HC Deb 08 January 2001 vol 360 cc700-3
7. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

What recent assessment he has made of the numbers of (a) illegal immigrants and (b) disappeared asylum seekers who reside in the UK. [142649]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

No Government have ever been able to give reliable estimates of that nature, but we have hugely increased investment in the immigration and nationality department and staff to enable effective enforcement of the measures that we have introduced.

Mr. Robathan

I am sure the Minister would agree that that is hardly an adequate answer. She has just admitted that she has no idea how many people are disappearing daily into the woodwork and living in this country illegally, inevitably placing great pressure on public services. Does she agree that the ease with which people can disappear in this country encourages the ghastly trade in unfortunate human beings, of which we have seen so much? Can she confirm that almost nine out of 10 asylum applications are refused? In November, 7,250 applications were made, yet only 596 deportations took place. What does the Minister intend to do to ensure that British law is upheld?

Mrs. Roche

I would take the hon. Gentleman rather more seriously if he did not demonstrate in his questions that he totally misunderstands the situation. The Government have a record of putting money into the immigration service and the figures speak for themselves.

Miss. Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Answer the question.

Mrs. Roche

I know that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) finds it difficult, but if she would contain herself, I will let her and the House have the figures which the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) asked for. In 1996, more than 26,000 people were removed in total, which includes the illegal entrants whom the hon. Gentleman asked about. In 1999, more than 37,000 people—in fact, nearly 38,000—were removed. We do not have all the figures for 2000 yet, but so far they show that more than 42,000 people were removed, which is perhaps the highest number ever.

If the hon. Gentleman were serious about doing something about the appalling trade in human beings and dealing with those who care nothing for the lives of very vulnerable people, he would support the Government in the implementation of the civil penalty, which his party opposed.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is there not a myth that greatly exaggerates the number of disappeared asylum seekers?

Mrs. Roche

Unfortunately, at the end of the process, some people deliberately lose contact with the immigration and nationality directorate, which is why we shall do further work into the matter and why, as I said, no Government, of whatever colour, have ever had accurate figures. I want to have those figures, so I intend to see whether we can commission research in this area.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

I accept that there has been substantial investment in the immigration and nationality directorate, and the Government have done well there. However, there are four important categories of people to be looked at. One is illegal immigrants, and another is disappeared asylum seekers However, there are also those who are not current asylum seekers, whose asylum cases have been decided and all of whose appeals have failed. There are also those whose immigration appeals have been decided and failed. It is likely that well over 100,000 of people are in those four categories in this country, whom the Government—as far as I can see—are simply not trying to trace. The Government must understand that those people are using a great deal of our public services, which cannot be allowed to continue.

Mrs. Roche

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman gets this so wrong, because he has some knowledge of this area. The key way of dealing with the matter is to put in more investment. The previous Government, of which the hon. Gentleman was a supporter, ran down the immigration and nationality department, and we lost asylum case workers in droves. The previous Government put in systems that clearly did not work. Enforcement is the way to deal with the matter.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned asylum removals. In 1999, more than 7,600 people were removed after the end of their unsuccessful applications, which is the highest figure ever.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not true that if Opposition Members who opposed military action in Kosovo had had their way, millions of people in northern Albania and northern Macedonia would be in camps? There would have been a huge pressure on western European countries to take far greater numbers of asylum seekers, most of whom would have had a case. Those Opposition Members want it both ways.

Mrs. Roche

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the Opposition's lack of consistency. Time and again, the Opposition—and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald in particular—forget that this is a European issue. The European figures per head of population show that we are about eighth in asylum applications. It is right that we have a system in place that makes sure that we give asylum, sanctuary and protection to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. In the year in which we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UN convention on refugees, it is important that we have proper proposals to deal with those who are making unfounded applications.

Miss. Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Given that the Prime Minister said in July 1999 that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 would "deter bogus asylum seekers", I ask the hon. Lady what sort of deterrent produces a doubling in the number of applications since 1996. What sort of deterrent produces applications of which 89 per cent. are refused? Will she tell us where the deterrent is?

Mrs. Roche

The right hon. Lady will recall that it was under the Conservative Administration that asylum applications increased tenfold. As the provisions come into force, she will see an improvement in the general position. By looking closely at the figures, one sees that applications from the most difficult countries, such as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, have increased, as has happened in the rest of Europe. However, applications from countries in respect of which many unfounded applications were previously made—including the Czech Republic—are decreasing, because of measures such as those introduced at Oakington and elsewhere.

The right hon. Lady must make clear what she would do. All that we have heard from her is her inhumane and unrealistic proposal to lock up every asylum seeker. The proposal would cost more than £2 billion to establish and would have a running cost of more than £1 billion a year. At the same time, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), another Front-Bench Member, opposes a detention centre that we propose to open in Aldington to remove people at the end of the process. As was the case with the right hon. Lady's policy on cannabis, her colleagues and friends do not support her.

Miss Widdecombe

Do we deduce from all that waffle that, although according to the Government's figures asylum applications fell by 40 per cent. when the Conservatives introduced the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, and although numbers have since doubled, the hon. Lady seriously thinks that she has introduced a deterrent? She told us that when the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 came fully into force, we would see a deterrent effect. However, most of the Act has been in force since April. Since then, however, the number of applications has risen; so applications have increased since vouchers were introduced. That is a fact, according to the hon. Lady's figures. Will she now have the grace to admit that the 1999 Act is no deterrent and that the Government's record is a 100 per cent. increase in applications, while that of the Conservatives was a 40 per cent. fall?

If the hon. Lady is embarrassed by the Prime Minister, is she embarrassed also by the Home Secretary? While speaking about the Afghan hijack, he said: I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable.—[Official Report, 10 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 418.] Can the hon. Lady tell the House how many of those who were refused asylum after the hijack are still in this country, how many of their dependants are here and how many have been removed?

Mrs. Roche

If the right hon. Lady wants some more facts, I shall give her some. The figures were rising under the 1996 legislation. The average decision-making time in May 1997 was 20 months. The latest figure, from October, is 11 months. She says that she would abandon the civil penalty and immediately introduce cash benefit payments for asylum seekers. [Interruption.] There is no doubt that not only does she have no policies, but she does not have the support of her party to implement them.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked a lengthy question and then sought to intervene while it was being answered. She must not do that.