§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on immigration and asylum.
I am today publishing a White Paper, "Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum", following a wide-ranging examination undertaken as part of the comprehensive spending review.
Governments have few more complex and sensitive responsibilities, yet the system has been subject to piecemeal and ill considered changes that have failed to tackle the real problems. Indeed, the changes have often made the problems worse. The arrangements for supporting asylum seekers are a shambles: huge backlogs have been allowed to develop, and additional complexity and regulation have made the system unwieldy to operate.
Despite the dedication and professionalism of immigration staff at all levels, genuine applicants have suffered, while abusive claimants and racketeers have exploited delays in the system. It is time for a new approach. The Government are determined to maintain firm control over immigration, but to do so in a way that meets our international obligations and our commitment to strengthening human rights.
The volume of passenger traffic arriving at our ports of entry has grown very fast in recent years, from 55 million arrivals in 1992–93 to 80 million in 1997–98, and it is projected to reach nearly 100 million passengers in only two years' time. We want to welcome genuine visitors to our shores, and to provide them, and British citizens who travel abroad, with a fast and efficient service.
Our immigration policy will continue to support family life by admitting the spouses and minor dependent children of those already settled in the United Kingdom. It must also sustain and promote racial equality. It is particularly important for us to acknowledge the huge contribution that immigrants and their descendants have made to our society in all walks of life.
The Government have already begun to put in place a fairer and more efficient system. Last June, as promised in our manifesto, we abolished the primary purpose rule; but fairness is not well served by a system of decision making that labours under huge backlogs and outdated methods of working. The White Paper sets out our plans for an integrated approach to the modernisation of immigration control. We are making organisational changes in the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office, backed by new technology, which will result in a new integrated casework directorate.
We also intend to integrate the overseas entry clearance operation with the other elements of control. A core feature of the new approach will be a single management structure, drawn from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, to manage the overseas operation. We will use new technology and more flexible legislative provisions to the best advantage.
Many people resident in this country want their relatives to visit them for important family and other occasions. In our view, the previous Government were wrong to remove the right of appeal to those refused a 36 visit visa in such circumstances. Such a right of appeal provided an element of independent oversight of what are bound to be very difficult and often emotive decisions.
Honouring our manifesto commitment, we propose to introduce a streamlined right of appeal for those refused a visa to visit a family member in this country. We also intend to test a financial bond scheme for visitors, as has been urged upon us by many groups representing, in particular, those from the Indian sub-continent.
Many problems and much confusion are caused by passengers arriving in the United Kingdom without the required visas, or in some cases without any passport. We shall adopt a tough approach to deterring and preventing the arrival of such inadequately documented passengers. One of the best ways to achieve that is through the use of airline liaison officers. We already have five officers placed overseas working with carriers and the relevant authorities to combat document and other frauds. We intend to increase that network to about 20 officers in total.
Fundamental to our overall strategy is the need to speed up the system. There are too many avenues of appeal, so in future there will be a single right of appeal for those lawfully present in the United Kingdom at the time of their application. We recently published a consultation document on that. The aim is to create an appeals system that will provide a fair opportunity to review decisions, but to do so quickly, and to minimise the scope for manipulation of the system.
In our manifesto, we said that we would "control unscrupulous immigration advisers". As many hon. Members from both sides of the House know from their constituency casework, a significant minority of such advisers abuse the system and exploit their clients. We have consulted widely about that, and will introduce a statutory scheme to regulate immigration advisers, which may include those who are legally qualified.
The United Kingdom has long given shelter to those fleeing persecution from other parts of the world. We will continue scrupulously to observe our international obligations to protect genuine refugees. Those who are accepted as refugees or given exceptional leave to remain should be helped to integrate into local communities. To aid that integration, we will reduce to four years the qualifying period for settlement for asylum applicants granted exceptional leave to remain, and give immediate settlement to those recognised as refugees.
The number seeking asylum has increased eightfold in the past 10 years, from 4,000 to 34,000. The reasons for that are many, including political instability, but there is no doubt that the asylum system is being abused.
Around three quarters of asylum applications are refused outright because they meet the requirements neither for refugee status nor for exceptional leave to remain. The vast majority of such failed applicants appeal, but only 6 per cent. of the appeals are successful. Of course, a failed asylum application does not necessarily mean that the applicant has abused the system, but many claims for asylum are made by those seeking to migrate for purely economic reasons, or as a means of prolonging a stay in the United Kingdom without legitimate reason.
That places substantial pressure on a system that is already under severe strain, and it is unfair to genuine refugees who have to wait long periods in the system for a decision on their claim to refugee status. At the end 37 of May this year, there was a backlog of 52,000 asylum applications on which not even an initial decision had been taken. Of those applications, 10,000 were more than five years old. On the same date, a backlog of 32,000 immigration appeals were waiting to be heard, of which more than 70 per cent. were asylum cases.
Modernising the controls and simplifying and speeding up the procedures will help to tackle those problems. However, we cannot create the faster system that we all want without clearing existing backlogs. We are strengthening immigration control, and there will be no amnesty, either now or in the future, for any applicant. We will instead allocate additional resources to deal with that inheritance. We will also adopt a practical approach to the application backlog when an initial decision has been outstanding for some years, and we will ensure that the effect of long delays is properly taken into account, but in ways that will not outweigh other factors such as serious abuse.
The package of measures that I am announcing today will ensure that new applicants can be dealt with more quickly. As part of that process of strengthening our control, I am announcing that, from today, the period allowed for asylum seekers to submit further representations after interview will be reduced from 28 days to five days in port cases. It is already five days for in-country applicants. No one intent on exploiting the system should be under any illusion that those measures to clear the backlog will benefit them.
We shall take further enforcement measures to ensure that asylum seekers who are refused leave to enter or remain are returned quickly to their countries of origin. We have previously undertaken special exercises to tackle sudden increases in applicants, and we will not hesitate to do so again. All told, we aim by 2001 to have average process times for initial asylum decisions of two months, and for appeals of a further four months.
We shall not hesitate to use detention where necessary to ensure the integrity of immigration control. We have, however, decided that detainees should be given written reasons for their detention, and that, subject to legislation, there will be judicial oversight of the process.
The current support arrangements for asylum seekers are a shambles. They are the product of ill-considered legislation that later required the intervention of the courts. The Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 imposed a burden on local authority social services departments that was unplanned for and inappropriate. It cannot be allowed to continue. Action must be taken to contain costs and to relieve the burden that has fallen heavily on London authorities in particular, and more recently on the local authorities of Dover and Kent.
In opposition, I said that, in a civilised society, genuine asylum seekers could not be left destitute, and I am honouring that commitment today. We need a system that reduces the incentive to economic migration, and recognises that the genuine asylum seeker needs food and shelter, not a girocheque.
Support on the basis that I have outlined will therefore be separated from the main social security benefits system, and will principally be provided in kind, not in cash. Where accommodation is needed, it will normally be provided directly, with no choice about location. We will also consider the extent to which support for food and other basic needs can be provided by vouchers or 38 other non-cash means. In general, support will not extend beyond the point at which the application has been decided and all appeal rights have been exhausted.
That support will require new national machinery to plan and co-ordinate provision. There will be a single budget for asylum seeker support costs, which will be managed by the Home Office alongside the costs of the process for considering asylum cases. That will enable more flexible use of resources to reduce overall costs. New central machinery will also be created under Home Office management, to contract with a range of providers to obtain accommodation. They will include the private sector, voluntary bodies, housing associations and local authorities.
The intention is to develop a national approach making use of support from existing communities and voluntary groups, and to relieve over-concentration on London and one or two other areas, which is creating such severe problems in those areas. The Government will consult widely on the details, and on transitional arrangements. In taking this work forward, we will ensure that the needs of children, whether unaccompanied or members of families, are fully protected.
The Government are committed to promoting a more positive view of citizenship that both reflects and celebrates the multicultural, multiracial society that we have become. We will take action to reduce waiting times for processing applications for British citizenship to give a more welcoming signal to prospective citizens.
The measures described in the White Paper provide a much clearer framework for what our immigration control should be. They should also provide the staff of the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office with a workable system. Bureaucracy, over-complexity, delays and backlogs often frustrate the best efforts of staff to give effect to the law and to the policies of Parliament and Ministers. Despite those difficulties, staff in the directorate have consistently achieved impressive results, and I take this opportunity to thank them for their hard work. A clear framework and better tools for the job will enable everyone to take a fresh and more purposeful view of what they can and should achieve.
The White Paper sets out a comprehensive and integrated strategy for immigration control. It tackles the failings of the current system, and addresses the challenges that we will face in future. The Government will introduce legislation to implement the White Paper as soon as parliamentary time allows. The legislation may be a good candidate for consideration by a Special Standing Committee. Britain requires an immigration and asylum system appropriate to the demands of the 21st century. The system in place is simply not up to the job. We need radical change to deliver a modern and efficient system that is fairer, faster and firmer. I commend the White Paper to the House.
§ Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
Our general attitude is that strict immigration control is necessary to good race relations. We shall back any measures to improve race relations and to create full equality of opportunity. We shall also back any effective measures to prevent illegal immigration. In far too many cases, applications for political asylum are a means to evade immigration control. As the Home Secretary and the 39 White Paper say, three quarters of asylum applications are refused because they do not meet the requirements of either refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. Only 6 per cent. of appeals are successful.
Even at that, however, the Home Secretary plans to spend almost £1 billion over the next three years on support of asylum seekers. That is almost four times what he plans to spend on his new crime programme, and it is almost as much as total extra spending on the police during the same period. It must be sensible to reduce that bill radically, and to divert the money to better purposes.
Does the Home Secretary feel on reflection that the position in the United Kingdom would have been substantially improved if the Labour party had not with great ferocity opposed our Bills in 1993 and 1996? Does he recall that the Prime Minister, then shadow Home Secretary, played down the seriousness of the issue because of a temporary fall in applications?
If not, the right hon. Gentleman will perhaps remember that, when he was shadow Home Secretary, he opposed us when we proposed benefit withdrawal. He did not say that our changes were insufficient, as he appears to argue now. He said then that they were far too stringent. We shall support his changes to the benefit system, but we know that, if the Conservative Government had proposed them, Labour spokesmen would have toured the country condemning them. We are not prepared to take lectures from the Home Secretary or the Labour party on effective immigration control, because they opposed virtually all our measures to tackle abuse.
The White Paper is important enough to require a full day's debate, and I hope that the Government will arrange one. For now, I have three sets of questions. First, much of our immigration control system depends on border controls, to which we are committed, and to which we hope the Government are committed.
The Home Secretary has referred to the vast increase in passenger traffic to 100 million passengers in two years time. He is giving immigration officers more power, but is he satisfied that there are enough of them to police our borders effectively? He also intends to introduce a new right of appeal for visitors. Is there a danger that that will put more pressure on the appeals system, just when he is trying to reduce pressure?
Secondly, the Home Secretary abolished the primary purpose rule last year. Previously, applicants had to prove that gaining entry to the United Kingdom was not the primary purpose of their marriage. The latest Home Office figures show a significant increase in applications from spouses. Does that trend continue into 1998? Will he give us the latest figures?
Thirdly, and most importantly, the Home Secretary has said that there will be no amnesty for political asylum applicants because of the time that they have been waiting. However, the statement was less than forthcoming, compared with the White Paper, on the right hon. Gentleman's intentions.
Will there not now be two special provisions for asylum applicants? Ten thousand people who have been waiting since before July 1993 will now normally be given indefinite leave to remain. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the position? In addition, 20,000 40 people who made applications between mid-1993 and the beginning of 1996 will also be considered under special criteria not available generally. They will have been waiting not seven or five years, but two and a half or three years.
Will the Home Secretary explain the detail of that second scheme, which affects so many people? Does it not mean that 30,000 of the 50,000 people waiting for initial decision will be considered under special criteria not available generally, and that, certainly with one group, settlement will be the normal, almost automatic, outcome, when he has said that the average of false applications is very high? That is the background against which the policy is set. For all those reasons, the Opposition will want to examine those two schemes in particular with great care.
We have heard the Home Secretary's words. We want to monitor carefully the effect of what he has announced. We fear that his plans in action may not match up to the words that he has used this afternoon.
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. Gentleman asks for a full day's debate on this important White Paper. I would welcome that, but it is a matter for business managers. I will pass on his request to them.
The right hon. Gentleman made some curious assertions, given the record of the previous Administration. He first complained that the costs of asylum support given on the last page of the White Paper are likely to add up to £1 billion over the next three years. That is simple arithmetic, but had we not taken the costs in hand, our inheritance meant that the figures would have risen to about £800 million in a single year. Anything up to £2 billion could have been wasted on support of applicants and those awaiting removal and deportation in a system that was a shambles from beginning to end. That was the system we found when we came into office.
I have read the debates in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I took part in 1992–93 and 1995–96. One reason that we opposed those measures was that we said that they would not deliver the changes—[Laughter.] Oh, yes we did. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, then the shadow Home Secretary, once a distinguished position—the jury is still out on whether it is still distinguished—said:No one on the Opposition Benches condones bogus applications for asylum: everyone condemns them. However, weeding out false claims should not be at the expense of prejudicing genuine claims, and that is our fear about the Bill."—[Official Report, 2 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 36.]The effect of that, and the 1996 Bill, was to create the worst of all possible worlds, in which genuine asylum seekers were left in limbo for years while their applications were considered, while the very delays that the Bills had established enabled bogus asylum seekers to come, claim benefit, work and carry on ripping off the system.
Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's explicit questions. On border controls, he asked whether there will be enough immigration staff. Again, this is an area that he should have researched more. The staff numbers in the immigration service were to have been cut and cut again under the spending plans that we inherited. We are arranging over the next three years to put an extra £124 million into immigration and asylum control. We 41 have put some more money in already precisely to deal with the rising number of visitors and the overhang of asylum applications.
The right hon. Gentleman made a serious point about whether the new right of appeal for visitors refused a visit for family purposes could put pressure on the appeal system as a whole. We do not intend that it should. It will be a separate, self-contained, streamlined system. As we make clear in the White Paper, it will be a system whose costs will be paid by the applicants.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the numbers who have applied for settlement as spouses following the ending of the primary purpose rule on 5 July last year. He is right to say that numbers have increased. That was bound to be the case, because there was a huge logjam. The Opposition, under the previous shadow Home Secretary, now the shadow Foreign Secretary, had every opportunity to oppose the abolition of the primary purpose rule and make a prayer in this House to negate my changing the rules. They did not, and the decision had the surprising vocal support of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). He and many other Conservative Members recognised the injustice of the rule, and the fact that it offered no serious means of control.
The right hon. Gentleman's last point concerned our proposals for dealing with the backlog, which are set out in full in paragraphs 8.29 and 8.30 on page 41 of the White Paper. For those who made initial applications before 1 June 1993 that have still not had an initial decision, we are saying that delay in itself will normally be considered so serious as to justify as a matter of fairness the grant of indefinite leave to remain.
That will not apply to applicants whose presence is not conducive to the public good or to applications for asylum made after the commencement of removal or deportation cases. For those who made applications between 1 July 1993 and 31 December 1995, the delays will be weighed in the balance in each case against their current circumstances.
Let me make this clear to right hon. Gentleman. Again, he has come to his position without the benefit of even looking at the asylum statistics for 1997. The previous Administration faced a huge backlog. The figures show that the number granted exceptional leave to remain in 1992–93 shot up suddenly from 2,000 to 15,000 in 1992, and to 11,000 in 1993. Their policy for dealing with the backlog was much less discriminating than ours. The policy was entirely secret. It never surfaced publicly, and was never disclosed to the House. It became apparent only when the statistics were published much in retard.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. That initial exchange took precisely 28 minutes. I ask Back Benchers for direct questions and the Secretary of State for brisk answers. This is not a debate, but a question and answer session.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's statement, and especially his determination to deal with the backlog and his proposals on visitors' visas, which are a significant development. When does he propose to put in place the framework for dealing with unscrupulous immigration advisers? 42 Many hon. Members have constituents who have been advised by these miserable people, who have given false information and advice that has added to the backlog.
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the proposals. The requirements relating to unscrupulous immigration advisers will depend on legislation that we shall bring before the House as quickly as possible.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
The Liberal Democrats welcome many of the measures that the Home Secretary has announced, because we share the Government's commitment to sort out some of the mess left by the previous Government, especially the 1996 Act. We welcome the fact that this problem is being dealt with early in the Parliament rather than close to a general election, as happened with the 1996 Act.
I have a few brisk questions to ask the Home Secretary on the criteria that he has set himself for developing a faster, fairer and firmer system. If the system is to be faster, will he confirm that the extra money will reverse the staff cuts proposed at Croydon, which amount to several hundred over the next couple of years? Will he be able to get the computer system, which is already several months behind schedule, into play more quickly?
If the system is to be fairer, will the Home Secretary consider, in addition to help in kind, making small cash payments to asylum seekers to cover small costs such as travel and telephone calls? Will he ensure that asylum seekers are not clustered into hostels, which could become targets for racial abuse—a problem that we have seen in other countries? If the system is to be firmer, will he look again at immigration service officers' extended powers and consider keeping the police in place for that purpose? Immigration officers have expressed concern about their ability to deal with the extended powers.
Finally, will the Home Secretary confirm that all detainees will have the right to a bail hearing, and say whether they will be legally supported when they go to such hearings?
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we will reverse the staff cuts. The answer is yes. We inherited the computer system—such matters cuts across all Governments at all times—and it is behind schedule—[Interruption.] I am sorry, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is muttering something from a sedentary position.
§ Madam Speaker
§ Mr. Straw
The computer system that we inherited was put in place to develop a casework programme. It is behind schedule, and we are hoping to bring it nearer schedule. I understand the case for making small cash payments available to asylum seekers within the overall regime of providing benefits in kind, and we shall consult on that. We considered whether we should direct people to hostels, as happens in a number of other countries, but we accept the strong arguments against doing so. The hon. Gentleman, among others, has adumbrated the reasons against it.
A judicial oversight of the detention system will apply to virtually all detainees. Those who are detained for a very short time—overnight, for example—will not be 43 covered, but nobody seriously suggests that they should be. With respect to immigration officers' powers, I strongly believe that giving immigration officers proper powers and training will greatly assist them in their job, and release pressures on the police.
§ Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the patience and tolerance that my constituents have shown over the past 12 months, when large numbers of east European people seeking asylum arrived in the port of Dover and settled in Dover? Is he aware that there have been serious social tensions recently because of the concentration of those asylum seekers, and the fact that an inordinate cost has been imposed on Dover district council, Kent county council and the local police force in seeking to manage those difficulties?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on producing such a balanced White Paper, which meets all the main concerns of my constituents and will receive their support.
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I applaud the tolerance of the people of Dover and other ports in Kent in putting up with such a serious abuse of our system of immigration and asylum control. I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has pursued the matter. We seek to remove the unacceptable burdens on areas such as his and a number of inner-London boroughs.
§ Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)
Any proposals to reduce the asylum backlog should be welcomed because it is costly and delays genuine applications, and they should be given fair consideration in the House. However, does the Home Secretary accept that the use of "exceptional leave to remain" as an administrative device to shorten the queue does not amount to improved control, as was shown in the late 1980s? If more money is to be spent on in-country enforcement, will the Home Secretary ensure that port-of-entry controls remain as strong as ever? Finally, where will the streamline right of appeal take place when visitor visas are refused?
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for our proposals. Given his considerable experience as a former Immigration Minister in the Home Office, he will accept that the key to improving enforcement is to reduce delays—it is the delays that have been so exploited. The prospect of cash payments and the absence of direction on where benefits in kind could be taken led to a huge burst of economic migrants, for example, from eastern Europe. We are wholly committed to maintaining effective border controls, which is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was successful in writing into the Amsterdam treaty legal protection for our border controls, which were at risk under the Maastricht treaty.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about visit visa appeals, the control of advisers, and dealing with the backlog. However, will he look again at support for asylum seekers? Although we all accept that local authorities should not carry the burden, we have learnt in the past year or two that there are problems with benefits in kind. 44 If it is coupled with a policy of dispersal, as the White Paper appears to suggest, we might be setting up a complex and bureaucratic system that will not deliver easily. The real issue is to get decisions taken quickly, because, if anything will deter abusive claimants, it is quick and efficient decision taking.
§ Mr. Straw
I forgot to answer a question raised by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) about where visitor appeals would take place. The prospective visitor would obviously have to stay in the country in which the application was made, and the appeal would almost certainly be heard here, on the papers. However, we are consulting on that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) for his overall welcome. He asked about benefits in kind. We discussed that matter in great detail, particularly whether we should have a combined system of benefits in cash and benefits in kind, and where the cut-off point should be. In the end, we judged that the only way to run an effective system was by paying benefits in kind, because that would not deter genuine asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution and want shelter, food and accommodation in this country, but it would deter economic migrants.
There are two issues. First, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the system must be speeded up—that is key. Secondly, we must ensure that the rest of the system does not act as a pull on economic migrants who have no basis for making a claim under the 1951 convention.
§ Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)
I thank the Home Secretary for his comments about a visitor right of appeal, and the proposal for a register of advisers. He will know that the Immigration Advisory Service, which I founded, has long campaigned for those. Does he accept that tens of thousands of those who lose their appeals, right the way through the system, then go to ground and are never heard of again because there is no system whereby they can be retrieved and removed from the country? Does he think that that problem will get worse or better, and does he recognise that it is a major problem?
§ Mr. Straw
It is a major problem, and it is made much worse by the fact that people can exercise multiple rights of appeal and, because the immigration appeal tribunal is not currently a court of record, far too many applications for judicial review are approved by the judge dealing with the Crown Office list, even if they are later rejected on the merits of the case. As the hon. Gentleman said, applicants then go to ground partly because adjudicators may take many months to produce their adjudication.
We are taking a number of steps, which are set out in the White Paper, greatly to improve enforcement. We are ready to increase the use of detention at the point of removal if necessary so that we can toughen the system up. The point of having a single right of appeal is that it will not only deal with the merits of the application but impose removal directions.
§ Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)
May I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement in general, but make two specific points? The Home Secretary has already made it clear that there will be a right of appeal and a charge for visitors. What will the charge be, and does he intend to cover the cost of the appeal system through a charge on visitors who appeal?
45 My second point relates to asylum seekers. My right hon. Friend appears to have made quite clear the position for those who have made an application prior to June 1993 and who have not yet received a decision on their application, but the post-June 1993 position still seems to be a bit cloudy. Can he say what sort of criteria he will use to decide whether people can stay or have to leave the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Straw
On the question of visitor's rights of appeal, it is intended that the fees charged to all family visitor applicants, plus a specific charge where a right of appeal is exercised, should together cover the cost of running the appeal system. There is an issue of balance between the initial charge and the appeal charge, but we are looking at a cost of a right of appeal of about £200 to £250.
The criteria for dealing with those who are in the application backlog, no decision having been made between 1 July 1993 and 31 December 1995, are set out in paragraph 8.30 of the White Paper.
§ Mr. Marshall
I have not seen the White Paper yet.
§ Mr. Straw
I appreciate that my hon. Friend has not yet had a chance to read it. It states:delay will not normally of itself justify the grant of leave to enter or remain… but in individual cases will be weighed up with other considerations and, if there are specific compassionate or other exceptional factors present which are linked to the delay… a decision to grant limited leave to enter or remain may then be justified.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
First, may I express my appreciation for those of the Home Secretary's measures that will reduce the burden on Hillingdon borough council and other London borough councils, which have in the past borne an inordinate share of the cost of supporting asylum seekers? However, may I express anxiety at the fact that he and the Government have not yet fully addressed the control of would-be asylum seekers from overseas?
The right hon. Gentleman has not managed to impose a charge on French railways for the carriage of would-be refugees without the appropriate visa through the channel tunnel; nor has he changed the terms of the Dublin convention that allow other European Union countries to pass on to the United Kingdom asylum seekers they ought properly to deal with themselves and return to their country of origin.
§ Mr. Straw
I am one of the world's few experts on the problems of imposing carrier's liability on the French railways. I regret to say that that goes back to defects in the Sangatte protocol, which laid the ground—sorry, the underground—for the channel tunnel, and there are major legal problems. The French Minister of the Interior, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, has been very co-operative in ensuring that far better checks are imposed by the French border police, DICCILEC, than was previously the case. Although that is not as good as the imposition of carrier's liability, which I was able to achieve in respect of the Brussels end of Eurostar, it is a great deal better than was previously the case.
The Dublin convention is not a satisfactory international European treaty. It was signed, I think in their sleep, by Ministers whom the hon. Gentleman 46 technically supported, in 1990. I have succeeded in changing its application. One of the important triumphs of the justice and home affairs presidency of the United Kingdom—I was the president of the Justice and Home Affairs Council during that period—was to have an article 18 committee meeting on 27 May, which laid down new and better interpretations of the Dublin convention. However, the convention is far from satisfactory, and would that it had never been signed.
§ Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when he introduces welcome and long-overdue legislation to regulate immigration advisers, legally qualified individuals will come under that legislation? Regrettably, solicitors are often the worst transgressors in giving out bogus immigration advice.
§ Mr. Straw
We have not yet made a final decision, but I note entirely my hon. Friend's comments. There is no question but that some solicitors and others who are legally qualified are the worst perpetrators of fraud on innocent applicants and abusers of the system.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)
It is now nearly a year since my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and I visited the Home Office to warn in person of the dangers of a tide of economic migrants from eastern Europe. Since then, that tide has continued, and has embraced Albania and Czechoslovakia.
The Home Secretary referred to flaws in the Dublin convention, which we accept, but what my constituents cannot understand is why, at the very least, the Government are not and have not been able for the past year to say simply that, if people arriving in this country have travelled right across Europe, through France, Germany and Belgium, we shall immediately determine that they cannot possibly be asylum seekers, and return them to their country of origin. What is he going to do about it?
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman makes a literally incredible point. It was his Government, whom he supported, who signed the Dublin convention. Of course it is preposterous that people should be able to travel across perfectly safe countries in western Europe and to arrive at our door and that we find huge difficulty in getting them accepted by the countries that should have entertained their asylum application in the first place.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman says that we should send them back, but we have to observe international conventions and international law, and it was his Government who signed the ludicrous Dublin convention, which, in many cases, has made the situation very much worse. We have been working to ensure that the Dublin convention at least works better than it worked before. If he wants to explain to his constituents why those people are arriving on our shores, he will have to have the courage to say, "I am responsible, along with the shambolic Administration whom I supported over many years."
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having had a good 47 hard think about these extremely difficult issues, but will he consider the risks of going for benefit in kind, instead of restoring benefit rights to asylum seekers? What is the wisdom of the Home Office running its own social security department for asylum seekers? Is there not a danger of asylum seekers facing a squeeze from right wingers and racists saying that they are living like lords on the Home Office, whereas, in reality, they face bureaucracy, indignity and perhaps abject poverty? How is benefit in kind going to work?
§ Mr. Straw
We have considered the matter in great detail. We are committed to making sure that no genuine asylum seeker is left destitute. There is no doubt that, while genuine asylum seekers are happy to be provided with shelter and accommodation in kind, the prospect of a cash benefit acts as a major pull for economic migrants who have no basis whatsoever for settlement in this country under the 1951 convention.
It is perfectly right that the provision of hardship relief in kind for asylum seekers should be separated from the social security system. The social security system is there to provide benefits to people who are entitled to be resident in this country on a permanent basis, but we were about to get into a position where returning residents who had every right of settlement here were treated less well under the social security system than were asylum seekers. That is not acceptable.
§ Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)
We understand that there will be no amnesty, and that there will instead be realistic decisions about removability. Will the right hon. Gentleman understand that, if he makes sensitive and fair judgments on that, he will be judged against common humanity and supported by hon. Members on these Benches, rather than judged by Daily Mail editorials, talk of "floods", and "send them home" comments from Tory Members?
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that those of us who know detention centres locally can still see no reason why they should not be Home Office establishments, instead of privately run establishments? Because of the problems that there have been at detention centres, we look forward to a reduction in the number of places, not an expansion.
§ Mr. Straw
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman on that last point, but the truth is that there are many more people who ought to be detained than can be detained. That picks up on a point raised earlier by an Opposition Member about the number of people who go to ground when, finally, removal directions are put down. However, as is made clear in the chapter on detention in the White Paper, paragraph 12.15, we intend that there should be proper statutory rules for all detention centres, whether run directly by the Home Office or by contractors.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House a little more about the time scale in which we will be able to deal with those people who have waited an unacceptably long time—a problem that we inherited from the previous Government? Is he absolutely certain 48 that, under the measures that he has announced, no new waiting lists will build up so that people will still have to wait for an unacceptable time?
§ Mr. Straw
I appreciate that my hon. Friend has not had a chance to read the relevant chapter—chapter 8—of the White Paper. It sets out in detail how we intend to proceed with those cases. We intend to proceed as quickly as possible, but the nature of the system is such that it will take a lot longer than people would like.
My hon. Friend asked me whether I am absolutely certain that the changes will improve matters. I am probably certain, but we live in a world of human frailty and potential error. I shall work my socks off, as will my colleagues and officials, to ensure that the measures work. However, there is no more absolute certainty in this matter than there is in Burnley or Blackburn Rovers winning the next FA cup.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
I support the Home Secretary's words—which are in stark contrast to his party's attitude when in opposition—and the abolition of the primary purpose rule. To put the problem in context, will the Home Secretary confirm that about 250,000 people have applied for asylum in this country in the past 10 years, of whom 10,700 have been given asylum and 13,000 have been deported, leaving 226,300 people whose cases have not been satisfactorily resolved? If, on average, 6 per cent. of appeals are granted, what is the Home Secretary's intention regarding the other 94 per cent. and what will be his performance?
§ Mr. Straw
The figures are set out in the Home Office statistical bulletin, copies of which are available in the Library of the House. We must add to the figures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—the number of people formally granted asylum—the number of those granted exceptional leave to remain under the previous Administration and this Administration, and it is entirely right that that should be the case. Only a small proportion of those who seek asylum are granted either refugee status or exceptional leave to remain, and the rest fall to be removed from this country, since there is no basis for them to be here.
We want far fewer people whose position is unfounded under the 1951 convention to make applications in the first place. We shall be able to achieve that through the combination of measures that we are taking. However, we want swifter appeals—within six months, on average—for people whose applications are refused, with the appeal setting the removal directions and, in normal circumstances, administrative removal following quickly thereafter.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
We all have constituents who are prepared to put up money or offer security so that their relatives can enter the country with a promise that they will return. I was interested in what the Home Secretary said about testing a new financial bond. How would that work?
§ Mr. Straw
The details of that scheme are set out in paragraphs 5.11 and 5.12 on page 24 of the White Paper. I appreciate that my hon. Friend has not had a chance to read it. He is absolutely right to say that his constituents and those of myself and other hon. Members have made 49 many representations for a bond scheme. We are consulting on that and will take into account the views of hon. Members as well as those of organisations representing people from, for example, south Asia, before finalising its details.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
Will the Home Secretary comment on how many people have been misled by illegal advice and how many have acted out of frustration and used illegal methods to enter the country because of their treatment by entry clearance officers, who have made them wait for a long time after their long journeys before interviewing them and then turning them away? Are measures being taken to tighten up the work of the entry clearance officers and achieve speedier judgments?
Following the question by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), has any assessment been made of those who are currently considered illegal entrants who are self-supporting and not a drain on the economy, some of whom are seeking medical attention?
§ Mr. Straw
If people are seeking medical attention, they are self-supporting and it is clear that they will return after receiving medical attention, normally they are admitted. The principal issue for visitors is whether they will return at the end of the relevant period. Entry clearance officers in posts abroad have to be very firm in their assessment of applications, because people enter as visitors, and, with increasing regularity, abuse immigration control and their right to stay here by inventing an application for asylum. We aim to deter that.
We aim greatly to improve the administration of the entry clearance system in posts abroad by putting it under the direction of a combined Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office operation, so that there will be much better co-ordination between the two Departments than hitherto.
I think that the hon. Gentleman was asking me about the total number of people who are illegally here. By definition, we cannot know that, but we know that the immigration and nationality directorate is detecting an increasing number of people who come here wholly illegally.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I thank the Home Secretary for removing the burden on local authorities of paying for the cost of asylum seekers and their residence. Will he think again about the principle of the Home Office setting up a benefits system, its likely high costs—which some of my hon. Friends have pointed out—and the unfortunate principle of paying benefits in kind rather than in cash? Would it not be cheaper to reintroduce the benefits to asylum seekers that were so callously taken away by the previous Government?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are concerned that immigration officers apparently will be given powers of arrest and removal from people's property, which they do not have at present? Does he think that that is wise?
§ Mr. Straw
On the latter point, immigration officers already have powers of arrest, but their corresponding powers are very unsatisfactory. Others apart from police officers have powers of arrest—customs officers have 50 such powers—but they are subject in full to the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which works satisfactorily. It is far better in principle for such work to be done by immigration officers with proper training, supported in appropriate cases by properly trained police officers.
The practice of local authorities providing benefits in kind rather than in cash has worked satisfactorily for individual applicants. The London boroughs and social services departments for ports in Kent and elsewhere have provided satisfactory, humane and sufficient systems of support in kind for applicants. The problem is that the provision of those benefits has been disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a very few boroughs. It is unreasonable for those localities to bear that burden. For that reason, the burden must be taken on nationally.
I do not accept what my hon. Friend said about payments of benefits in cash. They will not solve the problem of ensuring that genuine asylum seekers do not remain destitute, but they will provide an opportunity for fraud, and economic migrants would view them as a pull factor to come to this country.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Is there not a danger that the measures on asylum seekers that the right hon. Gentleman is introducing will simply be undermined by his actions on the primary purpose rule? What message does he have for an elderly, disabled constituent of mine who was grossly exploited even under the old arrangements? What steps will he take to monitor the growth in applications that will occur under the new category and the leakage of people seeking to overstay, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said, will also increase under the new category?
§ Mr. Brazier
The primary purpose rule.
§ Mr. Straw
The primary purpose rule has nothing whatever to do with asylum. Moreover, people who are granted entry to this country as spouses or fiances are not given temporary permission to stay. Initially, they are given permission to stay for 12 months, and if the marriage is shown to be working, they are given leave to remain for a further four years, and they are then allowed to settle in this country. That has nothing to do with the matter before the House.
I point out to the hon. Gentleman only that many of us witnessed the operation of the primary purpose rule—it was not only unfair but unworkable. It hurt only the innocent, and did not deter or detect those coming to Britain for bogus marriages, because it was an unjusticiable rule. That fact was recognised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Although he had done nothing to remove the primary purpose rule while in government, when in opposition he decided not to oppose its removal.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
My constituents will be grateful for many aspects of the Home Secretary's statement, particularly the new arrangements for visitors, but two things deeply concern me. One is the fact that 51 people will get only one choice of where they go to live. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he will not seek to place asylum seekers in rural areas where there are no people who speak the same language, or no people with whom they have any connection, because that may lead to children in schools being seriously discriminated against, and cause extra stress to people seeking asylum?
My other concern is my right hon. Friend's statement about a right of appeal. He said that there would be a single appeal for those "lawfully present" at the time of application. I think that the arguments for a single appeal are overwhelming, but if the only people who get an appeal are those who are lawfully present at the time of application, in effect any appeal against deportation or removal has been withdrawn. That means that the circumstances of people whose lives depend on the immigrant or asylum seeker cannot be taken into account. For many women in my constituency, if appeals against deportation are not retained in some form, it will cause real hardship.
§ Mr. Straw
We are providing only one choice. It would be wrong to provide greater housing choice for people who have come into this country than we provide, under legislation that we have supported, for the homeless who are resident and citizens here. People who are homeless have only one opportunity in relation to housing provision by a local authority. If they refuse that, they have made themselves intentionally homeless. I do not think it unreasonable to apply the same rules to asylum seekers.
It will be for the central agency to be as sensitive as possible about where individuals are placed, but let us make it clear that we intend that this power should be used to relieve the burden on some London boroughs, Dover and other ports in the south. That may mean that asylum seekers have to go to areas that they would otherwise not wish to go to, but, if they are genuine asylum seekers, seeking refuge from persecution by their country of origin, they will not mind that.
As to appeals, we are proposing that there should be a single appeal—let me make that clear. The single appeal will deal with all matters, including removal directions and, if necessary, deportation as well. If there are any compassionate circumstances, they can be raised at that time. What we are not having is people abusing the system by putting in appeal after appeal, which is one of the reasons we face the shambles that we do.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
I add my welcome to the decision to transfer liabilities in respect of asylum seekers from local authorities. Will the Home Secretary say when the new central funding arrangements will come into effect? Will he confirm that there will no longer be a threshold that local authorities have to reach before central Government will reimburse them for the costs of, for example, unaccompanied children?
§ Mr. Straw
The new central funding arrangements will come into force once legislation is through and after a proper commencement period. At that stage, the question of thresholds, I suggest, will not arise, because this will be a central Government responsibility, although we will seek to use local authorities. Meanwhile, we will have 52 discussions with, among others, local authority associations about the transitional arrangements that should apply.
§ Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)
On that point, may I urge the Home Secretary to launch that investigation of the costs of unaccompanied children immediately, which we welcome because it deals with some of the most needy children entering this country after having faced severe circumstances in the countries of origin?
On the intelligence that will be provided to the appeal system and to the right hon. Gentleman as Home Secretary, will that mechanism be reviewed to ensure that a greater range of information is provided on the human rights record of the countries of origin of asylum seekers and refugees? In particular, will that mechanism be broadened to include independent organisations that have a track record of monitoring human rights in those countries of origin?
§ Mr. Straw
I agree with my hon. Friend entirely about the importance of the information that is available—both to staff who make the initial decision and to the appeals adjudicators—being much more independent and objective. For that reason, I have already set in hand arrangements for the country assessments to be the subject of scrutiny by outside non-governmental organisations and other bodies, and to be made publicly available. The White Paper sets out a series of changes, which I have already introduced, to make the system much more open and accessible.
§ Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I am concerned about, among other things, the withdrawal of benefit from asylum seekers, but may I take the opportunity to welcome the proposal to pilot cash bonds for visitors? I know that this is problematic and that it does not help the poorest, but one of the most miserable aspects of our immigration system occurs when much-loved relatives are not able to come to an important christening or funeral. If the cash bond system can be piloted successfully, many of my constituents will welcome it.
§ Mr. Straw
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome. I dare say that she gets as frustrated as I do in constituency surgeries when our best guess is that the application is entirely genuine, but we also understand the problems that the entry clearance officers and posts abroad will face. It is worth trialling the idea of cash bonds. It may not work, but, with careful attention to its detail, it should work, and it will certainly make life a lot better for our constituents.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Does the Home Secretary recollect that, when we were in opposition, he and I and several others had a lot and a half to say about trauma and the fact that some of those who were seeking asylum had suffered very recent terrible trauma? [Interruption.] That meant that they were often in no fit state to answer questions accurately, and that later, because of the inaccuracy of their answers, they were disadvantaged. Do his proposals do much to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have suffered severe trauma, often in appalling, very recent circumstances?
§ Mr. Straw
If my hon. Friend is able to study the proposals as a whole, I think that he will see that we 53 are aiming to be much swifter and sympathetic to those applications in respect of people who meet the convention criteria for refugee status. Where people come from countries or, to pick up a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), parts of countries where they clearly are at risk on convention grounds, the idea is that staff will be able to grant them refugee status or exceptional leave to remain much more quickly than they do at present, but what we want is a system that far better distinguishes between the genuine applicant who meets convention criteria and the abusive applicant from other areas—where, frankly, there is no possibility of persecution—who does not.
§ Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)
In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, in particular the reference to the reversal of job cuts in Lunar house, Croydon, and to spreading the burden of costs from places such as Croydon and inner London through a national network of support, may I ask him, on behalf of my colleagues in Croydon, to confirm that the current cost of £2 million a year for Croydon council's asylum seekers is likely to go down?
Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about factoring in the unseen education cost of asylum seekers, particularly in London? It is not obvious that that is readily recognised as an unseen cost in the education budget for local authorities.
§ Mr. Straw
I pay tribute to the many thousands of my hon. Friend's constituents and others in the Croydon area for their efforts in keeping the immigration and nationality system in being, despite some substantial difficulties. Our proposal is that, when the legislation is debated and implemented, which will take some time, the burden of meeting this system of benefits in kind should be borne by central Government.
My hon. Friend invites me to pass on some remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Of course I shall do that, but our proposal for the Home Office to take responsibility for the provision of support for asylum seekers relates to provision under the National Assistance Acts and the Social Security Acts. It does not relate to provision under, for example, the national health service or the education services, for reasons that I think my hon. Friend will appreciate.