HC Deb 20 April 1995 vol 258 cc328-30
9. Mr. Robathan

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is his estimate of (a) illegal immigrants and (b) bogus asylum seekers currently in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement. [18363]

Mr. Howard

There are no official estimates of the number of illegal immigrants into the United Kingdom. By its very nature, illegal immigration is difficult to measure and any estimates would be highly speculative. It is also difficult to estimate the precise extent of the abuse of asylum, but in 1994, around 80 per cent. of asylum decisions, amounting to some 16,000, were outright refusals.

Mr. Robathan

I regret that it is impossible to have clear information on such matters because such information dispels misapprehension whereas disinformation, including wild stories in newspapers, exacerbates mistrust and harms race relations. In the interests of good race relations, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that both bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are pursued both fairly and firmly?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is an inseparable part of the good race relations record, of which we can be proud, that we have a firm but fair immigration control. Our procedures are being abused both by illegal immigrants and by bogus asylum seekers. I recently announced two initiatives that will have a significant impact on the problem—greater use of containment powers and a spend-to-save initiative. I hope to announce further proposals shortly.

Ms Short

Is not the problem of bogus asylum seekers largely the Government's fault? They allow delays to grow and grow within the system. There are agents who organise false claims whom the Home Office does not pursue and prosecute. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that, if he were to eliminate delays and attack the false agents, we could be generous to the real asylum seekers?

Mr. Howard

It is important to eliminate delays. That is precisely what the two initiatives that I announced in February are designed to achieve. It is absurd to suggest, however, that the problem of bogus asylum seekers is caused by the Government or by delays. Too many people wish to gain entry into this country and would use any means and any deceit to do so. I am determined to take effective action to prevent that happening.

Mr. Dykes

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for reiterating the need for a firm, fair and realistic policy. Does he agree that that would fit in well with pursuing our agreement on the Schengen agreement with the other member states? That would be an excellent objective for the future and would enhance the single market.

Mr. Howard

No. I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The Schengen agreement would involve the dismantling of our external frontiers, and we have no intention of doing that. Indeed, we shall take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that those frontiers remain in place.

Dr. Howells

With regard to the measures taken by the Government to control the number of illegal immigrants coming into the country, will the Home Secretary confirm that there are 1.5 million container lorries a year coming through the port of Dover alone, and that the immigration and customs cover is so thin there that there is no possible way that we can know whether criminal gangs operating out of northern France are using the containers to bring in people? What will the right hon. and learned Gentleman do to strengthen the cover at Dover and at other similar ports?

Mr. Howard

We rely on intelligence as the most effective way of identifying the use of container lorries to permit some illegal immigrants to enter the country. It is absurd to suppose that a series of random checks is likely to get to grips with the problem. The effective use of intelligence is the way forward. We are improving the ways in which we use that means to detect, and to deal effectively with, those who use the container lorry method of illegally entering the country.

Mr. Viggers

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware, as I am aware from my constituency experience of the Haslar detention centre, that it is not unusual for alleged illegal immigrants, when they realise that their application is likely to be rejected, to change their story and claim political asylum, and for the subsequent inquiries to take as long as a year? How can it possibly take that long to inquire into such a case?

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right on all counts. It is because I am determined to do what is necessary to bring down the period that it takes to deal with these matters that I announced a substantial additional expenditure in February—some £37 million over three years—to enable us to deal with those cases more quickly. Much of the delay is caused by the extent to which our appeal procedure is still being abused. That is one of the areas to which I have paid close attention and which I hope to be able to remedy in the proposals that I intend to introduce shortly.