HC Deb 10 April 2000 vol 348 cc6-12
4. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

What discussions he has had with local authorities outside the south-east about the policy of dispersal of asylum seekers. [116788]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

We have had many discussions with local authorities about the dispersal of asylum seekers. The national asylum support service began operating last Monday in respect of all new applicants who have claimed asylum at their port of entry. I am pleased to announce to the House that the new asylum support scheme will be extended to cover asylum seekers who claim asylum in county while in the county of Kent on or after Monday 17 April. The effect of that will be that no asylum seeker making a claim for asylum in Kent on or after that date will be eligible for support from Kent county council or Medway council. I hope that this measure will bring considerable relief to local authorities in Kent. This is the first stage of the roll-out of the support scheme to all in-country applicants.

Dr. Ladyman

I am grateful for that welcome news. I am sure that all Kent MPs will leap to their feet and lavish generous gratitude on the Home Secretary for that answer. Does he agree that the impetus to cluster in particular areas came about because of the legislation inherited from the previous Government? If he agrees that that is why we have such problems in Thanet and Dover, did he find it helpful when the Conservative party tried to encourage further applications by voting to restore cash benefits for all asylum applicants? Does he find its current posture and language helpful now, when he is trying to encourage local authorities outside the south-east to become involved in the dispersal process?

Mr. Straw

I thank my hon. Friend for his expressions of gratitude. We look forward to discovering whether similar approbation is offered by Conservative Members. The policy that we are rolling out across the country has certainly been endorsed by Councillor Melvyn Caplan, the Conservative leader of Westminster city council, who has said that the proposals offer a considerable move forward in the need to introduce a national asylum seeker policy and relieve the pressure— in this case, in London, but I would add "in Kent".

Of course, the considerable pressure being borne so admirably by Kent county council and the district councils in Kent and London arises directly from the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. [Interruption.]The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) laughs, but that is a matter of truth and of fact. I look forward to her telling us who else invented the system, if she did not do so in the 1996 Act.

At the same time as using ill-judged language on the issue, the right hon. Lady must explain why she supported a proposal that would have cost the country an additional £500 million, and would have continued the payment of cash social security benefits to all new port asylum seekers, notwithstanding the House's approval for the new national support system in kind which began operating last week.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

When the Home Secretary talks to local authorities, will he be able to help those—including Kent county council and many London boroughs—that have still not been reimbursed by Government for a large amount of their expenditure to date? Will he be able to give them any consolation with regard to the number of applications that can be processed? More case workers are needed, so that the queue can be shortened. Finally, will he be able to commend to them both this morning's statement by the Prime Minister's press secretary, and the declaration signed by all major parties last year? According to that declaration, we need to approach these difficult issues with temperate language, but above all with an accurate statement of the facts and the figures.

Mr. Straw

Just before coming to the House, I checked the position relating to costs that fall to be refunded by the Home Office, namely those relating to the support system operating in, for example, Kent, for—say—unaccompanied minors. We are refunding all expenses that Kent has claimed, or is likely to claim. I hope that the same applies to London boroughs. The hon. Gentleman will understand, however, that unit costs must be set, and that when they are exceeded—which they are by a few local authorities, although not by others—there is bound to be discussion with the auditors about why some boroughs have not been able to meet the costs, while others, including Kent, have been able to do so.

I acknowledge that there has been discussion and disagreement with, for example, Kent about what is now a £700,000 shortfall with the Department of Health in respect of unaccompanied minors. That is the subject of continuing discussion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, because we accept that, when local authorities incur reasonable costs, those costs should be met by central Government.

The hon. Gentleman asked about additional investment to improve output. We have already recruited some hundreds of extra case workers. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that in March the immigration and nationality directorate made 9,000 asylum decisions, as opposed to about 1,000 towards the end of last year.

All the political parties signed the declaration by the Commission for Racial Equality. I was glad to have the hon. Gentleman's approval during a debate on 2 February, when I said exactly what he has said today about the need to ensure that measured language is used. I hope that, in the light of that, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will accept that the language used in the Conservative party's local authority manifesto is certainly not measured, that what it claims is palpably untrue, and that such language must no longer be used.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser

(Dover): As we wait with bated breath for the floods of gratitude from other Kent Members for the changes that will be brought in later this month, may I add my support for the changes, not least the civil penalties? Now that it has been confirmed that just about all Kent county council's costs for the support of asylum seekers have been reimbursed, what advice does the Secretary of State have for county councillors who continue to try to attach the cost of keeping asylum seekers to increases in council tax? Does he not agree that that is politics at its lowest?

Mr. Straw

I in turn thank my hon. Friend for his gratitude. I recognise the considerable pressure that his constituents have been under, as have constituents throughout Kent, given the wholly disproportionate burden of asylum seekers that they have had to bear as a result of the system introduced by the 1996 Act. I hope that the change, which will ensure that no new asylum seekers who apply within Kent are a burden on its ratepayers, will help to reduce the overall pressure on such areas; and coupled with that is the new national dispersal system.

As to the costs that have been borne by local authorities, I have seen a number of claims. An argument continues about the £700,000 in respect of Kent and unaccompanied minors. We hope that that can be sorted out, but, apart from that, I have seen no justification for some of the wholly exaggerated claims by Conservative Members and councillors, designed to try to raise anxiety about asylum seekers way beyond the reality. It is a matter for the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald to try to explain why the Conservative party has embarked on that approach.

Miss Ann Widdecombe

(Maidstone and The Weald): Perhaps I can ask the Home Secretary some very simple questions. Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, leader of Kent county council, does not share his rosy view of what he has just done. Sandy Bruce-Lockhart says that, as a result of the 1996 Act, in the last six months of the previous Government, Kent had to process 50 asylum seekers and that, today, it processes several thousands every month. The Home Secretary has talked about unjustified statements by councillors. Is that statement justified or unjustified? Is it accurate or inaccurate?

Sandy Bruce-Lockhart also says: Of those who have been dispersed— away from Kent— Kent bear not only the costs but also the casework. Therefore, if there has been a dispersal to Newcastle and there is, for example, an education problem, Kent workers have to sort it out. That also does not fit with the Secretary of State's rosy picture. Which is accurate—his or that of the leader of Kent county council, who deals with his fiasco every day of the week?

Mr. Straw

I do not remember mentioning Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. The persons I mentioned were the right hon. Lady and others in the Conservative party, who had been making ill-judged statements. However, let me deal with the two specific points that she raised. She said that there had been very few in-country claims shortly after the 1996 Act came into force. That was true because the arrangements that the previous Government had so incompetently provided ensured that there was no provision at all in the Act for in-country applicants. Such people were due to be left wholly destitute.

What happened—conveniently for the right hon. Lady—about six months after the Act came into force was that the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords said that what the previous Government had done was wholly unlawful, so responsibility had to fall on local authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989. Those incompetent and unco-ordinated arrangements flowed directly from the incompetent and unco-ordinated arrangements that she established under the 1996 Act.

I accept what the right hon. Lady says about dispersal away from the county of Kent. However, for the moment, existing applicants remain the responsibility of the local authorities—

Miss Widdecombe

Of Kent.

Mr. Straw

Yes, including Kent. That is all the more reason for us to get the national asylum support scheme in place, and for it not to be disrupted or sabotaged—in the way in which the right hon. Lady sought to do when she voted for an extra £500 million to be spent on eligibility for cash benefits, rather than ensuring that the system got off the ground effectively.

Miss Widdecombe

As a matter of fact and accuracy, I have never voted for an extra £500 million. The amendment that we proposed to the House simply said that the Secretary of State should come to the House and assure us that administrative arrangements were in place. What did he do? He came to the House and had to admit that they were not in place, and that he was going to delay their implementation for another six months. What that proved beyond any doubt was the viability of our amendment. I therefore think that, if he has any decent sense of shame, he might start keeping quiet about his attitude to that amendment, rather than trying to distort what we did.

The right hon. Gentleman has talked several times today about unsuitable language so let me ask him a straightforward question. Does he agree that the large majority of people who come to this country to seek asylum are bogus? Is he prepared to use that word, or does he agree with his recently acquired hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) that the word "bogus" stirs up racial hatred, despite the fact that the Prime Minister has used it five times in recent weeks?

Mr. Straw

Let me deal with the first point, about the £500 million—[HON. MEMBERS: "Don't forget the second."' I was asked two sets of questions, and I certainly shall not forget the second one—I never do.

I was asked questions about the £500 million. The simple fact is that, in the other place, the official Opposition voted for the amendment. When I wrote to the right hon. Lady to ask whether that position had the support of the official Opposition in this place, she wrote back to me and said, "Yes, we support the position." She described the amendment, which was to add £500 million of costs in a year, year-on-year, year after year, as "sensible" and "common sense". That was endorsement. Although I quite understand that it caused very great dissension within the Conservative party that she should have shot from the hip yet again and missed the target in the way that she did, the simple truth is that she supported the vote in the other place and backed it in this place. The £500 million was an extra £500 million, on top of the current cost of asylum seekers. Moreover, it would have encouraged a large number of additional unfounded claims for asylum.

We all have a responsibility to choose our language with care. On the figures, about one third—the figure varies from month to month—of applicants who seek asylum in this country have their application either for asylum or for exceptional leave to remain accepted. Although of course we wish to bear down very strongly, as we are doing, on the numbers of unfounded asylum applications, the simple fact is that no one can know whether an application is founded or unfounded, genuine or not, until the claim has been properly examined.

When it comes to ill-judged and unacceptable language, what the right hon. Lady needs to explain is her unbelievable and wholly unjustifiable claim that the Labour party has made this country "a soft touch" for organised asylum racketeers, whom she claims are flooding our country with bogus asylum seekers. She needs to explain that statement not only because it is not true, but because she has voted against two sets of proposals designed to bear down on the racketeers—the first, in 1996, to deal with racketeers directly and to control them properly, which she resisted when we moved amendments from the Opposition Front Bench; and the second, on civil penalties on hauliers who bring in clandestines, which is already working and which she has so vehemently opposed.

Miss Widdecombe

The Home Secretary promised to answer about the word "bogus", but he did not—I suppose that we must just add that to the list of promises broken. How can the Government say that they have not made this country a soft touch when the facts and figures speak for themselves? We left the Government, under the 1996 Act, a 40 per cent. decrease in asylum seeking. Since then, the numbers have doubled, and the backlog has more than doubled. Every year, tens of thousands of people who are refused permission to stay still stay on regardless.

The asylum system has deteriorated to unbelievable and unprecedented levels since the Government took power, yet they say that somehow it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with them. They presided over the mess. They announced when they came in that they were not going to implement the 1996 Act. They suggested an amnesty for people who had not had their cases determined. They reversed high-profile deportation decisions. They removed the primary purpose rule from the immigration system. The message went out to the rest of the world that Britain is a soft touch. The Home Secretary sent that message—it is his responsibility.

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Lady should have looked behind her. That rant was not impressive even to her erstwhile supporters, still less to the House and the country.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Marvellous. Wonderful.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman says that with a broad and disbelieving grin across his face.

The right hon. Lady is suffering from amnesia about amnesty. The only party which ever introduced an amnesty was hers, in the early 1990s. After months of my challenging her on the subject, she finally admitted on 2 February that the Conservatives had introduced one, but went on to say: we have learned from that mistake—[Official Report, 2 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 1056.] It was, as she said, a mistake.

The right hon. Lady suggests that the current asylum situation is entirely the responsibility of the Government. I accept responsibility for many things. One of the first things that I did as Home Secretary was to make it clear in the House that I would be responsible for matters relating to my functions as Home Secretary, but it is ludicrous and it debases debate to imply that the Kosovo war was caused by me as Home Secretary or that the increasing disruption in Somalia, the increasing terrorist disruption in Sri Lanka and the problems in Afghanistan are all down to me as Home Secretary. If they were, I would solve them quickly.

The right hon. Lady should look at more than just six months. Numbers went down immediately after the passage of the 1996 Act. I have explained one reason. Another is that the Dublin convention, which the previous Government signed and which took seven years to come into force, took effect in October 1997 and has made returns very difficult. Numbers have gone up and down. They rose rapidly in the early 1990s and again after the 1993 Act. They have risen in recent months, not least because of disruption in the countries that I have just mentioned. The system deteriorated, not least because of a lack of investment and some extraordinary decisions made by the right hon. Lady when she was in power. I am pleased to tell the House that, as a result of considerable investment, we are greatly increasing the number of claims that are decided on—up to 9,000, which is an all-time record. Although numbers have risen, the time taken to deal with applications has been cut from 20 months, when the right hon. Lady left office, to 13 months in December of last year.