HC Deb 25 January 2000 vol 343 cc1-21WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

9.30 am
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss a subject that is highly topical at the present time. Indeed, when I asked questions in the Council of Europe last September about the matter, I did not realise how topical it would become. Hon. Members will have seen the figures published in the press this weekend, which show that the number of people seeking asylum in this country has increased by 50 per cent. or more over the past year.

Since coming to power, Labour has repeatedly announced measures to reduce the number of asylum applications made in the United Kingdom, but, after nearly three years of Labour government, the number of applications has reached an all-time high. During October, a spate of headlines appeared in the national press. One stated: "Immigrants enter Britain 'sewn into sides of trains'".

The article continued: Bogus asylum-seekers are being sewn into the canvas sides of Channel Tunnel freight trains and smuggled into Britain by Italian gangsters. That appeared on 3 October. The following day, another headline appeared: "Gipsy immigrants taking cheap flights to Britain".

According to the article: Gipsy immigrants are taking cheap flights to Britain as part of a big rise in asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, says the Home Office. Later that month, the headline appeared: "Record numbers seeking asylum". The article explained: Record numbers of refugees are seeking asylum in Britain, the Home Office said yesterday. At the end of that month, another headline appeared: "Czech gipsies threaten exodus". According to the report: A wave of gipsies will head for Britain and other European Union countries seeking political asylum". The statistics that the Government published just before Christmas show that in 1996, under the Conservative Government, the number of asylum seekers from Europe totalled 6,475. The following year, part of which was under the new Labour Administration, the number had risen to 9,145—by almost 50 per cent. By 1998, that figure had almost doubled again, to 17,745. The reports in this weekend's press, to which I alluded a moment ago, suggest that the total number of asylum seekers from the entire world—the figures that I gave previously related to Europe—in 1999 is estimated to be 89,700, which is 50 per cent. more than the 58,000 announced for 1998.

That vast increase in the number of asylum seekers places unreasonable demands on social services, police and other departments and creates unsustainable pressures on communities at the major ports of entry and the surrounding areas. The behaviour of some migrants is unacceptable. Hon. Members will be conscious of the number of people begging on the London Underground and importuning passers-by in the street. Not least of my anxieties is the cost to society in general at a time when Government funding to police, health and local authorities is totally inadequate to satisfy the legitimate demands of the indigenous population. In my home county of Shropshire, we are aggrieved because the money that we receive is quite inadequate for the services that our local authorities, health authorities and police authorities have to provide.

I emphasise that the debate that I have initiated relates only to asylum seekers from Europe. It has such a specific focus because there is an easy, cost-free solution to the issue of European asylum seekers. Some 41 countries now belong to the Council of Europe, membership of which is conditional on the acceptance of the European convention on human rights. In other words, no country can join the Council of Europe without first agreeing to comply with the conditions of the convention.

I should explain that the Council of Europe began with a congregation of western European nations in 1949 to ensure that as far as possible, there was never again such a flagrant abuse of human rights as had occurred in the second world war. On 4 November 1950 in Rome, the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights—not to be confused with the European Court of Justice—were set up under the auspices of the Council of Europe which to this day is vitally involved in all matters relating to human rights.

It therefore follows that the human rights of any national of any one of the 41 countries with membership of the Council of Europe is protected by the European convention and, by default, that individuals or groups of individuals can and should seek redress through the European Court of Human Rights. The fact that many thousands of people from countries such as Albania, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Turkey, the former USSR and the former Yugoslavia choose not to do so is the reason that I have initiated today's debate. Coincidentally, this afternoon the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg will debate restrictions on asylum in the member states of the Council of Europe and the European Union. I very much hope that my parliamentary colleagues will pursue the motion for a resolution that I sponsored in this forum last September. The text of my motion states: The Assembly:

  1. i. Recognising that membership of the Council of Europe is conditional upon acceptance of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  2. ii. Given that the human rights of all citizens of Council of Europe member states are protected by the right of individual petition to the Court of Human Rights whose findings are obliged to be responded to by Governments;
  3. 3WH
  4. iii. Given that all 41 member states of the Council of Europe have pledged to support the principle of human rights within their own borders;
  5. iv. Mindful of the fact that human rights are a fundamental tenet of the constitution of the Council of Europe;
  6. v. Having regard to the not insignificant number of citizens of Council of Europe member states who continue to seek political asylum in other Council of Europe countries;
  7. vi. Conscious of the possibility that some of those seeking political asylum are either economic migrants or fugitives from justice;
  1. 1. Believes that the situation in which citizens of member states of the Council of Europe continue to claim political asylum in other Council of Europe countries controverts the fundamental responsibility of member states to respect the European Convention on Human Rights;
  2. 2. Calls for the appropriate committee to report on this situation."
The motion was supported by 69 parliamentarians, including 11 members of the United Kingdom Socialist delegation. Signatories come from 24 countries and represent no fewer than four of the five recognised party groupings in the Council of Europe Assembly. I might further add that the signatures were collected in 24 hours. There were signatories not just from delegations from countries in western Europe, but from Turkey and eight central and eastern European countries, including Croatia, Poland and the Slovak Republic.

Right hon. and hon. Members might be interested to hear the response that I obtained from the Council of Europe's chairman-in-office when I asked whether, having regard to the fact that each member country of the Council of Europe is bound by the European convention on human rights, he could explain how citizens of COE member states continue to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, Mr. Asgrimsson replied: Let me admit that compliance unfortunately is not uniform". He went on to say that nationals of all member states are of course free to avail themselves of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is precisely my point. I asked the chairman-in-office a supplementary question: Does the Minister accept that, if all Council of Europe member states honour their terms of the European Convention on Human Rights there would be no need for political asylum in Europe, but if individual states do not, or will not, discharge their obligations under the convention, does that not challenge the fundamental raison d'etre of the Assembly? Why should the failure of some member states to honour their commitments impose additional burdens upon those that do? Does he share my concern that, included amongst those seeking political asylum, there are those who are fugitives from justice in their own countries? Mr. Asgrimsson replied: We are all aware of that situation, but we also know that our countries have different living conditions", which makes my second point—that many of these people are not genuine asylum seekers at all but simply, as many of us have long suspected, economic migrants.

I come now to the Government's record. They published in Cmnd. 4431 the figures to which I referred—proof, if it were needed, that the situation has worsened dramatically since Labour came to power. However, guidance notes issued to the United Kingdom parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe state that the UK Government is firmly committed to the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and, to their credit, that the UK Government considers it important, however, that member states should be entitled to impose conditions on persons seeking to travel to their territory; detain asylum seekers in appropriate cases; and return asylum seekers to safe third countries without giving substantive considerations to their claims. In other words, in this area of policy as in so many others, the Government are strong on rhetoric but weak on action, as the figures, published last weekend, prove.

On 21 August last year, I wrote to the Home Secretary stating that, in advance of next month's meeting of the Council of Europe, I should be grateful if you would provide me with a synopsis of your Department's policy regarding immigrants and asylum seekers from other parts of the European Continent. My question is prompted by news reports of gypsies from the Czech Republic and other CEE countries seeking asylum in this country … maybe you would agree that the question of asylum seekers from any of these countries is a matter of concern which should be raised as a business item in that forum". Leaving aside the fact that it took the Minister of State five weeks to respond—her reply awaited me on my return from Strasbourg—she said in that belated reply that I had specifically referred to the immigration of large numbers of Roma from the Czech Republic and other CEE countries. That is not so. I specifically referred in my letter of 21 August to gypsies—a description that my constituents in Shropshire, where we call a spade a spade, would readily understand. The Chamber will appreciate that I have not yet converted to political correctness; nor do I intend to.

The Minister also stated in her letter that the number of asylum seekers from Central Europe has risen sharply in recent months. That being so, and given that, according to the Minister's letter, the vast majority of applicants from Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics are Roma and those from Croatia are mainly ethnic Serbs that does not in any way alter the fact that either those countries are in clear breach of their obligations under the European convention or that the migrants themselves are at fault in not having sought redress through the European Court of Human Rights—as is their right—and are probably bogus? Either way, I fail to understand why the problem should be dumped in the lap of the British taxpayer.

In fairness, I should say that in her letter the Minister states that in the case of Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, since January 1998, on initial consideration, all applications for asylum have been refused". Unfortunately, that assurance is at odds with newspaper reports that appeared last Saturday, which reported the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as estimating the total number of refugees in 1999 at 89,700, compared with 46,000 applications for asylum received in the United Kingdom in 1998. In fairness to the Minister, once again, I concede that the 46,000 becomes 58,000 if dependants are added. Nevertheless, we have a direct comparison of 58,000 in 1998 with 89,700 in 1999—in other words, half as many again as in the previous year. That figure represents asylum seekers from all parts of the world, but it includes a substantial increase in applicants from Europe. Clearly, something is wrong when countries that have entered into solemn and binding agreements do not honour them. From our point of view, their failure to do so becomes a burden on the countries that do honour them.

Before I move on from the Minister's letter, I wish to draw attention to another sentence, which states that candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe who wish to joint the European Union must meet the Copenhagen criteria. I had not asked about the European charter of fundamental rights. Prompted by that gratuitous comment, however, I do so now. Is not the European Union's proposal to establish its own charter of human rights in parallel with, or as an alternative to, the European convention on human rights of a piece with the EU's plans to establish corpus juris as an alternative to national jurisprudence—just as its determination to create its own European defence force as an alternative to NATO and to create the euro as an alternative to national currencies, is the clearest indication that the EU is hellbent on creating the European superstate, which, almost alone in Europe today, British politicians continue to deny?

I appreciate that the issue of asylum seekers is fraught, but it is likely to become even more so unless the Government take tougher action. This matter is important and of great interest to many of our constituents, so why did it take the Home Office five weeks to respond to my letter, effectively preventing me from having the benefit of its advice in time for the Council of Europe meeting in September? Do the Government agree that it is unacceptable for nationals whose countries are signatories to the European convention to seek asylum in other countries?

What steps will the Government take to ensure that all Council of Europe countries honour their obligations under the European convention on human rights? Will the Government take steps to remove the ambiguity—evidenced by the Court of Appeal's judgment of 23 July 1999—regarding the UK's interpretation of the 1951 convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees, as compared with the interpretation of other European countries such as France and Germany? Will the Government recognise that bogus asylum seekers are anathema to the majority of law-abiding British citizens and that the Government have no mandate from the British people to stretch a point beyond that which we are honour bound to accept by dint of our international treaty obligations? Is it reasonable for the British taxpayer to pick up the tab for the failure of other countries to honour their human rights obligations?

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Before my hon. Friend concludes his excellent contribution, may I add two points to his list? Ratepayers and council tax payers in Kent are, this year alone, £4.5 million short in compensation from the centre. Should the European Union consider as candidates countries from which large numbers of people apply for asylum and which are, incidentally, members of the Council of Europe?

Mr. Gill

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. One of the points that I hope will emerge from our debate today is that 41 countries currently belong to the Council of Europe and they have all signed up to the European convention on human rights. Clearly, not all of them are honouring their obligations. My fear is that we will create an alternative body within the EU and a blind eye will be turned to some of the things that go on in those countries. Far from solving the problem, it will simply compound it, and Governments who should act in respect of countries that are in default will not do so but will focus on the new body.

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber this morning because I am very conscious of the fact that counties such as Kent are taking the brunt of the numbers seeking asylum in this country. You may wonder, Mr. Deputy Speaker, why the Member for Ludlow in Shropshire is initiating this debate when, as yet, we are not too burdened with the problem of asylum seekers. The Government's policy is not to take a strong line with other countries and tell them to honour their obligations under the European convention but to say that we must disperse the problem. Tens of thousands of people are coming in, but, rather than take stronger action to cut off the supply, so to speak, the Government are threatening to disperse people to other parts of the country. It will become a problem for me.

Thanks to information received from the Local Government Association only yesterday evening, I became aware that Dudley and Wolverhampton—Wolverhampton is only six miles from my constituency—are scheduled to take some of these people. Instead of solving the problem and sending bogus asylum seekers home, the Government propose to decamp them from Kent to other parts of the country. It will then become a problem for me and other hon. Members who represent parts of the country that are, as yet, unaffected.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government are not fulfilling their responsibilities to local authorities, not just on the south coast but throughout the country? Stockport borough council, for instance, is owed hundreds of thousands of pounds from the Government in relation to Kosovar refugees who, quite rightly, were taken into this country. The Government are not honouring their obligations.

Mr. Gill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I cannot claim to be conscious of the detail, although I am aware of the system that is supposed to recompense his and other authorities for shouldering part of the burden. I have every sympathy with him, his constituents and his local council, but the point that I want to stress this morning is that the Government must do far more to stop this flood of asylum seekers—and it has become a flood. As the figures demonstrate, over the past four years the total number of asylum seekers of all nationalities to this country has increased from 30,000 to 32,500 to 58,000 and now to 89,700. That is the problem. I would far rather the Government, instead of indulging in palliatives, dealt with the problem at source. What action will they take to persuade the world that the United Kingdom is not the soft touch that asylum seekers clearly think it is?

I said at the beginning of my remarks that there was an easy, cost-free solution to the problem of asylum seekers from Europe, and there is. Will the Government now make it plain to the other signatories of the European convention that if we are to stick to our side of the bargain, they must stick to theirs? Do they not recognise that merely absorbing the consequences of other countries' failure to abide by the rules simply makes it easier for those other countries to go on ignoring the rules? It is time for the Government to put their foot down. The question is: will they now do so?

10.25 am
Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

There is no point in my rehearsing the reasons why Liberal Democrats opposed the recent Immigration and Asylum Bill, but we strongly support the rights of refugees under international conventions to seek asylum. We also believe that we have a duty to ensure that their claims are dealt with speedily and fairly and that, while they are waiting for their claims to be processed, they should be treated with dignity and respect.

It is to our shame as Europeans that major conflicts in the past few years in Europe have led to an increasing number of people fleeing their countries, leaving behind their families, homes and jobs. Therefore, it is not surprising to me—although it seems to be to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill)—that there are record numbers of asylum seekers. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been disintegrating and Europe has not seen such numbers of displaced people for 50 years, but the increase is clearly not our Government's fault. Perhaps, instead, we should be proud that people seek refuge in what is still seen as a liberal and tolerant country. There is an international emergency and we as a nation must do our bit, not just under international conventions but morally, to share the burden. This international problem demands an international response and international responsibility.

My party has long argued for a common European framework on asylum, and we were told during the British presidency of the European Union that the Prime Minister intended to make progress on the issue. What progress has been made on establishing such a framework?

I want to take the opportunity of this debate to draw the Minister's attention to some of the problems associated with the dispersal of asylum seekers. I have spoken in the past couple of days to my local councils and I know that local authorities across the country have worked well together to produce an agreed framework.

My area has been designated a cluster area, and I have no complaints about that. There is a duty on the county council to provide care and accommodation for asylum seekers, but there is no duty on the district council, as the housing authority, to provide accommodation. Indeed, if there were, it could not meet it: my local authority has about 10 void properties a month, which does not meet the housing needs of more than 1,000 people on the local waiting list, far less the accommodation needs of asylum seekers. I know that some areas of the country have many voids and are not in the same position as we in the south-west. My county council has a serious problem in finding appropriate accommodation in a short-time, but it will do its best, and hopes not to have to resort to bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Local authorities around the country will have difficulties in caring for and accommodating asylum seekers, and in doing so on the fixed sum allocated by the Government. Health and education costs will not be recoverable. We do not blame asylum seekers for those problems. Having fled repression and intimidation, they should not face a punitive or dehumanising reception on arriving in this country.

What are asylum seekers expected to do while their applications are being processed? It is probably reasonable that they are not allowed to do paid work, but they are not allowed to do voluntary work either. Such work would allow them to spend their time usefully and purposefully by participating willingly in communities in which they have been dispersed. If asylum seekers were to make such contributions, communities would accept them more readily.

The hon. Member for Ludlow said that the Government could solve those problems by sending hom bogus asylum seekers rather than dispersing them—

Mr. Gill

My point was that if the Government sent a stronger signal that they do not intend to accept bogus asylum seekers, such people would be dissuaded from setting out in the first place. Given the increasing numbers that are coming to this country, word has clearly got round that we are a soft touch.

Jackie Ballard

Those of a liberal disposition would say that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 sent a strong signal that Britain is far from a soft touch for asylum seekers; in fact, it treats them quite punitively. As I have said, the number of asylum seekers has increased simply because the number of conflicts in Europe and the number of people who have been displaced from their countries have increased.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about sending home bogus asylum seekers rather than dispersing them, those who are known on arrival to be bogus are sent home, but it often takes time to ascertain the validity of claims. He also spoke of the bill that taxpayers in Britain will have to pay. It is true that we pay a price for accommodating and caring for asylum seekers, but it is insignificant compared to the price that those who flee repression or intimidation have to pay. What price can one put on compassion and dignity? We should not assume that all asylum seekers are economic migrants and bogus seekers of some form of nirvana. In fact, the life that they live while waiting for their claims to be processed is difficult. We as a country should do our bit, not merely in respect of international conventions but from a moral standpoint, by showing willingness to accommodate people far less fortunate than ourselves.

10.32 am
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on securing a debate on a matter with which he has been concerned for some months, and which raises important issues. I also congratulate him on what I suspect is his characteristic persistence in seeking the opportunity to secure it.

My hon. Friend made the very important point that many of the asylum seekers in this country who try to take advantage of the 1951 convention are themselves citizens of countries that have subscribed to the European convention on human rights. He asked the significant question why we and other European co-signatories to the convention should simply accept that little can be done about that. I remind him that the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 attempted to deal with the issue of asylum seekers who come to the United Kingdom from countries that are renowned for their reputations for safeguarding human rights. The Act provided for a list of safe third countries, whereby asylum seekers from those countries would be put on a special fast track process on the assumption that, save only in the most exceptional or extraordinary circumstances, a claim from a person who was a citizen of such a country would be regarded as manifestly unfounded. One of several policy errors that the Government have made since taking office was their decision to scrap that so-called white list of safe countries. That sent a signal to people overseas that immigration and asylum policy in the United Kingdom was being softened as a result of the new Government coming into office.

I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) that we live in an age in which vast numbers of people seek to migrate from the developing world to the developed world, and mass movements of people take place on a greater scale than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the second world war. However, I take issue with her conclusion that the majority—or anything remotely approaching the majority—of such people are in genuine fear of persecution and qualify to be treated as refugees under the terms of the 1951 United Nations convention.

During the debates in the House on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, Government and Opposition Front Benchers agreed that it was clear from the evidence—from determinations by the Home Office and results of appeal hearings—that the overwhelming majority of people who seek asylum in the United Kingdom are bogus asylum seekers who are trying to use a claim of asylum as a means of evading our normal immigration controls. It is hard to blame them; mass communication through television and radio makes large numbers of people in poor and unstable countries aware that they have the chance of a better life if they manage to get into one of the western industrialised nations. Furthermore, racketeers are prepared to exort a lifetime's savings from such unfortunate people on the promise of being able successfully to smuggle them into, say, Britain, Germany, Norway or Switzerland.

The evidence demonstrates that most applications for asylum in this country—as in most western European countries—are unfounded, and that there is a significant connection between unfounded asylum applications and criminal or near-criminal activity by people who seek to profit from a trade in human beings.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. This is my first opportunity to take part in a debate in Westminster Hall. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for arriving late and having to leave early—I have to attend a sitting of the Home Affairs Committee. However, I wanted to be able to listen to at least part of the debate.

My hon. Friend has dealt with the question of bogus asylum seekers and economic migrants. I put it to him that the logical consequence of the argument that was advanced by the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) is that this country has a responsibility to absorb people who are suffering persecution elsewhere, wherever that may be. Given that disputes are taking place all over the world, it is simply not possible to accept within these crowded islands even those people who may be the subjects of persecution. It is not fair to the population of the United Kingdom to have to absorb that quantity of people.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

Order. Even on the basis of arriving late and going early, the hon. Gentleman's interventions should be reasonably brief.

Mr. Lidington

My hon Friend puts his point with characteristic clarity and forthrightness, and I agree with him.

In my constituency, some of those vigorous in their support for firm policies to deter unfounded asylum applications are British citizens from ethnic minority groups. They can see that, if the large-scale evasion of immigration control is allowed to continue, race relations within the United Kingdom—and the position of British people who have come to this country lawfully and in accordance with the rules—will be under threat and become insecure.

I want to make a number of points relating to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow. However, I must first say that this debate is perhaps more timely than he might realise. At 11 am, the Home Office is to release to the media the figures for asylum applications in December 1999. I hope that the Minister will not feel constrained by embargo times when she gives her reply, and will be able to share with the House of Commons the information that is to be shared with the media in less than 20 minutes.

Those figures should give further details not only of the number of applications in December, but of the progress or otherwise that the Home Office has made in increasing the number of decisions. We should also learn the latest figure for the backlog of asylum applications piling up undertermined at the Croydon headquarters of the immigration and nationality directorate.

Before I discuss the Home Office's handling of those matters, I will allude briefly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said about the broader European policy. I shall put two points to the Minister. The first concerns the impact of enlargement. When I was last in Brussels, discussing these issues with Members of the European Parliament, I found considerable disquiet that discussions on enlargement were proceeding on the fantastic basis that applicant countries would sign up to the acquis of the Community entire, and that that would include allowing full rights of freedom of movement for persons within the enlarged Union and would also include firm, well-policed external frontiers along the Union's new borders.

The Members of the European Parliament who took an interest in those issues did not believe that it would be practicable for Poland, Slovakia and some other central European countries effectively to police their eastern borders with the successor republics to the former Soviet Union. There would, therefore, have to be either derogations of quite long duration over the free movement of persons from the new member states, or a rethink by the Community over its approach to the enlargement negotiations. I would welcome a view from the Government as to the realism of expecting the central European states to police their eastern borders in the way in which existing EU member states would expect.

Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow put his finger on a matter of great concern when he drew attention to the ambitions of some on the continent—and the avowed ambitions of the European Commission—to develop a fully integrated Community policy on asylum and immigration. If my hon. Friend has not yet had the opportunity to read it, I commend to him a study of the remarks of Commissioner Vitorino, the man responsible for this area of policy in the European Commission, when he was questioned by Members of the European Parliament as part of the confirmation process. Mr. Vitorino made no bones about what he wanted to happen. He said that a Community strategy on asylum … needs to be drawn up as a matter of urgency and that the Commission should strive to ensure that persons denied refugee status within the meaning of the Geneva Convention can enjoy alternative protection in terms of 'non-explusion"'. It would be interesting to know whether Commissioner Vitorino is acting beyond the policy objectives of the British and other European Union Governments or whether he has a body of support within the Council of Ministers that will turn that ambition of alternative protection for those who are denied refugee status into reality.

Commissioner Vitorino went on to say that once Community instruments on asylum have entered into force, the Commission will employ the powers conferred on it by the Treaty and the procedures provided for therein to ensure that member states comply fully with their provisions. He was enthusiastic about the treaty of Amsterdam and the new objective which that treaty set for the European Union of developing an area of freedom, security and justice. There is no doubt that Mr. Vitorino believes that the creation of an area of freedom, security and justice will provide tremendous opportunities for European institutions to develop further their competence over areas of policy which, until now, have been determined largely on an intergovernmental basis. He was explicit in his analogy—perhaps a stronger word than analogy should be used—between the creation of the area of freedom, security and justice and the operation of the single European market. He argued that the single market must be seen to encompass the common policies, social policies, the policy of non-discrimination, the customs union, rules of competition and, of course, all the new provisions introduced by the treaty of Amsterdam on free movement of persons, asylum and immigration. One of the characteristics of the single market, in institutional terms, is that decisions are taken on the basis of qualified majority voting with no right of veto. It is significant that the Commissioner charged with responsibility for immigration and asylum policy should be so determined to take those areas of responsibility into the remit of single market arrangements that effectively transfer competence for those policy arrangements—I am convinced that that is his long-term ambition—from member states to the supranational institutions of the Community with the Commission having sole right of initiative.

Important long-term questions remain and I am not convinced that the Government have grappled adequately with them or given a clear account to Parliament of what is happening in Brussels. People such as Mr. Vitorino openly and unashamedly wish to proceed in that direction. The Minister should tell us when she replies to the debate whether the Government will resist that from the start because it threatens British interests or whether, as with the withholding tax, they will go with the flow, try to tinker at the edges with a fundamentally unacceptable proposal and end up embarrassing themselves and threatening to damage the interests of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gill

Is it not perverse for Governments to turn their backs on established systems, albeit that they are not working, and, instead of using their best efforts to make them work smoothly and effectively, gallop over the horizon and create another body that will probably run into the same problems?

Mr. Lidington

My hon. Friend puts the point well.

I want to say a little about local authorities because some councils have made points that deserve ministerial attention and a response. Then I shall make some points about the operations of the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate.

I shall deal first with local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow and the hon. Member for Taunton said, the number of asylum seekers coming to the United Kingdom in the last couple of years has placed an enormous strain on local authorities' resources, especially, but not exclusively, on those that have important seaports or airports within their boundaries. Will the Minister tell us something about the progress made on dispersal arrangements? The Opposition have supported the dispersal plans, but I am told by Kent county council that, although there has been encouraging progress in some respects, it continues to bear an unacceptably heavy burden. Progress on dispersal is not as swift as that county would wish. I have seen press reports that there have been particular difficulties in Scotland, with Scottish local authorities proving resistant to participation in the dispersal scheme and strong opposition from both Scottish Nationalist and Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament to Scottish local authorities being required by the Home Secretary to provide centres for asylum seekers north of the border.

The leader of Hillingdon council has also raised a particular concern with me about the position of unaccompanied children, many of whom will come from the former Yugoslavia and some from countries outside Europe. There have apparently been rumours from within Whitehall that the special grant arrangements that reimburse local authorities for the very expensive task of looking after unaccompanied children will be withdrawn. If that report is true, that would place an enormous burden on Hillingdon and other local authorities. It would be good news for those councils if the Minister could deny that rumour this morning.

My main point relates to Home Office Ministers' record in handling the difficulties that have landed on their desks as a result of the large number of applications. The hon. Member for Taunton, having criticised the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, hastened to reassure the Government that it was not really their fault. There could not have been a more characteristic demonstration of the Liberal Democrats' approach to the Government.

Jackie Ballard

Clearly I need to help the hon. Gentleman with a point of personal information. I said that it was not the Government's fault that there is an increasing number of asylum seekers from Europe. The Government did not create the conflicts in Europe that have caused people to flee from their homes.

Mr. Lidington

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Government did not create the conditions of conflict. Where she is wrong, and I believe that the figures published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees support my case, is in saying that the Government bear no responsibility for the particularly difficult position in which the United Kingdom now finds itself. It is not just the United Kingdom that has had to cope with a large additional number of asylum seekers as a consequence of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing ethnic conflicts; Germany, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries and the low countries have also had to deal with that problem. I fear that the evidence from the UNHCR is that the United Kingdom has had to cope with a greater share than previously of the total number of asylum seekers coming into western Europe. That must be due both to the message that the Government sent out in their early months in office—that they were softening immigration and asylum policy—and to the incompetence of Home Office Ministers in presiding over a system in Croydon that has allowed record backlogs of applications to pile up. People know that if they can get into this country it will be a very long time before their case is looked at in any detail, so they have the chance of either going to ground or establishing special compassionate reasons why they should not be required to leave.

Let us consider the United Nations figures in a little more detail. The UNHCR compared the number of asylum applications in western European countries made by people from the former Yugoslavia in the first three quarters of 1999 with that for a comparable period in 1998. The number of applications in the United Kingdom rose by 82 per cent. in the first three quarters of 1999 compared with the same period in the previous year. The comparable rise for Germany was 24 per cent. and for the Netherlands it was just 6 per cent. The discrepancy cannot be attributed simply to the fact that the UK took in a certain number of refugees from Kosovo as part of a planned evacuation and relocation programme which was sponsored by the UNHCR; in the third quarter of 1999, after the UNHCR had brought its programme to an end in July of that year, the UK share of Yugoslav asylum seekers had risen to 18 per cent. of the total—a larger figure than in either the first or second quarters of 1999.

The same pattern is apparent in non-Yugoslav applications. There were big rises in the asylum applications in the UK and Belgium in 1999 compared with 1998, but actual falls in the number of asylum seekers from outside Yugoslavia in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland—all areas where large numbers of people have traditionally sought to claim asylum.

The statistical evidence, therefore, makes it clear that we have a worse record than other European countries in coping effectively with the challenge of large numbers of unfounded asylum applications. It is no good the Government wringing their hands, grinning goofily and saying, as they do so often, "Well, it's all the fault of the last Government. We've only been in office for two and a half years." Let us consider the sequence of events.

In July 1998, more than a year after the Government took office, they published a White Paper on asylum and immigration setting out clear targets for the current financial year regarding the number of decisions to be taken and appeals to be handled and the costs of immigration, nationality and asylum business. In March 1999, the Home Office annual report stated that the position at Croydon following the introduction of the new computer system and working arrangements had now settled and the majority of problems have been resolved. The Home Secretary boasted that a step change in efficiency was made in late 1998 to early 1999". Moreover, in last autumn's annual report of the immigration and nationality directorate, the White Paper targets for the current financial year were reaffirmed.

Both the White Paper and the IND's annual report said that the key target for 1999–2000 was for 59,000 decisions to be made on asylum applications. However, in the first eight months of the current financial year 25,885 decisions were taken. If one calculates the annualised figure, one finds that the Government must now expect about 39,000 decisions to be taken during the current financial year, which is no fewer than 20,000 decisions below the target that they set themselves in the middle of 1998 and which they reaffirmed in a report published as recently as last autumn.

The consequence of such incompetence is borne by our constituents as taxpayers. The Government White Paper estimated the cost of supporting asylum seekers for the current financial year at £350 million. In a written answer of 2 November, the Minister told me that that had now risen to an estimated £450 million to £490 million. I wonder whether her reply to this debate will reveal that that estimate has risen yet again. Our constituents must find more than £100 million extra towards the cost of asylum seekers in the current year alone because of the Government's mishandling of affairs.

I am not confident that the Government have got to grips with after-entry controls. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot tabled a question early in December last year about what had happened to Kosovar asylum seekers who had come to this country as part of the United Nations plan. In a written answer of 14 December, the Minister revealed that only a quarter of Kosovars who had entered the country under the auspices of the UNHCR had returned home. Why so few? Have these people gone to ground or is there a good reason why three-quarters of those who came here temporarily until Kosovo was freed have decided to remain within the United Kingdom?

Does the Government's analysis bear out the Daily Mail report of December last year that many asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected by the Home Office had simply disappeared into the community rather than return home? Islington council's statistics were taken as a sample: of 94 asylum seekers whose cases had been rejected, 44 had vanished. According to the Daily Mail, if one extrapolated from those figures, thousands of asylum seekers had gone to ground in the latter months of 1999. Do the Government intend to invest more resources into after-entry controls and deportation? Do they still believe that they are on target—set in the White Paper and in the IND annual report—for the removal of 8,000 failed asylum seekers?

The Minister set herself one target that was so ambitious that I blinked several times when I first read it. In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee in October 1999, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office said that the Department's aim was to clear all current asylum applications by October 2000. I tabled a written question to the Minister about that and she reaffirmed that that was indeed the Government's target. She claimed that clearing them all by that date was a staging post towards the aim of ensuring that, by April 2001, all determinations and appeals take place within six months. If that truly is the Government's target, between now and October this year, they will have to clear the backlog of more than 100,000 asylum cases that have piled up at Croydon. On the basis of the Government's record thus far, that target is unrealistic.

Recent legislation has led us to believe that the Government have at last begun to grasp the gravity of the challenge posed by large numbers of unfounded asylum applications in the United Kingdom. However, their own words, policies, incompetence and complacency have landed not just them, but our constituents, in this mess. We need much greater evidence of effective activity from Ministers before we can have confidence that they are up to dealing with the challenge.

11.5 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I have been so intrigued by the debate that I thought that it was important to stay to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). I hope that I will also be able to stay to hear the Minister who, I imagine, would like to start her remarks in about five or 10 minutes' time. I shall therefore be brief. I put on record my appreciation of the way in which the Minister has handled one or two tricky cases in my constituency. She does not have an easy job and it would be wrong not to thank her personally for a couple of individual cases, notwithstanding my overall criticism of the Government's handling of the policy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said, severe impositions have been placed on local authorities. The impact has fallen disproportionately. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) told us of the difficulties in Kent. We are all familiar with the severe problems in Kent and the inadequate support that the Government are giving to councils that are particularly burdened by the problem.

I met a lady this morning in a London borough who is a neighbour of mine. She told me that recently she had had to evict her married daughter and grandchild because they were overcrowded. Even though the daughter had been on the council waiting list for seven years, no council accommodation was available. She was told that, as she was not a refugee, she was a low priority. My neighbour had the unhappy task of evicting her daughter and grandchild because precedence is being given to asylum seekers. People in this country are extremely concerned about that.

My second point is that there has been a lack of vigour in dealing with the backlog. People are going to ground. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury referred to my recent question to the Minister, which graphically illustrated that point. This is a failure of Government—probably not assisted by the courts, it must be said, which seek to provide every opportunity to gainsay the will of Parliament, which wants action to be taken. It is essential for the confidence of the British people in the system that those who are given every opportunity to claim asylum, but whose applications are rejected, leave the country and that the means are found to achieve that, unpleasant though it sometimes may be.

My third point was drawn to my attention by a constituent whose son, a former soldier in the Army, is now a long-distance lorry driver. He wrote to tell me that his son is extremely concerned at the consequences of the fines that come into effect on 1 February. If he is found to have an illegal immigrant in his lorry, he and his company will each be fined £2,000. The real issue is that this man takes great care to ensure that such people are not in his vehicle, but his father described what happens when he arrives in Calais. All sorts of ruses are undertaken by asylum seekers to gain access to the lorry and to any areas where a person can be concealed such as in packaging, boxes or whatever. There is then the rather revolting task of clearing up the consequences of human occupation. The one thing that he was overwhelmingly worried about was the fact that the French police stand there, see what is going on and do absolutely nothing about it. That confirms what I was told one night when I was in my consituency and my mobile phone rang. At the other end were two reporters from the Daily Mail, who said, "We are in Calais, and you will not believe what we are seeing here. There are all these fancy security arrangements for asylum seekers, all state-of-the-art stuff, but they are basically just nipping over the wall and climbing on to the lorries, and the French police are doing nothing about it."

The French police are not the Minister's responsibility, and I shall not hold her to account for them. However, it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that our continental partners take much more vigorous action to prevent the abuse that is occurring. If our partners consider the matter a European issue, they should show a bit more communautaire spirit and try to help the British Government to solve the problem.

I shall refer only briefly to the general issue, because I shall return to it at a later date. As a nation, we have no reason to be ashamed of our record in receiving victims of oppression in other parts of the world. The people of this country have shown extraordinary tolerance and great magnanimity in trying to accommodate people. However, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, and having listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), conflicts are taking place throughout the world. The country deserves to know whether, even if large numbers of people are genuinely victims of oppression, given the crowded nature of these islands and the pressure on our infrastructure, we have an unlimited obligation to accept them.

I merely ask the question. Many of our constituents are asking us to answer it. It especially grieves me when I am urged by bleeding-heart liberals—I am not necessarily referring to the hon. Member for Taunton—that we should do more for countries that oppress their people. The same people told us that we had no business being the colonial Government in those countries, which were then well run, prosperous and democratic, and people enjoyed the security that the stability of British administration provided. We are dealing with big questions, but I shall not deal with them as I realise that the Minister has a lot of information to deal with and impart to us.

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

Last year, record numbers of people claimed asylum in the UK. The official Home Office figure, released for the first time this morning, is that 71,160 asylum applications were made during 1999. Understandably, and rightly, many people will be worried by that figure and by the increasing number of asylum seekers coming to the UK in recent years.

The UK is not alone in experiencing substantial increases. In one recent month alone, in the Republic of Ireland, with a much smaller population, 1,000 people sought asylum. The problem must be examined in its European context.

Experience has shown that the majority of people seeking asylum are economic migrants, rather than those in need of international protection under the conventions. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that we must maintain the integrity of our asylum system. The concept of seeking refuge and protection and becoming a refugee is historic, and deeply rooted in the very best of human principles, but that means that we must protect what it stands for: providing protection to those in genuine need. However, it also means deterring would-be economic migrants from making unfounded asylum applications here as a means of avoiding normal immigration rules. Why?—Because that devalues the concept of seeking asylum and is seen as a means of evading immigration control. Allowing such avoidance would be an affront to people who have lawfully settled here, using the appropriate methods and often waiting patiently to do so.

I will say a little about the system that we inherited. It was to restore integrity to a failing system that the Government undertook the most fundamental review of immigration and asylum rules for more than 25 years. Our aim was to make the system fairer, faster and firmer than the dreadful system that we inherited.

Our international obligations as signatories to the 1951 refugee convention mean that we have to consider all claims for asylum made at the ports, or within the United Kingdom. We are not alone in that. We cannot turn our back on those in genuine need of protection. This country has a proud tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing from persecution in other parts of the world, and that will continue. I am one of its beneficiaries. Long may it do so!

The key to ensuring that the asylum system is not manipulated by those who merely seek economic betterment is to process claims quickly. That is why the 1998 White Paper committed us to a target of two months for most initial decisions and to a further four months to deal with most appeals by April 2001. We are taking measures to achieve that and putting in place new procedures—especially in view of other countries' procedures. We are recruiting more staff to process applications. Of course, that means spending more: in the coming three years, we shall spend an additional £120 million on speeding up decisions and on increasing the number of asylum case workers. That is important.

A substantial number of asylum applications have been made at our ports and in-country following clandestine entry. To respond to those pressures, and to help speed up the system, we are setting up a new reception centre at Oakington, near Cambridge. Oakington's purpose is to help deal with claims on which a rapid decision appears possible. Applicants will be required to stay at the centre for about seven days while their claim is being decided. There will be a relaxed regime, with minimal physical security. If a case has to take longer than others, or if an appeal is pending, applicants will be granted temporary admission or, if necessary, removed to an ordinary detention centre.

Mr. Lidington

Bearing in mind all the things that the Government take pride in, has the backlog of asylum applications passed the 100,000 mark? When does the Minister expect it to begin falling?

Mrs. Roche

The backlog has increased beyond the 100,000 mark, although the hon. Gentleman of course knows that the Government whom he supported contributed to more than 50,000 of those applications. Given the current pattern of decision making, we expect a consistent falling of the figures in line with the targets that we have announced. Oakington is likely to open in the spring.

Too many of those seeking clandestine entry reach the UK by concealing themselves in lorries. That is unacceptable. I shall comment on the principal responsibility. I shall deal with the comments made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) in due course. He made some kind remarks, and I attribute them to the esprit de corps that extends to the Home Affairs Committee, of which I was a member. However, I should pay tribute to the excellent contribution made by my private office.

Too many of those seeking clandestine entry reach the UK by concealing themselves in lorries. The principal responsibility for remedying the problem must lie with drivers, owners or operators of vehicles that are being targeted. That is why we are introducing a new civil penalty, to which high priority will be given. When it is implemented, the owner, operator or driver of any vehicle that transports clandestine entrants to the UK will be subject to a £2,000 penalty per clandestine entrant. The new civil penalty will complement the criminal offence that applies to those who deliberately facilitate illegal entry. We are increasing the maximum sentence for facilitation from seven to 10 years' imprisonment.

Much mention has been made of asylum support, and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) seemed to become somewhat muddled. At the moment, we are discussing interim arrangements—the voluntary dispersal scheme that is co-ordinated by the Local Government Association. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) said, the new support scheme will start from 1 April, and I can assure her that no local authority will have the power of veto. The Home Office will take responsibility and contract directly with accommodation providers. We are consulting widely with local authorities, so that we can make use of their understanding of local circumstances.

I want to deal with some of the issues that were raised in respect of the Government's actions and record. What was our inheritance on taking office? As hon. Members will know, in 1996, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who is now shadow Home Secretary, piloted an Act that achieved something quite remarkable. Where it allowed some who claim asylum in the UK at Dover, Heathrow, or any of our ports and airports, to continue to claim social security cash benefits, others—this is the interesting point—were told that they would receive nothing. A number of court cases resulted, and the view was taken that, under the Children Act 1989 and the National Assistance Act 1948, local authorities must pick up the tab. Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Canterbury, and local authorities in Kent and London saw that the burden lay with them. Of those who sought asylum, 80 per cent. reside in London and Kent. The problems that local authorities face should be laid at the door of the previous Government, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and the hon. Member for Aylesbury.

The Opposition tried to undermine our proposals on the civil penalty. In Committee, they spoke through the night—in fact for 20 hours—and sought to delay dispersal. With the support of the hon. Member for Aylesbury, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald tabled an amendment that would have wrecked the Bill and cost the people of this country £500 million. In a letter, she described the amendment as a sensible, common-sense provision. That is the same right hon. Lady who, when she held my post, approved budget cuts to the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office that would have cut staffing levels at Croydon by 1,200, were it not for action that this Government took after the general election. That is the same right hon. Lady who negotiated the Siemens contract for the new information technology system at Croydon, and who is responsible for many of the difficulties that we face.

It is little wonder that it has been said of the previous Tory Government that they left our immigration and asylum system in a complete shambles. Who was the author of that remark? It was David Mellor, in August 1999. The hon. Member for Aylesbury smiles, but having been a Minister of State at the Home Office, David Mellor was in a good position to assess the matter.

I shall deal with some other matters that have been raised. The hon. Member for Aylesbury mentioned our position in relation to the French. I assure him that there is very good co-operation between our immigration officials and those of France. I know that not merely because I have seen it on paper, but because I go to ports and speak to those concerned. As a result of the recent actions in France, more than 60 facilitators were charged, and many imprisoned.

Asylum seekers from central Europe, especially Poland and the Czech Republic, have been mentioned, and my written comments on that have been accurately described in this debate. Overwhelmingly, the claims of people who come from those countries have been unfounded, and we have moved as swiftly as we can to deal with those cases.

A question was asked about the removals target. I assure hon. Members that we are absolutely on target in respect of removals. A proper removals target is essential if we are to maintain the integrity of our policy.

In Amsterdam, the Prime Minister secured a protocol to the treaty to ensure that the UK will be able to retain control of its own borders. That will remain the case.

Mr. Gill

As the Minister will be aware, I initiated the debate. So far, however, she has not addressed her reply to any of the points that I made. I recognise that time is short, but will she undertake, before she sits down, to reply to me in writing?

Mrs. Roche

Without wishing to be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, if he had not made that intervention, I would have had an extra minute to reply to his points.

The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood our responsibilities under the 1951 United Nations convention. We still have an obligation under that convention—regardless of the European convention on human rights—to look in detail at each asylum application that is made to us. That is not only our responsibility, but that of every other signatory of the 1951 convention.

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's Euro-sceptic views, but I should like to be able to convince him that the United Kingdom has much to gain from close involvement with Europe in this context, as in many others. For example, we are applying to join the non-borders elements of the Schengen agreement, including the information system and other measures to tackle illegal immigration. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that organised crime is involved in the smuggling and trafficking of human beings, but we can defeat that only by working with our partners internationally.

We expect to derive significant benefits from opting into measures on common standards for dealing with asylum seekers. Common standards across the EU will mean that there is much less incentive for asylum seekers to go asylum shopping for the best deal. That is why I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, who seeks an isolationist position for the UK. Ensuring that we have common standards will encourage claimants to stay in the first member state that they reach. Meanwhile, the 1999 Act contains provisions that will strengthen our ability to return asylum seekers to other member states under the Dublin convention.

Therefore, I totally reject any assertion that the Government are soft on those who try to exploit our asylum system. We want a system that is firm, fair and fast and offers protection to those most in need and in genuine fear, but which ensures that those who make unfounded claims will be swiftly returned to the countries from which they have come.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The time is up and we must now move on to the next debate.

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