HC Deb 27 October 1997 vol 299 cc575-6
13. Mr. Corbyn

What is his latest estimate of the number of asylum seekers held in custody under the Immigration Acts. [11669]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

As at 30 September 1997, the most recent date for which information is available, 772 persons who had sought asylum at some stage were recorded as being detained solely under Immigration Act powers. As I have already stated, we announced a review of detention policy before the recess.

Mr. Corbyn

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. When he undertakes the review of the policy of internment of asylum seekers, will he bear it in mind that many of those who have been detained for many months have a deep sense of injustice? They have fled from oppressive societies where they have lived in great fear and have often suffered racist attacks, only to arrive in this country and find themselves in custody for several months. Does my hon. Friend recognise that that is an abuse of their rights? We should not have a routine policy of imprisonment—no other European country does. The measure should be used only in the most extreme circumstances and we should not keep more than 700 people in custody.

Mr. O'Brien

I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. There is no routine detention of persons. I would not accept that, and I am sure that the Government would not accept it. People are not detained merely because they are seeking asylum; other factors will always have a bearing on the likelihood of people complying with the conditions of temporary admission which determine the need for detention. At any one time, only about 1.5 per cent. of those who may have sought asylum are actually detained.

Mr. Brooke

Is the Minister contemplating an increase in the amount of provision in detention centres in order to reduce the pressure on prisons?

Mr. O'Brien

That is one of the issues that we shall have to examine as part of the review of detention. It is obviously preferable, where possible, to detain people under immigration powers in detention centres rather than in prisons but, given the numbers and pressures and the nature of some detainees who have been unable to adapt themselves to the more relaxed regime in detention centres, we sometimes have to use prisons.

Dr. Harris

Detaining up to 500 asylum seekers in prison establishments costs up to £20 million to £30 million a year. Does the Minister agree that that money could be better spent on providing prison places for the criminals who are currently in overcrowded prisons? Given that, at my suggestion, Sir David Ramsbotham has visited Campsfield House in my constituency, and given the critical report on Rochester prison and the likely critical report on Tinsley House, how many critical reports will the Minister have to receive before he ends the barbaric practice of using prisons? The Liberal Democrats have welcomed the Government's ethical foreign policy. How long do we have to wait for an ethical Home Office policy?

Mr. O'Brien

Presumably, the hon. Gentleman is saying that nobody should be held in detention. I was interested to hear that he asked Sir David Ramsbotham to act—probably before the hon. Gentleman did, I asked Sir David Ramsbotham to act. He conducted an inspection of Campsfield House at my request; he has briefed me on the result of his inquiries and will shortly be letting me have a full and detailed report of the situation. It is necessary to examine the way in which we use detention, and we are doing that. The prospects of releasing everybody are extremely unlikely. We need to use detention in certain cases. We want to apply a firm immigration policy; that is the Government's policy and that is what we shall deliver.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I share the Minister's view that documentation is an important part of determining whether asylum seekers should be permitted to remain in this country, but may I take him back to the broader issue of border controls? I shall ask a question that the Home Secretary either did not know the answer to or would not come clean to the House about. Will the hon. Gentleman, who has direct responsibility for these matters, confirm that the terms of reference of the spending review made it legitimate for civil servants to produce the sort of proposals outlined in today's edition of The Guardian?

Mr. O'Brien

I make it clear that the Government will maintain firm immigration controls. Nothing will be done that undermines our ability to enforce firm immigration controls. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured our legal right to do that at Amsterdam, which is something the previous Government singularly failed to achieve. We shall maintain the enforceability of immigration controls. The document to which the right hon. Gentleman refers would appear to be merely a think piece—a summary of the views of some officials. Our determination and our commitments are clear: those commitments will be delivered. The people of Britain have voted for them and the people of Britain will get them.

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