§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will be making a similar statement in another place.
The number of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom has risen sharply, from 5,000 a year in 1988 to more than 30,000 in 1990. From January to May this year, 21,000 applications were received—a rate of nearly 1,000 a week. In the light of that increase, the Government have been examining asylum arrangements, and I would like to inform the House of our initial decisions.
Britain has a long tradition of providing refuge for people who face imprisonment, torture or death because of their beliefs or ethnic origin. But for hundreds of millions of people who live in disordered countries or under totalitarian Governments the answer to their problem does not and cannot lie in emigration to the west.
Last year, about 500,000 people applied for asylum in Europe. Numbers of this kind cannot be sustained year after year and go far beyond what was envisaged when the present international arrangements were established.
Fear of persecution is no longer the dominant element for many asylum seekers. In only a small minority of cases in the United Kingdom are the applicants shown to have a "well-founded fear of persecution", as required by the terms of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. The convention is an instrument of last resort, designed to protect life and liberty from immediate threat. It does not confer an unfettered right to travel the world and settle in the country of one's choice. It does not oblige parties to facilitate, still less to encourage, the arrival of asylum applicants. We cannot allow immigration control to become optional, nor must we let the institution of asylum to be undermined by abuse.
Across Europe, Governments are having to review their procedures and to provide additional resources to cope with the unprecedented weight of numbers. I am, of course, discussing the problem with our EC partners. In the United Kingdom, we have decided to take the following action.
First, we want to make it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom is not normally prepared to entertain claims from individuals who have failed to claim asylum in the first safe country that they reached. If individuals arrive here who could have safely claimed asylum elsewhere on their way to the United Kingdom, they will be sent back to that country for the claim to be dealt with there. The only exception is where the applicant has such close links with the United Kingdom that his or her claim should be considered here. In particular, applicants who arrive from other European Community countries should claim asylum there. The asylum convention that we signed in Dublin last year deals with these matters. We shall strengthen procedures at seaports and airports, particularly at Dover, to identify such applicants.
Secondly, the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987, through charges on airlines, discourages the acceptance of passengers who do not have valid travel documents. I recognise that many carriers have tried to comply with this, but other carriers are simply not doing enough. I am therefore laying before the House today an 166 order doubling from £1,000 to £2,000 the charge payable by the carrier for each passenger who fails to produce valid documents. We shall increase our programme of training for airlines' staff to implement that Act.
Thirdly, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I are exploring, with the co-operation of host Governments and airlines, other ways to improve document checks at certain overseas airports. We are willing to provide document specialists to advise carriers about the authenticity of travel documents, perhaps taking photocopies of travel documents for later verification. The police will continue to seek out corrupt agents who are operating in or through the United Kingdom, some of whom have already been prosecuted and convicted.
Fourthly, I am particularly concerned that asylum seekers can arrive here with no passport or other means of identification and must be admitted while their claim is considered. Evidence is coming to light that some asylum seekers have made multiple applications for asylum and have claimed social security benefits in a number of different identities. That is not acceptable. We have recently required asylum seekers to provide photographs of themselves. I am considering the contribution that fingerprinting might make in such cases. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and I are examining how the opportunities for such fraud can be reduced. I will consider whether any further powers are needed.
Fifthly, the present system for handling refugee applications is excessively cumbersome. The system is now completely overloaded. There are 50,000 undecided cases and the backlog is growing at more than 3,000 cases a month. The average decision time is already more than 16 months and is getting worse.
On 26 April, I announced proposals to speed up the process. Accelerating the process will bring early justice to the genuine applicant and the speedier removal of many more bogus applicants. We are recruiting up to 500 staff for the immigration department at Croydon so that the initial determination can be made more rapidly.
At the earliest parliamentary opportunity, we shall introduce a Bill to allow a substantial acceleration and simplification of procedures. The present opportunities for delay through repeated representations and litigation will be substantially pruned.
Some asylum seekers already have the right to appeal to the immigration appellate authorities before removal, but some have not. The Bill will make it clear that all those who are turned down in the determination process will be able to appeal while they are in the United Kingdom. In addition, new procedural rules will impose time limits for the submission of material in support of claims. Decisions on cases will take into account such matters as the deliberate destruction of travel documents and entry by deception. We shall also carefully examine the credibility and good faith of applicants who make claims for asylum after they have resided in this country for some time.
My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will be recruiting extra adjudicators and other support staff to the appellate authorities to ensure that asylum appeals will be heard more quickly.
In order to assist the process of improving and streamlining adjudications, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I also propose to change the publicly funded arrangements for advice and representation in asylum and immigration cases. At present advice 167 and assistance but not representation are available to those whose means qualify them under the legal aid green form scheme. We propose that in future advice and assistance, and where necessary representation before the immigrant appellate authority, should instead be provided by the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. We believe that this will enable those who genuinely need it to be given such help more economically and effectively than under the green form scheme. When the necessary arrangements are completed my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will bring forward regulations to effect the change, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
In consequence of this, and as a result of the extra work which will flow from the changes that I have announced today, we intend to increase substantially the Home Office grant to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. I am grateful that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees continues also to contribute to the costs of the refugee unit of UKIAS.
Our aim will be to decide all cases within a matter of months from start to finish. But in some cases it will be clear from the outset that the applicant has no claim to our protection. The Bill will provide for accelerated handling of clearly unfounded cases. An adjudicator will be able to dismiss an appeal without an oral hearing upon deciding that there is manifestly no substance to the claim.
I believe that the rapid rejection of a large number of unfounded claims and the early departure of those applicants from this country will play a major part in deterring further abuse of the process and allow us to tackle the dramatic growth in the number of applications.
The Government recognise their obligations to genuine refugees, but they also have an obligation to the British people to control immigration. Those obligations can pull in different directions. Our aim is to arrive at a balance between them which is in line with the realities of the modern world. I believe that the measures that I have announced today represent such a balance.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
The Home Secretary began by reminding the House of Britain's long and honourable tradition of providing asylum for genuine refugees. I am sure that the whole House will be determined that our reputation as a refuge for the oppressed should not be destroyed, and that we should not lose the genuine benefits that we have from time to time enjoyed as a result of providing asylum for oppressed minorities.
Much of the Home Secretary's statement concerned the necessity of ensuring that those who apply for asylum as a means of avoiding immigration regulations should not be allowed to enter the country. No sensible person could disagree with that intention—not least because the interests of the ethnic minorities in Britain are damaged by such conduct. However, does the Home Secretary agree that it is equally important to ensure that genuine asylum seekers are not denied entry because of the obsession with keeping out bogus applicants? [Interruption.] If any Conservative Members below the Gangway want to argue against the contention that genuine asylum seekers should be allowed into the country, I hope that they will say so as the debate progresses.
The Home Secretary will expect me to agree—and I gladly give my agreement—to his intention to take the strongest possible action against corrupt agents, and also 168 his intention to increase the staff available for dealing with the work, although, clearly, we shall want to see the methods by which the work is to be dealt with, and the intended speedy procedures that the Home Secretary outlined.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke of multiple applications, but in a parliamentary answer we were told that the Government has no idea how many multiple applications had been made. Can the right hon. Gentleman provide evidence to justify even considering the idea of fingerprinting—a proposal which many hon. Members, I hope and believe, on both sides of the House will instinctively find repulsive. For such a proposal even to be considered there would need to be a great deal of evidence of multiple applications, and I repeat that the Home Secretary's most recent answer on the subject was that he did not know how many there are or how many there have been.
If the proper balance between providing illegal entry and allowing necessary asylum is to be achieved, the Home Secretary will wish to answer a number of detailed questions. I shall ask him some of them this afternoon, on the understanding that we shall debate these matters in the not-too-distant future.
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's decision to extend rights of appeal to all asylum seekers in this country. I also welcome his decision to allow representation before immigration appeals tribunals. But we shall want to look with great care at the proposal that that representation and advice should be provided, not through legal aid or the green card system, but by extending the work of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. Can the Home Secretary tell us his intentions in making that change? Does he believe that by giving UKIAS the responsibility for the work he will be providing extra advice for those who need and deserve it, or is he simply cutting costs in a way that may result in advice of the right sort and advice from properly qualified people not being available?
Will the Home Secretary describe how his fast-track proposals will work in practice? He said that, in some cases, it would be clear at the outset that the applicant had no claim to protection. Will it be the adjudicator alone —a single individual—who will make that decision, and will that decision be subject to any appeal? On the whole subject of applications for asylum, may we be assured that they will be subject to judicial review? In many of the stories dealing with the subject which have recently appeared in newspapers—I suspect, preparing the House for the Home Secretary's statement today—it has been suggested that the law will specifically prevent legal review. May we have the Home Secretary's assurance that that will not be the case?
I know that the Home Secretary is anxious to convince the House that his proposals will in no way be biased by racial prejudice. Of course I accept his assurances on that point, but he will understand that our judgment must be made on the basis of the way in which the regulations work in practice; that is far more important than the Home Secretary's good intentions.
So that we may examine these matters, may we have a general assurance about the procedures by which the changes in all the arrangements governing asylum and immigration are to be made? At the moment, thanks to the European Community, the Home Secretary meets his colleagues at two meetings—in Schengen and Trevi— 169 which are described as private and which are in fact secret. Home Secretaries and Interior Ministers come to collective decisions for the entire Community and present those decisions, one by one, to their national Parliaments. Will the Home Secretary assure us that he will abandon that practice—it has been abandoned in Holland under the force of law—that he will report after his meetings with colleagues, and that he will enable the House to discuss his proposals before he agrees them with colleagues in Europe only to present them to the House on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?
§ Mr. Baker
The right hon. Gentleman has given a less than wholehearted welcome for the proposals but none the less there was some warmth in his remarks, I think. I agree with him that it is most important to ensure that the system operates effectively for genuine asylum seekers.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about multiple applications. There have been some multiple applications and some court cases, and I will provide details of them. The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that other countries are also experiencing such applications. In my talks with fellow Ministers in Germany and Holland, I have discovered that both countries have experienced multiple applications. Both use photographs and fingerprinting, and other countries, too, now use those techniques.
Perhaps unintentionally, the right hon. Gentleman cast a slur on UKIAS. [HON. MEMBERS: "No".] I was generous enough to say "unintentionally". The right hon. Gentleman said that perhaps this was a method of reducing the independent and fair advice available to immigrants. That is certainly not the case.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the fast-track procedure. The procedure for the determination of all cases is as follows. First, the decision will be taken by an official of my Department, an official of the immigration department, as it is at the moment. Then there can be an appeal to an adjudicator under the existing system. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we would envisage for fast-track cases. Some of them may be obvious. Some applicants from completely safe countries make bids for asylum. We have even had some applications from countries such as America and Canada, and those cases are dealt with very promptly. Other cases are not so obvious, but it may nevertheless be clear that the applications are from a safe country. We propose that, in instances where there is a manifest and clear case, the adjudicator should not allow a normal hearing.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about judicial review. I assure him that we are not removing judicial review. It cannot be removed by an Act of Parliament. Asylum seekers who feel aggrieved may ask for judicial review. Once the appellate system has been set up, there may well be far fewer judicial review cases, but that is not for me to decide. In deciding whether there should be judicial review, the courts may well say, "There is a process of determination and adjudication which we think is sufficient." There would, however, still be the opportunity to ask for judicial review.
On the right hon. Gentleman's question about racial bias, may I make it absolutely clear that there is no element of racism in the proposals? The procedures and measures apply equally to Africa, India, the Indian subcontinent 170 and Asia, just as they apply to eastern Europe, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia. I assure the House that there is no element of racial bias in the proposals.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that this is an Opposition Supply day, with a heavy demand from hon. Members who wish to speak in both debates and that I have no opportunity to limit speeches I shall allow questions on the statement to continue until 4.20 pm in the knowledge that there will be a debate on it later. I ask hon. Member to ask single questions and not to go into the matter in detail.
§ Mr. David Shaw (Dover)
Further to his point about Dover, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the immigration staff there will be given further assistance and support? Will he also confirm that the ferry company personnel, who are responsible for exhaustively checking documents but who sometimes find it difficult to know whether a document is valid, will be given full support and guidance from his Department's staff to minimise the potential financial effects on ferry companies which are endeavouring to support the law but which find it difficult to do so when documents are confusing?
§ Mr. Baker
Yes, I give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. We are prepared to give, and are giving, advice and assistance to ferry companies on this difficult matter, given that documentation can be fraudulent and disposed of easily by being thrown overboard if one wants to appear in the United Kingdom without any documentation.
Dover is an important point of entry, but all the boats arriving at Dover come from safe countries. We shall be giving clearer advice to the immigration officers at Dover and at other ports to ensure that asylum seekers can be returned to a safe country if that is what they come from —with the exception that I outlined in my statement—that is, unless the asylum seeker has a close relative here and it would be better for the asylum claim to be discussed in this country.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I realise that there has been a sharp increase in the number of people claiming asylum in the past two years, but does the Home Secretary acknowledge that during the first 10 years of the Conservative Administration 87 per cent. of those who claimed asylum received it? Does he further acknowledge that that was a high proportion and that it would be surprising if the proportion of those who are genuine asylum seekers is greatly different today?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that he must at least approach this matter with much greater caution than his statement suggested? Does he acknowledge that a civilised country does not seek to balance fundamental rights and freedoms against immigration control, and that the genuineness of asylum applicants must be allowed to come through? Does he further recognise that there will be great concern about a number of his opaque statements today—about the curtailment of opportunities for litigation, about the accelerated decision making for cases that are allegedly manifestly unfounded, and, above all, about his decision to end legal aid?
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Gentleman lives in an unreal world. At the beginning of the decade, applications for 171 asylum were running at about 3,000 per year and the hon. Gentleman said that about 87 per cent. were granted asylum—his figures are not quite right—but the fact is that we are now receiving 50,000 applications per year. Is he really saying that the Liberal party would allow 87 per cent. of those? I have been careful to ensure that genuine applications from political refugees should still be considered with great care and scrupulousness.
Throughout our history we have always welcomed people fleeing from persecution, torture and imprisonment, but we are now faced—not simply in this country but in every country in Europe—with a different flow altogether. We are faced with great migratory pressures resulting not from political measures and considerations but principally from economic considerations. I believe that that will be one of the great problems of the 1990s for the whole world.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was worried about the various measures that I have announced today. I have not announced any reduction of access to litigation. He could not have heard my remarks. I pointed out that we have provided the possibility of appeal for those who did not previously have the opportunity of such an appeal and will continue to provide generous assistance for applicants.
§ Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, without these measures, a serious social problem would develop in the United Kingdom, just as a serious problem is developing in Italy, Germany, France and other European countries? It is essential for us to have common sense procedures to protect the genuine refugee and to ensure racial harmony in the country as a whole.
§ Mr. Baker
I agree with my hon. Friend. If asylum-seeking is used as a means of evading immigration control, with all that that means, social problems can be created. Indeed, the social problems in this area that exist among some of our partners in Europe are much greater than are our problems. Both parties in this country have worked hard at this problem over the last 30 years and put a high premium on racial harmony, fairness and equality in our society. That is paying off. Unfortunately, some European countries that have not given so much attention to the matter are finding that already there is unacceptable violence and tension. I believe that we have behaved responsibly. We must act in this way to ensure that the true refugee can find asylum here and that bogus applicants are sent back to where they came from.
§ Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)
It is clear that the Government are intent on using the numbers game, both in immigration matters and for refugee and asylum seekers, to create a racist backlash— [interruption.]—because that is going to happen. I accuse the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister of creating a racist backlash by using the numbers game. Is it a coincidence that, at the same time that Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist leader, talks about having an overdose of immigrants, the British Government begin thinking in terms of the numbers game?
Regarding legal representation for asylum seekers, does the right hon. Gentleman believe that UKIAS will be able to cope with the number of refugee representations that it will have, particularly in view of the situation surrounding the Kurdish question?
§ Mr. Baker
To answer the hon. Gentleman's last point first, we shall be increasing the grant to UKIAS very substantially indeed—my officials are already in discussions with it—and that will involve the recruitment of more staff by UKIAS.
In answering the hon. Gentleman's main point, I utterly reject his claim that this is a racist policy. If he can see no distinction between the number of applicants seeking asylum at the rate of 100 a week and 1,000 a week, with all the tensions and difficulties that that can create, he does not understand the situation and the problem that could arise in this country.
I reaffirm to the hon. Gentleman, because he is listened to in his community, that the policy I have announced today—and I hope that his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) does not agree with his remarks—does not distinguish on grounds of colour or race. It applies to asylum seekers, black or white, from wherever they come.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that providing housing and assistance to asylum seekers is putting a great strain on some London boroughs? Does he intend to seek powers to direct asylum seekers to housing outside Greater London while they are awaiting screening?
§ Mr. Baker
I do not think that we shall be able to do that. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. None the less, I accept the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks. The number of asylum seekers is some 100,000 a week. A stream of dependants may wish to follow, so it may be an understatement of the actual number. They impose considerable strains on housing and other social service requirements. The extent to which the measure will restrain that flow will ease the pressures on local authorities.
§ Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)
It is my experience that there has been a growth in bogus applications in recent years, which has led to a hardening of the response to genuine applicants for political asylum. I blame the Home Department for the growth in bogus applications because of the increased delay and because the Department deals with corrupt agents whom it does not seek out, arrest and prosecute. I have had cause to bring to the attention of the Home Department three such agents who trade in human misery, rip off enormous sums of money from poor families, mislead them and often tangle up their cases. Will the Home Secretary give a firm assurance that his Department will give much greater priority to arresting and prosecuting the evil people who trade in misery, rather than the poor people who become tangled up with them?
§ Mr. Baker
I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said and also for the information that she has passed to the Department. We investigate many such cases, but we require evidence. Some prosecutions have been mounted and have proved successful. As the hon. Lady knows, some unscrupulous agents operating in the United Kingdom will provide, for between £1,000 and £5,000, tortuous stories, bogus letters from home and bogus telegrams to try to show that the applicant has a case. In several instances we have found that the cases are totally bogus.
173 I assure the hon. Lady that we shall seek out and prosecute those cases. Police investigations are going on at the moment, and I hope that they will be fruitful.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many bogus asylum seekers are coming to Britain as part of a carefully planned racket, which is having a disastrous effect on the confidence of people in this country in the whole system? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart), other hon. Members who represent London constituencies are concerned about the housing problems that could flow from that problem. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take that into account in framing the legislation?
§ Mr. Baker
The whole purpose of my proposals is to abate the flow of asylum seekers. That flow is not unique to our country but is happening throughout Europe, which represents an attractive area for people to live in. Great concern has been expressed by my counterparts, the Ministers of the Interior in Europe, because some of their borders are difficult to police, and whenever there is strife and trouble there is a possibility of more asylum seekers. Alas, some cases of political asylum are well founded because people are fleeing from persecution. But many other people are using asylum as a means of evading immigration control because they would simply prefer to live in Europe.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
Having spent June muzzling dogs, the Home Secretary now wishes to spend July muzzling the rights of asylum seekers. Is not the crisis of the Government's own making? Why has the Home Secretary failed to act on the Home Affairs Select Committee's unanimous recommendation that more resources should be made available to the Home Office and Lunar house? Does he not realise that today's announcement of meagre extra resources will do nothing to end the current delay and will cause enormous hardship and misery to those caught up in this immigration mess? If a person is coming on a direct flight from Algiers to London, what is the safest country into which he or she can parachute before arriving in Britain?
§ Mr. Baker
When the hon. Gentleman reviews his remarks in Hansard tomorrow, I believe that he will consider them to be trivial and silly.
We have increased substantially the resources in the Home Office. On 26 April, I announced that we shall recruit 500 more civil servants for the immigration department and that is under way. We have taken additional office accommodation in Croydon, and, as a result of my announcement today, the Lord Chancellor will recruit further adjudicators. He recruited 30 last year and will probably recruit at least 50 or 60 this year because we want to speed up the process. There is no shortage of Government resources—this is extra money. Many safe countries lie between Algiers and this country.
§ Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that these proposals in no way reduce or diminish rights to first asylum? Will he therefore agree that, although the proposals reduce the opportunities for fraudulent applications, they also consequently speed up the chances of the genuine asylum seeker?
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
Does not the fact that so many people want to come to this country prove that, despite what some folk may say or think, the United Kingdom is still one of the most pleasant and agreeable countries in which to live? That is one reason why the people of Northern Ireland strain every nerve to stay in it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman also agree that since so many nations, not least in eastern Europe, have moved towards democracy and the rule of law there is now great hope that other nations, including even those living under the most vile regimes, will move in the same direction so that the problem will diminish? That being so, does he agree that even genuine refugees should have the right to stay in this country only until their own countries become democratic and abide by the rule of law?
§ Mr. Baker
Quite a few refugees go back when their countries have calmed down, but many do not because they have become established here, they have jobs here, their children have been brought up here, they have often married here, and they have a right to stay. If they are given refugee status, they can apply for residence after four years and for naturalisation after seven. On the whole, they tend to stay; relatively few go back.
As for changes in totalitarian regimes, the figures for May were encouraging: there were virtually no applications for refugee status from Poland or Czechoslovakia, but there were still applications from Bulgaria and Romania because those regimes are still basically totalitarian and represent a threat to some of their citizens.
§ Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am wholly in favour of genuine refugees finding asylum in this country? Is he further aware that I am part English and part Huguenot? The Huguenots made a great contribution to the life of this country. Is he also aware that the people in my constituency, which is near that of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), welcome these arrangements as fair and sensible?
§ Mr. Baker
I am interested to learn of my hon. Friend's lineage. Clearly he comes from one immigrant refugee family that did not return to France. I very much agree with his sentiments.
The proposals that we have introduced today are a sane and sensible way of dealing with a unique problem which, unless we deal with it, will grow considerably in the next 10 years.
§ Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that this negative policy can be justified or excused only if the countries of the developed world ensure that the economies of the underdeveloped world are helped to perform more satisfactorily and are relieved of the immense international debt foisted on them by us?
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we direct large amounts of our aid to some of the most troubled countries of the world. For example, the extra 175 sums that we provided for the Horn of Africa during the past year showed what a troubled state that part of the world is in. A large number of asylum seekers from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia are still applying to enter this country. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to support those economies and try to make them more viable. The prospect of economic development will hold many of these people in those countries. The disparities between the third world and western Europe are likely to remain for a long time. Therefore, the magnetism of Europe will exert a strong pull for a long time.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the timely good sense of his statement. With about 50,000 people and their families waiting to come here, a high proportion of whom are bogus, the statement will have the support of the overwhelming majority of the British people. Despite the criticisms of some Opposition Members, it is clear that, however much we may tighten up the rules and make them more efficient, the British nation remains one of the world's most fair-minded and tolerant countries. The hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) should recognise that fact.
§ Mr. Baker
Many asylum seekers wish to come here and go through our procedures because they recognise that they will be fairly treated in the process of determination and fairly treated by our courts and our social security system. I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend, but that does not mean that all third-world countries should regard Europe as the answer to their problems. There must he a re-establishment of balance in some parts of the world, otherwise the flow will continue.
§ Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I represent a part of London that from the turn of the century has offered a home to genuine refugees, whether they were fleeing from tsarist Russia or, as at the moment, from Somalia.
The Home Secretary has told us how he intends to criminalise people fleeing from war, torture and famine and how he intends to cut across due process. What support does he plan for communities such as those in Hackney which have welcomed genuine refugees and have faced housing and education problems as a result? He is criminalising refugees, but what will he do to help them?
§ Mr. Baker
Once again the hon. Lady does her cause no good by using extravagant words that make a travesty of the proposals. We already provide a great deal of assistance to refugees through the social security system. Many refugees are also housed, and many people who have been on the housing waiting list for a long time do not rejoice when they learn that a refugee who arrived a week before has been given housing before them.
§ Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)
My right hon. Friend knows that I have long been urging him to take the sort of measures that he has announced today. I congratulate him on an excellent statement. I urge him completely to ignore the ridiculous, pathetic and, frankly, boring Opposition taunts. Does he agree that some of the people who will be most grateful for his measures are those who are already in this country and greatly resent those who seek to gain entry through what are in effect illegal and deceitful means?
§ Mr. Baker
This morning I spoke to a white Englishman who told me that he had married into a Pakistani family. He said that his relations in Pakistan greatly resented the extent to which people were abusing refugee status and trying to jump the queue when he was trying to get some of his relations in under our immigration laws. One hears about many such problems.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
The right hon. Gentleman has given overall figures, which are certainly large, of the increase in refugee applications in the past three years, but he has given no breakdown of those figures. Does he agree that, particularly in the last year, a substantial number of refugees have fled from appallingly war-torn, civil war and famine-stricken areas such as Somalia, the Sudan and Ethiopia? If that is so, we still face a great problem, but it is wrong for the Home Secretary to give the impression that we are dealing simply with the problem of people who behave criminally and cheat. These people have genuine problems, and they need help.
§ Mr. Baker
We have a great deal of correspondence on the problems of the right hon. Gentleman's constituency and the large numbers of immigrants there. If the proposition is that the citizens of every country that is poor, underdeveloped or going through a bit of trouble should have a right to move en masse into western Europe, I do not believe that any country, or group of countries, could sustain that.
The right hon. Gentleman asked for a breakdown of the figures. Of the 4,000 who came in May, 500 applications were from eastern Europe and China, 2,500 were from Africa, and 1,000 from the Indian subcontinent and Asia.
§ Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the country will wholeheartedly reject the accusation of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) that these are racist measures? Does he further accept that British people, of whatever colour, will warmly welcome these proposals as a genuine attempt to strengthen the rights of political asylum, and that political asylum seekers will look forward to hearing more from the Government about attempts to track down those who cynically abuse asylum seekers for their own financial gains?
§ Mr. Baker
There are many bogus applicants, such as people whose identities change after the examination. For example, one Angolan claimed that he had been tortured and gave all the evidence, but, after six months, said that he came from Zaire and wanted to go back there. Many people in Britain will welcome what I have said today because it is a demonstration of the openness and fairness with which we shall be guided when dealing with this problem.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
Is the Home Secretary aware that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was in Committee Room 12 this morning, and that he said that so long as war and famine existed there would be those who sought refuge, and that so long as blood-thirsty tyrannies existed there would be those who sought political asylum? Is he aware that the impression given by today's statement—I wonder what prompted him to make it today—is that he is helping 177 to create a fortress Europe, the door of which will be slammed shut in the face of those seeking refuge from war, famine and political tyranny?
What safeguards will there be to ensure that those seeking political asylum are allowed to register a claim? Will people be able to apply for political asylum after entry, and will applicants in those rare cases in which judicial review is granted be able to remain in the United Kingdom until a decision is reached?
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Gentleman asked whether people who make applications after they have entered the country will be allowed to remain. Of the 4,000 who applied in May —the pattern is roughly the same for the other months —about one third applied at airports and seaports and two thirds at the immigration offices in Croydon. That is to say, they entered the country as legitimate travellers—visitors, students and business people—and claimed refugee status when the time allowed for their stay had expired. In the adjudication process, there will have to be careful examination of whether the nature of a country has changed in the time that an applicant has been here, or whether he just likes the prospect of an extended stay.
§ Sir Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the appeals system that he announced today will apply to all who land in this country and that it fully meets all our international convention obligations?
§ Mr. Baker
I can give my right hon. Friend an assurance on both points. Until today, about one third of asylum seekers had no access to the appellate system under the immigration procedures. That will now be ended, and everyone will have access. If people apply within the country, the process will be finished within the country, and adjudication will take place and a decision will be reached before they are removed, if the decision is that they should be removed.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is the Home Secretary aware that, despite what he said, there is bound to be concern among Labour Members that genuine cases could be harmed? We are aware that, for example, the then Tory Government treated those fleeing from Chile in 1973–74 in one way, but when the Labour Government took power they recognised the genuine refugees in a far more meaningful way.
As a former employee, and later chairman, of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service, I welcome 178 the increased funding for it. I have every confidence in the organisation. While I recognise, and partly agree with, the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), about legal aid and feel that he was right to make them, I wonder whether the Secretary of State has consulted UKIAS about his announcement. Does it accept that it can take on the increased work load, bearing in mind the obvious difficulties?
§ Mr. Baker
I make it clear that Ministers do not influence decisions about which countries are safe or which regimes are politically unacceptable. The process of determination is in the hands of officials in my Department and I do not interfere with that. There is also the due process of appeal in the courts of law. Unintentionally the hon. Gentleman may have given the impression that there is some influence.
We are in discussion with UKIAS and I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said. It is a good, respected and reliable organisation, and we shall be substantially increasing its grant so that it can increase its staff to take on the additional tasks that I have outlined today.
§ Mr. John Watts (Slough)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the alarming tide of bogus asylum applications to which he has referred underlines the need to retain control of immigration policy as the prerogative of the British Government and the Westminster Parliament, and that those are not powers which can safely be delegated to the European Commission or the European Parliament?
§ Mr. Baker
Those powers are critical. I make it clear that the proposals that we have outlined today will be exercised by our Government because of our powers and responsibilities in the matter. I shall also be discussing with our partners in Europe their plans and proposals to see whether there are certain things that we can do together. For example, there is a proposal to exchange data so that we can see who are making multiple applications or applications in other countries as opposed to here. We shall be discussing such matters with our partners in Europe later this year.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I will bear in mind those hon. Members who have not been called when we debate the matter. There are Home Office questions on Thursday, and I shall look with some sympathy on those who have not been called today if there are relevant questions on the Order Paper.