HC Deb 31 March 1994 vol 240 cc1071-83

11.1 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I want to discuss the treatment of asylum seekers in Britain. It is a serious matter—indeed, a scandal of growing proportions.

I have notified you, Madam Deputy Speaker—and the Minister—of the wish of my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), for Hornsey and 'Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), if he arrives, to speak briefly. We shall keep an eye on the time, so that everyone can have a say.

The asylum issue has acquired growing political importance. The newspapers seek to portray all who seek asylum as economic migrants, bogus asylum seekers or ne'er-do-wells. We should recognise, however, that, over the centuries, waves of people have fled from religious or social intolerance, political oppression, violence or wars, and have sought safety and sanctuary elsewhere. Centuries ago, people fled from this country to others; successive waves of people have come here from elsewhere in Europe.

Our history would be very different but for those waves of migrants. The social history of much of London, and many of London's achievements, can be traced to people who have fled to escape oppression. Jewish communities have come from Russia and Nazi Germany; people have come from the low countries; more recently, others have fled from oppression in different parts of the world.

The world is now in great turmoil. Many people are unable to speak freely: they fear the knock on the door at 4 am, and being taken away by the police. They also fear that, if they went to a police station and made inquiries about friends or relatives who had been taken away, they too would be arrested. People languish in fetid prisons around the world; those people seek asylum and safety.

We should never underestimate the enormous step involved in leaving one's own country, possibly never to return or to see family arid friends again, and possibly unable to pursue a career. We should bear in mind the importance of that fateful decision. I know of people who, in their own countries, were professors, doctors and leading academics; now they are sweeping the streets of this capital city, unemployed or washing up in restaurants. Although such jobs are valuable and useful, those people could be doing something better suited to their skills.

Asylum seekers come from countries with oppressive regimes and a lack of human rights, where people are often in social danger. We should also bear in mind the foreign-policy impact: the policies adopted by the British and United States Governments—and a number of others—in regard to oppressive regimes are double-handed and full of double standards, to say the least. While people were fleeing from Chile during the Pinochet years, the British Government were selling arms to that same dictatorship. The Zaire regime has been supported by the west because it has carried out the wishes of the International Monetary Fund and the World bank, and the west has chosen to ignore many of its human-rights abuses.

Like many others, this country is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva convention, which guarantees a place of safety to people in legitimate fear of persecution on political, religious or social grounds. However, the record of the British Government—and that of Britain as a whole—is not particularly good. We tend to view history through rose-tinted spectacles; we tend to say that we knew about all that went on in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and supported the victims of Nazi oppression.

That is not true: too many Jewish people were not admitted to other countries as the Nazi holocaust developed. Too many were not granted places of safety. I think of those poor people who died on a ship in the Black sea because no one was prepared to take them in at a crucial time in their lives. Our record is not as wonderful as we like to make out.

There has also been what I call the deterrent factor—the way in which, over the years, British Governments have sought to deter people from seeking asylum here; the way in which the visa regime was introduced in 1984, aimed particularly at Sri Lanka; the way in which Members of Parliament were not allowed to intervene to stop deportations at that time. A large number of Tamil people sought safety elsewhere, but, not unnaturally and not unreasonably, a number of them chose to come to Britain: Sri Lanka was once a British colony, after all, and many of them had significant family and educational ties with this country.

Another deterrent was the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987—an attempt, in my view, to pass immigration and asylum control in part to the airlines. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 increased the fines to £2,000 per case, and a great deal of money has been paid as a result.

The legislation has also acted as a spivs' charter. It is possible to go to any travel agency in Istanbul and obtain a single ticket to London for about £100; but for a Kurdish person fleeing from Turkey to seek asylum in this country, the fare is not £100 or £500, but more like £1,500. That means that the airline can pay the fine, if there is one, as well as the cost of sending the person back to Turkey if he is not admitted to this country. That does not strike me as a whole-hearted adherence to the principles of the 1951 Geneva convention; it strikes me as the exact opposite.

Last Christmas, some Jamaicans arrived in this country for a holiday. Their treatment presents an appalling vista. They were detained at the Campsfield detention centre, and many were deported. I understand that—despite questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West—the Home Office is still unable to say how much it cost to send those people back to Jamaica. We need some answers from the Home Office, and some openness.

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green)

My hon. Friend mentioned the Campsfield detention centre. As he will know, a number of people have been on hunger strike there. One of them, a constituent of mine, is an asylum seeker. She has now ended her hunger strike, and has collapsed. Her family want her to be taken to hospital, but to date that option has been denied her. Is it not disgraceful that someone who is clearly ill and in need of hospital treatment—as opposed to medical treatment at Campsfield—should be denied it?

Mr. Corbyn

It is not only a scandal; it is at variance with what I have been told by the Home Office and Group 4 about the treatment of people in that detention centre. The other day, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West was able to go inside the centre: no doubt he will speak about that shortly. I shall return to the subject in a moment; first, however, let me make two other brief points.

I have explained the way in which the law in this country—the use of the third-country option—acts as a deterrent to people seeking asylum. There is a growing trend in the Home Office not to grant asylum, but to grant exceptional leave to remain; that means that people cannot be joined by their families for at least four years. People from Somalia who have sought asylum here, knowing that their families and loved ones are languishing in refugee camps somewhere in that part of Africa and cannot even contact them, are experiencing heartache and misery.

Those who are able to settle in this country often have great difficulty in obtaining housing, and some difficulty in securing educational opportunities. The Government should recognise the specific needs of those refugee communities in their funding of local authorities—especially those in the north and east of London, such as Islington, Haringey, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets. Likewise, the Government's cut in section 11 funding has meant enormous problems in many schools, where English as a second language needs to be taught.

It must be clearly understood that people who seek asylum do so because they are forced into it. They are high-achieving and determined, and seek to make an enormous contribution. One can think back through history to all the contributions made by refugees.

An interesting report has been written for the Detention Advice Service by Kathy Lowe entitled "Britain's Forgotten Prisoners". It says: Use of detention powers by the Home Office and immigration authorities has reached its highest level ever. Also increasing is the length of time detainees are being held—up to 18 months in some cases. In 1991, detained asylum seekers came mainly from Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. Only 4 out of 21 countries involved were in Europe. The following year, the largest groups detained came from India, Zaire, Nigeria and Ghana. It appears that, as asylum seekers now come from south Asia and Africa rather than Europe as in the past, the attitude of the Home Office has changed a great deal, and there appears to be a race motive.

The report produced for the Detention Advice Service makes a number of proposals that give a great deal of support. It quotes from the reputable organisation, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, on the support that should be given to detainees. Tragically, they are not given that support.

A survey of 125 asylum detainees between November 1993 and January 1994 shows that there were 122 males and three females, mostly aged under 30. The majority were Christian, although their nationalities varied, with the largest numbers being from Algeria, Angola, Nigeria and Zaire. In most cases, they spoke only the language of their own country.

Furthermore, 27 were in detention centres, 95 were in prisons, one was in a police station and the detention place of two others was not stated. A number of detainees had been moved several times, and nearly half had been moved at least twice. More than 25 had been detained for more than six months or up to a year. None of the detainees had a criminal record, had been to a court, or had a charge against him. They were imprisoned at the pleasure of the Home Office under the powers conferred upon it by the immigration Acts.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West and I asked a series of questions about what is going on at Campsfield, where the majority of those asylum seekers are held, we discovered that the Home Office was first informed of the hunger strike on 18 February—more than a month ago. No public statement has been issued by the Home Office on that issue. It has taken persistence by a number of hon. Members even to get answers to questions here.

According to an answer that I received on 18 March, guidance based on prison service procedures is issued to staff at Campsfield house. It says: An immigration detainee refusing food for more than three days is offered advice and treatment by the Campsfield House medical team and this is repeated on a daily basis as part of the detailed monitoring … Treatment would be administered only with the individual's consent. It does not say whether detainees have a right to go to hospital, but I should have thought from the wording of the answer that they should have such a right.

On the same day, I asked about the origin of the detainees held at Campsfield house by (a) country of origin, (b) those held for less than one month, (c) one to six months and (d) more than six months. The information given was that 139 of the 179 on hunger strike were held for one to six months and 11 for more than six months.

An answer that I received on the same day beggars belief. I had asked the Minister: how many detainees of Campsfield Detention Centre are (a) asylum seekers, (b) appellants against refusal and (c) awaiting deportation". The answer was unbelievable. It said: The information requested is not readily available and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost."—[Official Report, 18 March 1994; Vol. 239, c. 895, 894.] If the origins of those people are known, and if the Home Office knows where it put them, how on earth can it claim not to know their status?

A hunger strike is an extremely big step. Potentially, it ends in death. It is a cry for help and a cry of desperation. The Minister would do well to look at a report written by Ghada Karmi and others for the North-East and North-West Thames regional health authorities' ethnicity programme on "Suicide among Ethnic Minorities and Refugees". The number is not higher than the national average of suicides, but one must consider the question of asylum seekers in this country who commit suicide.

A letter sent by the Refugee Legal Group to the Home Secretary on 24 March said: Despite the Home Office's undertaking to speed up consideration of asylum claims, many of those on strike have no reply on their asylum claims for several months. Indeed, as at 21 January 1994, more than 80 people had been detained in excess of six months. Others have been refused asylum on grounds which, at times, range from the debatable to the patently unfair. To our knowledge, none has been given an adequate reason for their detention, and there is no effective right to appeal against those reasons before any sort of independent court or review body. This is … in breach of … Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights". It also leads to despair and desperation among those on hunger strike.

I received a letter out of the blue on 17 March from Group 4 Security, which told me that it was not force-feeding people on hunger strike. I was glad to hear that claim. Nonetheless, an awful lot of psychological pressure is put on hunger strikers, including separations, moving to prisons and, I understand, offensive remarks made to individuals.

Two Algerian asylum seekers took part in a peaceful demonstration last Saturday outside Campsfield detention centre. When they signed on at the local police stations in Leyton and Islington yesterday, they were promptly arrested and taken back into custody, with no reason given. An answer I received on 24 March says that Group 4 has a contract to look after people at Campsfield detention centre. It says: All Group 4 Total Security Limited staff employed under contract to provide detention management services receive a minimum of 15 days initial training on all aspects of health and safety, race relations, domestic management and duty of care towards immigration detainees. A refresher course is provided after one year's service".—[Official Report, 24 March 1994; Vol. 240, c. 346–7.] It is alarming that they are given only 15 days training before being responsible for the health and welfare of a large number of people.

We have now discovered that those people have been moved to a series of prisons and police stations. When we asked the Secretary of State the cost of holding people in asylum, he said: The available information does not identify separately those detention costs which relate to people who have sought asylum."—[Official Report, 25 March 1994; Vol.240, c.442.] I find that surprising.

The BBC contacted me the other day saying that, of the 47,000 people in this country who have applied for asylum in the United Kingdom, only 645 are presently being detained. They asked me to admit that that was an insignificant number. I said that it sounded like 645 denials of justice.

If people seek asylum, they should be treated properly. If there is a case against them, it should be out in the open and examined in court. But it is not right that those who seek asylum end up in prison with no charges against them, and no right of appeal other than to bodies appointed by the Home Office in the first place. It is a scandal of the greatest proportions, and it is time that the lid was taken off it. We do not want more hunger strikes or deaths as a result of people seeking safety in this country from oppression in other parts of the world.

11.18 am
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing this debate. May I express my support for his views? It is significant that my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Leicestershire, East (Mr. Vaz) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) are here. If arrangements were easier, many more hon. Members on both sides of the House would be here, because of the growing concern about the extent of detention to which people, including those seeking asylum, are subject. Detention has now become a central part of the Government's immigration control.

The latest figures show that, during the past 12 months, about 9,000 people were placed in detention, from all immigration categories, including asylum seekers. At present, 645 asylum seekers are in detention; 70 of them are refusing to eat; and about 23 of the 70 are at Campsfield house, which I visited on Tuesday. Ten of those 23 men and women have been refusing food for 18 days, eight for 17 days, one for 16 days and one for 11 days.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, at the peak of the campaign to refuse food, which started in February, with a second phase starting in early March, about 120 people at Campsfield were refusing food. Their refusal to eat is not a protest against the building in which they are kept—facilities there are much better than those in any prison or detention centres that I have visited in this country and abroad—but a protest about the length of time for which they have been held in detention, and the Government's refusal to allow more applications for asylum to be considered while applicants are living in the community and reluctance to grant what is called "temporary admission".

Of the 180 people detained in Campsfield house when I visited it on Tuesday, 43 had been held for between three and six months, 44 for between six and nine months, three for between nine and 12 months and five for 12 months or more. About 55 men and women at Campsfield house have now been held there for between three and 12 months, which is disgraceful. There is no reason why people should be held in detention for that length of time.

I thank all the officials I met at Campsfield house on Tuesday for the time and attention they gave me when showing me the facilities and answering my many questions. A qualified doctor was brought to Campsfield house on a regular basis only as recently as 10 days ago to monitor the health of people refusing to eat. I was told on Tuesday that two detainees had been referred to hospital, one for refusing treatment and the other because the doctor felt that he was in need of psychiatric treatment.

It is clear that it was some weeks after the hunger strike campaign began before a qualified doctor and nurses were brought to Campsfield house to monitor their medical condition properly; that fact is reinforced by the chairman of the visiting panel and the doctor.

It is also clear that the Home Office had not envisaged the need for psychiatric help, counselling and support, which is required by asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing from torture, violence and unknown honors. It is wrong not to have made such arrangements for detainees at Campsfield house. I am also confident that they are not made at other detention centres.

The Government are wrong to propose additional detention places. A more appropriate use of Campsfield house would be as a detention centre for young offenders, which is what it used to be. Harmondsworth should be closed, and there is no case for the 500 additional detention places that the Government are planning.

The other urgent reform is to give detainees rights. A detainee, including an asylum seeker, has no rights. It is high time that they should have the right to apply for bail, that there should be independent scrutiny of the length of time that they are held in detention, and that they should have free access to qualified and proper legal advice and representation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North on securing the debate, and on his extensive work to highlight the plight of asylum seekers, their conditions and the need for reforms in the way in which they are treated. I hope that the debate will play an important part in securing those important reforms.

11.25 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing this debate. The treatment of asylum seekers in this country is an important issue, which has recently been the target of much misinformation and ill-informed comment—we have heard some examples of that this morning—within a narrow band of public opinion. I welcome the opportunity to explain Government thinking.

Before I expand my remarks, I shall mention some of the errors of fact. The hon. Member for Islington, North will recall from the Standing Committee on the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill, in which we both participated not long ago, that a statutory obligation is placed on all local authorities to provide accommodation for people who have been issued with a standard acknowledgement letter after applying for asylum. He is aware of that fact.

I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue when the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) said that, altogether, 9,000 people are in detention—the figure that he had in mind was probably 900. About 940 people, and not 9,000, are in detention at any one time.

Mr. Madden

I was careful not to say, at any one time. I said that the latest figures for the past 12 months show that 9,000 people, in all immigration categories, were held in detention. I was also careful to say that 650 are being held in detention.

Mr. Wardle

The hon. Gentleman is correct, and I accept his point. There are 650 asylum applicants. The reason for the misunderstanding between us was that, including all immigration cases, there are a few more than 9,000. His statistic is right, but he did not say that many of those people are detained only overnight before leaving this country.

On the remarks that the hon. Member for Bradford, West made about medical care, I want to make it clear that, from the moment that Campsfield house opened, qualified medical attention was on hand, in the form of general practitioners. Any reference to hospital is based on medical advice.

The hon. Member for Islington, North concentrated his remarks on the use of detention, but he also mentioned the wider subject of asylum. I hope that the House will allow me to comment on the broader picture.

In recent years, every western European country has faced a steep increase in the number of people seeking asylum. The United Kingdom has been no exception. The number of asylum seekers entering the United Kingdom rose sharply from about 4,000 in 1988 to a peak of 45,000 in 1991. Following the introduction of new screening procedures, the number of applications fell to 25,000 in 1992, but that was still about five times higher than the figure for 1988. Last year, there were a further 23,000 new asylum applications.

As anyone who sat through the debates on the Bill that became the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 will know, only a small minority of those applications are made by people who are genuine refugees under the terms of the Geneva convention, which obliges signatories to consider asylum applications carefully and deliberately.

This country has a proud and consistent record in its treatment of refugees. We will take no lectures from anyone about our willingness to protect those people in real danger of persecution. Our humanitarian record is second to none.

Mr. Corbyn

If the Government are so proud of their record of caring for people in detention, will the Minister at least apologise for the deaths of Siho Igguven in Harmondsworth detention centre in 1989 and of Lamumba in Pentonville prison last year?

Mr. Wardle

The hon. Gentleman knows that there have already been responses to those cases. I am talking about this country's humanitarian record; on reflection, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me.

Asylum applications on the scale of those of recent years put a great strain on decision taking systems. Delays have occurred in most western countries. Delay is the friend of the unentitled and of the person who wants to spin out his or her stay for as long as possible. The large number of asylum applications that this country has received has put severe pressure on the system, but as a result of various measures that we have taken, the backlog at the end of 1993 stood at about 46,000, compared with about 70,000 at the end of 1991.

The great majority of asylum seekers are therefore people who would simply like to settle here and who have no reason to fear persecution if they return to their own countries. That is not just the British view; it is the experience of many other countries, including our European partners.

Fewer than 5 per cent. of applications in the United Kingdom are found to be justified under the Geneva convention—that is to say, that the people in question have a well founded fear of persecution. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures show that countries such as Belgium, Germany and Italy have broadly similar recognition rates.

We are determined to maintain a firm approach, to avoid encouraging opportunist applications from persons who have already reached a place of refuge. The 1951 convention does not confer any right on individuals to travel from country to country in order to reach their preferred destination. Asylum seekers are expected to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. When they arrive here, having passed through a safe third country, they will usually be returned to that country for consideration of their application. Nevertheless, under the 1993 Act they have a right of appeal against such a decision.

The purpose of the Dublin convention is to combat the twin problems of asylum seekers shuttling from one country to another and "asylum shopping" within the member states of the European Union for a preferred place of residence. It does so by setting out clear criteria for establishing which country has the obligation to examine applications for asylum.

The 12 member states of the EU are committed to a work programme that leads towards harmonisation of asylum policies and procedures. Harmonisation, however, does not mean uniformity, and changes will not come overnight. That is because each member state's approach is embedded in national laws, procedural approaches and traditions. All discussions among the 12 take full account of member states' broader humanitarian traditions and obligations, including those under the European convention on human rights.

This is the essential background to our short debate; reading and listening to some recent commentary on detention, one could be forgiven for thinking that all asylum seekers were by definition refugees. In a recent editorial in one national newspaper, those refusing food at Campsfield house were described throughout as refugees. In fact, three quarters of them were people who had already been refused asylum, and many had also had appeals refused. They were simply waiting for documentation from their home countries so that they could return to them.

As I have said, the widespread use of asylum seeking to secure entry to a country for which no such leave has been given represents a real threat to effective—firm but fair—immigration control. We have a responsibility to receive and care for those who are genuine refugees, but we also have a responsibility to deal firmly with those who are not.

Our experience is that, to have any chance of achieving this, it is necessary to maintain detention facilities for use in a small minority of cases. Neither my right hon. and learned Friend nor I relish that; but it is a fact of life that, without these facilities, some people who have no right to remain in this country would have every incentive to disappear into the community, to live here, and quite possibly to work or draw social security, and use local authority housing, the NHS and the state education system.

Decisions to detain, I can assure the House, are not taken lightly. It is the immigration service's policy to use detention only as a last resort. The initial decision is taken by a chief immigration officer. If it proves impossible to release or remove the detainee immediately, the decision to detain is reviewed within 24 hours by an immigration service inspector. Thereafter, all detention is reviewed locally at least every seven days. After one month, the case is reviewed at immigration service headquarters, monthly and at an increasingly senior level—so that all those detained for six months or more are reviewed by a director of the service.

The criteria applied are strict. Detention is used only when there is no alternative and when there are good grounds for believing that the person will not comply with the restrictions voluntarily. Staff taking these decisions are expected to take account of all the relevant factors, including a person's history and links, if any, with family and friends in this country.

The consequence is that detention is resorted to for any length of time in a tiny minority of asylum cases. On 17 March, there were 654 people in detention who at one stage or another had claimed asylum. That is less than 1.5 per cent. of the number of outstanding asylum applications. In fact, the true percentage is even lower, since most of the 654 had already had their asylum applications refused.

Opposition Members have today made much of the fact that the number of those in detention who at one stage or another have claimed asylum has increased significantly in the past year. It is true that there has been an increase in the number of those detained, but that is hardly surprising, as one of the purposes of the new asylum legislation was to streamline the process so that more cases could be brought to a conclusion more promptly.

Typically, detention is used towards the end of the process for short periods before a person is removed from the country—that accounts for the vast majority of those to whom the hon. Member for Bradford, West referred. Some are detained earlier, and for a few detainees overall periods of detention are still—the procedures introduced by the new Act last year notwithstanding—longer than I would wish.

It has been alleged that no detention decisions may be challenged. That is either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of the facts. In the great majority of asylum cases, detainees have an opportunity to apply for bail to the independent appellate authorities, appointed not by the Home Office but by the Lord Chancellor's Department. The exceptions are when they have been detained as illegal entrants and, having been apprehended, have claimed asylum. Other exceptions are when appeal rights have been exhausted and all that remains is to effect removal. But anyone refused asylum has a right of appeal under the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993.

Anyone who has an appeal pending may apply to the independent appellate authorities for bail. It follows that all people detained who have been refused asylum and who have appealed may apply to the appellate authorities for bail at any stage until the appeal has finally been dismissed. That includes people given notices of intention to deport them and illegal immigrants who have been refused asylum.

Mr. Corbyn

Our point is that people should be able to appeal against decisions in open court. They should also receive legal aid to have their cases properly heard. We object to this internal system which employs people appointed by the Government. Asylum seekers should enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

Mr. Wardle

I do not agree. I do not think that a separate detention review body would make sense. The independent immigration adjudicators, appointed by the Lord Chancellor's Department, are well respected experts. It goes with the grain of our system to place in their hands the power to grant bail on application in suitable cases. I see no reason to alter that arrangement. The picture that has been painted, of a system out of control in which detention is used on whim and indiscriminately, is thus very far from the truth.

The hon. Member for Islington, North also mentioned accommodation. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Bradford, West, who visited Campsfield house earlier this week, say some complimentary things about the facilities there. Campsfield house is a well appointed, newly refurbished new centre, opened in December for this purpose. The difference between it and Haslar is that the latter has more educational facilities. Haslar is used almost exclusively for immigration detainees, and it operates on lines similar to the immigration detention centres at Harmondsworth and Campsfield house.

These apart, there are rather more than 200 immigration detainees in prisons. Some are so violent or disruptive that there is no alternative, but I should still like the numbers in prison to be reduced. What we can and do ensure, however, is that, where detainees are held in ordinary prisons, they have full access to their representatives and are, wherever possible, held separately from convicted prisoners. Anyone in those circumstances who chooses to leave the country can leave detention and leave the country straight away.

Partly in an effort to enable less reliance to be placed on the prison service, there is a programme in hand to create new purpose-built facilities, and Campsfield house is an example. We are planning a total of 350 additional places.

Ample arrangements exist at Campsfield and other detention centres for access by advisers, representatives and other visitors. Information is provided in a number of languages, and at Campsfield there is an introductory video for new arrivals.

One newspaper recently described Campsfield house as the Department's special isolation unit. Having seen it myself, as I know the hon. Member for Bradford, West has done, I know that it is nothing of the sort; it is a decent, well-managed environment in which to carry out a difficult but essential function.

That brings me to the refusal of food by detainees, which has attracted the attention of some of the media to the detention arrangements in recent weeks. This morning, just three detainees at Campsfield, and a total of 28 detainees across the country, are still refusing food. I regret that some people have decided to take this course. If they have done so in the belief that it would assist their cases or lead to generalised release of those taking part, they are sadly mistaken.

No one will alter the merits of his case by refusing meals. We cannot stop people abusing their health in this futile fashion, but it will do no good whatsoever. We cannot force them to eat, and I take the opportunity to state categorically again that there has not been and will not be any force feeding of detainees. It is mischievous to suggest otherwise.

Our main concern throughout has been to ensure that those who have been harming themselves by refusing food should have adequate medical attention. The procedures which have been followed are those adopted by the prison service in similar situations. These involve examination by a doctor after four days—doctors are there daily—after which there will be daily monitoring and 24-hour nursing care. After about eight days, the detainee is examined again by a consultant physician or psychiatrist. Food is made available throughout. There is the option of transfer to a hospital for medical examination or treatment, and this has been done in some cases.

The Government's aim has been and continues to be to handle a difficult problem in a measured and responsible way. Our ability to do so has not been helped by the often hysterical and, at times, aggressive behaviour of the rent-a-mob crowd who frequently gathered outside Campsfield house recently. It has been a motley coalition of the Oxford Trades Union Council, the Socialist Workers party, the Revolutionary Communist party and others of that ilk, including, last Saturday, the hon. Member for Islington, North. I understand that he was seen on television and was amongst a crowd who trespassed on Campsfield house property. Some people in that crowd—I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was included in their number—were hurling lumps of concrete at Group 4 and immigration service staff. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell his constituents about that.

I am glad that the number of people refusing food is falling. I should like to congratulate the staff at Campsfield house, the board of visitors there and all those members of the immigration service who have demonstrated such professionalism and sensitivity in the face of this so-called hunger strike.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)


Mr. Wardle

I give way to the hon. Lady if her point is brief.

Ms Abbott

Briefly, the Minister has told the House that the fact that people are refusing food will not alter his decision making in any way whatsoever. Is he saying that he is willing to allow people to starve to death in Campsfield house?

Mr. Wardle

No. I am saying that I will not be subjected to blackmail by anyone who says, "I will put you under threat by endangering my health." We will not do so. It is an individual's own choice to refuse food. I bitterly regret that people should take that decision, but it will not alter the merits of their case in any way.

I hope that this short debate has helped shed light on what is an undoubtedly difficult issue. The Government's position is clear: the United Kingdom will continue to honour to the fullest extent its obligations to genuine refugees.

I strongly refute any allegation that our detention policy in any way puts us in breach of the 1951 UN convention on refugees. Nothing in that convention prevents the detention of asylum seekers. Our powers of detention are set in rules which flow from the Immigration Act 1971. It has been on the statute book for more than 20 years.

In the interests of the effective immigration control to which the Government are committed, the exploitation of the asylum process by those who have no conceivable claim to refugee status must be dealt with firmly. The limited use of detention is a necessary part of that process, but detention is used sparingly and administered in a professional and humane way.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of people in Britain of all ethnic origins agree with our firm but fair approach to immigration control. I have no doubt that they also accept that the Government are striking the right balance and discharging their responsibilities sensitively in a difficult and controversial area.

Mr. Corbyn

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister referred to a demonstration outside Campsfield house last Saturday. It also included people from Churches and many political parties. He also claimed that I was there, and witnessed the throwing of lumps of concrete. I witnessed no throwing of any lumps of concrete. Indeed, I took part in an entirely peaceful demonstration. That is the point I made to the crowd and the television cameras. In view of what he said, perhaps the Minister will at last agree to meet Members of Parliament to discuss what is going on.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that he is making a point of substance, but not a point of order for the Chair.