HC Deb 20 November 1995 vol 267 cc335-48 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

I beg leave to make a statement about asylum and immigration. We debate home affairs tomorrow. In order that the debate should be better informed, it seems right that I should explain to the House today the proposals in the Bill which I shall be introducing shortly.

During the debate on the Address last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: While I lead it, the instincts of my party will not be to play race at any time, in any way, on any occasion or upon any provocation. That will not be our policy".—[Official Report, 15 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 39.] I wholeheartedly support and endorse my right hon. Friend's statement. The Government have always attached the very greatest priority to preserving good race relations in this country, and it has consistently been our policy that fair but firm and effective immigration control is a necessary condition for doing so.

We must be prepared to respond quickly when new threats to that control emerge. This is something that successive Governments have done over the years. I have a number of proposals to announce today. All are consistent with our international obligations under the 1951 refugee convention. None will reduce in any way the rights of those who presently qualify to come to this country to live.

This country has a long and honourable tradition of providing refuge to those who really are fleeing persecution. We were one of the first countries to respond to a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for additional temporary protection places for people from the former Yugoslavia, when in August I agreed to provide an additional 500 places on top of the existing scheme for 1,000.

But our asylum procedures are increasingly being abused. The scale of the problem is alarming. Asylum applications have been rising sharply. They have grown from 2,000 a month at the beginning of 1994 to 4,500 last month.

The trend here is in marked contrast to the position in the rest of western Europe. Other countries have strengthened their defences against abusive asylum claims and have experienced substantial reductions. Asylum claims fell by more than 40 per cent. in the main western European countries in 1994, but rose by 45 per cent. here.

Moreover, only 4 per cent. of applicants are initially granted asylum, and only 4 per cent. of appeals against refusal are allowed by the independent adjudicators. Seventy per cent. of claims are made, not on arrival in this country—as one would expect of any genuine refugee—but after gaining entry on another basis, and often only when leave is about to expire or removal about to take place.

The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 initially helped us to bring down decision times dramatically, from 18 months to four for a new claim. But the relentless rise in claims has outstripped the improvements in our ability to process them. By claiming asylum, those who have no basis to remain here can not only substantially prolong their stay, but gain access to benefit and housing at public expense. The population of asylum applicants has now reached 75,000. The annual cost in benefit alone is more than £200 million.

Over the years, we have increased asylum resources very substantially. The number of asylum case workers has risen 700 per cent. since 1988. We took 25,000 asylum decisions in the 12 months to last June, compared with 15,000 during the preceding year.

In February, I announced that we were investing a further £37 million over three years in extra asylum case workers and adjudicators. This will make it possible to deal with at least 37,000 claims a year from 1996 onwards. If applications had remained stable, backlogs and decision times would have started coming down from next year. But 1995 is already heading for an even higher intake. We risk becoming trapped in a vicious circle, with growing delays attracting more abusive claims. It is now clear that we need action across the board to strengthen the legislation, streamline decisions and appeals, and discourage unfounded claims.

The present benefit rules are an open invitation to persons from abroad to make unfounded asylum claims. Of the 40,000 asylum applicants currently being supported on benefit, very few will be found to merit asylum or exceptional leave to remain. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has therefore been consulting on proposals to limit the availability of benefits to asylum applicants. We propose that child benefit should be restricted in the same way.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has concluded that the same arguments apply in relation to social housing. Proposals for legislation will be brought forward to restrict the housing entitlement of asylum applicants broadly in line with the benefit restrictions.

However, this action is not enough. That is why the Asylum and Immigration Bill is necessary. The asylum part will have three main elements. First, it will enable me to designate selected countries of origin as not giving rise to a serious risk of persecution. Some countries generate large numbers of asylum applications but hardly any genuine refugees. Refusal will not be automatic, but there will in effect be a rebuttable presumption against claims from designated countries and these claims will be dealt with speedily.

The list of countries to be designated will be laid before Parliament. I intend to inform the House of the likely candidates at an early stage during the passage of the Bill, but I can say now that Nigeria is not and never has been among them. Germany and Holland have recently introduced lists of precisely this kind. We are not setting a precedent. We are following their example.

Secondly, the Bill will make appeals against return to a safe third country exercisable only after removal. This will apply to a person who claims asylum after travelling from his country of origin through a third country— usually one of our neighbours, such as France or Germany—in which the application for asylum should have been made. What frequently happens now is that removal is delayed while appellants seek to dispute the safety of such countries. By the time the appeal is over, the third country often refuses to take them back, and we have to admit the applicant here. That is not acceptable.

Thirdly, the Bill will remove a number of obstacles to the effective operation of the 1993 Act. For example, it will enable us to extend the existing accelerated appeal procedure to a wider range of cases, such as those from designated countries, and those in which asylum is claimed at the last minute in order to fend off removal.

I also intend to make a radical improvement in the way in which asylum claims are handled in the Home Office. This does not require legislation. A new procedure which we have been piloting since May has confirmed that it is possible to decide straightforward cases within a much shorter time scale than previously—usually within a month. Applicants are interviewed quickly, and given a deadline for submitting further representations. The normal level of consideration and appeal rights still applies. I now propose to extend the use of that procedure.

We also need to do more to speed up asylum appeals. A consultancy report last year found evidence of deliberate time wasting. We need to strengthen the powers of adjudicators—for example, by enabling them to make directions and impose deadlines for preparation of cases. The Lord Chancellor has been consulting the Immigration Appellate Authority, and will invite comments from interested organisations on proposed rule changes as soon as possible.

In addition, there are other threats to immigration control that we need to address. We need to act to deter employers from giving jobs to people from abroad who are here illegally or are subject to a provision prohibiting them from working. The fact that those people can get jobs quite easily—at the expense of those who are entitled to live and work here—is one of the main reasons why the United Kingdom is seen as such an attractive destination to asylum seekers. Other European countries have recognised those risks and responded to them. The Irish Republic is the only other member state of the European Union that does not have controls of that kind in place.

The Bill will therefore make it a criminal offence to employ a person not entitled to work in the United Kingdom; but there will also be a range of defences available to employers. Any employer who has taken one of the prescribed steps will be sure that he is not committing an offence.

One of those defences will be based on national insurance numbers, but other documents could also be used. I am confident that my proposals will not impose significant new burdens on employers. I am today issuing a consultation document to employers' organisations and others. If the responses suggest that changes are required to the detail of my proposals, I will bring forward appropriate amendments.

I know that concerns have been expressed that my proposals would lead to employers adopting discriminatory recruitment practices. In developing my proposals, I have been concerned that that should not be the case.

I believe that most employers want to ensure that their selection processes are fair and lawful. My Department will therefore provide advice and guidance on how to carry out checks on applicants in ways that will not discriminate against any group.

My objective in bringing forward these proposals is not to make life difficult for responsible employers. The target is people who work here without authority, and who take jobs from others. But just as it is an offence to work here illegally, so it must be an offence to employ someone who is not entitled to work here.

The Bill will also strengthen the enforcement of immigration control in a number of detailed but important respects. In particular, I intend to take firm action against racketeers who encourage the use of deception to circumvent our controls. Those activities will be punishable with up to seven years' imprisonment.

For far too many people across the world, this country is far too attractive a destination for bogus asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants. The reason is simple: it is far easier to obtain access to jobs and benefits here than almost anywhere else. That is the problem that these measures are intended to remedy. They are fully compatible with our international obligations, they are fair, and they are very necessary.

I have clearly identified the problems. I have shown how we intend to deal with them. If there are those who deny that there are problems, I hope that they will say so. If there are those who accept that there are problems but have other ways of dealing with them, I hope they will tell us what they are. Much has been said about the desirability of taking this issue out of party politics. I agree with that view.

There is one very simple way in which that can be achieved. These measures represent a balanced response to a clear and serious problem. They deserve support on both sides of this House. I invite the Opposition to take this issue out of party politics by indicating today that they support these measures, and will assist in their passage through Parliament.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that we believe that fraudulent asylum seekers must quickly be weeded out, and that the whole process must be speeded up—but that it must work in a way that is fair and just to any genuine applicant? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the issue has so far proved controversial because of widely shared concern, as acknowledged by the Prime Minister last week, that the proposals may damage race relations and may not work effectively?

If the Secretary of State now accepts that the issue should be taken out of party politics, surely it should be the subject of cool examination by a Special Standing Committee of the House, with the intention of removing controversy? Is not the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to publish today two lengthy and complicated documents about just part of his proposals further evidence of the need for such examination?

Is the Secretary of State aware that he was misinformed when he said on radio this morning that the Special Standing Committee procedure was never designed for such measures? The right hon. and learned Gentleman, to support his claim, bizarrely quoted a 1993 White Paper, which turns out to be one on Scotland and the Union. The scrutiny of Bills is the responsibility not of the Government but of the House.

Does not the Secretary of State recall that, in 1986, the House accepted a recommendation of the Procedure Committee that the Special Standing Committee process should permanently be incorporated into the Standing Orders of the House? The Procedure Committee stated that a "wider range of Bills" should be examined by such a process. The House defeated an attempt by the Government to control the circumstances in which that procedure could be used.

Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciate that careful scrutiny is one of the best guarantors of good legislation? Its absence explains the failure of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. The then Home Secretary told the House that his 1992 Bill, which became the 1993 Act, would protect against fraud, provide a quicker system to deal with manifestly unfounded claims, and achieve a way of reaching prompt and fair decisions.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his predecessor set an explicit time limit of three months from initial application to the disposal of the appeal, in the full expectation that the total number of applications would rise in future? Instead of applications and appeals being dealt with in three months, they are now taking an average of 19 months. How much have efforts by the Home Office to short-cut delays by predetermining applications from allegedly safe countries complicated procedures still further, and extended delays?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made it clear that Nigeria has not been, and will not be, on any so-called "white list". How can he explain the fact that, last year, of 1,495 applications for asylum from Nigeria, only one was accepted? How can that happen, when the whole world knows of the appalling brutality of the Nigerian regime—not least through the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis?

The Secretary of State also claimed on radio this morning that his Bill has "absolutely nothing" to do with race. How does he square that statement with the opposite view of many organisations that normally support the Government? How does the right hon. and learned Gentleman respond to the comments of the Confederation of British Industry, British Chambers of Commerce and Institute of Directors, which stated that it was very uneasy about the effect of his proposals … upon community relations and that they could lead to businesses being branded as racist by the popular press"? What has the Home Secretary told the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who as recently as September said of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's plans for employer checks that they could result in "racist discrimination"? If those concerns are unfounded, what on earth has the Secretary of State to fear from their examination by a Special Standing Committee?

Should not a Special Standing Committee also be able to examine the Secretary of State's proposals in respect of national insurance numbers—which he has mentioned today—as the Lord Chancellor, in a letter to the Secretary of State in September, described these proposals as having "unlikely viability"?

If the Secretary of State wishes to reassure the public that the proposals have nothing to do with race, is it not time for him to do what so far the Prime Minister has refused to do—to repudiate that chilling and incriminating statement from Mr. Andrew Lansley, the former head of the Conservative research department and now a Conservative candidate for South Cambridgeshire, who said in September that immigration is an issue which has more potential to hurt"? If that was not an invitation to play the race card, what is?

It is the delay in dealing with applications, appeals and removals that is the cause of asylum problems, and of the mounting benefit bill. Those delays have to be tackled; but, given the failure of the 1993 Act, the most serious questions must be raised about whether these proposals will work any more effectively or fairly. If the Secretary of State shares our aim, he will be helped, not hindered, by an examination of the proposals by a Special Standing Committee. If he does not, will he tell the House why?

On the other hand, if the Secretary of State has changed his mind and will now accept this proposal, let me give him an assurance and a guarantee here and now that the House will have our full co-operation in making the process work.

Mr. Howard

If the opening suggestions of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—that the Opposition were determined to deal with bogus asylum seekers—had any credibility at all, he would have expressed his support for these measures. The truth of the matter is that, although I listened very carefully to every word that the hon. Gentleman said, we still do not know what the attitude of the Opposition is to these measures.

The hon. Gentleman has travelled a considerable way in his attitude to these measures. At his party conference, he said: We shall oppose the promised Bill on Asylum and Immigration". On 26 October, he said that Labour would have "no truck" with these proposals. He has since been forced to backtrack, publicly humiliated by the leader of his party. Last week, the hon. Gentleman said of the Bill: we will finally make our decisions on how we are going to vote when we see its terms". Now they know the terms—when will we hear what they think about these proposals?

A Special Standing Committee is a procedure suitable for non-controversial, technical Bills. We have had six immigration Bills since that procedure was introduced, and it has been used for none of them. There is no more reason why that procedure should be used for this Bill than for any other controversial measure. The Bill will receive full and cool scrutiny in Standing Committee in the normal way, and the Government will, of course, listen to the proposals that are made in that Committee.

The 1993 Act has made a contribution to solving the problem, but we did not anticipate at the time that that measure was enacted that the increase in the number of applications would be on such a scale—at a time, I repeat, when the number of applications for the rest of Europe is falling.

It is true that the time limits that were set are not being kept. They are not being kept for the reason that I cited in my opening statement. It was found by the independent consultants who looked at the matter that the procedures are being abused, exploited and manipulated, so that the time limits cannot be adhered to.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the number of applications from Nigeria that are accepted. Those decisions are not made by Ministers. In the first instance, they are made by immigration officials, and they are then subject to appeal to adjudicators. Every applicant has to establish a well founded fear of persecution. It is on that basis that applications have not been accepted.

I dealt with racism in my opening statement. There is no question of racism in my proposals. I have never discussed the matter with Mr. Lansley. The proposals that I have put forward are a measured response to a serious problem. It is on that basis that I commend them to the House.

Mr. Douglas Hurd (Witney)

I think that my right hon. and learned Friend said that he has no intention of watering down in any way the United Kingdom's compliance with its international obligations under the 1951 convention. He said also that we are following other notable liberal countries with the designated list idea. Am I right in saying that, if an individual from a country on the designated list can, against expectation, establish that he or she has a well founded fear of persecution, he or she could be admitted?

It seems that my right hon. and learned Friend has listened carefully to points of view put to him in the past and has shown in the procedure which he has described a willingness to listen in future on particular issues which he outlined.

We have heard the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The statement appeared to me to be one that should have been made on Second Reading. I shall not allow many questions, because we shall have a debate on the issue tomorrow. We shall also have a Second Reading debate on the Bill. I want direct questions to the Home Secretary, so that we might get on with our business.

Mr. Hurd

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to do his utmost to encourage the many people outside the House who feel genuinely about the refugee question to study the worsening problem which he has described and the reasonable remedies that he has proposed? They should not be misled into immediate and ill thought out opposition to what my right hon. and learned Friend says.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his words of support. I can confirm that all my proposals are consistent with our international obligations under the 1951 refugee convention. I can confirm also that, if individual applicants from countries on the designated list, all of whom will have their applications individually considered, establish a well founded fear of persecution, their applications for asylum will be granted.

I agree with what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of those organisations that understandably and rightly feel strongly about these issues studying carefully the details of my proposals, which I am convinced should reassure them.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Buried in the Home Secretary's lengthy statement was the phrase, yet again, that our immigration regulations are "firm and fair". Will he accept that, for many individuals, the regulations turn out, because they divide their families, to be harsh and draconian? That is the effect that they have on individuals.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is arguing that the proposals are uncontroversial, and if they are really to deal with racketeering and bogus asylum seekers—on that basis, they would be met with agreement across the Floor of the House—why does he not accept the case for a Special Standing Committee? Surely that would make the proposals uncontroversial.

May I ask the Home Secretary yet again—this is the third time that the point has been made—to accept that he must repudiate Mr. Lansley's words? He is not merely a former director of research at Conservative central office. Mr. Lansley will be a candidate at the general election. Two months ago, he was reported in The Observer as saying: Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 … played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt. As the son of an immigrant, the Home Secretary should specifically repudiate what Mr. Lansley said. Only then can we accept that the Government are not playing the race card.

Lastly, as the Home Secretary asked for some alternative proposals, may I plead with him to use his position in the Cabinet to ensure that Her Majesty's Government's policy of good governance overseas is not just left to occasional statements from Lady Chalker but is applied across the board with greater diligence so that those despotic regimes, particularly on the continent of Africa, are disposed of, in concert with our allies in France and Belgium, and replaced by regimes that have a sense of democracy and accountability, and put pressure on those Governments instead of individuals?

An hon. Member

That is too long.

Madam Speaker

Order. I need no instructions from the Whips on the Front Bench.

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman— [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I will have no insolence either from the Whips on the Front Bench.

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman's last question went some way beyond the scope of this statement. He knows that we share his concern on these issues. I hope that he will share a recognition of the limited powers that we have over regimes of countries in other parts of the world.

The other points that he raised were really not new. I gave, in answer to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), a full explanation of why the Special Standing Committee procedure would be quite inappropriate for legislation of this kind. It has never been used for such legislation, and it is not necessary.

As for what was said by Mr. Lansley, again I repeat what I said to the hon. Gentleman: I have never discussed this matter with Mr. Lansley. I made these proposals as a measured response to a serious problem. We want to know from the Opposition parties whether they agree that there is a problem, and that this is the way to deal with them.

Sir Trevor Skeet (North Bedfordshire)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend place in the Official Report a list of the countries in western Europe that have tried to strengthen their defences, and also indicate in the table the way in which that has been effected? Will he give a further assurance, which would clear up the matter for the House, that genuine cases will not be affected?

Mr. Howard

I shall do my best to comply with my hon. Friend's first request. So far as the second is concerned, I have borne in mind throughout the preparation of these proposals the importance of doing nothing to imperil this country's honourable tradition of offering sanctuary to genuine refugees. We should be a haven, not a honey pot.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that my parents came to this country from eastern Europe in the first half of this century, seeking refuge from political and religious persecution? Does he recollect that I was for a period shadow Home Secretary? If I had become Home Secretary, would he have regarded it as seemly of me if, to the detriment of others in the predicament that my parents were in, I had changed the law that enabled them to obtain refuge here, which enabled me to be born here and enabled me to be elected to the House and to hold office in the Government?

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman's question is entirely misconceived, for the simple reason that nothing that I have suggested today in any way changes the entitlement of people to come to this country. Everyone who is entitled to come here to live today will continue to be entitled to come here to live when the proposals become law. So the right hon. Gentleman's question is utterly irrelevant, and has nothing whatever to do with the proposals, which are designed solely to deal with bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants who are not entitled to come to this country to live.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

My right hon. and learned Friend and I agree that there is a problem. After the passage of the 1993 Act, which was intended to deal partially with the problem, many people gave evidence and made suggestions about how it could be improved. Those suggestions were not taken into account, and one of the reasons why the Act has failed, I suspect, is that people who are practitioners did not have that opportunity.

Surely there can be some mechanism whereby people can give evidence on what my right hon. and learned Friend is seeking to do, before the passage of the proposed legislation, in an attempt to make it work, and therefore to prove to all that what we are seeking to do is fair and effective, and fulfils our international obligations.

Mr. Howard

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall listen carefully to any representations that are made. That is one of the reasons why we are publishing a consultation document today on the provisions relating to employers. I am sure that we will receive representations from many sources, and they will all be considered carefully and taken into account.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

May I appeal to the Home Secretary to exercise—unusually—some modesty in this context? He has admitted that the Government have introduced six immigration Bills since they came to office; indeed, I had the misfortune to serve on three of the Standing Committees that considered the legislation. He must also be admitting, in presenting yet another Bill, that those earlier Bills failed to address the issues that they were introduced to tackle.

May I therefore urge the Home Secretary to give careful consideration to the suggestion that a Special Standing Committee—or a special inquiry by the Select Committee on Home Affairs—be established to weigh the issues before the Standing Committee deals with the Bill? Time cannot be an issue: it could be done within a month if the political will existed. I urge the Home Secretary to consider such action, which would remove the suspicion among ethnic minorities that the legislation is unjust and discriminatory, and the feeling among many employers that it is totally unfair and unenforceable.

Mr. Howard

I do not accept for a moment that the earlier Bills failed. We must be prepared to view the problem afresh, in the light of changed circumstances. Anyone who thinks that circumstances of this kind do not change, and that it is possible to legislate once and for all and then forget about the matter, is living in a dream world. We must be prepared to examine such matters on a continuing basis, so that, when new problems occur, we can deal with them afresh.

The proposal for a special procedure is nothing more or less than a diversionary tactic. What we expect, and what the country expects, is examination of our proposals on their merits; and we want the Opposition to tell us whether they agree with them.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the only people who have anything to fear from the Bill are those who are not genuine asylum seekers, but are merely trying to exploit a loophole in the law for their own economic advantage? Is not the Labour party now supporting those exploiters in their attempts to rip off this country and its people?

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend: in the absence of any indication of Labour's attitude to our proposals, that is rapidly becoming the only sensible inference to be drawn.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Home Secretary aware that, for 40 years before the last war, Select Bill Committees were set up specifically to deal with matters of technical and social complexity? Two Select Committees—Mr. Turton's Committee of 1970–71 and Mr. Williams's Committee of 1977–78— recommended a procedure similar to the special Bill procedure. Such a procedure would allow alternative methods to those proposed by the Home Secretary to be exercised by those who know and understand.

Would not the desire of both the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Prime Minister for the matters involved to be dealt with without party controversy be fulfilled only if such a Committee met and took evidence? Without that opportunity, what the Home Secretary wants—as do I, and as do many other right hon. and hon. Members—would not be seen to be done.

Mr. Howard

I must confess that I do not recall what was done 40 years before the last war. The fact is, however, that this afternoon the Opposition are demonstrating a readiness to talk about anything and everything except the merits of our proposals. They are serious proposals, and we want a serious response from the Labour party, rather than a series of diversionary tactics.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

My right hon. and learned Friend's proposals are most welcome, provided that they can deliver practical results. Does he accept that a Bill by itself will not deter bogus asylum seekers, any more than Canute could stop the tide? Therefore, will he apply even more resources than he has announced so far to process the backlog of thousands of asylum applications, thereby saving the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds?

Mr. Howard

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the 1993 Act, which has helped, although not as much as we had hoped and anticipated, to deal with this problem. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the legislation: of course a Bill alone cannot and will not be enough. My hon. Friend asked about resources. He will have heard me say that we are to spend £37 million more over the next three years to ensure that our capacity to deal with applications increases. I shall bear his request for even more resources firmly in mind.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

I challenge the Secretary of State's remark that this has no race implications at all. I have been in this country since 1959, and no legislation—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is a time for questions. Mr. Khabra: I will go on to a question.

Madam Speaker

No, we do not go on to questions: we begin with questions.

Mr. Khabra

Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the legislation over the past 30 to 40 years has had racial implications for the racial minorities in this country?

Mr. Howard

I do not think that any of this has racial implications. I say as clearly as I can that this country will not have good race relations unless it also has firm, fair immigration controls. The two are absolutely inseparable. They march together, and we ignore that combination at our peril.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that those of us who served on the Committee that examined the 1993 Bill are particularly gratified by his efforts to plug the loophole and stop the abuse that has occurred as a result of that legislation through entrants from third countries. Could he reassure those of us who have an interest in the channel ports that the immigration service will have the resources and the powers it needs immediately to return those who seek to abuse our benefits system?

Mr. Howard

As my hon. Friend knows, I share that concern. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle), we recently increased resources precisely to achieve the objective that my hon. Friend identifies.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is the Minister aware that, as the proud grandson of four people who came to this country from Lithuania and Latvia, I am worried about how the new rules will be applied? The important consideration is not just the rules but the way that they are applied. I wonder whether my grandparents would have been accepted as having a well founded fear of persecution.

Will the Home Secretary please accept the sincerity of those of us who are anxious about the new rules, and look at them to see whether we may not be right in fearing that their effect could be to allow in terrorists and others who are wealthy and do not need benefit, while excluding the people who really need asylum from their own country?

Mr. Howard

With great respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, it is frankly absurd to suggest that anything in these proposals would help to let in terrorists. In the context of well founded claims, I repeat what I said to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who is sitting beside him: that there is nothing in the proposals to change the entitlement of anyone to come to live in this country.

The proposals do not affect the categories of people who are entitled to come to live here: they are designed entirely to deal with and to remedy abuse of our procedures, to deter bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. That is why they deserve support from all parts of the House.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the family origins and background of himself or anyone else have no intrinsic connection with this matter anyway? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, yes it has."] No—although I have the pleasure of having the Home Secretary's mother as a distinguished constituent of mine.

Does he agree, however, that understandable arguments faced thousands of refugees facing horrendous emergency before the war and, in more recent years, Ugandan Asian refugees coming from Idi Amin's tyranny? That is one situation where a large number of people must be helped under emergency provisions, and has nothing to do with the growing number of phoney individual asylum applications that come to all Members of Parliament of all parties at their repeated surgeries, as I know from my experience—and I am sure others do, too.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, provided the basis of the application seeks out, supports and succours a genuine refugee and political asylum seeker, the legislation is capable of being considered in a prolonged Standing Committee procedure, as all Bills normally are?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He is right about the extent to which this measure can be properly scrutinised in Standing Committee. That will be an important part of the process that will enable to us achieve the highest possible quality in this legislation, so that it will properly do the task that we want it to do.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

May I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that he has my absolute support on his measures to deter bogus asylum seekers, but, as a former employer, may I express some concern over his expectations of particularly small employers being able to discern whether they are taking on someone who is in fact an illegal immigrant? Will he give us a little more information about what he expects of employers, and will he assure me that he will communicate directly to employers, and not simply through the major employing organisations, what he is expecting of them in trying to discern illegal immigrants?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the asylum provisions in these measures. I note what he says about the employer provisions, and I hope that his concerns will be allayed when he reads the consultation document that I am publishing this afternoon.

It will say that, for the most part, employers will have to do very little more than they have to do now to establish one of the defences that will be provided. I will take seriously and give serious consideration to his suggestion that we communicate with employers directly, and not simply through their organisations.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

How can the Secretary of State claim that his proposal is consistent with the UN convention on refugees, which this country signed, which clearly states that group presumptions affecting a group of people from one country should be made only in emergency, and then only in relation to a positive decision, when it is necessary to accept those people? That is the complete opposite of his proposal, and article 1 of the convention says that it should be applied without discrimination in relation to race, religion and country of origin.

Mr. Howard

There will certainly be no discrimination of any type in the way in which we apply these provisions. On the convention, as I said in my statement, we will consider each application from any of the countries designated individually and, as I also said in that statement, we are not alone in introducing a designated list: Germany and Holland have recently done exactly the same.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of what has been said, is the Home Secretary now repudiating the words of the person who, until recently, was the Conservative party's research director and is now a Conservative candidate—that race was an issue, and that immigration could be raised as an issue before and during a general election?

Does not the Home Secretary recognise that, although there are undoubtedly genuine difficulties—no one doubts that for one moment—Labour Members have every reason to believe, especially in view of what was written by the former research director of Conservative central office, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is raising these matters in such a way to try to gain as much electoral advantage as possible? He is worried not about refugees, immigration or good race relations, but only about gaining as many votes as possible for the Tory party at the next election.

Mr. Howard

I entirely refute that suggestion. It is another example of the Opposition being ready to talk about anything and everything except the merits of the proposals. Let us have a sensible debate on the merits of the proposals—that is what a responsible Opposition would do.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that any sensible, fair-minded person could do no other than support all his proposals? Is he further aware that, contrary to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said about the ethnic minority communities, many of them have been worried about employment because illegal immigrants impinge on their employment prospects? I am sure that many members of those communities will welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals.

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has made an important and pertinent point. There is no doubt that many members of ethnic minority communities recognise the importance of firm, fair immigration control, want the loopholes to be block, and want proper action taken. My hon. Friend is entirely right.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

The Secretary of State said that he did not believe that a genuine case for political asylum would be deterred by his proposals. How can he assure a genuine refugee from a country on the white list that he will be guaranteed fair treatment, if all cases are not considered on their merits? If all cases are considered on their merits, what is the point of having the white list? Is it not the case that this sort of issue should be considered by a Special Standing Committee, which would reduce racial tension and promote good race relations?

Mr. Howard

The Opposition persist in their diversionary tactics of trying to discuss anything and everything but the merits. There is no reason to suppose that any genuine asylum seeker from a country on the designated list would be disadvantaged or would not be able to have his application properly considered—and, indeed, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), have it accepted.

The designated list will create a presumption, and will change the appeal procedures so that we can make greater progress with, and have more speedy processing of, applications from those countries. The Labour party must face the fact that other countries are introducing tough but fair procedures to deter bogus applicants, and that we must match them and take similar action. We need firm but fair immigration control if we are to maintain our record of good race relations.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Tarn Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must resume their seats. I have a point of order.

Mr. Dalyell

I have been in this House for a great number of years. What we have witnessed this afternoon is, quite honestly, unprecedented in the procedure of the House. Whenever before, during debates on the Queen's Speech, has a Secretary of State made what he must have known would be a highly controversial statement on a subject that is not being debated that day? Has it been done for presentational reasons? If so, should the Queen's Speech and the House of Commons be used—some might say abused—in that way?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Madam Speaker

Order. Let me respond to the point raised. Of course, I did not read the Secretary of State's statement before he made it, but out of courtesy I must always allow a Secretary of State wishing to give information to the House to do so. I have to say that, when I heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I did think that the statement should have been made either tomorrow, when we are debating these matters, or on Second Reading of the Bill. Therefore, I sought brisk exchanges, so that we might proceed with our proper business today and return to this matter tomorrow and on Second Reading. That is what I now propose to do.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I will take no more points of order on that matter.