HC Deb 15 February 1999 vol 325 cc592-3
8. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

If he will make a statement on the measures being taken to prevent asylum seekers attempting to enter the United Kingdom illegally by hiding in vehicles. [69112]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

We shall tackle the problem of illegal immigration rather than specifically asylum seekers. We are developing increased European and international co-operation to crack down on traffickers. The Immigration and Asylum Bill contains several important provisions, including a civil penalty that will apply to drivers of vehicles found transporting clandestine entrants to Britain.

Mr. McNulty

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he accept that everyone will welcome a fairer, faster and firmer system for immigrant applicants and asylum seekers? Does he accept that, despite some whingeing in the press, there is widespread support for fining those who bring in illegal immigrants, particularly via freight lorries? The time is past when drivers could turn a blind eye and say, "I did not know what was going on," when there were up to 100 people in the back of a lorry. Now is the time for action for a faster, firmer and fairer system all round.

Mr. O'Brien

My hon. Friend is right: 8,000 illegal immigrants were brought into Britain in the backs of lorries last year, at a cost to the taxpayer of tens of thousands of pounds. Lorry drivers are neglecting to check their loads. It is difficult to resist the idea that most drivers are either culpable, because they accept bribes, or, at best, negligent, because they do not check their loads. The civil penalties of £2,000 per illegal immigrant will concentrate their minds. We do not want to be forced to fine anyone. Indeed, the best result would be that we never have to fine anyone because no illegal immigrants are being brought in.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

How can the Minister lecture lorry drivers in that way, when the Government's message is that they have granted what is in effect an asylum to up to 30,000 asylum seekers? Is it not highly likely that many of those 30,000 are not properly entitled to asylum and may be economic migrants? What sort of message is that sending to other would-be asylum seekers about trying to get into the United Kingdom?

Mr. O'Brien

In 1992–93, the Tory Government made a secret concession that granted exceptional leave to remain to more than 26,000 asylum seekers. Parliament was never informed. That is a greater number than we will involve in our special procedures announced in the White Paper entitled "Fairer, Faster and Firmer—a modern approach to immigration and asylum". Unless we clear the inherited backlog, we cannot create a faster system. The Tory Government left us with so many cases that it would take five years to train the staff needed and to clear the backlog. The problem is too great and we cannot afford that much time to solve it. We had to take a tough decision, and we have taken it. We expect criticism, but it ill becomes the people who created the problem to complain when we are clearing up their mess.