out in part 7, for those guilty of trafficking in human lives, especially in respect of sexual exploitation. The proposals on language and citizenship are positive; they aim to ensure that everyone can communicate and be fully included in the daily life of their adoptive community.
It is clear that control of the cross-channel flow of asylum seekers and a faster and more effective application and appeal process need to be processed concurrently if the system is to be made manageable. Closer scrutiny of the Bill in Committee will, I hope, lead to measures that make that possible, and I look forward to contributing to the process.
§ 8.4 pm
§ Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not just because I am a black Member of Parliament—although I heard the comments of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and I am grateful for them—hut because I hope that the consensus in which the debate has been conducted marks a turning point on these issues in this country. That is set against the very depressing scenes in France that we have witnessed during the past few days. However, we can take hope from the fact that many, many people, young and old, are on the streets of France making it clear that they are against extremism and the racist points of view of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which would segregate and exclude vast parts of French society.
The debate has been conducted in a consensual manner because the measure is, in general, favourable to the majority of people—those seeking asylum and those who already live in the UK. I welcome much that has been said.
As a young Member of Parliament, I believe that many young people look to much that we say on these issues.
§ Ms Abbott
My hon. Friend has referred to the consensus on the Bill, especially that between the two Front-Bench teams. I point out to him that the fact that Front-Bench Members agree on a measure does not mean that it is any good: they agreed about the Child Support Agency—that was rubbish; they agreed about the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989—that was rubbish; and they largely agreed about the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999—and much of that was rubbish.
§ Mr. Lammy
We have a cosy arrangement in north-east London and I defer to much that my hon. Friend says; we work together on many issues. Many Members who represent north London constituencies have things to say about the Bill—my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), for example. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and I suspect that we shall hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn).
Many Members have strong opinions on the issue owing to the nature of our constituencies, and I shall comment on that later. I was suggesting that there has been progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) may not believe that it is genuine but she must forgive me: naive or not, because of my age I should like to assume that it is. I need to assume that it is because young people—ethnic people—in this country need a spirit of hope, given what is going on across the water. I hope that my hon. Friend will indulge me in my belief. She has, of course, been a Member of this place for some time and it is possible that in 15 years or so I shall join her and accept that I was wrong. On this occasion, however, I think that there has been genuine progress.
I want to talk about the reality for asylum seekers and refugees in my constituency. I am able to do that owing to Tottenham's unique position as a gateway community for asylum seekers and refugees. I also want to touch on the important subject of education in the proposed accommodation centres.
405 Like other Members, I have reservations about certain aspects of the Bill. As a lawyer, I am concerned about bail for detainees. That important basic human right is not included in the Bill and I ask the Home Office to look again at that point.
I am also concerned about the language test—not about the test per se, because I believe in social cohesion and people must have a route up through the system. We should all accept that being able to speak the language of the country one is in must be an added bonus, but with any rule—again, I return to my basic legal training—there are exceptions. There probably ought to be exceptions for those who are elderly and those with special needs, and there probably ought to be some subjective analysis at least for women from communities for whom a language test might pose a very serious problem. There are therefore general reservations.
The Home Secretary has admitted that chaos is part of the current situation. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) spoke about that in referring to Save the Children's "Cold Comfort" report. I experience that situation daily in my constituency. I said in an intervention that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 asylum seekers and refugees in my constituency. I ought to make it clear that I should have referred to the London borough of Haringey. There are two constituencies in that borough—mine and that of the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). However, that is a significant number of people.
There are 5,000 homeless families in the area—1,000 more than in any other London borough. Why? Certainly in Tottenham and in parts of Hornsey and Wood Green, the housing stock is unlike that in other boroughs. The area is not full of housing estates; it has a lot of owner-occupied terrace housing, which landlords buy up to rent out to some of the most vulnerable people. I spoke in a housing debate in the House just a few months ago on this very issue. I do not want to repeat much that I said then, but it is clear that there are some serious modern-day pariah landlords in London, preying on some of the most vulnerable people, many of whom reside in constituencies such as mine.
Those people sleep on dirty floors. Some live in so-called bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but they do not get bed and breakfast. The beds are falling apart and there is absolutely no breakfast. They are tremendously vulnerable people in a very poor part of London. Indeed, many of the Members whom I have mentioned face similar deprivation in their constituencies.
Tottenham has wards that are in the top 10 per cent. of the most deprived in London. Our services are under serious pressure. GPs should have 1,300 patients on their lists; in Tottenham, they have more than 3,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said that 64 languages were used in the schools in his constituency. It would be nice if that were the case in our schools, where more than 160 languages are used. It is very difficult indeed to provide quality education in that context. Providing education in those circumstances would challenge the brains of the leading educationists in the world. Given that pressure on our housing, education 406 and medical services, I applaud the proposal to have accommodation centres, where quality services can be provided.
Some hon. Members say that that proposal cannot work because of size. Forgive me for being young, but let us please try to imagine something else. We have institutions where people board and receive quality health care, education and other services. Many Opposition Members know about that—they went to Eton and similar places. Many hon. Members will be jaded and say, "But we never provide that for the most vulnerable." Well, we must work for a society in which we do provide the most vulnerable with those services, and we must believe that we can achieve that.
§ Mr. Connarty
My hon. Friend knows that I regard him very warmly, but is he suggesting that the accommodation centres will somehow deal with the problem? He has said that 20,000 people in his constituency are seeking asylum or want to emigrate to this country, but we are talking about 3,000 places in possibly four centres, so perhaps we need a spark of realism about what the proposal will do to help the problems that his constituency suffers.
§ Mr. Lammy
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I suggested at the very beginning of my speech that we need to make progress. I believe that the proposals constitute progress, and I say no more than that. I referred to housing in my constituency in a very important Adjournment debate because I wanted to bring that issue to the Government's attention. We need to take important measures in housing policy to ensure that constituencies such as mine can move up, not slip down. I was born in working-class Tottenham; I am very sad that it has become socially excluded Tottenham.
It is important that we provide specialist education services for the children who need them most. When we criticise education provision in those centres, we must ask ourselves whether our children are currently receiving that standard of education in all our schools. Those centres could attract the very best teachers, who are experienced at working with refugee children. We should hope that that will be the case. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills will ensure that those centres will be inspected by Ofsted and that they will meet the conditions of the European convention on human rights. So, broadly speaking, I welcome the Bill and would urge other hon. Members to do the same.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
I am very pleased to participate in this debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) who, as usual, has made an interesting and thoughtful contribution.
Given the very worrying events in France at the weekend, with the electoral success of Le Pen, and given the threat from the BNP in our local elections, this debate takes on even greater significance. It presents hon. Members with the challenge of responding to the legitimate concerns of people worried by the current asylum and immigration situation. While responding in a way that does not dismiss such fears as ignorant or racist, we must remain true to the principles of fairness and tolerance for which this country is famous.
407 Much of the Bill is to be commended—as is the Home Secretary—for the way it seeks to address issues that for too long have remained no-go areas with respect to nationality, immigration and asylum. As with all Bills, we will have reservations about certain clauses, but that fundamental fact about the Bill needs to be recognised by all. There has often been a failure to engage openly and frankly with the debate on such issues in a rapidly changing world, when our society is now culturally diverse and international migration is increasing. That has led to an opportunity for those who would peddle narrow-minded nationalism. We have a potent brew if we add to that the feeling of isolation and exclusion on some of our poorer estates from the general prosperity and opportunities available in society.
We have to respond, and part of that response, which includes the Bill, must be the regeneration of those areas, empowering local people and reconnecting them to the political process. Ministers must keep talking about the Bill to people on the ground, allowing them the chance not only to have their say but to influence the policy.
The social and political context in which we debate the Bill is crucial. For too long, the debate has been caricatured as one of wishy-washy liberals on the one hand, who are willing to let anyone into the country with no thought about the consequences and, on the other hand, rabid racists who do not want anyone to be allowed to cross the channel. The truth for most people is somewhat different, and the intention is to create a new consensus for the future.
For centuries, this country has welcomed economic migrants to its shores. They have come with skills and talents, enhancing our economic prosperity and adding to our cultural diversity. We have rightly prided ourselves on the fact that we are a safe haven for those who flee persecution, war or religious or political intolerance. I have seen examples of such problems in Kosovo and Angola. If we found ourselves and our children in those circumstances we too would flee and seek shelter and safety in the lands and communities of others. Increasing globalisation has made migration easier. As I said, however, the opportunities that that presents also give rise to challenges, and the Bill attempts to address some of those in a modern context.
We can be proud of the fact that so many people have arrived in these islands. The diversity of culture that they have brought with them has enriched our nation. However, the tensions in some of our communities, reflected in last summer's disturbances, show that there have also been policy failures. The reports into those disturbances painted a vivid picture of fractured and divided communities that had no sense of shared common values or a shared civic identity to unite around. The Bill introduces measures on nationality and citizenship to address some of those concerns, which I welcome.
I stress that the Bill needs to be set within the context of a range of other Government measures and policies. Many of those have been taken on hoard, especially with regard to employment, and we need to pursue them with a greater sense of urgency. We need measures to regenerate our poorest communities—black, Asian or white. We must renew their social fabric by providing new housing, youth and community facilities and improved schools. We all need to think about how people can be made more responsible for the regeneration of their communities by taking crucial decisions.
408 A Bill on nationality, immigration and asylum needs to be set, to an extent, within the context of Government measures to improve the quality of life on our estates by tackling crime, a poor environment, social exclusion and political alienation. If we do not do that, the extremists will use that alienation to gather support by making scapegoats of an ill-defined group. It is up to us in Parliament and elsewhere to take the lead. We need to say loudly and clearly that we do not blame others for the problems, that we will try to find solutions to them and that we are proud of the cultural diversity in this country. It is against such a background that the Bill allows us to restate the value of skilled migrants who come to this country. They are essential to the success of our public service reforms and to our continued economic growth. We should welcome them as we have done others in the past.
The Bill also deals with issues relating to asylum and illegal immigration. The Home Secretary and the Government are to be congratulated on their efforts to do more to tackle those who traffic in people. They bring them here to work in, for example, the sex industry by using force, lies and deception. The harsher penalties are welcome, especially when we realise that many of the people who are brought to this country are young children. We should be proud of our record of offering a safe haven to those who flee terror abroad and we should continue to proud of that.
Of course people want to know that their borders are secure and that the system that the Government operate is fair and not abused. However, we should also recognise that for a long time we have been a country that welcomes people. We should never allow the need for tough and effective action on asylum to blind us to the needs of people who seek refuge here, because many of them are children. I am proud of what we do for people who seek refuge here.
One child in Afghanistan wrote:
Another Afghan child's poem ends with the lines:
- "In our country nobody grows old
- Because everybody is dying
- How long must this be
- My heart is full of blood
- Even if I will be hanged
- I will keep writing my poems
- And colour the pages with my words".
We need tough and effective action on our immigration and asylum policies, as proposed in the Bill, but we must never forget why many people, including children, flee their countries. The Bill must and will reflect that.
- "Peace is not sold
- Anywhere in the world otherwise I would have bought
- It for my country".
Save the Children estimates that in 2001 there were 6,000 asylum-seeking children under 18 in the United Kingdom without parents or guardians. Many more refugee children are with parents or guardians. It is essential that the Bill's measures are fair to them and are consistent with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Those young people may he asylum seekers, and clearly there have to be systems, but first and foremost they are children. That was made even more real to me when I participated in a project organised by 409 UNICEF called "Journey with a refugee child". We went to Angola to experience at first hand some of the experiences that cause young people to seek asylum. On our return, we visited projects where they spoke of their torture and torment.
Previous legislation and the measures in this Bill have to address the needs of those and other children. We must ensure that the induction centres and the processes within them are child-centred. We must make progress on the Government's social exclusion agenda and targets for tackling child poverty, and apply them to refugee children. In that respect, the abolition of vouchers is welcome, but we must keep the level of support that we give to children and their families under constant review so that it is adequate and consistent with other Government objectives. We need to ensure that the accommodation centres provide proper access to quality services. We must also ensure that the needs are met of those children who are refugees now, and that in the search for tomorrow's solutions we do not forget the needs of today.
The Bill has much to commend it with respect to nationality and immigration. It attempts to rebuild the trust of the British people in a system in which they have lost confidence. In that important respect, the Home Secretary deserves much praise. However, I leave my last words to another child who said:'The best thing about this country is feeling safe … We don't have to live in fear for our lives. We are grateful to be here.That is a compliment to our country and the British people, and it is on that attitude that the Bill seeks to build.
§ Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
My constituency is historically a place where refugees and asylum seekers have come. Ever since I came into the House in 1987, I have taken a close and detailed interest in immigration and nationality matters. Ministers have not always welcomed that interest but, undeterred, I have pursued it down the years.
Let me begin by dealing with unfounded asylum claims. People on my side of the argument often do not want to touch on that. I probably see more unfounded asylum claims than most hon. Members because I deal with more asylum claimants. The answer to people sticking in unfounded asylum claims is not to pile unfairness on unfairness. It is not a case of having a punitive and discriminatory system. The key to choking off unfounded asylum claims is to get rid of the delays. The biggest single incentive for unscrupulous immigration legal advice telling people to stick in an unfounded claim is the delay. It has been common knowledge for a long time that it takes years and years to process an asylum claim.
I do not deny that unfounded claims exist—I see them all the time—but the answer does not lie in punitive measures, deterrence or patterns of social exclusion. It lies instead in a fair, efficient and speedy system for both the initial decision and, crucially, the appeal. In fact, the delays for appeals are higher than they have ever been. 410 The Home Secretary sets great store by the fact that we are united on the Bill and that he has the support of those on the Tory Front Bench. As I said in an intervention, however, the fact that those on both Front Benches agree does not mean that the Bill is any good.
During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999—which Front-Bench Members on both sides of the House agreed on, with the single exception of the provisions relating to lorry drivers—I was told that the dispersal system, far from being punitive, unfair and brutal, as some of us insisted, meant that people would get high-quality facilities and advice wherever they went. If hon. Members care to read reports by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Immigration Advisory Service and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants they will find, sadly, that the promises made to us by Ministers on the Floor of the House about the quality of services available to dispersed asylum seekers under the 1999 Act were not fulfilled. So if some of us question what exactly the quality of the services will be, especially as regards the new accommodation centres, people will have to excuse us. We are only building on what we know from past experience.
The Home Secretary talked about his use of language. I do not want to harp on individual words, but, as other hon. Members have said, the use of the word "swamping" was unfortunate in this context. The Home Secretary is not here to hear it, but let me say this. He prides himself on being blunt-spoken and on having no truck with political correctness, but he needs to be careful in his use of language regarding this matter. There is a danger that by being the blunt Yorkshireman and trying to conciliate white people's fears he strays into using language that many people find offensive. I say that in the most comradely fashion. [Interruption.] All my remarks are made in a comradely fashion, as comrades know.
There is much in the Bill to welcome. I particularly welcome the announcement that fees for family visit appeals will be abolished—as someone who argued against it in the beginning, I am very glad about that—and of course we all welcome the abolition of vouchers. However, I advise colleagues who are so rapturous in welcoming the Bill that during the passage of the 1999 Act many of us argued consistently, on the Floor of the House and in Committee, against vouchers. We predicted how they would end up and how unfair and humiliating they would be. Colleagues lined up to ask, "How can you say that?" and to say, "We have confidence in the Minister", and they trooped happily through the Lobbies for vouchers.
As it was on vouchers, so it will be on exclusion from mainstream education. Of the hundreds of Labour Members who voted for vouchers, very few can remember doing so. I believe that in years to come, many hon. Members who vote tonight to exclude asylum-seeking children from mainstream education will have a convenient memory loss about it.
§ Mr. Gerrard
Can my hon. Friend jog our memories as to how many Labour Members voted against the Third Reading of the 1999 Act?
§ Ms Abbott
I think that there were seven of us. We now find that more than 307 have come round to our point of view on vouchers. 411 The single most important aspect of the Bill is that it is the beginning of a debate that acknowledges the legitimacy of economic migration. I do not believe in open borders, and it is a slur to say that of any of us who criticise any element of the Bill, but as the daughter of economic migrants, in the past I have often said on the Floor of the House that I hate the tenor of remarks made by Front-Bench Members about economic migrants, which suggest that they are criminals. There is nothing wrong with coming thousands of miles to better oneself economically. That is what my parents did and what millions of Irish, Jamaican, Nigerian and Jewish people have done. Economic migrants have made London a great city. Of course the process must be managed; of course we cannot have open borders. The single most important aspect of the Bill is that it begins to open up a debate on how to ensure legitimate, managed economic migration.
§ Simon Hughes
Given that if any country has sent people out as economic migrants to half the world, then conquered it, run it and brought its wealth back, it is this one, it is extraordinarily hypocritical for people to say that others cannot come here.
§ Ms Abbott
I entirely agree.
On the language test, of course people should be encouraged to learn English, and there is already provision for those who wish to obtain British nationality to have a reasonable command of English. However, I worry that a language test will discriminate against the elderly and others.
On arranged marriages, the response from Ministers was not very illuminating. It is not for Ministers to tell people whom they should marry. It is wrong to accept that someone can have an arranged marriage so long as it is to someone on the British mainland, but to try to persuade them not to have an arranged marriage to someone from overseas. It causes massive offence, not only to those communities that have historically had arranged marriages, like some sections of the Asian community and European royal families, but to all of us.
On accommodation centres, I know that people are saying that those of us who query the standard of facilities are old miseries and that they are asking why we are not prepared to go bright-eyed into the future with our Front-Bench colleagues. Nevertheless, I have a few questions to ask of Ministers. When accommodation centres were originally discussed, one of the most important services that was to be provided was legal advice, so why has that been excluded from the Bill? In the short term, what asylum seekers need more than anything else is high-quality legal advice. I will not be persuaded of Ministers' good intentions in relation to the accommodation centres unless they include that in the Bill.
On education, I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who suggested that the education provision in accommodation centres would he on a par with that at Eton. Well, maybe. I do not want to sound scornful or mocking, but the reality is that it is not right—I know that it is not very new Labour to speak in terms of right and wrong—to exclude any group of children from education, not only from an academic point of view but for the sake of their social and personal development.
412 Anyone who believes that those children will be in an accommodation centre for a maximum of six months has clearly not sat through the passage of four immigration and asylum Bills. If I seriously thought that those children would be in the centres for only a few weeks, I would have no problem with classes, because it would take a few weeks to sort out a school for them anyway, but I believe that they will be there for months and months. In any case, in the long run such an attempt to exclude from full-time education children who are resident in this country would be challengeable in law, and I advise Ministers against it.
§ Mr. Lammy
I think that it has been acknowledged that children are not to be excluded from full-time education. Education services will be provided through the Department, working alongside the local education authority. In any case, all LEAs in this country have pupil referral units and learning support units, which take students out of school and educate them. This is a similar provision for children who have just arrived in the country, and it will apply to them for a maximum of only six months.
§ Ms Abbott
It is separate but equal, with no guarantees as to the quality of the education. It is wrong, and I will continue to argue and vote against it.
I am concerned that the Bill, which does have things to recommend it, says nothing about speeding up appeals or about clearing the backlog of appeals. It says nothing about improving the quality of decision making, which is an absolutely key issue.
On immigration and asylum, it is far easier for us to go with the tide and to reflect popular opinion, and it makes our Front-Bench colleagues look on us more kindly, but the way we treat the most marginalised and excluded—the people whom the tabloid press choose to stigmatise—is the test of a civilised society. There are good things in the Bill, but it needs improving in Committee. I will never vote to see any group of children resident in this country excluded from school for months on end.
§ Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)
As one of those who did not oppose the voucher scheme and who voted with the Government, may I say that—
§ Mr. Singh
May I say that it was not the first time that I have voted with the Government and been wrong. When I came to the House, it was a revelation to find that hon. Members sometimes have to vote for things that they disagree with, at least until they are as brave as some of my hon. Friends.
I welcome the ditching of the voucher scheme. It proved ineffective, inefficient and demeaning. I give a guarded welcome to the new two-year probationary period for spouses. In my constituency, I have come across many cases of women who complain bitterly about their treatment by their husbands, who, after a year, having been given leave to remain indefinitely, have just scarpered. They want me to try to have their husbands deported. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) has talked about the difficulties of being a 413 third party in such cases. I have to add a caveat to my welcome, however, because the provision could lead to the mistreatment of wives who come to this country if it takes them two years to get their stamp. We need to think a little bit more about the measure.
I have no problem at all with an oath of allegiance. If I want the privilege of having a British passport and British citizenship, the least that Britain can expect from me is my allegiance. I also have no problem with a language test. I have always advocated, as we all do, that English is the currency of this society, and without it people will not get anywhere. I have no problem with the idea of asking people to have a knowledge of life in the UK, but whose life in the UK should they have knowledge of? What does "sufficient knowledge" mean? Will such tests prove to be a real test of allegiance or commitment? I believe that Anthony Blunt spoke perfect English, but he was one of the biggest traitors that we have ever seen.
I welcome clause 37, which allows support to be provided for failed asylum seekers awaiting removal. We have all seen people in our constituencies who have no means of subsistence at all. I also welcome clause 43, which allows the Home Secretary to establish a refugee settlement programme. That could be helpful in times of crisis in particular countries. I welcome too the announcement today of the abolition of fees for visitor appeals.
After all those welcomes, I must point out that I have a number of concerns. All hon. Members have mentioned accommodation centres. I firmly believe that 750-bed centres are too big, although I do not know what the right size would be. I think that having such large numbers of people in a centre would lead to tensions. If we are to have accommodation centres, it is essential that they are run by people who do not make them into de facto detention centres. Who will run them? Will it be Securicor? We have to think carefully about the location of accommodation centres, not just because people will say, "Not in my backyard," although they will say that, but because the location must be appropriate for the people who will be in the centres. Will there be communities nearby to whom they can relate or will they be completely isolated? We need to be very watchful of that.
I am very worried that children resident in the centres will not have access to normal education provision. I can confirm that 64 languages are spoken in schools in Bradford, and I am very happy and proud about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) has pointed out that more than 160 languages are spoken in Tottenham schools. However, it does not matter how many languages are spoken—if those children do not speak English and they are being taught in English, they will still have to be taught English. For the host of reasons already explored in the debate, mainstream education is where those children should be.
I do not know why detention centres are to be renamed removal centres. Neither name sounds better than the other—in fact, I think they both sound pretty crap. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would not be too happy if I called them concentration camps.
§ Mr. Lammy
To return to the education issue, does my hon. Friend accept that if the system works well, teachers 414 in mainstream education services will welcome the fact that refugee children escaping vulnerability have had intensive English lessons and intensive education prior to entering local schools?
§ Angela Eagle
I cannot let the hon. Gentleman's comment about detention or removal centres being comparable to concentration camps go unanswered. He should visit Harmondsworth, which is just by Heathrow and therefore quite convenient for the House, where he will see that the facilities are excellent, with training, education and health services available. I resent very deeply indeed his use of that term.
§ Mr. Singh
I accept the Minister's point. I hope that she accepts that I was speaking in jest.
I am not concerned about names. My concern is that families with children should not be detained in removal centres. That commitment should be firm. Families with children are not likely to abscond, and the only justification for keeping people in a detention centre is that there is strong likelihood that they will abscond.
§ Mr. Singh
I am sorry, but I am running out of time.
I am puzzled by the absence from the Bill of any proposals to deal with delays in immigration cases and immigration appeals. Delay is one of the biggest problems and the greatest cause of frustration to my constituents. Such proposals should be added to the Bill.
I wish that further consideration had been given to guarantees or bonds for family visitors. Those proposals were rejected and then dropped the last time this type of legislation came before the House, but I think that they should be re-examined.
One of the biggest changes that we could make through the new Bill is to the way in which we treat elderly parents and grandparents. The hurdles that they have to overcome to join their children or grandchildren in this country are huge. If I, living in this country, do not send my grandparents in another country any money, so that they have to live in the most appalling conditions, they are allowed to come here, but if I am a dutiful grandchild and send them money, so that they live in better conditions, they cannot come here. That is appalling, and I wish that we could do something about it in the Bill.
I am dismayed that this is the fourth immigration and asylum Bill in 10 years—dismayed because it means that all the others have failed; had they not, we would not be debating this Bill today. The reasons why we are getting immigration and asylum wrong are world events, the number of people involved—no system could possibly have coped, and ours is not coping now—and delays. I am reminded of our policies on drugs: no matter how much money we throw at the problem or how many police officers we have chasing drug barons, drug abuse continues to increase. 415 We need to take a more radical approach. First, we must act urgently to secure international agreements on asylum. Secondly, we must work hard to eradicate poverty in the developing world, because that is why people want to come to the west. The problem is not confined to the United Kingdom; it is a problem of the west, and it is one that the west created by making other countries poor. Strong action is needed. With the current backlog and an extra 65,000 appeals in the pipeline, how can the new system succeed? It is doomed to failure. Thousands of people are coming in every day and the backlog is growing daily and monthly. Only one solution promises any chance of success in managing the system. The whole House and the parties in it must agree—one party will not do this on its own—to have a general amnesty now, wiping out the backlog and starting with a clean sheet. Without such action, the system is doomed to failure. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will look at that proposal. If we are to have any chance at all of managing a difficult system in the future we must start with a clean sheet.
§ Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)
In the short time available, I shall concentrate on the children of asylum seekers and the way in which the Bill will affect them.
I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that the voucher scheme will end earlier than planned; that has been strongly welcomed in Wales. I also welcome the fact that, as the Home Secretary said, people can approach the country honestly via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I welcome the proposed category of economic migration and many other changes. Much of the Bill is positive; it is essential to get a system that is trusted by the public.
As one of my colleagues said earlier, it is essential that the children of asylum seekers are treated first and foremost as children and have the same rights and access to services as other children in Cardiff, North, Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. I want to look briefly at the way in which the system is operating in Cardiff via the National Asylum Support Service and the way in which it will be affected by the Bill. Just under 1,000 people have come to Cardiff via the dispersal scheme; 336 children have been dispersed to the city under NASS, 253 of whom are of school age and 83 of whom are of pre-school age. We are therefore talking about small numbers compared with the thousands of people in other constituencies about whom my hon. Friends have spoken.
The scheme is operating reasonably well despite the strain on resources. Local bodies have worked together extremely well, and I congratulate the Bro Taf health authority on recently holding a successful seminar about the health needs of asylum seekers. I also congratulate Cardiff council on leading the scheme, and all the voluntary bodies involved.
Initially, it was mainly young men who came to Cardiff, but now it is predominantly families, usually with a lone female at the head; the majority of such families come from Somalia. The community physician has seen a third of the children, in 50 per cent. of whom physical, developmental or mental and behavioural problems have been identified. A block grant from the National Assembly for Wales has been used to set up a primary care general practice with a salaried GP service, which is 416 needed because of the pressure on local services mentioned by several hon. Members. The new service is working effectively and ensures that children have a comprehensive medical examination and, if appropriate, receive inoculations that may have been missed. Severe problems have been identified by the community physician, including congenital heart disease, Down's syndrome and severe emotional distress; there was also one case of a child who lost a hand in a grenade attack. Health and local education authorities have worked together through the charity Children of Conflict, which operates in schools, to deal with traumatised children; health services for children and adolescents have also been supportive. The general feeling is that everybody is pulling together and that the system is generally working. It is unlikely that the same skills could be provided to children who were housed in accommodation centres. Certainly, there would be a duplication of resources if the accommodation centre that is planned just outside Cardiff went ahead.
There has been a proposal to use Sully hospital as an accommodation centre. The hospital is 10 miles from Cardiff in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith). I do not know the current status of that proposal—I know that it has not been finally wiped off the list—but the suggestion to use a site such as Sully indicates to me the type of accommodation that is being considered. I know the hospital well because I worked there for many years as a hospital social worker when it was a chest and heart hospital. It originally started as a TB hospital and was chosen for its remote position and its view of the sea—a place where patients could spend months recovering.
Sully hospital is in a fairly isolated position. Any accommodation centre there would not easily make links with the local community. The policy of establishing an accommodation centre there is entirely at odds with all the other policies in Wales that are working towards integration and inclusivity. As many hon. Members have said, 750 individuals housed together is a very large number. It would be extremely difficult to manage such a large group of diverse people, including families and single men.
In addition, there would be the cost of converting a hospital such as Sully or building new accommodation centres, as I believe is planned elsewhere. It has been estimated that it would cost £7 million to bring Sully hospital up to standard, which would include the replacement of the sewerage system. The walls are porous and the location was deemed unsuitable for psychiatric patients, who were moved out. I fail to see how it can now be considered suitable for asylum seekers.
I understand the Home Secretary when he says that he is considering accommodation centres to relieve the pressures on the services, but if a centre were established in such a position, just 10 miles away from the dispersal system operating in Cardiff, I do not see that it would be possible to provide resources in the accommodation centre that would match those available in the community. The enormous sum that it would cost to bring Sully up to standard and to build new centres could be much better spent on improving resources for the children being dispersed throughout the country. In Cardiff, the system is beginning to settle down.
417 It has been said that the proposal is to house people in accommodation centres for only six months. Six months is a long time in a child's life. I am concerned that asylum seeker children may not have access to the same resources as other children in the community in Wales. We have a children's commissioner, the first in the UK. What duties and powers would he have over the children in an accommodation centre? Will children in families living in such an institution have the protection of the Children Act 1989? I hope that the Minister will answer those questions when she replies.
What opportunities will children have to participate in normal community life? Some of the children will gain refugee status. Surely the opportunity should be offered as early as possible for them to get involved in the community. I am particularly concerned that the Bill proposes that children in accommodation centres will receive education on site in schools managed by the Home Office. That seems to remove the children's right to a normal education.
One of the best ways to acquire a normal pattern of life is to go to school. We all know about the socialisation that takes place at the school gates. Local schools in the small villages in the surrounding area will obviously not be able to cope with a large influx of small children from an accommodation centre, so those children will not benefit from going to the local schools.
There are many unanswered questions and issues still to be addressed, particularly about education. It is important to emphasise the point that has been made several times: the children need to learn to speak English. The best way to learn to speak English is to go to a school where children are taught in English and a number of the children speak English. Many children who come to Wales learn to speak English or Welsh because those are the languages spoken by the majority of the people.
There is a lot in the Bill to recommend it, but I hope that in Committee changes will be made to the proposals for accommodation centres, particularly with regard to how they affect children.
§ Bob Spink (Castle Point)
The hon. Lady speaks eloquently and rightly because time is of the essence, particularly for children in the accommodation centres. Does she think that it might be advantageous for appeals to be heard in those centres, since that would considerably speed up the process?
§ Julie Morgan
The appeals should be heard as quickly as possible. We do not know how the accommodation centres will work out, but given everything that has been said about how they will operate, I do not think that they will be suitable places for families with children, and they will be even more unsuitable if the children cannot enter mainstream education.
I hope that those issues will be considered in Committee, including the size and concept of accommodation centres. Cardiff has only a small number of dispersed asylum seekers and the system there is working relatively well. If we were to have an accommodation centre as planned just 10 miles outside Cardiff, it would cause problems.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)
I broadly welcome key aspects of the Bill, but I must raise some issues of concern. My constituency has the highest ethnic minority population of any in Scotland, but it has also become home to an increasing number of asylum seekers.
Hon. Members will be familiar with Sighthill in Mr. Speaker's constituency, but Govan, Ibrox, and particularly Pollokshaws on Glasgow southside, are also home to hundreds of people fleeing persecution.
The Bill recognises that Britain is changing dramatically, with diverse cultures enriching life for us all. I welcome the shift of emphasis from discriminatory immigration policy in the Commonwealth Immigrants Acts and the Immigration Acts. We must look ahead to what our country and our communities will need in future.
I also recognise the genuine measures to maintain our status as a decent and fair country in protecting individuals and families threatened by brutal intimidation and terrible violence in their own homes overseas.
Clearly our borders cannot be open without restrictions, placing undue strain on the economy and way of life, but we must ensure that all those who wish to enter the United Kingdom are treated humanely and with dignity.
I support the Government's measures for a fast-track system for applications. That will discourage those who wish to make false and bogus claims. For that reason, we must concentrate on newcomers with this approach.
Old applications for those who have been settled in Britain for eight to 10 years, are married with children and contribute productively to our economy should not be a priority. Considerable time, effort and resources would be saved for our Government and our courts if we diverted attention from those who would be allowed to live here on compassionate grounds as British citizens.
I have made representations on behalf of a number of constituents who could be deported at any time, breaking up committed couples and dedicated parents, taking hard-working people out of work and forcing families out of their homes. These people are model citizens.
I largely welcome the part 1 measures on nationality and citizenship. It is vital for people hoping to live in the United Kingdom to grasp and understand life in Britain. Language skills are vital. Can the Minister assure me that resources will be made available to implement that aspect of the Bill and allow applicants to play an active role in our society? I am concerned about the nature of the language test and would appreciate some guidance from her on the form that it will take. I also wonder what the results of the same evaluation would be if it were applied to all sections of our communities throughout the United Kingdom.
I must express reservations about deprivation of citizenship. What status would that give those affected who live in Britain, especially if their country of origin also denied them citizenship rights?
I am also troubled by extension of the probationary period on marriages to two years, which will place added strain on couples. Unfortunately, I disagree with my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) and for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) on the issue. I believe that negative decisions for many women—especially those from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan—would leave their lives ruined, as they would never be in a position to 419 marry again. Very few applicants have used the domestic violence concessions to explain why they have left the matrimonial home.
I am concerned about the couples who have a family and have to leave. If families are not granted an indefinite stay within a year, it can be an added strain on their social life. I agree with the view of the Immigration Advisory Service that
it is unreasonable to place further strains on a new marriage by delaying indefinite leave to remain to a spouse in a marriage which raises no concerns with the Home Office".The part 2 measures on accommodation centres must be considered alongside the commitment made by Lord Rooker. In another place on 7 February, he said:The centres will offer education, healthcare and legal and interpreting services.Can the Minister assure me that legal advice will he provided in the centres? Many problems arise for asylum seekers because of bad advice from agents.
§ Angela Eagle
I can assure my hon. Friend that legal advice will be available in accommodation centres.
§ Mr. Sarwar
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that assurance.
Lord Rooker also stated:The best place for children to be educated is in mainstream schools. They would not be in the accommodation centres for more than six months."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 February 2002; Vol. 1863, c. 743–50.]I very much appreciate that statement, although I hope that the Government will not aim for six months, but look to enforce a shorter maximum period of three months for such children.
I must confess that I do not see the distinction between detention centres and removal centres—their new name in the Bill. I hope that the Government will ensure that asylum seekers will not be detained in removal centres if they are not going to be removed at the final stage. Many of my constituents have expressed genuine concerns about the Dungavel removal centre in Scotland that are shared by community groups, local churches and voluntary bodies. Families with children have been detained in an environment that does not seem suitable.
Last week, in a written answer to a question that I had tabled, the Minister confirmed that last Mondaythere were 15 children at Dungavel Removal Centre and of these, two had special needs as a result of disability or health problems.She stated that there wereexcellent medical facilities at Dungavel in the dedicated healthcare unit",includingtwo hospital beds … a full time doctor and five full time nurses."—[Official Report, 19 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 1252–53W.]I am greatly concerned for the children in Dungavel. With all respect to the staff, and the best intentions in the world, I cannot see how the centre can offer adequate care for children with special needs. I also hope that the Minister will assess the modular education provided at Dungavel for all school-age children. I welcome the recent visit to the centre by the Minister of State, Scotland Office. I recognise his real commitment, and that of other 420 Ministers, and their active partnership with colleagues in the Scottish Executive to support asylum seekers in Scotland.
The issue of arranged marriages has been raised in the House and in the media over many years. We must draw a distinction between arranged marriages and forced marriages. In arranged marriages, parents consult their children, and take their views on board. I can assure the House that the vast majority of people in ethnic minority communities value the views of their children. Unfortunately, a few believe that they know what is best for their children, and their actions are damning their families and communities, and our society. We must oppose forced marriages. Community leaders in Scotland took the view that we must do so, and they are now less of a problem in Scotland than in England.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West mentioned global poverty. If we want to deal with economic migrants, it is important to deal with global poverty. It is unfortunate that there is only one superpower in the world. Although it is the richest country in the world, it contributes only 0.1 per cent. of its gross domestic product to help the developing countries. Under the United Nations charter, that country—or any developed country—should contribute 0.7 per cent. of GDP. I am glad that, under the Labour Government, we have increased our share to 0.36 per cent., and I hope that, in the near future, we will achieve our obligation under the United Nations charter.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
I am glad that the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) has returned to the Chamber, because my first few references will be to Scotland. When I heard that this was the fourth Bill of this kind in 10 years, I was reminded of Bruce's spider. Robert the Bruce, who eventually defeated the English, saw a spider try six times to get out of the cave where it was hiding; it succeeded only on the seventh try. I am glad that the Government are trying again, because it would be a terrible thing if errors had been made in previous Bills and the Government had buried their head in the sand and tried to make those provisions work.
I have no expertise comparable to that of my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), or of other hon. Members whose constituencies have large ethnic populations and who have had to deal with immigration and asylum issues to the extent that they have done. My constituency has, however, a small ethnic community, and my brushes with the immigration service have been just as appalling, long drawn out and illogical as they have obviously been for Members in constituencies in England with large ethnic communities.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Perth about nationality, I went to seek the words of the oath and pledge that citizens will be asked to take. The oath is very similar to the oath that we take here, and which the hon. Lady herself took when she first came here. The pledge states:I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values.I would have thought that the hon. Lady, as a member of the smallest party from Scotland in this place, would have accepted the democratic will of the Scottish people— 421 as well as the people of the United Kingdom—that we should be part of the United Kingdom. Despite all the polls, and everything that we see in the newspapers, the reality is that there is no progress on her party's long trail to tear Scotland out of the United Kingdom and to damage its people and its economy.
§ Annabelle Ewing
I have been absent from the Chamber for a total of about six minutes in a debate that has lasted five hours and 14 minutes, so the hon. Gentleman's first remark was a cheap shot. I shall deal with his substantive point, however. First, no one was talking about the oath. That is the existing requirement. The new requirement is the pledge of loyalty to the United Kingdom. I do not know his view, but I would have thought, as I said before, that it would be rather odd to impose such a requirement on a new applicant for citizenship who seeks to reside in Scotland when the official Opposition of the Scots Parliament would not be prepared, if a similar requirement were imposed on everybody, to take such an oath. That raises a serious constitutional question that no one has tried to answer tonight.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about—
§ Mr. Connarty
The people of the United Kingdom and the people of Scotland may be amazed by the hon. Lady's intervention. She has repeated that the Scottish National party does not feel any allegiance and could not feel any loyalty to the United Kingdom, despite the democratic will of the people. Democracy is about winning the people to our side and then going down the road that we would follow. It is not about saying, "We can't win, so we will do something completely different." I keep reminding the people of Scotland that Scottish National party Members have said that they feel no loyalty and would not swear an oath of allegiance to the democratic nature of the United Kingdom. That is what the oath says.
§ Mr. Connarty
No. I do not want to take up too much time.
Several debates about immigration are going on. Interestingly, a debate is being led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that seems to suggest that we should probably not, in the beginning, have opted out of the immigration arrangements for the rest of the European Union when we had a chance to stay in the treaty. As this debate has shown, that has caused us amazing problems, and we should try to come into those arrangements so that there would be one set of rules for the European Union. It was a good election gambit to say, "We are going to defend Britain against people trying to come into this country", but it has caused us tremendous problems, and we should probably have signed up to the treaty.
Another debate is going on in which the Home Office is involved at a European level. That debate touches on all the issues relating to immigration in the Bill, and some of those issues cause problems for the Bill, The debate is 422 contained in the EU directive 9074/01, which has been discussed in the European Scrutiny Committee of which I am a member. Several comments are very interesting. The right to accommodation, which I thought was a basic right of anyone who wanted to come to this country, even on a temporary basis, to have consideration for asylum, is reduced to a place in accommodation that may be—I am frightened by this idea—an old hospital in Wales.
To set up 3,000 accommodation places, even in four 750-place units, that are of a decent standard for families with children, or even for individuals, would be extremely expensive. I would hate to think that ex-public buildings would be filled with people waiting for their asylum decision to he made. In addition, if there are only four centres, and people are not allowed to move around, article 7 of the EU directive—on the right of appeal on residence and-freedom of movement—will be used again and again. Anyone who feels oppressed by their situation would be well advised—we are told that legal advice will be available to them—to appeal immediately for the right to move to a place where they feel that they are better accommodated.
On the right to education, article 10 of the EU directive is more oppressive. I do not know who initiated discussion of this issue in relation to the directive—we never see the minutes—but it says that what was a right to education contained in the relevant articles is being amended to a right not to the same education conditions as everybody else but to similar conditions. That would allow the accommodation centres to be used as education centres, which is a backward move in Europe in terms of people's rights. I would hate to think that our Government were leading that charge in discussions of the directive. As an ex-teacher, I agree with most hon. Members who have spoken tonight that it will not be possible, in an accommodation unit, to give people an education that is similar or the same as that given outside.
I wonder whether those units will provide forced English lessons and be places where people learn to speak English or are given a brief but steep learning curve on how to be British instead of receiving an education, which I understand to be much broader than that. I would be worried if allowing that to happen is the intention behind changing the European directive.
It is the right of everyone who wants to come here as an asylum applicant to try to achieve economic viability and what I would call normalisation. People must be able to use their skills, if they have them, to achieve economic independence. If they could, and if it turned out that they were not allowed to stay, they would not be more impoverished when they left than when they arrived.
Therefore, I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Perth, which I have made before, that the green card system should he available almost immediately to people with skills, particularly professional skills, to offer this society while they wait the six months that we are now told it will take for their applications to be dealt with.
Returning to the Scottish scene, clause 33 appears to suggest that the Home Secretary will take on board all costs necessary to provide a full education for the children in accommodation centres, should they lie in Scotland. I have a particularly good knowledge of the Scottish education system and I note that the national inspectors—that is, the UK inspectors—will be responsible for verifying the adequacy of that education. 423 However, that does not chime with the Scottish education system, because we still have a good system based on the local authorities, which are responsible for delivery and the standard of education. I would be concerned if some UK standard for what happens in the accommodation centres were to lie alongside much higher education authority standards.
I would prefer to integrate those educational facilities outwith the accommodation centres but into the local education authorities. Perhaps that is what the hon. Member for Perth was alluding to, but, due to the pressures on resources, I do not think that the honest citizens of Perth would welcome a large number of people being dispersed to Perth and put in the local housing and education systems.
We must think seriously about what clause 33 really means for people. In particular, the Government should consider subsection (3)(a), which says that an order under subsection (2) mayapply, disapply or modify the effect of an enactment (which may include a provision made by or under an Act of the Scottish Parliament)".They must think that through.
§ Mr. Connarty
I apologise, but I cannot because other Members want to speak.
I hope that that issue will be discussed at length and that there is Scottish representation in Committee—not just from the Opposition, but from within Government ranks—to tease out those points in debate.
I want to say a word about Dungavel prison, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), who spoke well about it. I have been to Dungavel prison, as it was until three or four months ago. Now it is Dungavel detention centre, or whatever else it is being called, but it is a prison. The last people I went to visit there were two constituents who were the last political prisoners in Scotland. They were sentenced to 10 years for gun running for the Ulster Volunteer Force, which is one of the loyalist groups.
Dungavel is adequate for that purpose, but I cannot see how it can be turned into an acceptable place to put asylum seekers, whether they are awaiting deportation or not. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan tells me, and I have no reason to doubt it, that there are people in there whose cases have not yet been finished. They are still awaiting appeals, yet they are in a prison situation with their children. That is not acceptable, and the quicker we get them out of that prison and into decent accommodation while they await deportation or whatever else we want to call it, the better.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
I am an economic migrant. I am a Scots-born, Belgium, Plymouth and Durham-educated economic migrant to Cleethorpes who spends most of her working week in London. Most of us in the House are probably economic migrants by the mere fact of having to come to London to work. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to move for work.
When discussing immigration and asylum, we have a duty and a responsibility to make a distinction between people who move for work because they want a better 424 life—economic migrants—and refugees who come to this country to seek asylum. Many of our constituents do not make that distinction, and that is a problem. They lump everyone into the same category, whether they are fleeing persecution or lying on top of a freight train going through the channel tunnel to come to Britain to work. People think of them all as asylum seekers. We have a responsibility to make it clear that those are different categories of people, and we have different policies to deal with them. I believe that the Bill goes some way towards dealing with that.
A site in my constituency has been identified as a possible location for an asylum seeker accommodation centre. It is in an industrial area close to two of Britain's largest oil refineries and two power stations, with a third under construction. Four villages are nearby, but the site is much closer to the industrial area than to those residential properties.
When the site was identified many people wrote angry letters to the local newspapers. I decided to undertake a consultation exercise to gauge the views of the residents in the four nearby villages. Out of about 1,000 questionnaires and factsheets that I put out, I received 400 responses. I was surprised, because I did not think that I would get such a response.
People said to me that they felt that putting people who were fleeing in fear of their lives into a dangerous industrial area was no way to treat asylum seekers. Those views were replicated in all the villages. The majority of people in each of those villages said that they supported the philosophy of accommodation centres, but not in that particular location.
To put that in context, about a year ago a serious explosion occurred at one of the refineries, which frightened many people. Much damage was caused in the area. Luckily, as it was Easter, the refinery was on shutdown, so not many people were on site and no lives were lost. Given the Yarl's Wood fire, I can understand the fears of people in that area. One person wrote:In view of the refinery accident and the accommodation fire, I think it is suicidal to build in such close proximity.Someone else said:It is terrible that people are persecuted and feel the need to flee and I agree we should do all we can to help, but we live in a very sensitive area with highly volatile power stations and oil refineries close at hand … There has to be somewhere better.Other people referred to the lack of facilities in the area, and said that we were being unfair on asylum seekers:They need their own communities in areas where there are amenities for them.The residents called the area of the proposed centre the outback or the sticks, and said that there was nothing there. They felt that it was unfair to consider that site.
Other general comments made to me with regard to this centre were about asylum and immigration. A number of people who were supportive of the policy said things like "I'm not a racist, but …". I do not like that language, but they were expressing genuine concerns about the lack of public services in their area. For example, one woman wrote to explain that her village has no GP, no school, and no recreational or leisure facilities, yet Government press releases state that all such facilities will be provided in asylum seeker accommodation centres. Although she latched on to asylum seekers, her problem is not them but the lack of public services in her area. Many similar comments have been made to me. 425 We must be more sophisticated in dealing with this issue. We need only look to France to discover the problems inherent in such arguments. If, in the same breath as discussing asylum seekers, we demonise those who express concerns about their locality, this country or Government policies, problems will arise. We must not demonise those people because if we ignore their views, we will subtly push them towards extremist, neo-fascist organisations such as the British National party and the National Front. That is a serious worry, and in that regard we all have a responsibility. It is easy to see how people could be seduced by the argument of the far right if we ignore the genuine concerns that they express not about asylum seekers, but through the device of asylum seekers.
My message to the Government is that we have a responsibility to distinguish between different types of people who come to the UK, and to ensure that the public understand that fact. However, we must also distinguish between those who express blatant and abhorrent racist views, which we must dismiss, and those who express concern about public services. If we do that, we will never go down the road of France.
Mr. Humfrey Matins (Woking)
It is common ground that, too often in the past, the debate on asylum has been characterised by provocative and emotive language and a certain harshness of approach, but it deserves and demands good sense. It demands an understanding of the world as it is, and it demands humanity. Today's debate has demonstrated all those qualities. In general, the atmosphere has been supportive, constructive and thoughtful—a point made strongly by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) in his moving and effective speech.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for his thoughtful contribution. He rightly pointed out that the lesson of France is that, if moderates who try to respond to concerns about the scale of immigration are silenced by allegations of racism, voters will be driven into the arms of the extremist.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who paid proper tribute to the many people in his constituency who worked so hard after the fire at Yarl's Wood. He spoke of the lessons that we should learn from that awful event, and I pay tribute to his hard work on his constituents' behalf in that connection.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), both of whom made sensible and helpful speeches. In doing so, they may have talked themselves on to the Committee. Had they known that earlier, how different things might have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle rightly referred to the absolute need to grant refugee status where it is merited. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster pointed out that the current asylum system is unmanageable—a point made by other contributors—and that we need greater speed, as well as fairness.
Several Labour Members made interesting and well-argued speeches, some of which did not exactly shower praise on the Home Secretary. I doubt whether 426 that surprised him, however. The hon. Members for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) drew on personal experience in their constituencies and as members of the Home Affairs Committee. Good contributions were made by many other Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who said truthfully that it matters not what we do in this House if the Home Office fails to get its act together.
As the Select Committee on Home Affairs reported two years ago, there are now up to 30 million displaced people in the world. They have been displaced by conflict, famine, or disease. They are all either genuine refugees, or economic migrants. They seek no more than a decent life for themselves and for their families. Large numbers of them are on the move. Many undertake horrific journeys. Thousands are children, as many speakers have noted. They pay extortionate prices to criminal gangs who will smuggle them into countries of their choice.
Among those desperate people were the 58 Chinese found suffocated in the back of a lorry in Dover on 19 June 2000. It matters not whether they were genuine refugees, but it matters a very great deal that they were decent, vulnerable people who simply wanted to improve their lot.
Asylum seekers and economic migrants alike are drawn to the west by various push and pull factors. Many cross a number of safe countries in Europe, failing—to our amazement—to make an asylum application in any of them. Many arrive in France, which is itself a safe country, and do not apply for asylum there. Instead, they use the Red Cross centre at Sangatte as a springboard for entry into this country.
Three years ago, the then Home Secretary—the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is now Foreign Secretary—sought to achieve a great deal with his flagship Bill on asylum. He told us that he wanted a faster and fairer system. He wanted stronger controls at ports, and effective enforcement against those not entitled to stay. He introduced the voucher system, saying that there was much evidence to suggest that cash benefits acted as a pull factor.
We know that the then Home Secretary was wrong in that respect. Vouchers stigmatised asylum seekers and did not reduce the number of applications, which rose from 46,000 in 1998 to more than 80,000 two years later. Many hon. Members have congratulated the present Home Secretary on his rapid reversal of his predecessor's policy.
With 19,000 applications for asylum being made in the final quarter of 2001, we must ask whether the system is working. I believe that it has not been working for years. More than 43,000 asylum applicants were still awaiting an initial decision in the middle of last year. Even today, the time from application to initial decision can be as long as 12 months, and the period between decision and completion of appeal can last as long as another 12 months, or more.
Appeals mount up. In the last quarter of 2001, 5,500 more appeals were received than were determined. The problem is either that we have too few case workers and adjudicators, or that the system does not work effectively. Perhaps the problem is a combination of both factors.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I have made similar complaints, but does not the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that 427 the number of appeals has doubled? For the first time that I can recall, nearly half as many decisions again have been made as applications have been made. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that we are beginning to sort matters out?
§ Mr. Malins
I would be the first to say that the Home Secretary and his team have done a great deal of very good work in the past few months and that progress has been made towards getting more appeals heard more quickly. However, the Home Secretary would be the first to agree that asylum seekers are the losers when there are such considerable delays, as it is probable that they and their families have had time to put down roots in this country.
What about the strong controls at ports that we were promised three years ago? At Dover, the position remains patchy. Only one lorry in 100 are checked. The best piece of technology available is the heartbeat machine, but I believe that, astonishingly, there is only one available at Dover. An efficient system there would demand at least five such machines.
Meanwhile, the exit points at Calais and Coquelles are not secure. Is it in the interests of the French to make them secure? Until we have large numbers of our own immigration officials and police on French soil, with first-rate equipment, the problem will continue.
If the Government's purpose three years ago was to cut the number of asylum seekers, they have not succeeded. If they aimed for a faster and fairer system, they did not succeed. If they intended to tighten border controls, they did not succeed. If they intended to remove a high proportion of failed asylum seekers, they have not succeeded.
Part 1 of the Bill covers citizenship ceremonies, pledges and a requirement for naturalisation that the applicant has sufficient knowledge about life in the UK and its language. We offer a broad welcome to the proposals but ask the Government to administer them with a light touch and ensure that they do not discriminate against the elderly and those with learning difficulties.
Part 2 provides for the trialling of accommodation centres, four in total. Presumably asylum applicants will remain in those for the whole of the asylum process. Each will hold 750, making a total of 3,000. That is a minute proportion of the 80,000 annual applicants, most of whom will still be dispersed around the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, 750 is too high a number of applicants to house in one centre. Such numbers invite discipline problems and concerns within the local community. It would be better still to have more such centres, with a maximum number of say, 250 in each, preferably in urban areas.
The Bill gives the Home Secretary the power but not the duty to provide certain services at these centres. If they are to work well, there must be a duty on the Home Secretary to provide services, top quality legal advice and help on site, as is the case at Oakington. I was glad to hear the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), say that such advice would be available. Can she confirm that it will be available on site at the accommodation centres? Given that it is so important that an asylum seeker receives competent advice early, will legal advice and assistance also be available at the induction centres?
428 Does the Minister accept that if the previous Home Secretary's words are to mean anything, the process from initial application to decision and from decision to appeal must be speedy? Although we welcome measures to streamline appeals, will the Minister tell us the anticipated time frame? How long will a person stay at an accommodation centre? Will it be six weeks, six months, or could it be longer? Does the Minister anticipate that the whole process will be completed within a certain time frame? I ask that because if asylum seekers and their children are expected to live at an accommodation centre throughout the process, the longer the process takes the more compelling becomes the argument to allow children to receive education in mainstream schools rather than on site, and to allow asylum seekers to work.
Does the Minister accept that the best way to avoid delay is to have a one-stop shop with all facilities on site? Those should include better trained decision makers. Many of us believe, as the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, that the quality of initial decision making must improve. Most importantly, the presence of adjudicators on site would mean that current delays were avoided. When will the centres be ready? Will it take one year, two years or more?
Many of us have concerns about the detention, particularly in prison, of asylum applicants who do not commit a crime. Surely the appropriate time for detention is in a removal centre at the end of the asylum process prior to removal from this country and only when there is a serious risk of absconding. [Interruption.] I am getting more support from the Labour Benches than I had anticipated. I am extremely pleased, and am tempted to carry on even longer, but my colleagues say no.
The introduction of automatic bail hearings in part 3 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was welcomed at the time and it is a great shame that that procedure has never been implemented and is to be repealed by the Bill.
Let the Government do all that they can to renegotiate the bilateral agreement. Let them place an even greater emphasis on working with our European partners and those elsewhere to break up the criminal gangs who smuggle people for profit. Finally, let our Government and others tackle head-on the causes of economic migration and persecution in the troubled regions of the world. How much money spent in this country could be more usefully spent elsewhere?
A little while ago, the Home Secretary said that he was painfully aware that, if he was still in the job after three years, it would be for him and no one else to answer for the competence, effectiveness and activity of the immigration service. He was a little hard on himself: all of us have a duty to contribute to that extremely important debate. When the time comes, we shall ask the Home Secretary two questions: first, is our asylum system humane and decent; secondly, does it work well? If the answer to both questions is yes, he will have succeeded. We wish him well.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)
This matter presents all of us with uniquely difficult and complex challenges, as we face the ever-greater effects of globalisation. Although globalisation creates enormous benefits in the world, we have to acknowledge that it places 429 unprecedented strains of rapid development and change on often fragile economies. Millions of people aspire to better their economic circumstances and, understandably, want to migrate in order to do so. At the same time, modern transport systems have facilitated mass movement across the world. In Britain last year, our ports and airports dealt with 90 million visitors, the overwhelming majority of whom were completely legal.
Alongside that, we face the challenge of failing states such as Somalia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Afghanistan which generate large numbers of refugees, the vast majority of whom are looked after close to their borders by some of the poorest countries in the world. However, that produces large numbers of asylum seekers who travel much further, seeking protection, shelter and a new life. All European countries—indeed, all developed countries—face big increases in the numbers of illegal arrivals who want to fulfil their dreams of economic betterment or who are fleeing oppression.
We have also seen the growth of a far more sinister phenomenon that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins): the worldwide criminal, yet hugely profitable, trade in people. People are smuggled by international gangs, sometimes for sexual or labour exploitation and sometimes simply so that they can gain illegal entry and work in the informal economy, where their lack of status can make them extremely vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. Safety considerations rarely apply, as we saw all too tragically at Dover when 57 people suffocated in the back of a lorry.
The spectre of a revival of fascism and the policies of race hatred now loom over Europe. We underestimate at our peril the uncertainty and resentment caused by illegal arrivals among our existing populations—the evidence is there for all to see in recent European election results. However, most of that uncertainty and resentment is not racism, but a genuine concern that needs to be addressed fairly, openly and transparently. We need to be inclusive and open about our anti-racist stance, but we need to acknowledge people's worries and concerns. For that reason I welcome the tone of the debate, which has differed from that of any other debate on this sensitive subject.
How can we be sure that we fulfil our international obligations to protect and shelter refugees while ensuring that our economy benefits positively from economic migration and reassuring people that our systems for dealing with those challenges are fair and firm, thus minimising the scope for the advance of the far right?
The Bill does all those things. It deals in a holistic and forward-looking way with those complex issues. However, I shall not stand at the Dispatch Box and claim that it is perfect. If I did so, no one would believe me. Furthermore, the four immigration Acts that preceded it provide plenty of evidence to show that I should be a bit more humble tonight.
The issues are complex and difficult and we must battle constantly to solve them. We all know that there are no easy or simple answers. We must combine legislative change with sensible administrative change to achieve the improvements that we all seek.
Of course one of the key issues is to improve decision making to ensure that it is speedy, expeditious and balanced with fairness and control. That is what we seek 430 to do with the induction centres, the accommodation centres and the reporting and removal requirements contained in the Bill. We seek to streamline that process, which is inherently complex, as well as the appeals process, which is currently far too complex.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that ending delay is one of the keys to getting the system right. We have to end the delays, but that is a lot harder to achieve than some may think. We have to do more than simply saying that it is an aim of ours. It has been the aim of many of the legislative changes that the House has considered, but so far it has been more elusive than all hon. Members would wish.
I should like to answer the question about immigration appeal rights asked by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). If he looks at clause 60, he will see that we have combined the separate provisions. I hope that he will admit that the single provision will deal with the problem that he first saw when at the then Department for Social Security and with which we have been struggling ever since. I hope that clause 60 will provide an answer to that issue.
Many Members on both sides of the House have made impassioned speeches, mainly about a few issues, and I hope that I can reassure them. I shall first deal with the size and location of accommodation centres, what should be going on in them and how we anticipate that they will work. We have announced that, initially, we shall run trial accommodation centres alongside the dispersal system to find out whether they work, before deciding whether to use that system more exclusively to deal with people's asylum claims.
Although we have used illustrative figures on size, nothing in the Bill limits the size or states that we must have four centres. We shall certainly be open to considering more flexible approaches, but any suggestion has to be consistent with a reasonable size to provide training, education and legal advice at an appropriate and economic level. Those services have to be good, as well as providing value for money. We shall consider those issues in deciding how to proceed.
There has been a lot of worry about education, but the situation has been misunderstood. The Bill makes it clear that any children who live in accommodation centres during the trials will be educated to the standard that applies in mainstream schools, that the legal duty to provide education remains effectively with the local education authority and that the standards of that education can be checked by Ofsted and independently audited. After all, this is a trial and if we decide that it does not work, we will not proceed with it, so right hon. and hon. Members are wrong to dismiss the proposal before we have even tried it. We will be open and transparent about the results of the trial.
I need to make the point that we shall table amendments on asylum shopping, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not get around to mentioning in his opening speech. We will include measures to put a stop to a new trade in people who have been accepted for protection in European Union states arriving in the United Kingdom and seeking support under the National Assistance Act 1948, although they fail the habitual residence test. We shall table amendments to try to close what we perceive to be a loophole.
431 Hon. Members mentioned issues relating to bail, as set out in part 3, and the repeal of requirements of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 which have never been brought into effect. We are not removing the individual right to appeal for bail either under habeas corpus or to an adjudicator if there is an appeal pending. Those rights have always existed and are exercised. We are repealing what are increasingly regarded as cumbersome and difficult automatic bail hearings for everyone in detention. They interfere with our attempts to achieve a fast and efficient process and, as they have to be before the same people, are simply another cause of delay. We do not think that they are practicable. However, I emphasise that repeal of those hearings does not remove an individual's right to appeal for habeas corpus or a bail hearing.
On detention, only a small number of asylum seekers are detained. They are detained for a reason, either because we cannot prove who they are and are trying to find out, or because we believe that they are likely to abscond pending removal. That is why people are held in detention. They can apply for bail.
I hope that I reassured hon. Members when I told my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) that high-quality legal advice will be available in accommodation centres. It is not available in induction centres, and we can deal with that issue more effectively in Committee. The Legal Services Commission will make that facility available, and as an independent service it does not need to be included in the Bill. I assure hon. Members that we are not involved in a manoeuvre to deny people their legal rights.
The Bill is a big step forward in the reform of our entire nationality, immigration and asylum system to meet the new challenges that lie ahead. It encourages legitimate primary immigration to Britain for the first time in many years and celebrates the acquisition of citizenship in a positive way while equipping new citizens more effectively for life in Britain. Those fleeing persecution have nothing to fear from the measures because the Bill upholds and strengthens our commitment to the systems of international protection. It creates the power to introduce a resettlement programme to take refugees from abroad, which will get them out of the hands of the people traffickers and will honour our international humanitarian obligations.
All asylum seekers will go through what we hope will be a well-managed and faster end-to-end asylum process that uses induction and accommodation centres. There will be effective integration for those who are successful and removal for the unsuccessful. It is no good building up a panoply of courts and centres to administer an asylum system if there is no distinction between an individual who is granted asylum and integrated as a refugee into our society, and one who fails and is granted no other protection. There must be a difference between those outcomes. That is why it is important for the integrity of our system that we improve the number of removals. It is also why we will create the 4,000 spaces in detention centres, as we said we would, and will continue to push for more effective removal of those who fail.
New penalties will be introduced to fight people traffickers, including the new offence of trafficking for 432 the purpose of prostitution. Increased penalties will apply to those who are caught. We will also crack down on illegal working. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.