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§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this subject today. Not only has there been a great deal of debate concerning the position of the Oakington immigration reception centre, which is in my constituency, but last Friday, the Court of Appeal gave its judgment on the legality of the detention of asylum applicants at the centre. In addition, we learned at Home Office questions on Monday that the Home Secretary anticipates that his review of asylum will be published by the beginning of next month. My purpose is to set out for the benefit of the Minister and, I hope, for the Home Secretary's review, some thoughts prompted by my experience of the circumstances at Oakington, and a little about how it fits into the system of management of asylum applications.
First, I should like to thank the staff at Oakington immigration reception centre. Whatever our views about the desirability of the centre, we should express our appreciation for the way in which the staff have buckled down to the task of trying to manage it in an effective and decent way that is sympathetic to the circumstances of the asylum claimants who reside there. Many of them are my constituents, and I applaud their work. I know from visits to Group 4 on the security side, to the Immigration Advisory Service and the Refugee Legal Centre, that the people who maintain the centre and those who advise asylum applicants do a good job to the best of their ability.
Although it is not relevant to the debate, I understand that in the past few days the Oakington reception centre helped to accommodate those affected by flooding in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I am grateful for that neighbourliness on the part of the Home Office.
I shall attempt not to be tedious in terms of the statistical background to this subject; the Home Office is already painfully aware of it, particularly in relation to the review. What is important is to try to manage the process better. That is best done by analysis and by discussing principles, not by trading statistics, especially if the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle) agrees that we should not now ascribe guilt or otherwise about the past, but should consider where to go to from here.
The management of asylum applications is a serious issue for the United Kingdom. Last year there were some 80,000 applications—two and a half times more than there were four years ago. Some countries in Europe have experienced similar increases and others have seen reductions, so there are clearly a number of factors at work. If we examine them, they might point to the reasons why the UK attracts a larger number of asylum applications than other European countries do, and that could assist us in respect of the decisions that we have to make in the review.
The failure to take asylum decisions was a chronic problem until last year. I do not ascribe blame only to the present Government; prior to that, too, there were insufficient case workers. Those who have held ministerial office in Governments of both political 94WH persuasions, including the Minister, will know that the shortage of case workers and their resultant inability to make decisions quickly is at the heart of the problems that have emerged in recent years.
The Minister will no doubt tell us that the increase in the number of case workers has made a substantial difference and that the number of initial decisions made last year exceeded the number of applications. However, the Government's expectation that that factor, along with the implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, would lead to a reduction in the number of asylum applications has proved wrong. The backlog of decisions has turned into a substantial backlog of appeals; the dispersal system and support arrangements are, at best, overstretched and in some places chaotic and only a small fraction of those whose applications are refused have been removed from the country. The overall result is that our immigration and asylum systems have been undermined, and opportunities for abuse have increased, as have opportunities for the malicious stirring up of xenophobia. The effectiveness with which we can offer a haven for genuine refugees is severely constrained.
I do not propose to discuss border controls and to concentrate on the subsequent management of asylum applications. I submit that the best way to restore the integrity of our border controls would be to relieve the pressure that is placed on them by people who claim to be asylum seekers, but are actually economic migrants who attempt to enter the United Kingdom and avoid subsequent removal. I shall begin with the Oakington reception centre.
The High Court, and subsequently the Court of Appeal, accepted that under the Immigration Act 1971 the Government had the power to detain asylum applicants pending an initial decision. The issue upon which those cases turned was whether detention was compatible with article 5 of the convention on human rights, which covers the circumstances in which deprivation of liberty may occur. The Court of Appeal held that the Secretary of State was acting within the terms of article 5 because the action was intended to prevent unauthorised entry into the United Kingdom. It was held that the restriction of liberty entailed by detention for up to a week, and the circumstances in which the applicants were held at Oakington made the use of detention in such circumstances proportional to the objective and thus not an unacceptable infringement of liberty.
As I said at the time, I agree with the Home Office view and therefore with the Court of Appeal. I know that the Home Office was not using detention to assuage local concerns about asylum seekers wandering about the area. In truth, it was used because of the concern that applicants would not be present when they were needed for interview.
As of last month, there were 11,618 detainees at Oakington, of whom 2,310 were women and 1,817 were children. I shall not dwell on those figures, but it is important to recognise that the cases heard by the Court of Appeal were in relation to four Iraqi applicants. Those applications were brought in respect of four Kurdish men, not in respect of women and children held at Oakington. We should be aware of the risk that similar cases might be brought in respect of families with children and that the use of detention as a proportional 95WH measure might be open to further challenge if it were applied in relation not only to adult men but families. It may be more arguable as a proportional measure.
We know that 0.28 per cent. of asylum seekers at Oakington have absconded. It is a small number—about 30 of the 11,000. Whatever the original fears of the Home Office about the absconding rate in the absence of security measures and the power of detention, applicants are held for such a short time that absconding would lead to the effective abandonment of a claim. It would also lead to the loss of access to benefits and support, and, if discovered, it would lead to detention. All that suggests that applications could continue to be processed at Oakington while it is redesignated as a reception centre for the purposes of temporary admission. Therefore, the fact that the Court of Appeal has allowed the Government to continue their regime at Oakington does not mean that there is no case for change.
Change is possible. A much greater proportion of applicants—perhaps all of them, except in-country applicants and those who do not need to be detained—should, in the first instance, be housed in reception centres while an initial decision is made. Applicants who are refused asylum on initial decision should also be housed in such reception centres until they are removed from the country, have had their appeals heard, or are detained for other reasons.
It is important to give support to claimants. In my visits to Oakington and my discussions with people who work for the immigration support services, I have been struck by the fact that, while thousands of applicants are sent to the Oakington reception centre, many others, who do not fit the criteria for residence at Oakington—which often means that their applications are less obviously manifestly unfounded—are dispersed around the country. Those applicants are asked to produce evidence to support their claims under different circumstances than those enjoyed by the residents of Oakington and, frequently, in the space of a mere couple of weeks. The perverse result of that is that, sometimes, those with a manifestly unfounded claim for asylum are resident at Oakington, where they have access to support and legal services, and to help with translation and interpretation, and that enables them, if their application has any validity, to pursue it successfully. That rarely happens, as many of them are selected for Oakington on the grounds that their applications are manifestly unfounded. However, applicants who are dispersed, and whose claims might be better founded, do not have the same access to services. Therefore, it might benefit such applicants to be accommodated in reception centres that offer legal, translation and other services.
The latest figures with regard to the number of decisions where asylum has been refused on non-compliance grounds indicate that applicants who have been dispersed around the country might face serious problems in substantiating their claims—not because they have no evidence to support their claims, but because they are unable to assemble the evidence and understand the questions that they must answer and the forms that they are required to fill in.
96WH In 1999, 1,085 cases were refused on non-compliance grounds under the normal procedures. In 2000 there were 26,630 such refusals. The figures must be considered in the context of the considerable increase in such cases: however, the problems that I have outlined arise out of the process of trying to clear those cases at a faster rate. All hon. Members must be concerned that, although refusal on the grounds of non-compliance might often be justified, it might also lead to the refusal of a significant number of applicants who have a genuine claim to refugee status but are unable to validate it, and are not given the support to enable them to do so.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that subject. Does he understand that there is a strong legal argument that refusal on the grounds of non-compliance is incompatible with the convention on human rights, and that there is authority for saying that, in the end, that is not a justification for refusal? The technical grounds cannot undermine the basic case, so in addition to the practical arguments that he has proposed, there is a legal argument.
§ Mr. Lansley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comment. However, I suspect that I am better at practical arguments than I am at legal arguments. The hon. Lady will perhaps take note of that and comment on it later.
My understanding is that the refugee convention requires those who seek to make a claim for asylum to be able to support it and to demonstrate that it is well founded. The inability to produce evidence to support such a claim can mean that it is refused on non-compliance grounds because there is no evidence to support it and in legal terms that is entirely justified. Whether I am right or wrong about that, my argument relates to the practicality and the desirability of giving asylum applicants a better service. I hope that I can demonstrate that that is in the interests of both the management of the system and genuine refugees.
Essentially, it is a perverse situation. Those who manifestly or apparently have unfounded applications seem to be given a better service by way of support for their applications. We could go further down that path. Reception centres for temporary admission are successful and help genuine refugees to support their claims more effectively. I have a proposal to put to the hon. Lady and to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and, via him, to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) who, I am happy to say, as he is experienced and knowledgeable, has responsibility for these matters in my party. I recognise that my suggestion would represent a shift in both Government and Opposition policy.
The policy of the Conservative party at the last election was one of universal detention. Last Friday's Court of Appeal judgment suggests that prolonged detention while applications were being dealt with would have been in conflict with article 5(1)(f) of the convention. That is one of the reasons, if not the only reason, why it is in the interests of my party, as well as the Government, to look for a wholly different legal solution that is none the less compatible with the regime at Oakington.
97WH An alternative is available. Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 empowers the Secretary of State to provide accommodation for those granted temporary admission. Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 gave powers to impose residence conditions during temporary admission. Schedule 14 to the 1999 Act would enable the extension by regulation of the purposes for which such residence conditions can be imposed. The legal structure seems to exist. My suggestion to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield is that those powers should now be used to speed up the handling of applications in respect of initial decisions and appeals.
One sure way of improving the management of asylum and enhancing the situation for genuine refugees would be for applications to be processed more swiftly. I am sure that a greater use of reception centres would assist, but the number of appeals heard each month must also be increased. The appeals backlog doubled between mid-1997 and the middle of last year. The number of adjudicators is now increasing and I hope that the Minister can confirm that there will be a substantial increase in the number of appeals that are determined each month. The present rate of appeals, together with the backlog, which is something of the order of 50,000, suggests that a capacity of some 6,000 a month is required.
We are well below that capacity at present and the introduction of one-stop appeals last year should have been accompanied by greater capacity. It would be desirable for that capacity to come on stream, but it can be helped by the continuing availability of applicants who have appealed for the provision of information and interviews. In view of the increase in budgets and the £835 million annual costs of the asylum system, I suspect that it would reduce costs to proceed down this route, rather than dispersal, given the difficulties associated with managing appeals for those who are dispersed around the country.
Indeed, the whole process of dispersing people around the country has many consequences, one of which is the establishment of stop-off points. As the Minister may know, Wackenhut, or the Premier Group which manages these matters on behalf of the Home Office, is proposing to establish one at Great Gransden, just outside my constituency, presumably to deal with those being dispersed from Oakington. Great Gransden is only a few miles from Oakington, so it is surprising that they need to stop off so quickly. Will the Minister explain why that is necessary and why such an inappropriate location has been chosen? Many of my constituents who live in the area would appreciate an explanation. At the moment they do not understand the proposal and they disagree with it.
Although it is important to deal with applications speedily, that will not suffice as an explanation. The presence of many nationalities and communities in our country, our relatively buoyant labour market in compared with that of some of our European neighbours and our comparative lack of internal enforcement often makes the UK a destination of choice for economic migrants. I do not criticise people for making that choice, but we have a responsibility to uphold the right of a sovereign state to determine whether aliens should be able to enter our territory. If the Home Secretary proposes to offer significant 98WH opportunities for migrants to work here, he should also introduce further measures to prevent the abuse of our asylum procedures by those who want to enter this country for purposes of economic migration.
I therefore call on the Minister to enforce the employment checks and sanctions provided in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996. Unless further measures are taken, the pressure to introduce other forms of identity checks inside the UK—up to and including ID cards—will increase. I view the introduction of ID cards for the purposes of managing the asylum system as the tail wagging the dog. It would be an undesirable infringement of our liberties. If we choose to go down that path, it should be for wider and more important reasons. It is much better to deal with asylum in its own terms than to impose further constraints on the liberties of the whole population.
The further strengthening of our asylum system will also depend on the effective removal of persons whose claim for asylum is refused. Additional detention places are being provided, hopefully so that detainees need no longer be put in prisons. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) may have more to say about that. I understand that the Home Secretary has committed himself to ending the use of prisons for detention purposes within four months. Will the Minister confirm that? I recognise, however, that we need more detention centres in order to be more effective at achieving removal.
The limitations of our expertise as well as time constraints mean that it is difficult to go further in the comprehensive analysis of the asylum system urged by the Home Office. Other issues are relevant. However, I have referred to the need for some substantial and necessary changes. We must establish the principle that those with a viable claim to asylum should be given leave to enter and remain in this country, while those who cannot substantiate their claims should be housed in decent circumstances, given the opportunity to be heard, but not dispersed around the country. Subject to the refugee convention, they should be returned to the country from which they entered, their country of origin or a safe third country.
Those dispersed should be those with a prima facie case for refugee status and the choice of accommodation should be the subject of informed discussion with the refugees themselves or their representatives. They should be sent to areas with good community support, good community relations and the necessary facilities to look after refugees in an appropriate manner. Those given leave to remain could be given greater opportunities for work; we could try to dispense with the voucher scheme and escape from the risk of stigmatisation and abuse associated with vouchers; and we could give people with a genuine case for refugee status the facilities and support that they need.
In that context, the Minister may be aware that this morning the British Medical Association and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture have put out a document called "Asylum Seekers and Health", which describes the experiences of medical practitioners working with asylum seekers. The two organisations want the dispersal system to be reformed and the well-being of asylum seekers improved in the community, not least by scrapping vouchers in favour of cash benefits.
99WH The health screening facilities at ports of entry are not effective enough, and the health facilities and support available to asylum seekers dispersed around the country are often not appropriate. At Oakington, people have to deal with asylum seekers' health matters despite the fact that those who come to them have not always been screened. The medical practitioners also recognise that the time that they are there—seven days—is often insufficient to deal with that properly. Unless asylum seekers are housed in reception centres for sufficient time for health facilities to be concentrated to support them, some of the unhappy experiences to which the BMA and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture refer in their dossier will continue.
I do not underestimate the difficulties of managing the asylum system effectively, and I am aware of how the Government's expectations of the beneficial impact of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 have been dashed. The present review must be wide ranging, and changes may need to be substantial. The Government and Opposition may have to accept new solutions, but that does not necessarily mean toughening our asylum laws in a knee-jerk reaction. What is in the interest of refugees may also be what is needed to reform the system: faster decisions; clear separation of refugees from economic migrants; a generous welcome and work opportunities for those who appear to have a good claim; and decisive action to detain and remove those wishing to abuse our system. Making the system less open to abuse will not harm the interests of genuine refugees. On the contrary, it should cut the ground from under those who would abuse our welcome and frustrate those who would want to treat all asylum seekers as bogus.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I thank the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) for the opportunity to have this timely debate. He made his points in a measured and helpful way, which, given the points of view that were attributed to him before the election, is encouraging and will correct some perception of his position. He has clearly benefited from having Oakington in his constituency.
The debate is timely because the Home Secretary made clear again on Monday that the Government are reaching the end of their initial review and will make proposals soon. I have an initial procedure question for the Minister, which she may want to answer. Apart from debates such as this one, and given the general courtesy of the Home Secretary to seek as much agreement as possible on such matters, are further representations best made urgently—between now and the date that the Home Secretary is minded to make his initial response—or should we wait for that initial response on the understanding that it will have Green Paper status rather than White Paper status, and provide an opportunity for reconsideration? It would be unreasonable if the proposals, when made, were firmly stuck to without any flexibility around the edges. The 100WH best approach is the Green Paper approach, so that the proposals can be considered before any firm decisions are taken.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. If I were him, I would make my representations urgently.
§ Simon Hughes
In that case, there will probably be a call to the Home Secretary, asking for an urgent meeting with him or the appropriate Minister of State. However, I urge the Government to present their proposals in a way that allows debate and response based on the broad experience that hon. Members have gathered on the issue from around the country.
How we deal with asylum seekers is one of the tests of our civilisation. Obviously, it is comparatively easy for a country to take responsibility for looking after its own citizens. It is always more difficult and more controversial to take responsibility for looking after people who come from elsewhere, and the issue often engenders irrational, primaeval instincts about differences and alienation and causes politicians, the media and the public to overreact and become overly defensive.
As the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said, there has been a rise in the number of people who are making applications to the United Kingdom; however, that is part of a worldwide trend. Nothing that has happened, is happening or is about to happen changes the obligation that we entered into immediately after the war when we signed up to the universal declaration of human rights and, later, the United Nations convention on refugees. We must take responsibility for and accept those who are refugees within the definition of the convention.
As the fourth most successful economy in the world, we must accept that the situation is one that we can manage. If we have been bad at handling asylum applications, it is because we have been incompetent and not because the issue was unpredictable or the obligation unclear. The record of Governments, the Home Office and those dealing with the matter over the years has been one of slow response and periodic incompetence. That has worsened the situation and made it far more problematic. People have been allowed to say that there is a great problem that we cannot handle, whereas it is not a problem and we should be able to deal with the issue without considerable difficulty.
In that context, it is unfortunate that the Home Office continues to get its figures wrong. I hope that it will not happen again; I cannot understand why it happens so regularly. We had an admission just a few weeks ago that the figures for asylum cases waiting to be dealt with had been 100 per cent. wrong. We cannot go on like that; we must be able to rely on the Home Office figures so that we can make accurate projections and formulate appropriate public policy.
The basis of the debate is that individuals have not only the right to asylum under the United Nations convention, but the right to seek asylum. That may sound trite, but one cannot obtain asylum unless one can seek it. Therefore, one of the first questions in 101WH respect of how we manage asylum applications is the "What?" question: what rights do people have? We have all recited and read often enough the provisions of article 1 of the convention, which was updated by the protocol that makes it relevant to people who are fleeing now. It contains an exception that deals with one of the concerns of the past six weeks; namely, those with a criminal or terrorist background who are seeking asylum. Article (1)(f) is clear:The provisions of this Convention shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that:It is important that the public understand that Governments have a right to tell people in those categories that they cannot claim asylum in another country. That does not apply to people who may have been active in attempting to overthrow an undemocratic regime in their country. We must be careful about generalising that people who have been associated with violence are therefore presumed to be ineligible for asylum. The most obvious example, which is always given, is in respect of people who fought against apartheid in South Africa when it did not have a democratic Government. With the benefit of hindsight, no one would now argue that they should be prevented from leaving that country just because they had an association with the anti-apartheid movement. We must be mindful of the difference between people who have been associated with seeking to overturn Governments on the one hand and those who clearly, and tightly, come within the definition of article 5(1)(f) of the convention on the other.
- (a) he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes:
- (b) he has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee;
- (c) he has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations."
The next question is, "Where should people make their application?" I repeat this in every debate on the subject: of course some people make their application here having coming to the United Kingdom lawfully. They come on the basis of the free right to travel, if they come from another country where there are no travel restrictions, or they may have a student or tourist visa. However, as we well know, many people have to risk life and limb to avoid the authorities in order to come here to put their case, because at present the only place where people can apply for asylum to the United Kingdom Government is within the territorial jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Ministers owe the House a better answer than we have had in the past to the question, "How can you put your case if you can't get here lawfully?". It will be helpful if the Minister can now say that the Government are considering that question in the general review.
It is absolutely proper that people should be able to make their asylum applications at United Kingdom missions abroad. I have never understood why it is not possible for someone who leaves a country where there is conflict and goes to a nearby country which is a safe place where there is a United Kingdom foreign mission, or one representing the United Kingdom, to put their case there. I have visited foreign missions and I am 102WH aware of the pressure of their immigration and visa work, but that is a practical matter; it is about having staff on the ground at least to receive the applications. It must be better for people to avoid the risk of travelling across the world to put their case, often being exploited in the process. Are the Government willing to consider allowing people to make asylum applications at British missions overseas?
Another obvious matter to consider is what arises from the experience of Sangatte and similar places. People there are in territorial France, but subject to that understanding we could have British officials in Calais and Paris to deal with matters in that part of the territory that was negotiated under the Canterbury treaty, which is technically under UK jurisdiction. There are also people in the Red Cross holding centre, the Eurotunnel building appropriated for the purpose. I have had discussions with Eurotunnel and with the French Ambassador to the United Kingdom, who was extremely courteous and helpful. A sensible proposal would be to allow applications to be made to the United Kingdom from a place outside the United Kingdom. It would be far better for people who say they want to come to the UK, who are waiting on the other side of the English channel, to be able to put their case there, rather than—
§ Angela Eagle
Does the hon. Gentleman admit that under the terms of the Geneva convention, people are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach? That convention does not give them a choice of country in which to claim asylum. If people are in France—I assume France is a safe country—why on earth should they not claim asylum in that country? Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people should be allowed to choose the European country in which they claim asylum? That would be the end of the Dublin convention.
§ Simon Hughes
I was coming to that and I will answer the Minister's question. This is about not the Geneva convention but the Dublin convention. I understand that it requires people to claim asylum in the first safe third country. The convention is nonsense, because people often arrive in the first safe country completely by accident.
The example that I give most often relates to the civil war in Sierra Leone. When people fled from there, they often arrived immediately in a French-speaking west African country. They did not claim asylum there but got on an aeroplane to Europe to seek asylum in the UK. However, flights from the Ivory Coast, for example, always went to Paris, because that was the traditional link, so people ended up in France. By the logic of the Dublin convention, they should claim asylum in France. The fact that they did not speak French and had no tradition or links with the French was disregarded, which was complete nonsense.
We should recognise that when people leave a country where they cannot stay or do not feel that they can stay and they seek haven in a safe country, a number will come to Europe. We must therefore have a broader vision than just saying, "Let's send them back to the first safe third country."
The convention is also nonsense in practical terms, which I discussed with the French ambassador. People who end up at Sangatte without paperwork will not own 103WH up to the name of the first safe country at which they arrived; they simply do not answer that question. It is no good saying that they must—they do not. Most people will have come by land across western Europe. It depends whether we consider non-EU countries relevant, but people will have been through non-EU countries and many other EU countries. According to the logic of the convention, a lot of time is spent deciding whether to send them back to Germany, Romania or wherever, which is a completely pointless exercise.
A better solution lies at European level. We could reasonably consider processing in the EU but not necessarily in the UK asylum applications in respect of the UK.
§ Mr. Lansley
Did not the Dublin convention have more to it than simply the specification that applicants should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach? The convention was drafted, among other things, in contemplation of relatively large numbers of asylum seekers from eastern Europe, who at the time arrived in Germany, Austria or Italy in the first instance.
The extension of that principle is one of burden sharing. If a relatively large number of asylum applicants from Sierra Leone arrive in Paris, there should be a burden-sharing system involving the French and others. Whether or not an asylum seeker has papers, the simple incontrovertible fact is that someone at Sangatte is in France, a safe country, so their application should be managed in France. If a burden-sharing system is needed, we can manage it between us and France, rather than allowing people to make applications from across the world and importing them all to the UK to deal with them.
§ Simon Hughes
Let me explain the consequences of that. The French Government told me—I have no reason to disbelieve them—that they interviewed all or many of the people in Sangatte and asked them whether they wanted to seek asylum in France and that they said no. The reason was that they did not speak French, had no links with France and so on. An opportunity was offered but not taken up. It is no good having legal systems that will never work in practical terms. We need the combination of a legal structure that works practically. Logically, we should work out a common EU policy, and that is on the drawing board.
Can the Minister tell us where we have got to in progressing the common EU policy in terms of burden sharing? I have always taken the view, as have my colleagues in the European Parliament and elsewhere, that burden sharing is the right way to proceed. However, one should not implement that in an arbitrary way because those who have links with the United Kingdom, because of Commonwealth traditions and so on, would be more likely to come to the UK. It should not matter where people first make their application.
The Dublin convention is also protective of the United Kingdom. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, almost everybody coming to Europe from outside—or who came from the Balkans during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia—comes first to eastern and south-eastern Europe. That fact has loaded the responsibility 104WH on to Germany. Britain was about the last place that people would reach and it was very much in our interest and that of the Irish Government to minimise the number of people who came here. That does not seem fair. We should have burden sharing.
§ Angela Eagle
Is the hon. Gentleman musing? The whole policy area is difficult. Is he expanding the Liberal Democrat policy by advocating the abolition of the Dublin convention, giving people a free choice to decide in which country they wish to seek asylum and for those processes to be automatically accepted by the country concerned? Is that Liberal Democrat policy?
§ Simon Hughes
Of course I am not musing. It is our view that the Dublin convention is not appropriate and that it ought to be replaced by a Europe-wide policy—that is why I asked how much progress we are making on that—as soon as possible. That means that people who came within the European Union territorial boundary would make an application—in law, because of subsidiarity it has to be made to the country in which they arrive—and that we would accept a responsibility to accept claimants proportionate to our population, so that we all took an appropriate share of people coming to Europe. The accident of whether one arrives in Britain or in Germany should not be relevant.
§ Angela Eagle
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation. I am intrigued. He is expanding a choice mechanism whereby asylum seekers can choose in which country they will end up. What if the number of people making claims to that country is larger than its allocation under the system of burden sharing? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that asylum seekers should have such a choice, regardless of their numbers? Asylum seekers wanting to come to Britain may end up in Sweden, Germany or Spain.
§ Simon Hughes
I did not say that there should be a choice-based system. I said that people coming within the boundaries of the EU should make their case and that it would then be sensible to interview them to establish the most logical and appropriate place for them to go. Asylum seekers can reasonably express a preference. In as far as it can be accommodated, that is appropriate, but if three quarters of applicants—to take a ridiculous number—said that they wanted to come to the UK, it would be entirely disproportionate.
The purpose of burden sharing is that the burdens are shared appropriately across the European Union. We should therefore take people's preferences into account. The reality is that many people coming to the UK from Sangatte and elsewhere have done so as a means of going on to the United States, Canada and other countries. We need to be more intelligent about working out how we process cases in ways that share the burdens across the EU and take account of people's community, family and linguistic ties. I therefore repeat my question to the Minister: how far are we going and how urgently are we making progress in the EU-context, which seems the essential way forward?
§ Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair)
Order. I have been becoming a little concerned for some time now. The subject of the debate is the management of applications 105WH for asylum in the UK. The hon. Gentleman, conscientiously I am sure, is expanding the debate and almost hijacking it. I ask him to confine his comments more closely to the subject that was introduced by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). If the hon. Gentleman wants to explore the matters that he seeks to, he might be better to have his own Adjournment debate.
§ Simon Hughes
I was trying to respond to questions and I shall move on.
For me, the next matter is the "When?" question. I share the view of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that the processing of asylum applications in the UK should be done as quickly as possible. That has logical consequences. We need more case workers; we have always needed more. Apparently, they are neither relatively expensive nor difficult to recruit, so there is not a supply problem.
I share the hon. Gentleman's view—it would be an interesting development of his party's policy but I welcome it—that the best way of processing cases is at reception centres. I have always taken that view. That is how Finland and other European countries manage the matter. The benefit of that is that one accepts that detention centres are illegal, which seemed to be the Court of Appeal judgment, although the matter has yet to reach the House of Lords. We may then do what other countries do, and give people an incentive to stay by telling them that their case will only be processed if they do. The Finns have done that. If a person walks away and disappears, he or she loses any benefits. In that case we would not need detention centres or prison and I welcome that, should it be the Government's clear view that neither should be continued. We would allow what is effectively, but not technically, bail; people would be free to go outside and be able to go elsewhere. Also, there would not be the totally unsatisfactory dispersal policy that has been imposed, through which people are dispersed to places that are inappropriate for them and for the host community.
§ Mr. Lansley
The hon. Gentleman said that we did not need detention centres. Does he mean that there should be no detention centres for the purpose of detaining people while making a decision? Surely by the time a decision has been made and a person is pending deportation, there must be substantial detention facilities.
§ Simon Hughes
I can give the hon. Gentleman two quick answers. It is clearly lawful to detain people who have committed offences or who are reasonably suspected of being about to commit offences. That is always an exception to the general policy of permitting people to come and go. Secondly, there is the matter that he rightly raised about what happens at the end of the process. I agree that we have had inadequate policy relating to people whose applications have been rejected and who are thus not entitled to stay here. There must be a combination of factors, such as better tracking conditions while people's applications are processed—signing on and so on. That is not difficult. People who 106WH have exhausted their right to put forward their case may be detained prior to their removal, and I do not argue about that.
I have two questions for the Minister. Are we examining increasing the numbers of people accepted for resettlement? Our numbers for that have been extremely low. Will the Government address the system of managing people whose applications are turned down? That system has clearly failed and discredited much of the rest of the system by containing no adequate provisions for managing such people. Do the Government accept that that should be done on a European Union-wide basis?
The best way forward is to ensure that the way in which we manage our applications is consistent with the way in which our neighbours in the EU manage their applications. Thus, if the burden were shared, it would be reduced and the controversy and difficulty of the policy would be minimised for this and other Governments.
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
In light of the lengthy peroration of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I shall be brief because I am keen to hear the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). In fairness to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, the way in which the debate has developed may have been inevitable. The problem with asylum seeking and how we process asylum applications is bound up intimately with the profoundly changed circumstances that now prevail compared with those when the original conventions were drawn up in the 1950s. No one at that time had the slightest notion of the novel way in which asylum applications and asylum seeking would develop.
I am sure that, when the conventions were drawn up, the idea was that people would spill over the borders from areas of localised conflict or persecution into adjoining states and that, at the conclusion of the political problems or hostilities, they would return to their own homes. In reality, we have once more in the world a "volkervonderung"—a wandering of peoples who move around for a host of reasons. Whether or not they may be asylum seekers does not mean that their aims or ambitions are invalid. One has only to consider the conditions in some of the countries from which such people come to appreciate that the distinction between an economic migrant and someone seeking political asylum is thin and grey. The Government have an extremely unenviable task that demands from Opposition parties measured support whenever it can be provided. They have to make difficult distinctions, which are particularly problematical when defining whether asylum seekers fall within the criteria under the convention that political asylum ought, as a matter of right, to be granted.
The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire to the debate was particularly valuable. Rather than adopting theoretical rhetoric, he drew attention to practical problems and emphasised the need for the application process to be speeded up in a way that is fair to applicants without infringing on their 107WH human rights. In that context, the reversal of the initial judgment on Oakington is welcome, although it has yet to go to the other place and we do not know what the final outcome will be. No one wants to infringe the human rights of asylum seekers by detaining them, but the problem—of which I have had personal experience before becoming a Member of Parliament—is that asylum seekers who are released into the community present two challenges. First, we must know whether they are receiving the help that they need to conclude their asylum application and, secondly, we cannot escape the fact that certain asylum seekers find such a process a convenient way in which to exploit the system.
I had to prosecute on behalf of the Department of Social Security individuals who had made multiple applications for asylum and who had adopted different personae for the sake of milking the benefit system. In one case, an individual had adopted 30 different identities. Once within the system, such people did not respond to the invitations to present themselves at Lunar house to be interviewed so that their asylum application could be processed. Therefore, there is an enormous difficulty, and the Government are entitled to our sympathy. It is difficult for Conservative Members, who are in opposition and who, therefore, do not benefit from the input of officials, to arrive at hard and fast ideas about the best way to tackle the problem. However, the key to solving it is to increase the speed at which applications are processed. Ultimately, it matters not whether that is achieved by telling applicants that they are free to go into the community but that they must attend their interviews, or by arranging reception centres where their cases can be streamlined. However, it is essential to speed up the system: that will ensure fairness and, ultimately, it will deter those who wish to abuse the system from doing so because they will know that they will rapidly be found out, and that appropriate steps will then be taken to ensure that they are removed from the country if they do not fulfil the criteria.
I will now conclude, as the debate has only 30 minutes left to run, and I want to hear the Minister's remarks.
I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, because he put forward some sensible and pragmatic proposals, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
§ 12 noon
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam.
The debate has been interesting because hon. Members have acknowledged the difficulty of the practical and policy issues involved in ensuring that the asylum system in the United Kingdom works well, and expressed some sympathy which I am happy to accept.
I welcome all the contributions to the debate. They have been serious and they have wrestled with the key practical issues and I assure hon. Members that the Government always listen to representations. I also welcome the opportunity to consider the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). However, although the 108WH debate is timely and important, it puts me in an awkward position, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will soon make a statement about the matter under discussion, and I cannot pre-empt it.
The Government are determined to adhere to their obligation under the 1951 UN convention to maintain the integrity of the asylum system. With regard to the practical issues that the nation faces, I welcome the fact that not one hon. Member—or anyone else—is thinking, or has thought, that we should renege on our commitments to genuine refugees who flee from torture and oppression. The Government would never do that.
It must be recognised, however, that there is growing concern about the number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants who have recently entered the United Kingdom, particularly as many of them are economic migrants. It is not wrong for people to aspire to better their lives, and I do not condemn them for wishing to do that, but it is important to examine how we fulfil their aspirations: it must be achieved in a more sensible way than by asking the UN convention to take the strain because it was designed to perform a different task. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that we need to be more rational about economic migration, and I am pleased that, in general, raising the debate about asylum has been welcomed outside the House. A rational debate about the matter is necessary. There is also an emerging debate in Europe about the possibility of creating a common migration system; that would be beneficial to all.
It is necessary to ensure that a credible and faster end-to-end asylum system is created, and that there is closer contact between applicants and the authorities. At the end of the process, those who are given refugee status because they need to be protected must be integrated into society, and those who are not must be removed.
People generally recognise that there has been a huge increase in applications throughout the European Union, not only in Britain. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, that trend has continued partly because of changed world conditions, and we must have a way of managing it.
I shall spend some time giving specific answers to some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, especially about the Great Gransden site. I am told that it is not true that the site is used for Oakington cases. It is in fact used by Wackenhut, an internal escorting contractor used by the Home Office in the dispersal process, as a satellite-operating base, and it has several such places in various parts of the country. It is intended as a 30-minute transit stop for staff and detained persons being transferred over long distances north to south and vice versa. It is a secure area in which a stopover can be made. Sometimes staff and vehicles are changed, too. It is also an opportunity for a comfort break. It deals not with Oakington cases but with those being dispersed. There is no intention at present to use it for overnight accommodation. It is simply intended for short stops.
§ Mr. Lansley
I do not expect the hon. Lady to be aware of the physical circumstances of Great Gransden in the Huntingdon constituency, which is next door to mine. Those of us who are should immediately 109WH appreciate that it is not convenient for either north-south or east-west transfers, and that other locations would ostensibly seem to be much more directly on the Al or A14 north-south or east-west routes. Great Gransden is not, and it still seems an inappropriate location.
§ Angela Eagle
If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, as I am sure he will, and as his neighbour already has, I am sure that we can continue to debate the matter. I wanted to ensure that any misconceptions about the connection with Oakington were corrected.
I should also like to confirm that we fully expect to be able to end detention on remand in remand wings of prisons, at Cardiff by Christmas and elsewhere in the prison estate by the end of January, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire made some understandable remarks about what he called technical refusals, made on the basis of the statement of evidence form not having been filled in and returned to the appropriate place in a sufficiently timely fashion. He suggested that reception centres might be able to deal with the matter more effectively. It might cheer him up a bit if I tell him that we have introduced a post box system, which has massively cut the number of late arrivals and forms registered late, and therefore the technical refusals about which he was so worried. When the system was introduced, 400 to 500 forms a week went astray and were not appropriately registered on a file, which meant that we had to change a technical refusal to a reply saying that we had received the form but not in the right place. The simple administrative introduction of a PO box cut that number to 50 a week.
Having spent three years at the Department of Social Security, I know that obvious and modest administrative coherence can make an enormous difference to a system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have made progress, although I accept his point that technical refusals are not always the best way of dealing with cases.
A fast system is part of the answer. As hon. Members hinted, the system must be fast but fair. It should give people appropriate time to make representations, but hurry cases along. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield hinted, people often seek delay because they do not want a decision to be taken. The system must therefore continue to set tight timetables while making them achievable. That is the tension with which we must always deal.
I want to comment briefly on action at EU level. Action to equalise and harmonise the way in which asylum seekers are treated within the European Union can have value-added benefits that prevent the kind of asylum shopping that we have witnessed. Hon. Members will know about the Tampere extraordinary council in 1999, which reaffirmed our commitment to setting minimum standards and establishing a common European asylum system. The Government fully support action at Community level in this field, and believe that moves towards harmonisation of the process should ensure more equitable treatment for those requiring protection across the EU, thereby reducing the secondary movement to which I referred.
To date, the Council has adopted several measures in this field, including Eurodac, which is a computerised central database of fingerprint images. That allows us to 110WH deal with people who claim to have different identities and nationalities, and make multiple claims in the same system, to which the hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred, and which I have also encountered. The fingerprinting system allows us to discover fraud quickly, and deal with it. If it is available at European level, it will enable us to ensure, for identity and fraud purposes, that people traffickers and those who seek to abuse the system are spotted quickly.
Proposals under discussion include a directive on minimum standards in asylum procedures, a draft regulation on how to determine which member state is responsible for examining an asylum application—colloquially known as Dublin II—and minimum standards on the reception of asylum applicants. We await a proposal from the Commission in the next few weeks on minimum standards for qualification of refugees. Progress is being made, and Britain is in the forefront of urging faster progress. The Laaken council will assess progress towards the Tampere goals, which will include putting the bricks of a common European asylum process in place. I am therefore optimistic that we can make good progress in that area. That should help us to handle the flows of people currently coming through Europe, along various people-smuggling routes.
The key to establishing an efficient asylum system that is not susceptible to abuse is to process claims quickly. We have taken a range of measures to ensure that that can be achieved, which have included additional financial resources, new streamlined casework procedures, the expansion of the appeal system and the recruitment of new staff. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate now has approximately 10,580 staff. That is 4,180 more than in April 2000, which includes 1,000 new operational grade staff in the immigration service.
A project has also been undertaken—it is now well advanced—to transfer responsibility for aspects of asylum casework from the immigration service to the Integrated Casework Directorate. The ICD will be able to serve decisions in port cases itself rather than sending them back to the immigration service. That will enable immigration officers to concentrate on core enforcement work and other activities designed to establish the true identity and nationality of asylum seekers. As part of that project, the asylum process will be reviewed to enable speedier handling of cases. Asylum seekers will have a clear point of contact, file movements will be reduced—which is one of my bugbears—and unnecessary duplication will therefore be eradicated. I expect to see tangible benefits from those administrative initiatives by the end of the year, and further benefits next year.
Hon. Members have acknowledged that the number of decisions has outstripped the number of applications, at least in the first tier. In the past financial year, 132,840 decisions were made, compared with 52,040 the year before. We must acknowledge that there has been a step change in the past year in the amount of work that has been done. Neither I nor the Home Secretary are complacent about the way in which the system works, but it is important for the morale of those who work in this difficult area that we acknowledge their contribution and the step change that has been made. I 111WH thank the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire for acknowledging the good work done by the staff at Oakington in making the system work.
The quality of decision making remains high, and the Immigration Appellate Authority dismissed 80 per cent. of appeals in the past financial year. When we examine the coherence of the system, we must have regard to removals, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is no good having a system—however elaborate it is—for reaching decisions, if they cannot be put into effect.
The Labour manifesto said that more than 30,000 people who could not justify their claims would be removed by 2003–04, which is about 2,500 people a month. The Home Secretary announced that the Government had decided that the target must be met by next year. That will enable us to make a commitment to exceed the 30,000 removals by 2003. To achieve that, we are implementing a wide range of measures, and I welcome the acknowledgement by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that detention will have to play a role at a certain stage in the process if we are to achieve our target.
We have increased the number of immigration staff and are training further immigration arrest teams, which will have the power to apprehend those who will be removed. As has been acknowledged, we are in the middle of expanding the detention estate, which we need to do to establish transit for removals. We are also establishing an enhanced reporting system, improving the existing return arrangements and finding new routes of return to countries to which return has been difficult up until now.
Before people can be removed, they must be issued with papers from the countries to which they are going. The process is not fast, and people cannot simply be put on aeroplanes—it is more complicated than that. We rely for some of our success on co-operation with the countries of return in ensuring that appropriate papers can be issued.
In July, the immigration service and the police signed a protocol, which was formally introduced at a meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers. That means that the police now have a firmer footing and know where they will be required to assist in the removals process. We have also seconded a chief superintendent to coordinate relations with the police and the provision of police support for immigration service operations.
We are at the beginning of what I hope will be significant increases in our ability to remove those whose asylum claims have failed. Again, however, I ask hon. Members to acknowledge that the process is difficult.
§ Simon Hughes
Has the Home Office done any work to establish whether there is a link between the speed of applications and the number of appeals, which has recently increased, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said? I am not trying to put the Minister on the spot, but can she tell us what the trend is for the 112WH success of appeals and whether there are more appeals when the process for dealing with initial applications is speedier?
§ Angela Eagle
I do not have the latest figures on appeals in front of me, although I ran the social security appeals system. There is little reason for people who have claimed asylum not to appeal under our system. I mentioned a figure of 80 per cent., and the rate at which appeals are overturned and original decisions are upheld as valid is extremely high. The figure for overturning appeals at Oakington is 95 per cent. including those who withdraw appeals and those who return voluntarily before the appeal process happens. There is a high level of confirmation by the Immigration Appellate Authority of the original decisions taken by our case workers.
I should like to say a little about the purpose of Oakington. An important feature of our asylum policy has been the introduction of new procedures to speed up the consideration of claims, and the establishment of the reception centre at Oakington has been a key element in the effective operation of tough but fair immigration controls. It is there to help to deal with claims in those cases where it appears that a rapid decision can be taken. Decisions cannot always be taken quickly; any one of a range of issues might mean that appeal is not appropriate because it cannot be done in the seven to 10 days allotted by Oakington—the circumstances might be complex, it could be difficult to obtain evidence or we might be dealing with children. The straightforward cases are taken to Oakington.
Under existing immigration powers to detain, applicants are required to stay at the centre for a short period of about seven days. There is a relaxed regime with minimal physical security—the recent use of some of the spare capacity at Oakington to accommodate the victims of flooding in the area demonstrated that it is not a grimy, horrible place, where people are locked in cells, and says something about the kind of facilities that are there. I welcome the thanks recorded by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire in that regard.
Fast-tracking Oakington applications that are, mainly, unfounded brings applicants to the point of removal sooner than would be the case if their applications were processed in the normal way. That is because, in addition to the seven to 10 day fast-track process, most Oakington appeals are accelerated and can be heard within four to six weeks.
Since Oakington opened, we have been able to deal more quickly with straightforward claims, which has helped to reduce the pressure on immigration control. For example, applications from nationals of eastern European countries—many of whom were accommodated at the centre and whose claims were found to be manifestly unfounded—have fallen by about 50 per cent. In particular, there have been big drops in the numbers of asylum applications received from Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania—down 73 per cent., 55 per cent., and 45 per cent. respectively, if one compares the figures for the six months before Oakington opened with those for the same period a year later.
That effect has been noted. We shall keep an eye on such figures to see whether the drop is sustained. Up until 12 October this year, 12,200 people were referred 113WH to Oakington—9,815 were principal applicants, with 2,385 dependants—and 8,762 asylum applications were decided there, 8,690 refusal decisions were served and 72 grants of either asylum or exceptional leave were made at the initial decision stage. There were 235 allowed or conceded appeals. Of those, 7,826 applicants appealed against the refusal decision and 4,444 appeals have been decided, of which 95 per cent. have been dismissed by the adjudicator or withdrawn or abandoned while 5 per cent. have been upheld.
The fact that Oakington exists in the form that it does sends a strong message that we shall deal speedily with asylum claims, many of which are unfounded and would otherwise impose a considerable burden on the taxpayer and undermine public support for genuine refugees. We therefore welcome the judgment of the Court of Appeal last Friday but recognise that leave to appeal to the House of Lords was granted. The Court of Appeal confirmed that the detention of asylum seekers at Oakington for a short time in order for speedy decisions to be made on their applications is lawful, and that seven to 10 days is not an excessive period for the consideration of an application for asylum. We shall continue our review and to develop our thinking on the reform of the asylum system.
I welcome our serious and informed debate, and assure Opposition Members that there will always be at least a two-way process, because the issue affects us all. I am pleased that all Members who spoke condemned the xenophobia raised by some of the more hysterical coverage of the problematic system. As the Minister with responsibility for race relations, I understand that it is important to make our systems as robust and effective as we can while we continue to tackle such a challenging issue.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
I invite Members who do not want to stay for the next debate to leave quietly.