HC Deb 27 October 1997 vol 299 cc569-71
8. Dr. Ladyman

If he will make a statement on Britain's border controls with the rest of the European Union. [11664]

Mr. Straw

Our first resolve is to retain the United Kingdom system of frontier and border controls. One of the many achievements of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Amsterdam in June was to obtain legal confirmation of the right to maintain controls at our frontiers with other European Union member states—something that the previous Administration had conspicuously failed to achieve.

Dr. Ladyman

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he also confirm that the problems in east Kent are almost entirely a consequence of the previous Administration's failure to put in place fair and effective asylum and immigration controls? I thank him for the efforts he has already made to reduce significantly the number of unfounded asylum seekers. What further measures does he intend to implement to help asylum applications to be dealt with more quickly?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. We have acted swiftly and firmly to seek to stem the flow of unfounded asylum seekers at Dover and elsewhere, against a background in which the previous Government signed up to the Dublin convention, apparently without even reading the text, something that has made the procedure much more complex and much more difficult.

In answer to my hon. Friend's second question, I can announce today the introduction of a new procedure to speed up the decision-making processes in abusive asylum cases. Under the new procedure, the time allowed for people with abusive claims to make further representations after interview will be cut from the existing 28 days to five working days. The new procedure will have national application at all ports with immediate effect.

Mr. Gale

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard his junior Minister confirm on the radio this morning that his civil servants were reviewing entry procedures for people coming into the United Kingdom and passport controls, and that there was therefore some substance in the newspaper story that was carried. Given that the Minister said that this morning, why should we believe for one moment that our frontiers are safe, particularly in the light of the fact that his Department took absolutely no action to stem the first wave of immigrants from the Czech and Slovak Republics until that news hit the press?

Mr. Straw

Almost every assumption behind the hon. Gentleman's question is incorrect. The truth is that we took firm and effective action. That is now working, as the numbers show.

Mr. Prosser

I thank my right hon. Friend for meeting me last week to talk about the serious problems that Dover and my constituents in Dover face. Does he agree that the sudden impact of bogus asylum seekers on a small community such as Dover can have major social impact and disrupt good racial harmony? Would he like to contrast the practical and responsible way in which the Government are working to find solutions to those sensitive problems with the irresponsible and inflammatory statements made by some Conservative Members?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks and for the compliment that he paid to my hon. Friend the junior Minister, who has been working so hard to deal with those problems. The truth is that the previous Government's practice on asylum applications was chaotic. That led to a wholly unsatisfactory burden being placed on local authorities, about which Conservative right hon. and hon. Members used to complain. But that burden is there. The previous Government's inefficiency also led to a backlog of more than 50,000 applications. They created the problem; we are attempting to provide a solution to it.

Mr. Beith

Has not the document that appeared this morning revealed that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor, perhaps more significantly, the previous Conservative Government set aside anything like enough money to provide enough immigration officers to inspect every one of the millions of passports that are shown at our port controls? Does that not demonstrate that the right hon. Gentleman must use more sophisticated systems, particularly given that the current one allows many illegal immigrants through in any case, and seek more European co-operation, not less, to control in particular the flow of criminals across boundaries?

Mr. Straw

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats ended up with such a small number of seats after the election and are the third party was their spend, spend, spend policy, which convinced nobody. The right hon. Gentleman spent the one penny on income tax about 55 times over.

Fiona Mactaggart

I invite my right hon. Friend to refute the suggestions made in some newspapers today that Britain is planning to abandon its border controls. May I also ask him to provide further information about the announcement that he has just made about speeding up the processing of abusive asylum claims? What measures will be put in place to ensure that those whose claims are genuine will not be pushed into the fast track and will be able to make full representations on their cases?

Mr. Straw

The procedure according to which we have cut the time from 28 days to five days for port applicants—something which the previous Government never did—is designed for abusive claims. Those who have a genuine, well-founded claim will not be caught by the change.

As for the first part of my hon. Friend's question, the simple fact is that the previous Government failed to secure proper legal protection for our border controls. That is not just our view but the view of the former Conservative Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle). It was not until my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister went to Amsterdam that any proper legal protection of our border controls was obtained and written into international law.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

First, may I associate the Opposition with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and those of the Home Secretary on the tragic death of the woman police constable? We join everyone else in extending our condolences to her family.

Given the Government's apparent determination to undermine our border controls and the fair but firm immigration policy which they inherited from the previous Government, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the terms of reference of the spending review made it legitimate for civil servants to bring forward for the right hon. Gentleman's consideration the sort of proposals outlined in today's edition of The Guardian?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the appalling death of WPC Nina Mackay.

On the right hon. Gentleman's question, he should do a little more research on his Government's record on border controls. They had no legal basis for their claim about such controls. Moreover, I have discovered that, under the Conservative Administration, they cut the proportion of embarkation controls from 100 per cent. to 60 per cent. of passengers, but never announced that—hardly "firm but fair": unfair and not firm at all.