§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]9.30 am
§ Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)
I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting the issue of benefits for refugees and asylum seekers for debate. When I first clashed with the Prime Minister on it, I was astonished by how many Members—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Lilley
Opposition Members sometimes clash with the Prime Minister during Question Time. I was astonished by how many Members, not least Labour Members, said that the issue of immigration and related matters is becoming bigger in their constituencies, that people are angry about some issues and that there is a danger of that anger fuelling the growth of extremist parties, or even being vented directly on immigrant communities. Today, we hear reports of a Labour Minister pandering to those feelings by saying that he will no longer deal with asylum seekers at his surgery.
I want to make it clear that, in my view, the vast majority of refugees and economic migrants are decent, ordinary people who want to better their lot and that of their families. They are simply responding to a situation created by others. In the matter of immigration, immigrants are as pure as driven snow. If people want to vent their spleen, it should absolutely not be on individuals who have come here from other countries, but on Ministers and their friends in the liberal media who have fuelled the inflow from abroad to unmanageable proportions, aggravated the resentment of people already here by saying one thing and doing another, and suppressed, or tried to suppress, debate by accusing their critics and opponents of racism and inhumanity whenever they make reasonable proposals for reform. I want to use the specific issue of benefits for refugees and asylum seekers to illustrate those points.
On 22 January, the Prime Minister responded to a well-aimed criticism from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition by brazenly boasting that he would be removing benefits from asylum seekers who claimed after they had entered the country. I welcomed his decision to reinstate a measure that I first introduced and I invited him to admit that he was mistaken in allowing benefits to be reinstated in 1997, as that led to the number of asylum claimants doubling fairly soon afterwards.
I asked the Prime Minister to say how many extra asylum seekers we had to receive and support as a result of five years of mistaken policy. He characteristically denied all that, although he later—it was perhaps post 72WH hoc, ergo propter hoc—responded with his pledge to halve the number of asylum claimants coming to this country.
Let me remind the House of the history of the benefits changes affecting refugees and asylum seekers. In October 1995, I announced proposals to remove the right to benefit from all those who claimed asylum after entering the country on false pretences. After a debate in Parliament, regulations implementing that measure were introduced on 5 February 1996. I acknowledge that I was initially reluctant to introduce those measures. I would always prefer to restrict entry to this country, rather than make conditions less attractive or benefits less generous to people once they had entered. However, I was persuaded that action was necessary, as the number of asylum seekers had risen tenfold in 10 years.
Our share of the number of asylum seekers coming to European countries had trebled and, indeed, over the past couple of years, it had fallen on the continent while rising in the UK. That was partly, though not entirely, because countries such as France and Belgium time-limited benefits to 12 months and there were none thereafter. Italy gave no benefits at all and consequently received only 1,800 asylum claims. What is more, it became clear that we were giving benefits that could not really be justified to three categories of people. The first was those who entered the country illegally. They had broken the law, and it seemed wrong to reward that by giving them entitlement to benefit. To come to the UK, they had invariably crossed other safe countries, where they could and should have claimed asylum and to which they could return if they did not like the terms and conditions facing them here.
The second group was people who entered on false pretences—those who did not just "fail to claim", as it is often put, asylum on arrival at the port of entry, but claimed to be here for some other purpose than claiming asylum. For instance, they claimed that they were here to study and showed that they had access to a course, they claimed to be tourists or visitors, or they claimed to be here on business. Usually, such people had visas. Invariably, they had had to convince either the visa authorities or the immigration authorities that they possessed the means to support themselves and that, once in this country, they would not be a burden on the taxpayer. In those circumstances, it seemed wrong to extend to them the right to benefit simply on the basis of uttering the magic words, "I claim asylum."
Finally, there was a third category that I will not dwell on today because, I regret to say, it does not feature in the Government's latest measures. We withdrew the right to benefit from those, even if they had entered and claimed asylum at a port, who were subsequently found not to be genuine asylum seekers. They were thus placed on the same footing as British claimants of benefit who, once having their claim rejected, were not allowed to claim benefit while appealing against the initial decision. We do not allow that for British citizens, because we know that, if we did, everybody would always appeal against any rejection of an offer of benefit as they could 73WH thereby prolong their right to it. There seemed to be no reason to offer better conditions to asylum seekers than we offered to our own citizens.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
For clarity, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how asylum seekers can legally come to Britain?
§ Mr. Lilley
They can arrive at our ports and say, "I seek asylum". However, if the Liberal party wishes to create a situation in which a person can go to an embassy or high commission and say, "I would like to come to Britain and claim asylum," it should make that known to the electorate. We already have a system whereby, having reached these shores, any inhabitant of the globe has the right to enter, claim asylum and then claim benefit, appeal against any refusal of a claim, have a judicial review, claim under human rights legislation and prolong the process.
§ Mr. Lilley
Yes, but when I have finished answering the previous question, if I may.
It seems to me unwise in those circumstances to make it even easier for those who wish to come here for economic purposes to exploit the system.
§ Mr. Gerrard
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain exactly which benefits he thinks that anyone arriving in this country has a right to claim?
§ Mr. Lilley
If the hon. Gentleman does not know, I am sure that the Minister will explain to him in due course. The benefits were originally social security benefits, but they are now provided by the Home Office with the help of local authorities and funded thereby. I am here not to spell out the difficulties, but to recount the history.
People prefer, and are advised, to make their claim for asylum once they have entered the country rather than at the port, as it then becomes more difficult to deport them. They have to go through a deportation procedure rather than just a removal procedure. We were therefore rewarding those who were most canny or best informed about how to make it more difficult to remove them when they were found not to be genuine.
Despite those powerful arguments, Labour party Front Benchers "strongly opposed"—those were their words—the measures, describing them as uncivilised and inhumane. A string of epithets were used to demonise and denigrate my party, the measures and me.
§ Mr. Lilley
And my excellent Ministers.
74WH It was predicted that the changes would result in widespread destitution, and churches were encouraged to open shelters. Happily, those fears proved to be grossly exaggerated. Partly as a result of the benefit changes and partly because of changes introduced by the then Home Secretary, the number of people entering this country and claiming asylum after getting through the ports fell from 30,000 in 1995 to 17,000 in 1996, and to below 16,000 in 1997. The overall numbers, which include those claiming at port, also fell by 40 per cent. between the 12 months before the measures were introduced and the 12 months afterwards.
There were two court challenges to the changes that I introduced. The first came in June 1996 and challenged the use of secondary legislation to introduce those changes. The courts ruled that that should have been done by primary legislation. I accepted that, and within days introduced an amendment to legislation then passing through the House to give primary legislative authority, which both Houses endorsed, for the changes.
There was a second challenge in the February before the 1997 general election, and, again, it was upheld by the courts. It could easily have been reversed, either on appeal or through primary legislation, but the incoming Labour Government chose not to appeal against the court finding, nor to legislate to reinstate the arrangement that the courts had overthrown. They simply endorsed the court's ruling, and allowed benefits and support to be re-established. They could scarcely have done otherwise without inviting charges of hypocrisy, given what they had so recently said. What happened? The number of claimants doubled, and then doubled again, even though that in some neighbouring continental European countries was declining.
Before last Christmas, the Government underwent a Damascene conversion. Normally, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who know no repentance, but this was a case of one Pharisee taking to the very sin that he had once most sanctimoniously condemned. In short, the Government decided more or less to reinstate the regime that I established in 1996. They did so, of course, with a minimum of debate, and amendments to legislation were introduced at the last minute in the House of Lords.
There were precisely 15 minutes of debate in the House of Commons, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out at the time. Characteristically, he used most of them. There was no debate at all in the House on the statutory instrument implementing those changes.
Those Members of Parliament who used such strong and severe language against the parallel statutory instrument that we introduced must feel shame that they did not even pray against an identical measure introduced by their Government. We have had little debate—democracy has gone out of the window, along with integrity, under this Government.
§ Mr. Mitchell
My right hon. Friend has already answered my question, but did any Government Members, either Back Benchers or Front Benchers, pray against the regulations that they opposed so bitterly when he introduced them?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend is quite right to emphasise that point. None did, neither from the Labour party nor from its subsidiary, the Liberal Democrat party, although Liberal Democrat Members were at least honourable enough to oppose the measure when we were given 15 minutes to debate it on the Floor of the House.
There is a further twist to the sorry tale. Last week, the court rejected the Government's new measure. It is no longer simple to appeal or reinstate such provisions by primary legislation, as it would have been in 1997. The decision was made under the Government's human rights legislation—their own measure, which was deliberately introduced to allow judges to judge Parliament and to rule that the Government were mistaken. That puts the Government in a quandary. We should ask them to face up to the problems that they have created. One of the most important human rights of all is that of the British people to govern themselves through Parliament and set their own laws, and not have laws laid down for them or reinterpreted by judges according to their human rights impressions, prejudices and subjective opinions.
§ Simon Hughes
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the High Court judge who dealt with the matter last week made it clear that he was only interpreting the will of Parliament? He relied on what Parliament said and the proper interpretation of the statute passed by us, including our obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998.
§ Mr. Lilley
Above all, the latter. The judge was operating under an Act passed by the Government. It gives judges the power to exercise a subjective judgment over the whole sphere of our operations.
§ Mr. Lilley
Indeed, and against my vote. If and when I become Home Secretary, I shall introduce legislation to alter that position. I shall restore the supremacy of the British people through a British Parliament in the making of laws.
We must hold the Government to account and we must make Ministers eat their words, however unpalatable the diet. They must eat them in public and accept that they have performed a complete volte-face, in the meantime making the situation impossible to remedy. The Government have for five years presided over a benefits regime for refugees and asylum seekers, which they adopted deliberately and which they now admit is a serious problem. They face a massive inflow resulting from their changes and they want to reinstate the very Conservative measures that they originally reviled, but they can no longer do so because of legislation that they introduced deliberately to restrain Parliament.
§ Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Home Office research has confirmed that there is no indication whatever that asylum seekers coming to this country have knowledge of either the benefit system or the particular workings of the asylum application process?
76WH The link that he is making between the ability to claim benefits and the desire to claim asylum in this country is not evident.
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Lady is saying therefore that the fact that the number of asylum seekers halved after the measures were introduced and that it doubled after they were reversed is a pure coincidence. She is asking us to accept that people do not send back messages to their country saying that their application was successful and that they are here, being looked after and doing well. The message is about not the details of the benefit system, but the fact that there are no problems and that people do not have to bring resources with them to live here.
People have to provide resources to live en route and they may have to pay tens of thousands of pounds to undertake the journey, but they do not have to provide for themselves when they arrive here. All they have to do is convince the authorities, when they receive their visa, that they will be able to support themselves. The hon. Lady's argument is that people pick at random which country they go to and are entirely unaffected by circumstances in different countries. She is suggesting that the fact that they pass deliberately through other safe countries to come here does not reflect their overall impression of the situation here.
§ Mr. Lilley
I am drawing my remarks towards a close to allow other Members to participate. The hon. Lady can spell out her points later.
I fear we have reached a point at which the problem is too great to be solved simply by restoring the Conservative status quo ante on benefits. We can now tackle the problem of unrestrained inflow to this country only by regime change and renegotiating, or resiling from, the Geneva convention on asylum seekers. Support and endorse the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, on that front. We need a change from the shameless and incompetent regime in this country to a regime with the openness, humanity and integrity of my right hon. Friend and his excellent team. I hope that we see that change sooner rather than later.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
The debate so far has taken the course that I expected. There has been a lot of rehashing of history from six or seven years ago. I noted that the title of the debate was "Government policy on refugee benefits", but we have heard precious little about refugees and everything has been about asylum seekers.
I am often struck by something when I attend such debates as this. At an event last Saturday, it was put to me that some of my colleagues in this place are not terribly knowledgeable about asylum. I said that we all have to specialise to a degree and that if I were asked about the Government's policy on agriculture, I would be found to be woefully ignorant. The person to whom I was speaking responded—at the time I thought that it was flattering, but I now realise that it was true—by 77WH saying, "At least you wouldn't talk about agriculture policy, but people who know very little about asylum feel perfectly able to get up and make speeches about it." That has been amply proved this morning.
May I go back over the history of how we got here today? I do not want to dwell too much on 1996 but there has been some rewriting of history this morning. What happened in 1996 was very simple: there was an attempt to deny asylum seekers inside the country from applying for mainstream benefits. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was the architect of that policy. At the time, it was predicted that the policy would cause destitution and lead to people living on the streets, and I am confident that it would have done if there had not been two court decisions. One decision said that the measure could not be introduced using secondary legislation, which led to changes to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996—the primary legislation. After that, a court decision in February 1997 said that local authorities would have to use the National Assistance Act 1948 to support asylum seekers who were otherwise destitute. If that had not happened, we would have seen people on the streets, just as people are now on the streets as a direct result of the policy that the present Government have implemented, which I shall talk about in a moment.
The result of the events of 1996 was a complete shambles in the asylum system. Some people were supported on benefits while some went to local authorities and local authorities incurred expense. Pressures were placed on local authorities in London and the south-east, and we still have to live with some of those. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was the architect of that shambles, which we inherited when we came into government in 1997. If he had been so keen on introducing primary legislation to deal with the Court of Appeal decision in February 1997, there would have been ample time to pass a simple one-clause Bill before the general election in 1997. The incoming Labour Government in 1997 were right not to try simply to reverse existing legislation, but to try to find an alternative mechanism meaning that asylum seekers would not be supported by local authorities, but by the Home Office through the National Asylum Support Service. Whether we got that right is another matter, but it was a perfectly legitimate and correct decision.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
Is it not true that the major problem was that the then shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), was in an impossible position? He believed that to reverse the decision of the courts would lead to people starving on the streets; he was totally wrong in that.
§ Mr. Gerrard
I do not think that my right hon. Friend was wrong about what would have happened. There is already evidence that the implementation of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 is leading to people being destitute and living on the streets.
§ Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Indeed, did Mr. Justice Collins not describe such situations in the decision on 19 February?
§ Mr. Gerrard
Absolutely. Those situations were the foundation of the case heard by the judge. If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) examines the evidence for the court judgment earlier this month, he will see that evidence spout out.
In 1999, the system changed and vouchers were introduced, against the advice of many Labour Back Benchers. The system proved to be the disaster that some of us predicted and was removed in the 2002 Act. Unfortunately, it has been replaced with something that will be even worse.
The issues raised by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden are frequently mentioned in debates such as this one—specifically, how the benefits and support given to asylum seekers affect the number of claimants. The rationale presented for each of the past four Acts—the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002—is that benefit support acts as a draw and that cash in asylum seekers' hands leads to more applications. It is assumed that genuine asylum applicants would apply at the port of entry the minute that they stepped off the boat or plane and would not apply in-country. No hard evidence has ever been produced that backs up those claims.
On the question of genuine applicants claiming at the port, over the past 10 years the difference between the success rates of asylum claimants in-country and at the port of entry has not significantly changed; any change has been negligible. In fact, for a considerable number of years, the rate of success for in-country applicants has been higher. No hard evidence supports the assertion that a port claimant is more likely to be a genuine applicant than an in-country one. The figures vary from year to year, but no significant patterns back up that assertion.
On the suggestion that people come to the UK because they know about the benefits system and the cash, I am sure that many hon. Members will have had the same experience as me of sitting in constituency advice surgeries and dealing with people who were born in the UK and have never stepped outside the country. They come along with the type of problem that arises from a failure to understand the benefits system, such as failing to claim for a benefit for which they are eligible, failing to know when they should have claimed something or failing to understand the consequences of a late claim for benefit.
We see such problems all the time involving people who have lived in the UK all their lives. The idea that someone sitting in the middle of another country 1,000 miles away will do a detailed calculation and say to themselves, "If I make an asylum claim in Germany, I'll get this amount, if I make one in France I'll get this and if I make one in the UK I'll get this" is ludicrous.
§ Mr. Lilley
Can the hon. Gentleman explain why Italy, which alone in Europe has no benefits for asylum seekers, also has the lowest number of claims, even though it is one of the main sources of entry of asylum seekers?
§ Mr. Gerrard
I suspect that for some years there have been very large numbers of people working illegally and 79WH living on the streets in Italy. The claim that the Italians have somehow solved the problem cannot be justified. That raises the question of why people go to particular countries.
There is a variety of reasons why people come here. People come to a country because they know someone who lives there; or there may be long-standing connections with that country. Some Commonwealth countries have been the source of significant numbers of asylum applications to this country when there have been problems there. The civil war in Sri Lanka led to significant numbers of Tamil asylum seekers coming to the UK.
People go to a country where they can speak the language, and English is probably the commonest second language in the world. I am sure that I will never be in the position where I have to flee this country because I am being persecuted—
§ Mr. Gerrard
I am not worried about that. I would not want to go to France, which is the nearest safe country. It is not that I have anything against the French, but I would be looking for a country where I know people, or where I can speak the language. Those are the factors that have an impact on where people go to try to claim asylum.
§ Ms Buck
Will my hon. Friend accept that a criticism can be made of the system in this country regarding processing times? Historically, decisions have taken so long both to complete, and then to exercise if there is a deportation consequent upon them, that this has become a pull for asylum seekers. Does he accept that in 1997, and even today, the processing time for appeals is up to two years? For the first six months of my time as a Member of Parliament the system was clogged up with cases of applicants who had submitted their asylum application in 1992 or 1993, and who by 1997 had not heard a word from the immigration and nationality directorate.
§ Mr. Gerrard
That is absolutely right. If we want a system that will deter people who are not genuine applicants, we will not achieve that by fiddling around with the benefit system, or by policies of deterrence in legislation. If we want a policy of deterrence for a fraudulent applicant, a decision must be made quickly and efficiently, and subsequently enforced: that is something that we have singularly failed to do over 10 years.
The Government inherited a huge backlog in 1997, which then got worse. As an incoming Government we accepted the Siemens computer system that had been ordered for the Home Office. It was claimed that it would solve all the problems and reduce staffing levels. That was built into the Home Office budget of 1997. Unfortunately we went along with that, and the result was that the backlog increased, rather than decreased. It is only now that we are starting to get on top of it and turn it round.
If we want to deter people from making fraudulent applications, the knowledge that they will not buy two, three or four years in the country by making that 80WH application—the knowledge that a decision will be made quickly and efficiently and will be enforced—is the most powerful deterrent. We would have done far better if we had not bothered with any of the last three Acts, and had simply got the systems within the Home Office working properly and efficiently.
I want to say something about the serious position that we are currently in, and which we got ourselves into by aping what was done in 1996. The Home Office's justification for where we are, which was given to the court recently, is that there is widespread abuse of the system because, for example, some people enter to work illegally and claim asylum when they are found out, while others run multiple claims, or have already claimed in safe countries, or have to wait for weeks and months before they make a claim.
Unfortunately, I am unaware of the Home Office ever having produced evidence to back up the assertion that many people wait weeks and months before they make their claim. I tabled parliamentary questions about how many people apply for asylum within a week and a month and three months and six months of being in the country, and about the relative rates of success of applicants, and I was told that the Home Office did not have that information—that it was not kept. However, the bald assertion is made that many people wait for weeks and months before applying so we must do something about that.
§ Simon Hughes
No answer was given to the question that I asked about the impact of the 8 January legislation. No figures have yet been forthcoming from the Government. No adequate monitoring is going on, even at this stage.
§ Mr. Gerrard
That is correct.
There is another crucial point about how this new legislation will be applied. There was a very short debate—only 15 minutes long—in which several hon. Members wished to speak but were unable to do so, and during which a question was asked about how reasonable we would be with regard to people who did not claim asylum at the port of entry. The Home Secretary said:
"We need to be reasonable and to take into account the trauma that people experience. We need therefore to allow a reasonable period before we presume that people have come into the country for another reason and have been sustaining themselves, and that when they could no longer do so they decided that the asylum system would sustain them". —[Official Report, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 199.]The Home Secretary dwelt on the need to be reasonable, and in meetings with hon. Members, Ministers went further than that. They said, "We are not in the business of penalising people who have been in the country a few days: you need not worry that we are going to behave unreasonably and penalise people who have only been in the country a few days or a week or two. We want to catch people who have been here three, four, five or six months before they make an asylum claim. They ought to be able to justify why they now need support." If the regulations had been interpreted in that way—the way that we were told they would be—the Government might well not have lost the court case this month; they would have found it much easier to persuade the court that they were behaving reasonably. 81WH However, what is actually happening is that people are being refused the day after they arrive in the UK—and, in some cases, on the day on which they arrive in the country—because instead of claiming at the port of entry, they made their way to Croydon to make a claim.
The regulations are being applied in a totally unreasonable way. By losing the case now we have created a far worse problem. It must be dealt with. I am unsure how we are going to extricate ourselves from this; that depends on what the Court of Appeal decides. However, we have certainly created a problem, and it is of the Home Office's making because it has applied the regulations not in the way that we were told that it would, but differently.
This discussion has illustrated that the debate about asylum support is based on the premise of deterrence—that being tough through legislation will deter people from coming here and applying for asylum.
The Prime Minister said that he wants to see a 50 per cent. cut in the number of applications by September. That target is ludicrous. It is something over which we have no control. We should be able to control the rate at which we make decisions. We should be able to control the rate at which we remove those whose applications have been rejected. We should be able to control the rate at which we deal with applications, but controlling the rate at which applications are made is a completely different matter.
The approach taken by Governments of both parties over the past 10 years, before and after 1997, has been based on the premise that we can deter applications through legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) is absolutely right to say that if we want to deter fraudulent applications, we must look at the mechanisms, not the legislation. Decisions must be taken quickly, and they must be enforced.
§ Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
To pursue the hon. Gentleman's argument that mechanisms are important, does he not accept that one of the great failures of the system is that, because people know that the appeals process can take up to two years and that most appeals are likely to fail, they can effectively disappear? There is no real deterrent because when the time comes to deport those people, they have flown the nest.
§ Mr. Gerrard
There is no doubt that people can disappear, but they could do so whatever system we had in place if they were determined enough. Time and again, people turn up in my constituency surgeries five years after I first saw them—they have not disappeared—because nothing has been done to deal with their applications. That is the real problem, and it could be dealt with far more effectively than we are doing through the recent legislation. Even the legislation brought in by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was a failure; it was in force until 1999, and applications went up significantly during that period.
I suggest that hon. Members look at the pattern of the figures from the past 10 years. If they were put on a graph and plotted against each piece of legislation that was supposed to make it more difficult to apply, we may 82WH see a temporary drop before the figures go up again. The pattern of figures can be related much more closely to external events such as those in Afghanistan or Kosovo than to any legislation.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Perhaps I should remind the House that it is customary in the 90-minute Adjournment debates to commence the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the termination of the debate. I hope that hon. Members will take account of that. However, if we start the first of the winding-up speeches before 10.30 am—in other words, before the 30-minute limit—I hope that the three Front-Bench spokesmen will take account of that and take no more than one third each of the remaining time.
§ Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
I rise with the appropriate level of trepidation to make my maiden speech in this Chamber. I am particularly pleased to support the matter raised this morning by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley).
I strongly support the case put by my right hon. Friend. I am relatively familiar with it, having been a junior member of his ministerial team when the events that he described took place at the end of that Government's term of office. Because there has been some debate about precisely what those events were, I took the opportunity to consult the excellent reference and readers' services section of our Library in order to determine the precise chronology. I received a letter from the Library, which stated:
"The Social Security (Persons From Abroad) Miscellaneous Amendments Regulations SI 1996/30 came into force on 5 February 1996. The Regulations were announced in a ministerial statement on 11 January 1996 and later debated on 23 January 1996.The Regulations were challenged in the Court of Appeal and on 21 June 1996 judged to be ultra vires. Following on from this judgment, a ministerial statement was made on 26 June 1996 to inform the House of the Government's intention to reinstate this policy through primary legislation. Lords amendments were made to the Asylum and Immigration Bill 1995–96, debated in the Commons on 15 July 1996 and the policy was reinstated by the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996."Those are the facts of the matter, and my point, which echoes the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, is that the subsequent progress in policy suggests that the Government have cynically manipulated and toyed with asylum seekers and refugees. They should therefore apologise on the Floor of the House for the cynical way in which they have handled policy.
It is important that there are principles of responsible opposition. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) is attending the debate, and she and I were on the radio earlier this morning, telling our constituents in the midlands about today's debate on Iraq. She supported the amendment to today's motion, while I supported the Prime Minister, and the Opposition will support him in very large measure later today. We will do so because he is right, and that is how the Opposition should behave on all policies—they should be responsible. On the firemen's strike, for example, we have supported the Deputy Prime Minister 83WH when we thought that he was right. I make those points because I think that it is wrong for the Opposition simply to oppose Government policy willy-nilly or to take cynical advantage of it if they think that it is right. My charge, however, is that the Prime Minister and others have cynically sought to exploit asylum policy and genuine refugees in their handling of policy.
In the interests of greater accuracy, I obtained a copy of early-day motion 264, which was tabled on 11 January 1996. It prayed against the Social Security (Persons From Abroad) Miscellaneous Amendments Regulations 1996, which I quoted earlier. The essence of those regulations has now been integrated into Government policy, even though early-day motion 264 prayed against such a policy—it was the exact reverse. The six signatures on that early-day motion included those of the present Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley). They also included that of the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who was formerly the shadow Secretary of State for Social Security. That is particularly hurtful, given that he is my Member of Parliament when I am in London. Indeed, he also represented my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden when he lived in Islington. The next signature was that of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), who is here today. The final two signatures were those of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister. They are the guilty six, who cynically prayed against and attacked the policy of the Conservative Government, which included my right hon. Friend. However, they have now been forced to admit that it was correct. They were wrong, and my right hon. Friend was right.
However, it does not stop there. On Second Reading—I took hon. Members through the chronology a moment ago—the now Foreign Secretary, no less, said:
"How typical of the Government"—that of which my right hon. Friend was a Cabinet member—
"that, instead of seeking to cut delays, they cut people's benefit."—[Official Report, 11 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 720.]The right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was shadow Secretary of State for Social Security at the time and subsequently became a Secretary of State. He spoke about the inhumanity and injustice of our policy, saying that it was "contrary to common humanity". Those were the words that he used to condemn a policy that he and his party have now been forced to admit was correct. Such was the level of obloquy and condemnation as regards my right hon. Friend's policy that he met the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain the position—a policy that the Prime Minister copied when he went off to see the Holy Father last weekend.
The end of that chronology—which I can see has the Minister's rapt attention—ended on 23 January 1996, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, in splendid form, took the House through the matters in question. He demolished all the arguments that the then Opposition presented and said much the same as he has said today, showing that he is 84WH consistent on this matter. He rose to speak at 10.25 pm—not a time of day at which the House now sits, much to my regret. My right hon. Friend was rewarded with what was then an enormous majority of 15–279 to 264 votes in support of his case, which he has made again today.
I have described in such detail the chronology of what happened because I want to demonstrate that, in contrast to the Conservative party, which in opposition takes, as I said earlier, a responsible view about the issues of the day, the Labour party in opposition was completely irresponsible. I believe that that fact should be exposed. As my right hon. Friend said, the figures for asylum applications, which were rising in 1995–96, fell as a result of his action. As a result of this Government's action, they have rocketed.
§ Ms Buck
The asylum statistics for the period in question show that the number of claims fell between 1995 and 1996 from 43,000 to 29,000. The dramatic fall occurred before the introduction of the Conservative Government's policies. If the benefits relationship is so tightly connected with asylum applications, as he and his hon. Friends claim, can the hon. Gentleman explain how asylum applications increased fourfold between 1989 and 1990, and halved after 1991, when there were no changes to entitlement to benefit?
§ Mr. Mitchell
I have looked carefully at the figures, and the graph shows that when it was known that the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden were being brought to Parliament—and when they were discussed and implemented—there was a fall in the number of people applying. The level then rocketed. The figures are something like 30,000 for 1996, as the hon. Lady said, and, in 2000, nearly three times that. If she considers carefully, she will see a direct correlation between the disincentives to abuse the system that the Government of which I was a member introduced and the effect on the figures of a lack of disincentive.
If the Labour party had stuck with integrity to our policy, instead of seeking narrow political advantage by opposing it as I have described, three significant—and, I hope the House will agree, desirable—events would have taken place. First, thousands of bogus asylum seekers would have been deterred from coming to this country. That is the evidence of the figures; it is the evidence that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden gave at the time; it is the evidence that anyone seriously studying these matters today would accept. In addition, the public stigmatisation of asylum seekers—something rather bravely alluded to by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard)—would be much less today if the system had had greater integrity.
The second desirable effect would have been that genuine asylum seekers would have been advantaged, because the system would not have been cluttered up by those who were not genuine. That would have made possible a system that would more accurately and speedily have given a fair and proper deal to the genuine asylum seekers who have always been welcome in this country.
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Lady is correct on that point, but it cannot be right to make the matter worse by increasing the number of those in the system who are so clearly bogus. The truth about the advantage that the original Conservative Government proposals gave to genuine asylum seekers is that, over the four months during which the policy was in place, there was a 20 per cent. fall in the number of applicants.
Thirdly, the cost to the taxpayer is so much greater because of the cynical manipulation of that important policy area by the Labour party. When the proposals were introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, his Department estimated that they would save £300 million per year. I know that the Labour party does not worry much about the cost to the taxpayer—it sprays taxpayers' money around without reforming public services—but the cost to the taxpayer of that one act of cynicism and hypocrisy was about £300 million per year. I hope that the Minister, with whom I sparred when our positions were reversed in the 1992–97 Parliament, will have the integrity to come not to Westminster Hall but to the Floor of the House and give a wholehearted apology.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I ought to clarify a matter of detail. This is the Floor of the House. Its standing is equal to that of the other Chamber.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I am grateful for your correction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to make it clear that an apology now will be entirely acceptable. However, the Government, who have had to eat their words on the matter, should apologise to the House and to the taxpayer for what has happened. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, not one of those in the Labour party who oppose Government policy prayed against the order when it was brought before the House. That is astonishing. That, too, could be incorporated into the Minister's apology when he makes it to the House.
§ Ms Buck
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. I repeat the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. When the measure was being introduced in the House, the clear indication was that it was to be applied to individuals who had been in this country for some time—three months was mentioned—under student or other visas and who then made applications, which they had to justify. No indication was given to me or to my hon. Friend that the measure was intended to catch those who had been in the country for only a few hours before making their application.
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Lady is making a fist of defending the position and the policy of her party. However, I hope that she will have the integrity to accept that there has been a 180 degree turnaround on the matter. My central point is that an opposition party 86WH that cynically, against the interests of public policy, sought narrow political advantage against the Government of the day has now to eat its words and propose a policy that is almost identical to that introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden.
§ Mr. Mitchell
It certainly does not. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What a contrast with the words of today's Foreign Secretary, who has inveighed against the very things that the Home Secretary now supports. There should be radical change in the way in which the policy on asylum seekers and refugees is implemented. The proposals of the shadow Home Secretary merit wide attention across the parties. I hope that on this occasion the Labour Government will not indulge in narrow party political advantage, but will look seriously at the proposals and will endorse them just as they have been forced to endorse the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, which are the subject of the debate.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I am conscious of your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will speak for 10 minutes on the subject, which I am happy to debate. I have never resisted this debate and it is perfectly proper to raise the issues. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) has been consistent in his general view on the subject as a Minister and in opposition, but I do not understand—I say this respectfully—how his political expressions on such issues are reconciled with the faith that he and I share, which teaches much about looking after the stranger at the gates. The great faiths of the world judge humanity not only by how we treat out own, but by how we treat others, and Christianity is among those.
I want to make some points about the general background, which the right hon. Gentleman painted in. First, as other colleagues have said, we live in a world in which it is nonsensical to imagine that we can manage the number of people who apply for asylum in Europe in general or in the UK in particular. That is a consequence of wars, rumours of wars and many other things. I note in passing that a small number of the world's asylum seekers come to Europe and the other rich bits of the world. Most go to the much poorer parts, such as Pakistan and the central African countries. That is why the Government's target is almost incredible, although targets for other things would be much more understandable.
Secondly, I put to the right hon. Gentleman the question of how people should be expected to make a claim, as two rights are involved: that to claim asylum and that to be granted it. By definition, one cannot have the second until one has the first. His answer would be valid if everybody knew what was the system and if the system worked, but the truth of the matter, as shown by all the evidence, including Home Office research, is that 87WH most people do not know that the system can allow a person—possibly with no visa, passport or papers—to travel to Britain and then make an application. The world is not like that. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, people often come with no visa, papers or passport, through facilitators or on their own. In fact, we increasingly check people outside the UK—on the other side of the channel, for example—so that they cannot even get here in many cases. The Government have always failed to address the question of how we can properly allow people to put their claims lawfully.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I thought that we should therefore allow people to make claims in embassies and high commissions around the world. I have argued that, rather than cause people to cross the world, it might be sensible to start a programme under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees whereby people could put their case at the British, American, French or any other embassy in the country nearest to them if they felt that that would be safest. That would require an improvement in local administration, but it would be a way to allow cases to be dealt with much nearer to where they came from. Of course, there are management and administrative issues—I understand that.
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Gentleman is breathtakingly frank. He would make it possible for anybody who can get out of their country to go to the local British embassy and ask to come here. Does he propose any limit on the numbers, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) proposes, or does he propose that the Geneva convention should remain in force and that an unlimited number should thereby be enabled to come to this country?
§ Simon Hughes
I apologise if I have not sent the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the booklet that I wrote last year, which I have given to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and other Ministers. I shall send him a copy. I do not propose that we have a quota system. We cannot fix an upper limit, which is the proposal of the right hon. Member for West Dorset. That proposal seems incredible, because numbers are not determined by anything that we can manage. I have proposed that there should be responsibility sharing.
Although, technically, the processing of the application of someone who arrives and puts their case to a European mission or to a country in the European Union would be taken by that country, over five or 10 years we should share the numbers across the EU, so that we will not be playing the nonsense game of passing the human parcel, which we are playing at the moment. We put up our barriers so that more people go to France, and the French put up their barriers so that more people come back here. We need to share responsibility, and all EU members need to take their fair and even share. That, surely, could be negotiated. To the Government's credit, they are now thinking about those things, but they have not yet begun to implement them.
Thirdly, there are all sorts of answers to the "Italian question"—that is, "Why don't so many people go to Italy?"—apart from that given by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who made the point that many people may be there who might not have been 88WH legally recognised. One reason is language. Many of those who seek asylum have fled civil war in former British colonies such as Sierra Leone, where English is the main language. English is, after all, one of the three main world languages. People also come to Britain because of our reputation for human rights and decency. That is surely a good thing, which the World Service, the Government and the British Council seek to propagate, and to which many in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other places, respond.
All those things mean that we should respond positively and reasonably and decently. Britain is the world's fourth most economically successful country, and for 300 years it has believed through its law that people should not be left destitute. We must also continue to uphold the principles of the welfare state.
§ Mr. Gerrard
I have had the chance to look at the figures for Italy, and it is striking that between 1997 and 1999 the number of asylum seekers rose eighteenfold. Although it has since dropped, the rate in 2001 was still four times that of 1997. That illustrates the point that playing the numbers game is extremely unhelpful.
§ Simon Hughes
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is naïve beyond belief to think that there is a direct link between the changes in the law and the number of asylum seekers.
This new law was first introduced in the House of Lords to much criticism. Lord Filkin was asked about problems that might arise on the as-soon-as-reasonably practicable test for applications and on the lack of an appeal review, even though the Labour party briefing at the time said that there would be an appeal review. He ignored those questions.
As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, we had a quarter of an hour of debate on the matter in the Commons. That was entirely unsatisfactory. Worse, the guidelines were published only on 7 January—the day before the measure came into force—and those who had to interpret them had one day to do so. The guidelines were extremely general and nondescript. They depicted some refusal scenarios, but only in the most general way, and the interpretation was very loose.
I also agree that the position of the Labour Government is exactly contrary to that of the Labour party in opposition. Indeed, the Labour Government have now gone further, because the Home Secretary did not suggest an interpretation that if there was no application on the day, an applicant would be turned down. That was not what he said and there was no indication that that was expected. Something entirely different has happened.
I recommend that people read the very good judgment of Mr. Justice Collins, who has also been president of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. He is not a maverick judge, nor a party political judge. He is well-respected, competent and knowledgeable, and he quoted many others in a very clear statement of the law. I hope that all who read the report of this debate also read what the judge said. They need only look at two of the examples among the six cases to see the nonsense of the current interpretation, which, mercifully, the courts have decided is wrong. I refer to the first and sixth cases. 89WH The first concerns a 26-year-old man who left Iran, where he was persecuted for converting to Christianity. He sought help from a solicitor, but the day after he arrived he was turned down. The second is that of a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurd who arrived in a lorry on 8 January. On the same day, he walked for three hours, with no money and no English, and was told to go to the Home Office in Croydon. He too was turned down. The Home Office interpretation was absolutely scandalous—it goes against the common decency that this country is supposed to stand for.
The Home Secretary's mistake was then to suggest, after the judgment had been made, that the law should not be interpreted by the judges, even though the Human Rights Act and this law have been strictly interpreted by a judge who said that that is what Parliament intended. There is a famous maxim that no matter how high we are, the law should be always above us. Happily, these Ministers, like all others, must act within the law.
My party opposed these proposals, and continues to do so. We sincerely hope that the courts continue to uphold the fact that they are being wrongly interpreted. I believe that we will be vindicated and that the Home Secretary will seek to change the proposals at his peril. I hope that Parliament and the courts will find any such change unacceptable, improper and against all traditions of the decent British response to refugees that I hope, and hoped, a Labour Government would uphold.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
I say to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that we shall have to see what the Court of Appeal makes of that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing a debate on this important subject. Over time, he has, in a sense, been vindicated. I was a member of his team between 1995 and 1997, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). As my hon. Friend said, we both remember how those who are now members of the Government attacked proposals to remove benefits from in-country asylum seekers. It was a vicious attack, but the truth is that when they came to power they were unable to follow sensible asylum policies for some years because of the vitriol that had been poured on my right hon. Friend. The fact is that from the time that the announcement was made in 1995 until the Conservative Government left office, the number of asylum seekers fell dramatically from 30,000 a year to 16,000 a year.
Asylum seekers have cost this country dear financially, and it has also caused a great deal of misery to many asylum seekers that the Government have followed a weak approach. The result of that has been a substantial increase in the amount of money that the country spends on asylum support. The numbers have also increased. Many of those people are simply not genuinely claiming asylum. They may, as my right hon. Friend said, be decent people seeking a better life, but they are not asylum seekers within the law as it stands.
90WH We heard an interesting speech from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, whose approach to these matters has always been one of open house. He believes that ways should be found for people who want to come to this country from abroad to be able to do so, and to do so legally. That would be an open invitation, and goodness knows what the numbers would be if the policies that he has always advocated were pursued.
I agree with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) about one thing: one problem over the years has been how long decisions on asylum cases take. We need speedier decision making, but the changes in the law that the Government have made with the Human Rights Act and so on are not likely to lead to that. In fact, in almost every asylum case that I have ever read, the courts have said that there should be even more inquiries and an even more laborious, long-winded process for cases to be determined. If he disagrees, I am happy to take an intervention.
§ Mr. Gerrard
I have certainly not held back from speaking up when I thought that the Home Office was making a mess of things, but the rate of decision making is improving considerably, with new applications especially being dealt with much more quickly.
§ Mr. Heald
We can all say amen to that, and if speedier decisions are being made, that is a good thing, but the fact is, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is still a slow process. I am sure that he is right: if the process were speedier and if people were removed when their cases failed, a better deterrent would be in place.
I should mention the Prime Minister. We have heard about the Government's shuttlecock approach to policy in the area, and three years ago he said:
"From April 2000, the new system will be in place, with new rules on benefit and new holding centres being opened up, so that claims can be processed quickly and we shall be able to get the numbers back down again."—[Official Report, 2 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 1035.]Well, it did not work out like that, because since then the direct cost of asylum support has increased from £375 million to £1.094 billion in the most recent year for which figures are available. One has to ask whether the Government have got anything right in that area.
The Prime Minister is claiming that he will halve the numbers this year, but, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, not many of us believe that that will happen. All kinds of claims have been made during recent years. When the voucher scheme was introduced, it was claimed that it was vital and that it would save money—it certainly did not. It was also said that if cash benefits were reinstated those would cost £500 million a year more and that there would be a huge pull factor generating thousands of additional claims. What have the Government done, two years later? They have reinstated cash benefits.
§ Ms Buck
That is self-defeating logic. The introduction of the voucher scheme, the National Asylum Support Service and the dispersal programme should, following the logic of the hon. Gentleman's own party, have resulted in a reduced pull factor, but they simply did not. That confirms the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and I are 91WH making, which is that the entitlement to support is largely irrelevant in the bigger picture. Many other factors are in play, ranging from the world situation to labour markets, English and other languages, and the administrative workings of the immigration and nationality directorate. Those are far more important in addressing asylum seeker numbers.
§ Mr. Heald
We obviously do not agree on those matters. The international examples that I could go through if I had another 10 minutes would prove that the hon. Lady is wrong.
On asylum support and the benefits system, the written answer that I received from the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration shows that when NASS began work in April 2000, there was no investigation service that could consider issues of benefit or asylum support fraud. It took NASS 13 months to introduce an operational unit. One thing that we know about any sizeable benefits budget is that there will always be people who try to abuse the system, and the hon. Member for Walthamstow has acknowledged that there are always cases of fraud. How negligent it was of the Government to leave NASS with no protection for 13 months.
Will the Minister give us any reason why that important budget was significantly underprotected for more than a year? Why is there no record of the total asylum support fraud discovered by NASS? Why does it not know how much money it has uncovered as being taken fraudulently from the system? It knows how many cases there are, but not how much money is involved. Why is there no estimate of the total asylum support fraud perpetrated since NASS was established?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden introduced systematic reviews of benefit fraud when he was at the Department of Social Security. That was an important measure in establishing how much fraud was taking place. Why has nothing similar been done in NASS? We know that it has investigated 4,600 cases, of which 1,400 ended in termination of support, which is why I cannot understand this answer from the Minister:
"The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) does not keep a central record of the level of fraud in individual cases." —[Official Report, 10 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 539W.]Why on earth not?
The benefits fraud hotline, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend—he and I launched it outside Richmond house—was a successful way of tackling fraud. I know that this Minister is concerned about that issue, but when I asked the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration what measures there are for passing information from the hotline to NASS for investigation, she said:
"There are no formal arrangements for referring calls to the Benefit Fraud Hotline and the Targeting Fraud Website to NASS."—[Official Report, 27 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 707W.]Why on earth not? Why did this Minister say, in answer to my question on the subject, that such allegations are passed directly to the immigration service and NASS?
92WH If I had longer, I would go on, but I shall come to my final point. In respect of benefit fraud, there has been much profiteering on the part of landlords. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) has posed a series of questions in the House on the housing provided to asylum seekers and the people who provide it. What protection is there against landlord fraud in the system?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions(Malcolm Wicks)
I, too, very much welcome this important debate, which was initiated by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who is, of course, a former Secretary of State for Social Security. I agree with his opening remarks: these are matters of growing public concern in this country, throughout Europe and, indeed, further afield, so it is important that politicians representing the great democratic parties of the country lead the debate in the right direction, rather than shirking it. We may disagree about that direction, but we need to face the issues.
We must confront the racists and lead the debate in an important direction. That is a point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, and has made elsewhere. Also, we should face up to the difficult issues for our communities and the tough decisions that must be made. There is nothing more destructive to our democracy than people, perhaps for well-meaning reasons, attacking Members of Parliament from both sides of the House who raise legitimate issues, and throwing at them the charge of being racist. There is nothing more loathsome. If there is talk—even if it is misguided—in the pubs, on the streets, on the estates and in the communities about an issue, and the only place not talking about it is Parliament, our democracy is in trouble. That opens the gateway to the British National party, and perhaps other fascist parties. It is important that we engage in the issues without fear or favour.
We are all agreed that for many years—indeed, centuries—this country has opened its arms to people seeking refuge, many of whom were fleeing terror regimes. Many of them have been of enormous benefit to our economy and our country. We also agree that if asylum seekers face destitution, it is right that we should provide them with some financial support.
I regularly see asylum seekers in my constituency office and will continue to do so. Indeed, I last saw one on Friday. During the debate, I thought of a constituent I met a couple of years ago. Her story, which I believed entirely, was that she was picked up by soldiers in Uganda because she was associated with an opposition political movement. In the back of a lorry, she was systematically gang raped by many of the soldiers. She was able to flee her country and came to Britain, only to discover from her doctor that she was HIV-positive. A significant number of people are at that end of the continuum.
93WH There are others, however, such as another constituent who told the immigration authorities many years ago that she was coming here for a couple of weeks of Christmas shopping. After a couple of years, when the immigration authorities were chasing her, she started studying. When the authorities chased her further, she announced that she was applying for asylum. I am not naive about the range, across the continuum, of those who apply for asylum.
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful for the admirably balanced way in which the Minister approaches such issues and the recognition that we should neither suppress debate on them nor pander to those who hold negative views about asylum seekers.
Will the Minister comment on the announcement by the Minister for Transport, who represents Warley and who will see only people who are on the electoral register, but not asylum seekers, at his surgery? Does the Minister think that such a statement panders to the animosity felt by some people towards asylum seekers? That animosity would be better targeted at those who created the situation, not the asylum seekers themselves.
§ Malcolm Wicks
I do not advise colleagues on either side of the House on how they should run their constituency offices. I have my own approach to such matters. Given that my constituency is Croydon, North and bearing in mind the ethnicity there and the fact that a significant number of asylum seekers are associated with Croydon for obvious reasons, I give them what advice I can.
As soon as someone is given exceptional leave to remain or is accepted by the Home Office as a genuine refugee, he becomes entitled to the same social security benefits as anyone else. That is a long-standing principle of the benefit system. There has been confusion and loose terminology in relation to refugees because, when someone becomes a refugee, he is a successful asylum seeker. In a way, the issue is simple. Such people then become entitled to social security benefits. That is why I am here, as a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than a Home Office Minister. Understandably, however, the debate has ranged more widely than that subject.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden will forgive me if I do not debate the Lilley legacy and Conservative chronology. The Conservative party is going through one of those stages when it is terribly interested in itself, but such a view is not always 94WH widely held. Before I come to refugees, I wish to refer to the improvements that we have made to the asylum system.
§ Malcolm Wicks
Those are reasonable questions that I shall draw to the attention of my Home Office colleagues. We are determined to bear down on fraud across the piece. Our Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 created the Home Office-administered National Asylum Support Service, which, since April 2000, has, when required, provided assistance and accommodation to all new asylum seekers. That is a separate system for asylum seekers. It should not be confused with that for those who are granted asylum and who are then dealt with by my Department in respect of social security benefits.
Measures introduced by the previous Government meant that asylum seekers who had made an application while in the country or who were appealing against a negative decision were denied benefits and were, in some cases, suffering real hardship. We ensured that there would be a safety net for such people to allow them to receive the support that they needed. We also recognised that better targeted support for asylum seekers was not enough on its own. We needed to deal with the growing backlog of people waiting for an asylum decision.
Although there is no scope to discuss the numbers now, a range of factors are involved. Benefits are important, but the international reputation of our country, language, the presence of different ethnic communities, the efficiency or inefficiency of immigration services at given points in time and the fact that Britain is the head of the Commonwealth are all significant in terms of employment opportunity. We are getting on top of the problem. The removal rate, although lower than we had hoped, has increased to about 12,000 people per month. In many ways, the immigration service is improving. We are on target in respect of 2002–03, and 65 per cent. of claims should receive an initial decision within two months. Those who were given the status of genuine refugees are allowed social security benefits in the usual way.
I shall write to hon. Members if I have missed any points, but the subject is obviously complex ethnically and politically in terms of policy, and particularly complex in respect of administration and delivery. We need to achieve the right balance, as I believe we are doing, between granting genuine asylum to those fleeing outrageous and wretched regimes throughout the world, of which there are too many, and ensuring that there is proper control against abuse.