HC Deb 29 October 2001 vol 373 cc627-47 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on asylum, migration and citizenship.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Geneva convention on refugees, to which the United Kingdom is proud to be a signatory. We will uphold our fundamental moral obligations to protect those who flee persecution while protecting our national boundaries and integrity.

The world is a very different place from that of 50 years ago. At the beginning of the year, there were around 12 million refugees worldwide. Such global movements are a challenge to all nations. Alongside our European partners, we must establish an asylum and immigration system that can respond effectively to the pressure that we face.

Steps, which I intend to extend, have already been taken to root out the organised criminal gangs who are responsible for the barbaric trade of trafficking in people. The gross exploitation of those in greatest need is unacceptable. It is crucial that our approach leads to radical change at home, creating trust among the people of our country, and conveys a message that is clearly understood in the rest of the world. It must be crystal clear and tough, thus sending a signal to everyone that the United Kingdom is not a soft touch.

Significant improvements have been made in recent years. Staff in the immigration and nationality directorate have worked tirelessly to deal with the backlog of claims. In the past financial year, 132,000 decisions were made, surpassing the 79,000 applications. The new civil penalties and carriers' liability have already cut illegal entry into the United Kingdom. Substantial investment, which I announced last month, in new equipment for surveillance and border controls will reinforce that work.

I pay warm tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), and his Ministers. They inherited a terrible mess and made huge improvements. However, much remains to be done. That is why I do not intend to tinker with the existing system, but to introduce radical and fundamental reform.

The reviews of voucher and dispersal policy that I am publishing today demonstrate that the current system has suffered from genuine problems. I have placed copies of the reviews in the Vote Office and the Library. The system is too slow, vulnerable to fraud, and felt to be unfair by asylum seekers and local communities. Many people work illegally while claiming support or sub-letting their accommodation. Other accommodation is paid for, but not used.

As the House is painfully aware, there have been social tensions in neighbourhoods across the country and considerable pressures on local education, social and GP services. We need a seamless asylum service, from initial decision through appeal to integration or removal. It must be clear, fast and well administered.

It is my intention to publish a White Paper and, subsequently, legislation, which will provide a comprehensive approach to asylum, nationality and immigration. At the heart of my asylum proposals is the presumption that, from the moment people present themselves, they will be tracked as well as supported.

There will be three key elements to the structure: induction, accommodation and reporting, and fast-track removal or integration. In addition, the fast-tracking of straightforward cases at Oakington will continue. The application process will be streamlined and integrated.

We will develop a small network of induction centres in which people will be accommodated after application to facilitate screening, health checks and identification procedures. After induction, asylum seekers, whether receiving support or not, will have to make themselves regularly available at new-style reporting centres. We will phase in that process.

Crucially, by the end of next year, a proportion of first-time asylum seekers will be offered a place in new accommodation centres, which we are trialling. We will establish 3,000 places, offering full board, education and health facilities. Those in accommodation centres will receive a small cash allowance. Those refusing to take up such a place would disqualify themselves from support.

Decisions about the long-term mix of facilities will be taken in the light of emerging evidence, here and abroad, about what works. Subject to that, our aim is to phase out the current system of support and dispersal.

While the trial is being evaluated, those receiving support will be subject to a robust new regime. Instead of the standard acknowledgement letter, which is used for identification, smart cards will be phased in from January to ensure entitlement. That will guarantee identification and tackle fraud. Using new biometric techniques, including fingerprinting and photographs, we will provide both security and certainty.

Further steps will be taken to improve the current voucher system. The value of voucher support will be uprated as soon as possible in line with the April 2001 income support increases for adults and the increase announced for children last week. Within the total of support available, the cash allowance will be increased from £10 to £14.

We recognise that in revising the existing voucher system, we need to establish a long-term robust solution. Induction, accommodation and removal centres clearly remove the need for vouchers for those assigned a place. I can tell the House that once the new smart cards are introduced, the voucher system will be superseded. By early autumn next year, we will have established a robust, but less socially divisive scheme.

I am exploring with colleagues the potential for automated credit transfer and other mechanisms to provide financial support for asylum seekers. Although we are not reversing the principle of dispersal away from London and the south-east, we will improve consultation with and the involvement of local authorities and others.

It is crucial that private providers give proper notice to local authorities when asylum seekers are dispersed to an area. We will develop a stronger regional structure as part of a more devolved and decentralised process, and greater co-ordination with voluntary organisations. However, none of those changes will work effectively unless we drastically speed up the system. I therefore intend to tackle head-on the backlog, including those cases waiting for appeals. The Lord Chancellor and I intend to improve significantly the throughput of appeals.

First, we will cut out multiple opportunities for delay. Secondly, we will streamline my further right of appeal, limited to a point of law. Thirdly, we will increase the capacity of the adjudication service by 50 per cent., from the current 4,000 to 6,000 cases a month. From next month, the capacity will increase to 4,500, and by next November to 6,000.

Where a claim to asylum is granted we will improve the integration procedures. Where an appeal has failed, my intention is to streamline the process for removal. Those who have no right to stay must leave the country immediately. [Interruption.]

We currently have 1,900 detention places, which we will have increased to 2,800 by the spring of next year. I intend that we should expand the capacity by a further 40 per cent. to 4,000 places. Those will become secure removal centres. [Interruption.] Asylum seekers will no longer be held in mainstream prison places; I can confirm that from January next year that practice will cease. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members please give the Home Secretary an opportunity to make his statement. This is an important matter.

Hon. Members

Or be removed.

Mr. Blunkett

We shall be looking to remove even more Conservative Members at the next general election.

I announced earlier this month my proposals for sensible, controlled legal migration into this country. That will enable people with skills to enter our country legitimately to work. In addition, we will explore the establishment, with the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of agreed gateways to take nominated refugees from outside the country. That has been an anomaly for many years, leading to the scenes at ports and Eurotunnel facilities.

We will also take action to root out illegal working. Those working in our country illegally are being exploited by unscrupulous gangmasters and employers, in conditions that undermine the minimum wage and fair conditions, and at the same time defraud the tax and national insurance system.

The Prime Minister has recently announced a cross-departmental working group under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Lord Rooker. He will bring forward proposals for stamping out illegal employment, which will be combined with wider policies to remove the incentive to traffickers, and the pull factor created by the opportunity of employment.

I believe that we can also do more to give practical help to people seeking to settle here, in addition to the men and women seeking refugee status. The White Paper will address their language needs, together with education for citizenship. I shall also be looking to enhance the importance of naturalisation.

Finally, I can also announce that a discussion paper on the review of family visitor appeals has been published today. Copies of that paper will also be placed in the Vote Office and the Library.

This is a substantial package of measures that will fundamentally overhaul our asylum and immigration policy. It is a rational approach to a rapidly changing situation. I believe that it will send a message to the rest of the world that this country is not open to abuse, but nor is it a fortress Britain. We are not rejecting economic migrants, refugees from persecution or those seeking to visit our shores.

Implementation of my policies will take time; but in time they will work in the interests of us all.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I thank the Home Secretary for his courtesy in giving us sight of the statement.

Does the Home Secretary recognise that we and he have shared aspirations? Does he understand that many of us on both sides of the House are here today only because our own relatives sought and obtained refuge from persecution? Does he accept that we regard the provision of a safe haven for the innocent victims of persecution as one of the highest duties of the British state? Does he agree that the first purpose of our asylum system should therefore be to establish quickly and definitively who are the innocent victims of persecution, and to provide them with a safe home? Does he agree that its second purpose should be to ensure that others who are not victims of persecution cannot use application for asylum as a way of getting around the normal immigration rules?

Is the Home Secretary aware of this statement? The problem with the asylum system is being sorted out".—[Official Report, 19 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 974.] Is he aware that it was made 18 months ago by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Is he aware that it contrasts rather strangely with his own statement to the press that the system today is a complete mess? Notwithstanding his touching tribute to the Foreign Secretary, does he now accept that the mess that we have today is in great part due to the failure of his predecessor to respond effectively to sustained criticism of the system of vouchers and very wide dispersals by Conservative Members, and by highly respected organisations throughout the country?

Let us turn to the future. Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that the new system of accommodation centres that he hopes eventually to make universal will work only if those centres contain all the people and facilities required to provide fast and fair decisions? Does he agree that it is a scandal that we currently have more than 300 people detained for more than 100 days, many without even an initial determination, and that the time taken to process applications in the new centres will have to be far shorter than that?

What steps will the Home Secretary take to consult people about the siting of the new induction, reporting, accommodation and removal centres, and to reduce public hostility? Can he tell us how he will judge whether the accommodation centres are working, and whether they should replace the reporting centres? Can he tell us what he will do about the total backlog of more than 40,000 people now awaiting an initial determination, about the estimated 50,000 now awaiting an appeal hearing, and about the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have simply disappeared?

We understand that under the Home Secretary's plans, financial assistance to asylum seekers who are offered places in accommodation centres will be available only within those centres. That, we understand, is intended as an incentive for people to remain in the accommodation centres; but what incentive to remain is there for people whose aim is to find work in the black economy, rather than to obtain financial assistance from the state? When does the Home Secretary intend to present his proposals on the black economy?

By what proportion will the right hon. Gentleman's proposals on work permits increase the number of people—90,000—who currently enter the country each year on the basis of such permits? What assessment has he made of the proportion of asylum seekers who are not eligible for asylum, but who will be eligible for work permits under his new scheme? Does he really believe that the bulk of the problem relates to highly skilled people?

The whole country will hope that the Home Secretary has at last begun to address a problem that the Government have so far lamentably failed to address. The whole country will hope that his new proposals will establish a civilised, humane and effective system. Does he agree that whether that is indeed the case will depend heavily on the answers to those questions?

Mr. Blunkett

I strongly welcome the opening statement by the hon. Gentleman that one of our agreed highest duties is to offer a safe haven for those who are at risk of persecution and death. I am just glad that he on behalf of his party has changed entirely the language, tune and policy that it adopted.

I am sorry that, having given the hon. Gentleman time to read my statement, he has been unable to grasp some of its key elements—for example, the black economy. I seek to assist as well those who do not claim asylum, who are working in the economy unknown and unmonitored and who are often unable to get basic rights in our country. Those in accommodation centres—I hope very much that the new programme will resolve the issue—will be there precisely because they have sought help, need accommodation, a roof over their heads and support for themselves and their families, so the incentive to be there is self-evident. The incentive to leave the accommodation centre if their appeal fails is dealt with by the fact that we will deliver appeal decisions at the reporting centre or accommodation centre, and then take people to the new removal centres. In that way, we will avoid the calamity of having to go into communities to root people out from their homes.

I hope that sorting out that problem can be seen as building on what has taken place over the 18 months to which the hon. Gentleman referred, following the Prime Minister's statement. Eighteen months ago, the then Home Secretary commenced the process of dramatically increasing the facility of the immigration and nationality directorate. Four thousand extra people are now employed to do the job that was not done under the Conservatives. Through the fingerprinting facilities, we know who is in the country, who is making multiple applications, and who is making applications having left the country and come back under a different guise. None of that information was available until the then Home Secretary put the investment in place. Removal centres did not exist at all under the Government of the hon. Gentleman and his friends. We need no lectures about why something did not work from those who purchased a computer system that failed within 12 months of its installation.

Induction centres that will avoid dispersal along the coast into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but draw people together into unified sites will be a benefit to local people, not a threat. Accommodation centres across the country will be welcomed because they avoid pressure on local services. Rapid removal will make it possible for us to deliver a humane system, but with a clear message to the rest of the world that we are not prepared to be taken for granted.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I welcome the Home Secretary's assurance that the use of prisons to detain asylum seekers is to cease, and his decision to phase out the hated voucher system, but what assurance can he give that the smart cards will work, given the unhappy history of Government information technology projects?

Everyone understands that the number of removals will have to increase greatly for the system to be credible, but what steps, if any, is the Home Secretary taking to ensure that removals are handled as sensitively as possible, especially in cases where children are involved, given that many of the people, who may not be deserving asylum applicants, may return home to destitution?

Mr. Blunkett

I stand here slightly humbled because the Home Office's record on technology has not been one of the greatest. We are all aware of that especially after my predecessor sorted out both the passport issue and other technological hiccups. Having learned that lesson, we are very clear indeed that by phasing in the new system from January, not only can we make it work but make it work so much better than the current letters system, which is grossly open to fraud. There are examples of people selling multiple copies of a letter, of no clear identification being provided and of entitlements not being clear. We want to ensure in the new system that there is trust in the community and that those who are receiving help deserve it and can receive it with dignity.

The same applies in relation to removals. We did not step up removals activity over the summer—we did not have an effective working system then—precisely to ensure that we did not have scenes of families with young children being pulled out of blocks of flats. As a result of the new protocol, together with links with the police service and the ability to track people through reporting centres, we shall be able to operate the system better.

The ultimate message is this, "If you want to be in our country and have something to offer, but know in your heart that you are not a refugee from persecution, the new economic migration proposals will enable you to achieve that goal." By next spring, the work permit system will have enabled 150,000 people to receive permission to be in our country and to work here.

I pay tribute to the staff who are turning round two thirds of applications in 24 hours and 90 per cent. of applications in five days. If the rest of my Department and the IND can come anywhere near that sophisticated administration we shall all be very glad.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The Home Secretary will know, as I told him in a conversation earlier this year, that his principles and general proposals will have a welcome from those on the Liberal Benches. I should therefore be grateful to hear him express a desire to ensure that the principles are not only very clear, so that people from abroad can understand them, but humane and scrupulously fair.

The Home Secretary is right to say that, in 1997, the incoming Labour Government inherited a mess. Both the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 and the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 had failed very badly. However, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was an equal disaster. Is not today's announcement therefore a somewhat belated announcement that the voucher system was both degrading and inefficient, as it not only failed to deter people but costed more than alternatives, and that the dispersal system invented by the Home Secretary's predecessor was completely unsuccessful? Therefore, after a very unfortunate experience, surely it is clear that the provisions that were introduced less than three years ago by the Home Secretary's predecessor are being fundamentally replaced by his own much better ones.

The proposals on induction and reception centres are hugely welcome. Liberal Democrats Members have been advocating such proposals for years, not least because the arrangements used by the Dutch and the Finns and best practice across Europe show that they have worked very successfully elsewhere. Can the Home Secretary explain—as he is very keen that his Department works well—why it always takes the Home Office so long to learn the lessons from other countries and from the failures of the past?

Does the right hon. Gentleman's announcement on the replacement of vouchers by smart cards herald movement towards a general entitlement card for immigrants or for people more generally? What is the timetable for reception centres to be established and for vouchers to disappear entirely? Will he guarantee that there will always be an entitlement to appeal against refusal of asylum?

Does the Home Secretary's interesting statement about working with the European Union and the UNHCR mean that it will be possible for people to make a case for asylum from abroad, and does it mean that we will increase resettlement from other countries as the UN has asked us to do? As the Government want to make the new system cost efficient, will those who have to wait here for the final determination of their case, who have great skill and a willingness to offer it to the British nation, be able to work and contribute to the state rather than be a cost to it as has been the nonsense of the system so far?

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's opening statement. I must say that I missed his policy advocation of induction and accommodation centres, but I am always willing to work in parallel with him on such matters. We may have come to the same decision at the same time.

The answer to the question about those who come in with external applications through the UNHCR is yes, that is my intention. It will take some time to implement, but I believe that it is the right thing to do, to stop people hanging under trucks and coming through in tankers.

The voucher scheme will be superseded by next September. It will take that long for us to bring in the necessary orders in the House and deal with the revisions in the existing contract system.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about induction and accommodation is that we will be able to offer people support, but not to permit them to work while waiting for their appeals. Once somebody had started a permanent job, it would be even more difficult to remove them if they turned out to be an economic migrant rather than a refugee.

Yes, we are intent, as the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question, on ensuring that we have a humane and acceptable system that treats people well and speeds up their applications, but which also ensures that if they are granted leave to remain, or refugee status, they are integrated fully and properly in the community.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, simply because I have been in the House for 31 years, I have probably dealt with more immigration and asylum cases than any other Member of the House? Is he further aware that the leading members of the ethnic minority communities with whom I work in my constituency find it easy to distinguish with clarity between those who flee from oppression, and those who—egged on by crooked immigration advisers and disreputable solicitors such as Thornhill Ince, against which I have lodged a complaint with the Law Society today—use applications for asylum as a device when they have come here illegally, overstayed as visitors and then married as a further device, and will spin out any way of trying to stay here? Those leading members of the ethnic minority community in my constituency would wish my right hon. Friend to treat those who are fleeing from oppression with compassion and generosity—as he invariably does—but to give the others short shrift.

Mr. Blunkett

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. We need a much more robust system, following the delivery of the smart card, which is not a forerunner to anything, but simply a means of dealing with a particular problem. The smart card and the reporting centres will enable us to get a grip on where people are at any time, and what they are doing. Above all, they will allow us to carry through a determination to remove someone who has come into the country fraudulently, often abandoning the person whom they married or came to marry.

I also agree with my right hon. Friend that, as I said last Thursday evening in a lecture, those who believe that their profession is merely a trade rather than a profession should be very clear about that.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

It would be wholly wrong not to preface my question by welcoming this damascene conversion, and the Home Secretary's frank admission that a system that only five months ago the electorate were told was working perfectly, is not working at all. However, I want to ask him a specific question. Among all his statistics about accommodation centres, he announced a very substantial expansion of the detention estate. When that expansion is complete and all the places are available, what percentage of new asylum seekers will be detained in secure accommodation until the outcome of their cases?

Mr. Blunkett

For new asylum seekers, the Oakington facility will remain, but all others will go through the normal process of induction and then accommodation, unless they have committed a crime, are suspected of having committed a crime or are affected by the measures that I shall introduce in a few weeks on anti-terrorism. Should their asylum applications fail, or for some other reason they fall foul of the law or are not eligible to be in the country, they will be placed in the new removal centres. The 4,000 places in the removal centres will allow us to do that effectively. As my predecessor spelled out on many occasions to the right hon. Lady, we could not afford to have everybody in secure detention, even if we wanted to. We do not want to, because they are people who are applying for legitimate refugee status and not people who have committed a crime. It would be churlish not to welcome her opening statement, but I shall examine the road to Damascus carefully because it doubtless has many pitfalls.

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement this afternoon, especially of the phasing out and eventual abolition of the much hated voucher system. It was hated for two main reasons. The first was the degrading and stigmatising effect that it had on those people who had to use the vouchers, and the second—and more important—was the very low level at which that benefit was paid. It equated to 70 per cent. of income support. When the new smart card is introduced, can the level be set at 100 per cent. of income support, so that poor and vulnerable people do not continue to be paid unacceptable and miserly levels of benefit?

Mr. Blunkett

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have already said this afternoon that we will uprate the amounts as per the income support changes. Children will, of course, receive 100 per cent. of income support levels. We have no current plans to change the 70 per cent. level, although I have changed the ratio to £14 cash instead of the £10 currently paid. I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about the 70 per cent. ratio and that is why the accommodation centres will be so crucial. They will, of course, offer the full board, lodging and support system, plus the pocket money that will enable people to live comfortably.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The Home Secretary will know from the debate in Westminster Hall last week that I welcome the introduction of reception centres more generally for those applying for asylum. Does he intend that those accommodation centres, as he now terms them, will be established using the powers under the Immigration Act 1971 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999—which allow the Secretary of State to do so by order—for those granted temporary admission? Does he intend that the Oakington centre in my constituency should remain a place of detention legally or will it, too, be a reception centre using those powers instead of remaining a place of detention with all the difficulties of legal challenges that might ensue?

Mr. Blunkett

On the latter point, leave was granted to appeal to the House of Lords—as the hon. Gentleman will know, being so close to the situation. It is not my intention to address that issue this afternoon, except that I did say that we intended to continue to use Oakington for those entering the country for whom detention and fast-tracking is appropriate. On the other point, both the 1971 and 1999 Acts facilitate the setting up of accommodation centres. Should any legal challenge arise on the obligation to take up such a place if offered or the denial of financial support to an individual or family, we will legislate in the Bill that I announced in my statement.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

As one of the few hon. Members who argued against the introduction of the voucher system, I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that it will be scrapped and that we will return to a cash-based system delivered through the smart cards. In relation to his proposals on reception centres, which will take some time to phase in—they will need to be built and that will not happen overnight—what will be the implications for the continuation of the National Asylum Support Service?

If NASS is to continue supporting significant numbers of people for some time, as seems likely, what can be done to improve its efficiency while it continues? In addition, what can be done to deal with the many people who are still being looked after by local authorities?

Mr. Blunkett

I appreciate the thrust of my hon. Friend's question. Multiple systems have operated for a long time and will continue to do so. That is inevitable, whatever system is introduced and whatever the speed of change. Therefore, it is crucial, as outlined in the dispersal and support review that we published today, to ensure that measures are taken on regional decentralisation, streamlining administration and co-ordination with local authorities and voluntary organisations. The system should be geared effectively towards ensuring that we take the service out; that is what we are doing in the appeals and support process in Scotland, rather than flying people from Scotland to London. Those measures, together with a toughening and tightening up with regard to private providers—whose service and accommodation, although often satisfactory, has in some instances been deeply unsatisfactory—will be the prime concern of the next 12 months.

Mr. Edward Gander (Harborough)

The Home Secretary said a moment ago that he wanted to reduce multiple opportunities for delay in the courts, streamline the appeals system and achieve a 50 per cent. increase in the system's capacity. To achieve those laudable aims, will he not need the co-operation and support of the judiciary and the legal profession, 99.9 per cent. of whose members are interested in the efficient and humane administration of justice and in faithfully applying the laws passed by this House and Parliament as a whole? Does he not think it unwise and counter-productive to spend too much time insulting and making offensive remarks about the very people whose co-operation he will need to achieve the new policy?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not going to enter into banter about one of our more powerful pressure groups. Last week, I quoted Professor Sir William Wade and recommended "Administrative Law" to which I referred. Of course we need the co-operation of the judiciary. They will co-operate with us because, like me, they are doing their best to ensure that the system works. However, the massive increase in the capacity of the adjudication system will be welcomed not only by asylum seekers but by those operating it. Speeding up the process, taking out opportunities for considerable delay, including judicial review, and allowing on a point of law a further appeal seem to us eminently reasonable.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The Home Secretary has made a detailed statement which will require detailed appraisal. Obviously, the whole House welcomes the review. I speak as someone who served on the Committee stage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and voted against it, largely because of the arrangements for vouchers and forced dispersal.

I have three questions for my right hon. Friend. First, are the proposed reporting centres intended to supersede or run alongside existing arrangements for some categories of immigrant and asylum seeker to report to the police? Secondly, I understand that smart cards are entitlement cards. Will supposed asylum seekers be stopped on the street and asked for their card? Finally, to repeat what was said earlier, removals look clean and simple on paper but in a diverse community such as mine in Hackney, the police are anxious to have a considered approach to the subject. They are well aware of the tensions and disorder that could arise from removals involving families with small children being dragged out of tower blocks.

Mr. Blunkett

On the latter point my hon. Friend is correct. That is why the protocol signed with the police in September is crucially about ensuring that the process is handled with great sensitivity. I entirely take that point.

The cards would not allow people to be stopped in the street; they are not about policing. On my hon. Friend's first question, we are trying to speed up the system and make it more humane, not to ensure that what we put in place will make life more difficult for people who are already struggling.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

May I first congratulate the Home Secretary on the skill as well as the speed with which he has so far executed, on taking office, this necessary policy U-turn, and also on the way in which he carried out the necessary formalities of praising his predecessor, the present Foreign Secretary, which he did with taste but without excessive enthusiasm?

I return to the question put by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the large number of applications from people who have been resident in this country for many years, but who are probably illegally overstaying as visitors; who have probably acquired a partner, a residence and some kind of job; who apply for asylum when pressure is exerted on them; and who are usually granted not asylum but indefinite leave to remain. How will the Home Secretary's policy statement actually affect such cases? Presumably they will not be removed to accommodation centres to be processed. Does he propose that a higher proportion of such cases should in future be removed rather than given indefinite leave to remain, and how does he intend to achieve that?

Mr. Blunkett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has not lost his touch, although I remind him that if, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had given some of the resources that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave my predecessor to invest in the system, it might have worked much better.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers to exceptional leave to remain, often granted when it is not safe to return someone to their country of origin. In those circumstances, we would obviously not place people in a detention removal centre. However, there is a real issue underlying this point: ensuring that our actions globally are intent on opening up those countries again so that people can be returned safely to them. That is why exceptional leave to remain rather than asylum status has historically been granted.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Home Secretary realise that many local authorities, such as mine, will welcome the radical changes that he proposed today, especially those for the accommodation units which will relieve the difficult housing situation in boroughs such as mine where it has been possible to transfer very few people? We welcome that. Will he give us more detail on how he will speed up the current huge backlog? Much of what he said refers to what will happen in future. How does he think that we can speed up the process practically for the thousands of people—hundreds in my constituency—who are awaiting decisions and have been told that they may have to wait for at least another year?

Mr. Blunkett

We should accord the staff at the immigration and nationality directorate praise for their achievements last year. They reduced the initial backlog of cases to be heard from 103,000 to 43,000—a remarkable achievement. If we can do the same in relation to streamlining the whole system so that it works coherently from induction through to removal, and ensuring that the administration of the support system is equally effective, we shall achieve what my hon. Friend rightly seeks—an efficient system, not only on paper but in practice.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

If an illegal immigrant arrives in this country from an EU country, cannot it be presumed that they are arriving from a safe haven? Consequently, will the Government seek to amend the Dublin convention so that, for example, an illegal immigrant to this country from France can immediately be sent back there and France would have to admit them?

Mr. Blunkett

For the past four and a half months I have been gleaning facts as fast as I can, and it is an interesting but little known fact that we actually return just under 6,000 people to France every year—speedily and often before they manage to cry asylum. I hope that we shall continue to be able to do that in the case of illegal immigrants. But let us take the Dublin convention head on. First, a Conservative Government signed it in 1990. Secondly, a Conservative Government failed to get it amended when it was clear that it would have a perverse result in the United Kingdom. Thirdly, yes, we are seeking to amend it. The Commission has published a draft directive. We hope that we can toughen up the proposal and that we can get other countries to agree to it, given that proving where someone came from and whether or not they really did have a safe haven in the countries that they passed through is something on which the whole House would unite because the lack of such proof makes a mockery of any organised and rational immigration and asylum policy.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement and for his assurances that the dispersal of asylum seekers from places such as Dover and the Kent coast will continue and that vouchers will be phased out. I welcome the proposals on induction, accommodation and removal centres, but will he take care in considering whether places such as Dover, which have borne a heavy burden in the past four years and are already earmarked to receive removal centres, are really the sort of areas where one wants to put induction and accommodation centres? Will he share the burden when he looks around the estate?

Mr. Blunkett

It is crucial that dispersal from the coastal area and the entry points is not only effective but seen to be so. That is why the induction centres will help enormously. Instead of spot bed- and-breakfast accommodation, with all that that involves in terms of people hanging about on the streets, it will be possible, in the months ahead, to pull people together in a way that not only has some coherence for them but relieves those local communities.

I take the point entirely about removal centres and the transfer of one set of accommodation to a new use. I got the message from my hon. Friend very clearly. I pay tribute to him again for the stand that he has taken during the past few years in very difficult circumstances.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome most of the Home Secretary's statement, but may I press him on one issue? Why does he not allow asylum seekers to enter gainful employment while they are waiting for their applications to be determined? That would not only give them self-respect and dignity but reduce the call on the taxpayer, end the opportunity for some of our media to be so inflammatory about this issue and equip asylum seekers with skills if and when their applications were successful. Why will he not do that?

Mr. Blunkett

Because it is precisely the belief that asylum seekers can work here, coupled with the English language, that is such a pull factor in their coming to this country. That is recognised very clearly by all our European partners. Every time I meet them, they rub it in very heavily that people think they will get a different deal. Well, they will get a different deal in terms of welcome and support, but not in terms of being treated as economic migrants when they are refugees.

Refugees often suffer from trauma, they have often been tortured, and they have often fled from the most desperate circumstances. They are not the same as doctors, nurses and engineers whom we wish to attract through the work permit system. I make the point again—and we have to do so internationally—that if people want to come and work here and contribute they will be welcome, but if people are refugees they will be treated as refugees applying for asylum status and, although they may choose to volunteer to provide support to their own community and those outside it, they cannot expect to be treated as though they are not asylum seekers but economic migrants in the first few months of being here.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

How long does my right hon. Friend envisage the induction process will take? Did I understand him correctly to say that if asylum seekers refuse to move to an accommodation centre, they will have no support of any kind? Many asylum seekers in my constituency have friends, family and strong community links there. Will the proposed changes affect those whose applications are already in the system?

Mr. Blunkett

It is expected that induction will take seven to 10 days. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that it is not administratively possible to restart people's claims, so those who are already here will have to be dealt with speedily within the existing framework. Initially, under the induction system, a proportion of first-time applicants will be offered places in accommodation centres. If they decline, they are saying, "Thank you very much. We don't need support." Some 30 per cent. of those coming in for asylum do not claim support and a further 20 per cent. claim voucher-only support. If people are genuinely in desperate need, we do not think it is unfair to ask them either to opt for an accommodation place or to decide to live with family or in their community.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Will the Home Secretary tell us more about his proposal for greater co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and with the European Union? In particular, has he any thoughts on the remarks of Mr. Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch Prime Minister who is head of the UNHCR? On 1 September, he said that he thought that the right way forward was to have a quota for every member state and that the appropriate quota for the United Kingdom was 200,000, which is well over double what we had last year.

Mr. Blunkett

It is a good job that we, and not Ruud, are running the system. We have no intention of introducing quotas of that nature, but we think that a combined, co-ordinated system that accepts those with genuine refugee status who would otherwise have to find clandestine means of reaching our shores makes sense. That is particularly so, given the developments that have taken place and the work that has been done by the Australian Government in similar circumstances. We do not refuse to take anyone but do not simply invite anyone to try for refugee status.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

In view of my right hon. Friend's wish to improve the integration of those granted permanent residence, will he hold discussions with his colleagues in other Departments to ensure a consistency of approach towards support for higher education? One of my constituents has been granted permanent residence, has a degree in physics and has accepted a place to train as a radiographer—a skill that is in great shortage, particularly in my area—but is being treated as an overseas student, so he cannot take up that opportunity. However, if he wished to undergo teacher training, he would be treated as a home student. I shall write to the Secretary of State for Health, but I would be grateful for any support that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could give in this case.

Mr. Blunkett

I have a feeling that I must have brought about the alternation at what is now the Department for Education and Skills when I was hanging about there. I will obviously raise this issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Heath to see whether there is anything that we can do. However, there remain residency provisions in terms of support for education. We need to consider the integration process more widely and that is why, in the dispersal and support reviews, I have announced that we shall extend to 28 days the support that is given to those who gain refugee status. It has not been possible for us and the other support services to sort out such cases sufficiently quickly, and that has caused real problems for those who have been granted status to remain in this country but have found themselves without support of any type.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

First, in response to the Home Secretary's remarks on the Dublin and Geneva conventions, may I say that those of us who represent Kent constituencies do not have too much difficulty working out whether an asylum seeker has come from a safe haven? Most of them arrive on the Dover ferry or through the channel tunnel—those forms of transport originate in France and France is a safe haven.

The Home Secretary's hubris this afternoon has been breath taking. He is right to say that he inherited a shambles, but he inherited it from his immediate predecessor who has taken asylum in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. However, now that the Home Secretary has recognised that all the Government's policies, particularly the disastrous dispersal programme, have failed to date and now that he has begun to adopt at least some of the measures suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), will he accept that there is fundamental difference between us? Some of us believe in secure reception centres while he believes in walk-in, walk-out ones. An asylum seeker arriving in the United Kingdom will go to a secure reception where he receives food, clothing and rest after his weary travel, but what is to stop him disappearing? The Home Secretary describes the system as "robust"—that is today's word—but some of us regard it as flaccid.

Mr. Blunkett

There is a cynic in every family. Given the location of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I honestly wonder what his constituents would think about someone who wishes to wave away dispersal altogether. He should think seriously about advocating the complete abolition of dispersal and describing it as "disastrous". Without it, the coastal area of south-east England would have been overwhelmed. Everyone knows that. We do not believe that it is feasible, practical or financially viable to detain everyone who enters the country; nor is it acceptable or legal to do so, either in this country or under international conventions. No other country does that. That is why we have not considered it.

The notion—let me tackle this head on—that people who arrive as refugees want to rest in an inn somewhere for seven to 10 days and then take themselves off beggars belief. People who apply for asylum want permanent status in this country. That is why they do not come here and disappear illegally. By having the smart card and reporting and accommodation centres, we can not only track them but support them through to the time when they either stay as a welcome refugee or are speedily removed.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I want to call everyone who is standing. The Home Secretary has been on his feet for an hour. If questions are short and sharp, I shall be able to call everyone.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I welcome most of the proposals in the statement which might help to relieve the burden on such constituencies as mine. However, we all know that the devil is in the detail. Can the Home Secretary assure me that asylum seekers will have access to proper advice and representation in induction and accommodation centres?

Mr. Blunkett

The support for legal advice, which is funded substantially from public funds, will be available. Direct support for health care and education and to meet individuals' needs, including those with major emotional problems, will be dealt with in the accommodation centres.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Will the Home Secretary explain how the introduction of a smart card will improve on the present system of allocating a unique and identifiable national insurance number, without which no asylum seeker can obtain benefits or a job? Given that his right hon. Friend at the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to abolish plans for an entitlement card for the rest of the population, was the Home Secretary not dangerously near misleading the House when he suggested that the essence of the new system was the introduction of fingerprinting? Will he confirm—no doubt he will want to apologise to the House—that fingerprinting of asylum seekers has been the practice for a number of years?

Mr. Blunkett

Let me get this straight. When I visit Croydon—as, I am sure, the right hon. Gentleman has—and look at the ID system, people there explain that the electronic computerised fingerprinting facility that is linked to ports and other reception areas now enables a record to be kept of everyone's fingerprints. That was not possible under the previous system.

Mr. Lilley

It was.

Mr. Blunkett

It was not. There is no point arguing about it because it is a simple fact. We are still compiling a record of the totality of asylum claimants so that they cannot multiple claim or come back into the country under a different name and not be detected. I am not going into the history of the Department of Social Security's entitlement card; suffice it to say that our proposed card will have a strip to entitle people to the support that they seek and the cash that they get. It will be impossible to forge because of the biometric use of technology, to which I referred earlier.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The Home Secretary must be aware that 1,800 people are being held in prisons, police stations and detention centres under immigration law without any charge being made against them. How many does he expect to be held in secure detention in reception or removal centres? Does not he accept that the current figure is way above the average figure for any comparable European country that is receiving asylum seekers?

Mr. Blunkett

There are approximately 940 people in prison, half of whom have not committed, or are not accused of committing, a crime. They will all be removed from prison, or the prison places will be superseded, by the end of January. We do not envisage that anyone in the induction or accommodation centres will be held in detention.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the rights of genuine asylum seekers and the workability of our asylum system have consistently been undermined by the many people who claim political asylum in the full knowledge that, eventually, their claim will be turned down, but that by then they will have been able to disappear into British society? If he accepts that, what possible incentive can there be for such people to report to his voluntary accommodation centres in the full knowledge that when their asylum claim is turned down, they will immediately be transferred to a compulsory removal centre for deportation? Does not that criticism strike at the heart of the entire scheme?

Mr. Blunkett

It would if people did what the hon. Gentleman is describing. If people want to work illegally in this country, they do not apply for asylum at all; they simply work illegally. That is why we set up the interdepartmental working group to examine that problem and tackle it head on. If someone applies for asylum, it is self-evident that they will see their application through. That is why we have the backlog of appeals that I am dealing with today by allocating, with the Lord Chancellor, another £62 million for next year to speed up the process. Self-evidently, at the heart of the matter, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, lies the fact that if asylum seekers disappeared into the system, people would not appeal, we would not have a backlog and I would not be taking this action.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Will he ensure that any new system meets the needs of unaccompanied children, whether they are in a new induction centre or have had their asylum application refused?

Mr. Blunkett

The answer is yes. We are spending a very large sum—£95 million—on dealing with unaccompanied minors. I want, with our European partners, to use the security services to track and identify traffickers, and to find out how they are moving minors across continents and bringing them to our country. Those children are not, as someone said recently, walking alone through the forests of Germany and France; they are being exploited by others.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

The Home Secretary finished on the very point that I wanted to raise with him. At the beginning of his statement, he touched on the subject of the evil men and, probably, women who traffic in human beings. Will he say more about what practical steps he proposes to take, with European partners and security forces throughout Europe, to get to the heart of that problem? It seems to me that if we can put into a concerted, focused effort all the energy that we are rightly putting into a coalition against terrorists in the caves of Afghanistan, we can do an awful lot more to root out those few men and women who are responsible for peddling human beings and causing suffering and misery.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with that. I raised that issue at the two Home Affairs Councils that I have attended this autumn. I believe that the effort applies to drug traffickers as well as to people traffickers. We are making available extra investment, and we are working bilaterally with the French in the western Balkans to enhance border controls in the accession countries, rather than just concentrating on the existing 15 members of the European Union. I hope that for a number of those accession countries, that investment will be the forerunner for substantial resources from the European Union.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I welcome the demise of the voucher system. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be no detention element in the reception centres that he has described? Will he ensure that gender guidelines will be considered by those working and providing advice at the centres? Will he assure me that the smart card, and the entitlement that it brings, will not work in reverse, causing problems, for example, for an asylum seeker who arrives at a hospital seeking treatment and who does not have a smart card?

Mr. Blunkett

First, other than delivery of the service at Oakington that I described, detention of those who have not committed an offence will be confined to removal centres. We shall develop that policy as the new elements are introduced. Secondly, staff at induction centres will ascertain and check individual needs as well as provide advice.

Thirdly, I hope that the card will be perceived as an entitlement. People who have not got it with them will be treated, just as those without a driving licence are entitled to produce it at a later date. The card is not a check for such purposes, but an entitlement that will allow us to obtain correct identification and enable people to operate the system fairly.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Last year, there were 100,000, or slightly fewer, applications for asylum, of which 85 or 90 per cent. have been or will be refused; and of those people refused, perhaps one in 10 have been or will be removed. In addition, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 illegal immigrants enter this country each year. What estimate has the Home Office made of the number of failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in the country? Does the Home Secretary intend that all those people should be removed to show that he is, as he puts it, tough? What extra resources will he give the authorities that will carry out those removals? Finally, will he pledge that there will be no universal amnesty for illegal immigrants in this country?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not pledging anything that I have not announced this afternoon. Of initial claims, 75 per cent. fail and 80 per cent. of those who go to appeal have their appeal dismissed. Those are the figures. We do not have accurate figures on those who are living and working illegally in this country. That is precisely why we set up the working group to get a grip on the issue.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will the Home Secretary's proposals mean that the gross exploitation of vulnerable asylum seekers currently taking place in the Landmark and the Inn on the Park in Everton, Liverpool will cease permanently? Will he review the role and operation of the National Asylum Support Service, especially in respect of a possible conflict in its role as a body that both awards and monitors contracts with the private sector?

Mr. Blunkett

While we are trialling and evaluating the new forms of accommodation, we will need, as the reviews indicate, to get a grip on those things that have been going wrong in NASS. I am painfully aware of the difficulties in Liverpool. I hope that we can iron out the problems quickly and sort out the contractual arrangements that have been entered into.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

When the Home Secretary's new system is fully operational, what incentive will there be for an asylum seeker whose appeal has failed not to disappear into the community, given that he will know that at that stage he faces detention prior to removal? Surely under the new scheme such an individual would have an incentive to disappear into the community as soon as he received noification of the failure of his appeal and before he could be detained?

Mr. Blunkett

He would, but that is why I am introducing a system whereby appeals decisions will be delivered in person rather than sent out in an envelope, and those who receive a refusal of their appeal will be accompanied, either to pick up their possessions or directly to the removal centre. As that begins to operate, we will be able to develop a system that would otherwise continue to undershoot expectations.

It is worth noting that there has been a substantial improvement in the number of removals. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn was Home Secretary, removals were increased by 100 per cent. or more on the number that had been inherited.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

In addition to dealing with the traffickers and gangmasters, will my right hon. Friend take action against those unscrupulous individuals and organisations who provide wrongful immigration advice to many people both here and abroad, and seek thereby to exploit people who are trying to build a better life for themselves and their families in this country? Will he give the House an assurance that the generous support so far given to authorities such as Kent county council and to public services such as the police and the national health service, which needed those extra resources to deal with the extra burden of asylum seekers, will continue to be provided until his new radical reforms are fully operational?

Mr. Blunkett

I cannot promise that they will get all the support that they request, but we will continue to provide the backing and support that are required to ensure that they can continue doing their job for the wider community and for people who are approaching them as asylum seekers. My hon. Friend will know that one of the other measures taken by my predecessor was the registration requirement in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. That is now taking effect. I hope that there will be a substantial clampdown on people who abuse the refugees who seek help from them by fraudulently pretending that they are eligible to give advice.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

May I join the chorus of welcome for my right hon. Friend's statement? It will be especially welcomed if it leads to a system that is more humane as well as more efficient. He will have anticipated that his announcement about the need for accommodation centres for some 3,000 asylum seekers will inevitably have caused uncertainty and apprehension in communities where the establishment of such centres is being proposed. Those communities include High Ercall and surrounding villages in my constituency, where the Angel Group, which is one of the Home Office providers, has made such a proposal. I know that he cannot be site-specific, but can he offer some clarification as to the number of centres that he seeks, their size and how soon he requires them to be operational?

Mr. Blunkett

Perhaps I should say on the record that any provider would be very unwise to speculate by buying up property, land or accommodation in the belief that we will simply take on the proposal. To make the new centres viable and to allow provision of support services on health, education and the like, we believe that they should have 750 places. The first four centres, making up the 3,000 places, will be established on that basis. Those from the voluntary and private sectors who genuinely want to collaborate and co-operate with us will be very welcome but no one needs to be under any illusion. People cannot simply present themselves and expect to recoup investment that they have laid out in anticipation, perhaps prompted by newspapers, that we will take on their proposed centre.

Martin Linton (Battersea)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on having acted on the unanimous suggestion made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs earlier this year that he should consider introducing entitlement cards? Does he envisage that the cards will help asylum seekers to get the public services and rights at work to which they are entitled, as well as helping him to supersede the voucher and dispersal systems?

Mr. Blunkett

I should make it clear that the card will not help with rights at work until people have been here for six months, otherwise I shall be in some difficulty. However, it will entitle them to confidence in themselves and the ability to present the card without feeling like second-class citizens in the way that people have described. The card may be also used more imaginatively in future, as a way of accessing other support.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

My right hon. Friend has already taken the significant step of ensuring inclusion in the provisions of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are in care. While acknowledging that a great deal of money is being spent on meeting the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, will his review consider that such children are often looked after in inadequate circumstances under section 17 of the Children Act 1989? Would not bringing those young people into the looked-after system not only perhaps be even cheaper but introduce more scrutiny, as well as ensuring security and better care for these vulnerable young people?

Mr. Blunkett

With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health sitting on the Front Bench, I shall be careful not to suggest accommodating asylum-seeking minors in children's homes. There are major problems not only with the appropriateness but with the practicalities of doing that. We must ensure that appropriate dispersal of young people through social services works well. However, we must also consider stemming the tide of those who make their way to this country unaccompanied or find family when they are eventually granted leave to remain. That matter is difficult to tackle, but we must face up to it.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I have many constituents from ethnic minority backgrounds with proper and full rights to stay in this country. Will the Home Secretary assure me that they will not be asked repeatedly to show an entitlement card that they neither have nor need?

Mr. Blunkett

The answer is absolutely no—the card is for a specific purpose. As I said earlier, it will supersede the letter, which is unsatisfactory, not secure and clearly leads to fraud in many cases. It is not a suitable method for people to demonstrate their rights to the support that we offer them. Getting the balance right will mean, at last, a welcome and a trust in our communities and a clear understanding in the rest of the world. If we can achieve both together, we will have got it right.

Mr. Speaker

The Home Secretary has answered questions for more than an hour and 20 minutes and I believe that the House would want me to thank him.

The Home Secretary knows of my interest in the matter that the House has been discussing. I welcome vouchers being abolished because, as I know from experience in my constituency, they take away people's dignity.