HC Deb 08 July 2004 vol 423 cc313-54WH

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2003–04, HC 218, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6166.]

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

2.30 pm
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to introduce the debate on our report, which was published in January. I thank fellow members of the Committee, who have worked very hard, since before my time as Chairman, to produce the report. It is a substantial and useful report, as is reflected in comments from outside the House. The Refugee Council, for example, welcomed it as a substantial, evidence-based report that should be welcomed by all those genuinely interested in developing a credible asylum system.

I emphasise the fact that there was consensus and the report was unanimous. Obviously, there were differences on some points of content, which are reflected in the record of the votes, but the final report was unanimously agreed. The Committee included two former Home Office Ministers—the redoubtable right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and me—and several other strong-minded members, so the fact that we produced a unanimous report is significant.

I will not quote the report at great length, but at paragraph 73 of our conclusions we stated that there is more in common between the over all strategy of the main political parties than is apparent at first sight. In particular, they are advocating a reduction in in-country applications for asylum, balanced by a significant increase in the number of refugees accepted through UNHCR. There is broad agreement on the need for more effective processing of claims, a reduction in illegal working and effective action on removals. A greater public understanding of these constructive common elements in the main parties' approach, as well as of the undoubted differences of principle on some issues, would help to make asylum a less divisive issue in the wider community.

I want to underline that fact. The issue is of great public concern. It is important that the public debate among the political parties concentrates on genuine differences and does not seek to exaggerate differences in areas in which they do not exist, because if the debate gets out of hand, it will not be any of the mainstream parties that benefit, but the extremist organisations that are trying to exploit public concert,. That observation by the Committee is very important. and I will continue my remarks in that tone.

A broad overview of the report is that the state of the asylum system is much better than it was a few years ago. In Committee we had a debate. which I will not go into, about the historical record, the responsibility and the efficacy of different policies that have been adopted over the past 10 or 12 years—but the main point is that the system is better today than it was only a couple of years ago. We also recognise that whatever debate there may be about domestic policy, Governments of all political parties have essentially faced a problem generated by international circumstances and conditions, rather than by things that have happened at home. All Governments have inevitably struggled with some of the consequences of those international developments.

I will highlight the key improvements. First, the number of applications has been substantially reduced. Secondly, the time taken to process applications has been reduced, particularly for first applications. Thirdly, there has been an improvement in the record on removals. That said, there are still problems and challenges, which I will come to in a moment.

It is worth looking briefly at the nature of the problem. Much of the public debate between the various organisations has shown differing shades of opinion and has tended to be polarised. One side says that pretty much everyone who seeks asylum comes from a part of the world or a country suffering internal conflict or conflict with its neighbours, and that those who come here are therefore overwhelmingly genuine refugees seeking safe haven. The other side says that pretty much everybody is a bogus claimant, coming here merely to enjoy the economic benefits of living here, our benefits system, our housing or whatever else is on offer.

The Committee examined the evidence and the various claims and analyses, and came to a balanced view of the situation. We recognised that evidence could be pleaded on both sides of the argument. The Committee's conclusion, set out in the report, was right as far as I could see from the evidence. First, it concluded that most of those who come to this country or to other western European countries seeking asylum come from countries where there is a level of internal conflict or conflict with neighbouring countries. Equally, the evidence, including evidence in cases that go all the way through the appeals system to the High Court and beyond, suggests that about half of the applications made in recent years were from people with a well founded fear of persecution under the Geneva convention, and that half of them were not. The latter applicants have sought refuge here without having a strong case under the Geneva convention.

That conclusion is not as surprising or contradictory as it might seem. Most people who leave their home country, wherever it is, are unlikely to do so without reason. A level of conflict or instability that may lead to economic insecurity and poor personal prospects may well be the trigger for people to move, even though they may not have a well founded case under the Geneva convention. At the same time, others at the other end of the spectrum, who may have a well founded case, are moved to leave their country because they can make a new start in a different country, with better prospects for their families.

As we say in the report, people leave their own country to seek asylum here or in Europe for a spread of motivations and reasons. However, our judgment that, at least in the recent past, about 50 per cent. of claims are well founded and 50 per cent. are not is probably as close as we can get. I said that people have different motivations in order to underline something that we all recognise. Those mixed motivations and different reasons make the system complex for Governments to administer. The nature of the decisions that have to be taken is complex, too.

I now turn to the areas highlighted in the report to which the Government need to pay greater attention. First, it is true that the number of asylum applications has fallen rapidly over the last year or so. That appears to have continued since the publication of our report. However, the quality of the initial decision making remains poor, and too many decisions for comfort are overturned later in the appeals procedure. There will, of course, be a temptation to take what some might call a peace dividend out of the reduction in the number of asylum applications and the reduced expenditure that could follow.

However, I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that any freed-up resources should be invested in strengthening the initial decision-making process, in improving the process and in training staff, so as to achieve a higher success and accuracy rate. That will pay dividends down the line, not least because people will have greater confidence in the system. It will also take the heat out of a contentious issue, which has been debated in the House since the publication of our report—the attempt to simplify the appeals system, set against the need to ensure that asylum seekers' rights are not jeopardised. If people had greater confidence in the initial decision, there would be less concern about the appeals procedure. That will be a tricky issue, with the comprehensive spending review coming up, and the reduction in Home Office staff and so on, but investing in the initial decision-making process is crucial.

Secondly, the Government need to recognise the need for more effective action on returning failed asylum seekers; indeed, changes to the procedures are necessary. We recognise in the report that considerable progress has been made in stepping up the number of removals, but we cannot yet say that we are completely on top of current decisions, let alone that we are tackling the backlog of failed asylum seekers.

I draw hon. Members' attention to the proposals in our report for a radical change in how these matters are handled; in particular we suggested piloting a requirement for asylum seekers to attend a specified place to receive the decision on their asylum application. At present, they get the decision—yes or no—by letter, and say, "What will happen now?" They usually have little idea. If asylum seekers had to attend a centre to get their decision, and if the decision was positive, matters such as a job, national insurance number, housing and so on could be lined up for them. If the decision was no, in addition to counselling and support, arrangements could be made there and then to plan their leaving the country and, if necessary, their detention.

The third point about the overall system that the report highlights is that there would be less of a pull factor for economic migrants, and possibly greater effectiveness in removals, if there were less ability to obtain illegal work. The report stresses the importance of taking action against those who employ illegal labour and suggests the use of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 against employers who knowingly employ illegal labour, because at present the penalties are far too low. I am glad that the Government responded positively to that idea.

I want briefly to discuss returning failed asylum seekers. There is still a need for more independence in the production of the country assessments made by the Home Office about whether the human rights situation in a given country is good enough to return asylum seekers. There have been improvements, but we still think the assessments should be more independent of the Home Office. Asylum seekers are still being told that it is safe to return home when not only they but civil organisations and non-governmental organisations challenge that assessment.

The Minister may be aware of recent correspondence between the Bishop of Winchester and the Home Secretary about the situation in the Congo. On one hand, the Home Office says that it is safe for people to return home; on the other, the Church of England, with its extensive network of Church contacts in that country, says that it is not. More independence in human rights assessments would bring greater confidence in the system and fewer delays in removing people.

The report also highlighted the fact that those who even the Government recognise cannot be returned at present are in limbo In the later stages of the legislation, the Minister introduced new measures to ensure that such people would be gainfully occupied, and when he replies to the debate he may be able to say more about what he expects the impact of those measures to be.

During the Committee's work we drew attention to the problems caused by section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. The Government changed the rules to give people slightly longer to claim after entering the country, but an independent review of how section 55 operates would be valuable. When people's cases are assessed they are supported by the National Asylum Support Service, and I suggested that any savings in the system should be ploughed back into improving the asylum application process. The Committee said that the NASS system was not yet working as it should, and that there was a case for greater investment in the asylum support system. That should be a call on some of the resources freed up by the fall in the number of asylum applications.

I have mentioned the substantive areas for improvement that the Committee recommended should be addressed, and I want to end on three or four significant wider points about how the asylum system is developing. First, border controls are being moved into Europe, Sangatte has closed, and action is being taken against airlines and others who bring people into the country, so the only people who can get here to make an asylum application are those who have substantial financial resources; if their network of family and friends cannot pay the people trafficker, they cannot get in.

However, it is not obvious that this country best meets its international obligations by granting refugee status to those who manage to get through all those hoops to get here. We suggested in the report that, as the number of in-country asylum applications falls—inevitably, I think—there should be a significant expansion in the number of refugees accepted into the country through co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Government have already started that on a small scale.

We should like the Home Office to be involved with other Departments in conflict prevention. Most asylum seekers come from countries where there is conflict. The Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office all look into conflict prevention, but the Home Office, too, should be able to argue that certain areas are a priority because they will produce a large number of asylum seekers.

We said in the report that we should like changes to the convention, but we ruled out the idea that this country should ever contemplate withdrawing from it. As we recognise that any change to the convention must be a matter of international consensus, none of us should hold our breath at the prospect of immediate change. However, we recognise that the convention does not really reflect the needs of a modern, mobile world.

For example, the vast majority or those currently in Darfur would probably be able to make a successful application for asylum in this country, because they had suffered genocide or persecution in Sudan. Only the lack of money and flights prevents them from getting here. However, the best way of dealing with what is happening in Sudan would not be to move the entire population to western Europe. We need a set of international obligations that give the rich nations of the world more responsibility for tackling the problems more effectively.

I have already spoken for longer than I intended to, but I hope that I have covered the main points. We stated in the conclusion of our report: the overriding priority is to maintain recent progress in improving the applications system, to reduce the backlog further and to increase both the fairness and the speed of the system. Efficiency should be combined with humanity". We also said: whether we are dealing with genuine asylum seekers or economic migrants we should never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings, not numbers, and they should be treated accordingly".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thank the chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), for introducing the report. I now call another Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

2.47 pm
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), and the Home Affairs Committee have done the House a considerable service in producing the report. The Chairman is to be congratulated on securing a unanimous report, not least given the participation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I can imagine that chairing such a Committee could on occasion be quite challenging.

Two events in which I have an interest and which prompt me to think about the issues in question are coinciding today: the International Development Committee, which I chair, has today published a report on migration and development, and simultaneously the Court of Appeal is hearing Cherwell district council's application against the overruling by the Deputy Prime Minister of his planning inspector's decision on the accommodation centre at Bicester. I should like to say something about all those matters.

I suggest that perhaps the House should increasingly be considering not asylum policy but migration policy. One difficulty that has arisen is that the impression can be gained from the media that every migrant is an asylum seeker. In fact we have many migrants, some of whom are refugees and some of whom claim refugee status that they are not entitled to. We need a migration policy.

The International Development Committee identified several myths about migration. Migrants are not a "problem", but people trying to improve their lives, who must be treated accordingly. There is a myth that a tidal wave of migrants is about to crash upon our shores. That is wrong. Migration is economically and politically important, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. International migration has increased in the past 40 years, but there is still a tiny amount—less than 3 per cent. of the world's population live outside the country of their birth—and most migration is between developing countries. A large proportion of international migrants move between poor countries, and the number of migrants who stay in their own country far exceeds that of international migrants. I shall detain the Chamber with only one fact: there are 175 million international migrants in the entire world. India alone has 2 million internal migrants, and China has 120 million. One must put some of these issues into perspective.

As the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said, it is not always the poorest most desperate people who migrate, because very often they cannot afford to. Often it is those with access to resources who migrate, so one cannot simply assume that policies to help migrants, particularly international migrants, will also help the poorest people. We must also be conscious of the fact that although migration can lead to a brain drain, flows of remittances and the return of migrants with new skills can offset the loss, and may even lead to a brain gain.

It is perfectly possible—we believe that it must be possible—for there to be a triple win on migration policy: for migrants, for migrant-sending countries, and for migrant-receiving countries. We need to think about how we can improve remittances and how we tackle trafficking and smuggling. All those issues are in the report, and I hope that the House will consider them. Indeed, I hope that the House will have an opportunity in due course to debate the report in full.

I shall not detain colleagues any longer, except to say that we should stop regarding migration as a problem, as the tabloid newspapers often present it, and see it as an opportunity both for us and for sending countries. We need a migration policy, not simply an asylum policy. We have sometimes got ourselves into a muddle as a result of administrative cock-ups and the way in which they were dealt with. The Romanian saga was one such example. The media got the impression that we were going to be overwhelmed by people from EU accession states seeking work in the EU—an impression that the Government did not help to dampen down. That has not happened, as the figures announced yesterday demonstrate. Indeed, quite a lot of people came from Poland, looked around, saw the cost of housing and went back to Warsaw.

The construction industry will tell anyone who visits construction sites in London that it is desperately short of skilled people, and if we go to any general hospital in the UK and ask around, we find that many of the people working there have been trained overseas. If they were not there, there would be a serious gap in the provision of health care and other vital services. We were not helped by the way in which the Romanian affair was handled.

I suggest to the Minister that accommodation centres represent another administrative cock-up. I have no quarrel with any of the conclusions drawn by the Home Affairs Committee: the report was unanimous. However, I draw the attention of the Chamber to one point. In its summary, the Committee calls for a more flexible approach to the siting of accommodation centres, but it is also fair to say that in relation to its conclusions in paragraphs 138 to 141, the Committee did not take oral evidence from anyone other than the Minister. If it had done so, the Refugee Council and pretty well every organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees would have confirmed their continuing concern about the fact that the Government's existing proposals are for sites that are too large and in the wrong place.

We all understand how this particular policy came about. Night after night, it seemed, there was television footage of young men trying to get on to trains coming through the channel tunnel from Sangatte. A genuine impression was given of a situation getting out of control. Ministers clearly believed that they needed to be seen to be doing something in response, so they advanced the proposal for accommodation centres.

Those of us fortunate enough to have been Ministers know that those Ministers will have had to write to the Treasury, which will have written back saying, "Well, it sounds like an interesting idea, but we're not totally convinced. If it's going to go ahead, it can only be on land on the existing Government estate." Therefore, with a limited budget, Home Office Ministers felt that they could have only a limited number of accommodation centres, so they would have to be for a large number of people—750 in each. Every organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees persistently tells Ministers that that approach is wrong and will not work.

Following the abandonment of attempts to use the Newton site in Nottingham yesterday, we are three years down the line—the process started in 2001—and the Government have been able to identify only one site, the decision on which is subject to judicial review in the Court of Appeal. Even if that site is successful, to have been able to identify only one site on the Government estate in three years suggests that the prospect of identifying more sites of this size, and getting them through the planning process, is unlikely.

Ministers must recognise that in the cases of Newton and Bicester there were full public inquiries. One of the great things about public inquiries is that people have to come and put their arguments rationally; they cannot be irrational, emotive, racist or irresponsible. An inspector hears planning arguments on planning grounds and makes a planning judgment. Having heard the evidence at Newton and Bicester, the planning inspectors said that the developments should not go ahead. In the case of Bicester, the Deputy Prime Minister chose to ignore completely the advice of the planning inspector, and that is the matter of the case before the Court of Appeal. The Government have not identified any site in their estate that meets with the agreement of the planning inspector.

Since 2001, the number of asylum seekers has dropped considerably, almost back to 1997 levels. Perhaps the summer months would be a good time quietly to rethink the whole approach. I commend to the Minister the following recommendation in the Home Affairs Committee report: Given the delays in opening accommodation centres, and the fall in asylum applications, the Government in its response to this report should clarify how many accommodation centres it intends to establish, with what capacity, on what timetable and at what cost. The Committee also recommended that there should be a flexible approach to the siting of such centres. I suggest to the Minister that while considering the Department's response to the Select Committee's report over the summer months, Ministers should re-engage in discussion with groups such as the Refugee Council and the Immigration Advisory Service, as well as with MPs.

The history of involving MPs is disappointing. I received a telephone call one day from Lord Rooker, whom I much admire and like, to tell me that an announcement was going to be made the following day about the accommodation centre in Bicester. There was no subsequent discussion or engagement by the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), who saw it as a test of will that she should drive the policy through unchanged. Well, circumstances do change, so perhaps this is the time to have a rethink and to re-engage with groups concerned with the welfare of refugees and with MPs.

We must try to produce a policy that meets the needs for accommodation centres across the country, as recommended by the Select Committee, but does not involve huge accommodation centres stuck out in the middle of the countryside. I am against the idea of 750 people being stuck for up to six months on the outskirts of Bicester. What is more, the centres will be run by Group 4. The report from Mr. Philip Shaw on what happened with Group 4 at Yarl's Wood is still outstanding on the Minister's desk, and I find it strange that the Home Office, before it has had the opportunity of considering that report, appears to have awarded the contract for the running of the Bicester centre to "Global Solutions"— or whatever name Group 4 has decided to rebrand itself with to prevent us from remembering that it used to be Group 4.

I ask that during the recess Ministers take the opportunity for a period of quiet reflection on accommodation centres. The Newton decision yesterday means that their current policies are pretty much in tatters. If they were to engage with groups that are concerned with the welfare of refugees, they could develop policies for accommodation centres that would command wide support in the community and the country. Their current policy is totally friendless; it cannot find support anywhere.

3.1 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab)

Asylum and illegal immigration are emotive and contentious subjects, and also more complex than many people imagine. One of the Home Affairs Committee's conclusions sums up that complexity. It says: The categories of 'economic migrant' and 'genuine refugee' often overlap. We note the research evidence that conflict, not poverty, is the defining characteristic of asylum seekers' source countries, though not all those who come from such countries are genuine asylum seekers. Equally, people genuinely seeking asylum may also be seeking to better their own and their families' lives. Likewise people who do not personally have a well-founded case for asylum may be coming from countries suffering conflict as well as from countries which are not.

The importance of the subject was reflected in the recent decisions by the Home Affairs Committee to conduct three full inquiries into various aspects of asylum and illegal entry: border controls, removals and asylum applications.

One of the reasons why there has teen so much public opposition to asylum and illegal immigration is that the system appeared to be out of control. The scenes shown on our televisions of young men trying to jump on to trains in France, and the Sangatte refugee camp, certainly gave that impression, and undermined the confidence of the general public. The fact that other countries in Europe had similar problems, and that most refugees in the world escape to their neighbouring countries, which are themselves some of the poorest, seemed to go unrecognised.

I am pleased that there has been co-operation between our Government and that of France in tightening the borders in France. When we conducted the inquiry into border controls, members of the Select Committee visited the Sangatte camp and were appalled by the conditions there. I am thankful to say that it has now closed. We also saw areas of Calais and areas around the Eurotunnel where those seeking to enter the UK could easily gain access to lorries and trains. Indeed, such activity had a severe impact on rail freight for a considerable time. The installation of security fencing has secured those potential points of entry into Britain.

There are several reasons why people want to come to the UK rather than to other European countries. Some of those are negative, such as the perception that there are delays in the process, which allow people to get lost in the system. Others reflect the positive aspects of the country. In the report we comment that: Asylum seekers' perceptions of the advantages of the UK may simply reflect this country's longstanding reputation for justice and fairness. Another factor is the strength of the UK economy, meaning that there is the opportunity for work, both legal and illegal.

If we are to have a system that is respected by the public, we must ensure that the process is efficient and effective. I am pleased that the actions taken by the Government to increase security and to reduce the attraction of coming to the UK have cut the number of asylum applications so dramatically over the past year or so. Everyone should welcome the 60 per cent. reduction in applications between October 2002 and March 2004 reported by the Government in their response to the report. The increased number of removals, and the speeding up of decisions on asylum applications, so that 80 per cent. are now taken within two months, are also important improvements to the system, for which the Government and their staff should be commended.

In its report, the Committee recognised the need to address the problems at both ends by reducing unfounded applications, and by swiftly and humanely removing failed asylum seekers. However, it must be recognised that as we make it harder for people to arrive in this country illegally, genuine refugees, too, will find it more difficult to seek asylum here. Most of those who enter the UK to seek asylum do so through people traffickers. They tend to be young men, who have been able to raise such funds from families and communities to pay their passage. The Committee concluded that they were not necessarily representative of the refugee population that could claim asylum in the UK.

Our report said that the Government had a moral obligation to provide legitimate routes by which refugees can gain access to this country, to assist refugees closer to their country of origin, and to tackle the routes of enforced migration. In that respect, I welcome the fact that the UK has agreed to accept up to 500 refugees a year through the Government's Gateway resettlement programme. I am also glad that the UK has been an active partner in negotiations regarding the development of a common European asylum system, and that we have played a major role in shaping Eurodac and the Dublin II regulations, which will facilitate the identification and return of asylum seekers who are the responsibility of other member states.

The report emphasised the need to improve the quality of initial decision making to ensure that we have a fair, fast and effective asylum system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, we referred to the need to front-load the system, putting in the right resources at an early stage. We suggested that there should be access to good quality legal advice and interpretation services, to avoid the necessity of reconsidering decisions through the appeal process. Although I am disappointed that the Government do not accept that in most cases, the attendance of legal advisers at the substantive interview would provide value for money, I am pleased that there is a commitment to ensure that publicly funded legal advice available to asylum applicants is accredited and of a high standard.

The quality of the decision making can be improved by the language analysis scheme, and the Committee supported the extension and development of that service. We also recommended that the Home Office should recruit more caseworkers and interpreters with a specialist knowledge of the claimed countries of origin of asylum seekers. I welcome the Government's review of the initial training of asylum caseworkers, as well as the proposal to have refresher training for experienced caseworkers.

One of the reasons for the fall in the number of people claiming asylum last year was the implementation of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and we were concerned by reports of the distress caused to individuals who could not claim benefits because of that section. We welcome the modification made by the Home Secretary to extend to 72 hours the period within which arrivals to the UK would be expected to make a claim for asylum to qualify for benefit. Although it is true that families are exempt from section 55, and there is a reconsideration process, I am disappointed that the Government have rejected the Committee's recommendation that there should be an independent review of the working of section 55. However, I welcome the decision to display posters at all ports of entry advising those who intend to claim asylum that they must do so on arrival.

The Committee hoped that if a review of the operation of section 55 were instigated, welfare support for failed asylum seekers could also be considered. There is currently a problem for those who have been refused asylum: they are destitute and unable to leave the country, through no fault of their own. As I understand it, section 4 support may be available, but that might necessitate someone moving away from friends to access that support, and individuals who may be eligible may not be aware of the help available. I hope that the Government will be able to publicise the availability of section 4 support better. It might also be advantageous to give those who cannot be returned home a temporary right to work to support themselves.

I hope that the debate will be helpful in illustrating the complexities of the issues, and the difficulties in establishing a system that will command the respect of all who need to seek asylum, as well as of the public; some people meet asylum seekers, but others only hear about them through the media. We must remember that we are talking not about statistics but about individuals who, for whatever reason, have travelled many hundreds of miles away from their homes and families.

3.10 pm
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

In his introduction, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) rightly drew attention to paragraph 73. I commend him for that, and for the manner of his presentation. I also concur with much that has been said by my colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), and by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury on his reasoned contribution; I am sure that his view will be echoed on his party's Front Bench. It is a pity that the good sense reflected in the unanimity of the Committee—which will, I am sure, be repeated here—is not always found in other Chambers, and certainly not in our media.

I would like to draw attention to paragraph 76 of our conclusions: Britain's reputation for fairness and tolerance should not be exploited by those with no genuine claim for asylum, and even more so by the criminals running the international gangs, nor should it be sullied by ill-informed or exaggerated debate. We hope that our report will contribute to a rational debate about the asylum issue. That is probably a forlorn hope. Nevertheless, it is important to state it. Every politician, elected or unelected, has a duty not to inflame the situation but to try to present reasoned arguments as to what is the truth and what is fiction. In paragraph 59, we say: Illegal working car have a particularly pernicious effect on community relations and an unfair impact on the legally employed workforce. It is important that the Government should be seen to be vigorously tackling the problem.

The Chairman rightly drew attention to some illegal acts by employers. We need to follow that down the employment chain. The possibility will not have escaped hon. Members' attention that the relatively cheap food—salad, in particular—in our supermarkets could have been harvested by illegal immigrants employed by gangmasters, who are engaged by farmers who have to keep the prices down because of the stranglehold of the major supermarkets. It could be that our supermarket bosses are indirectly associated with some of the illegal employment practices.

When the Government tackle the issue, I hope that they will follow it all the way through and find out who else is involved in the chain. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) highlighted the fact that there are very few prosecutions for employment of illegal workers under section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, and she was right to do so. We must not assume that Morecambe bay was a one-off incident. I am thankful to say that its consequences were unique, but I suspect that it was not an isolated instance of illegal employment.

Those who read the Daily Mail or the Daily Express— which, sadly, give comfort to racists, bigots and the ill informed—could well believe that the country is awash with scroungers and people living off state benefits. That might describe some of the indigenous population, but dozens of asylum seekers have come to my advice bureau over the years, and I have yet to see one who has been anything other than a "get up and go" person. There is no future for them at home because of a range of issues, and asylum is the only way for them to get out of the world in which they live.

Without exception, such people want to contribute to the United Kingdom, not to live off it. The evidence—I hope that the Minister will confirm this statement, as we do not regularly hear it from Government Ministers—is that people who settle in this country and get work are net contributors to the public purse, not a drain on it. Ministers need to say that time and again, in the hope that the Daily Express and the Daily Mail may one day report it.

I return to paragraph 6 of the report's conclusions and recommendations. One of the reasons why people come to the United Kingdom to seek asylum is that: The UK may well be seen also as having a greater commitment to fairness and due process and respect for treaty obligations. That theme continues in paragraph 7, where the Committee—it was unanimous—states: We do not believe that Britain can be described as a soft touch for asylum seekers. We took evidence from people who had been asylum seekers, had made their case and been accepted. They came and gave evidence, and they contrasted the fairness, justice and humanity that they witnessed on arrival in this country with what happened in some of the other countries that they had come through. Not once did they say that Britain was a soft touch. The next morning, the Daily Express said something like, "Asylum seekers admit Britain is a soft touch".

In a previous existence I was a branch secretary of the National Union of Journalists, and there was a time when there was a code of conduct. I do not know whether that still exists, but if it does, it is about time that the NUJ took up the issue with the section of the national media that is failing this country, distorting the truth and misleading the general public, with the consequence that political parties can use that to justify their attacks on those who have chosen to settle in this country because circumstances so dictated.

I represent—I shall get the plug in here—Britain's oldest recorded town, and for 2,000 years we have absorbed people into our town, starting with the Romans but going all the way through the Saxons, the Normans, the Danes and people from the Low Countries, until recent times whet brave men from Poland came and fought alongside the British in the second world war. That continued through the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

This country needs and has benefited from the people who come here, such as the Ugandan Asians or the people from the West Indies who came here in the '50s and '60s for transfer to the national health service. That message is too seldom mentioned. The report brings us up to date and into the 21st century. It explains why this country has, and has had for centuries, a proud record of welcoming ashore those who have fled their home country because there is no future for them, for a variety of reasons. This country has been the richer for that.

Far from being a drain, the people who came here as asylum seekers and have made Britain their home have been net benefactors to the economy—I return to that point, because nowadays everything seems to be money driven. I implore the Minister and his colleagues to mention it, and it would be nice if the Prime Minister would do so once or twice as well. I hope that the Government will take the Committee's recommendations very seriously. I stress again that they were unanimous recommendations. carefully thought through. Witnesses from various pints of view gave evidence, and we distilled that. For a Committee to come up with unanimous recommendations on such a vital and controversial subject as asylum is the equivalent of Greece winning Euro 2004.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the next speaker, I have one point to make. Morecambe bay has been mentioned in the debate, and it is appropriate to advise the House that criminal charges have been made, so the case of the cockle pickers' tragedy is sub judice. I ask Members to exercise caution in their remarks if they refer to that matter. The circumstances can be taken into account, but the cases must not be mentioned.

3.20 pm
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West (Lab)

I apologise if my speech is somewhat fuzzy; I am trying new glasses, and switching back and forth is not easy, as we see every Wednesday at Prime Minister's Question Time. The Prime Minister is a year older me, and probably suffering in the same way.

Like Bernard Manning when he makes inappropriate comments, people who begin a contribution about race or asylum often have to lay out their credentials first. Some of what I have to say may be controversial, and I want to put on record that I have spent 25 years working with Searchlight, the magazine funded by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, in fighting the rise of the far right and organised fascism and the racial attacks and abuse that go with them. I have also been a member of Reading Council for Racial Equality, and I understand from an audience that I was recently granted with my hon. Friend the Minister that roughly 31 MPs are responsible for 40 per cent. of correspondence with the Home Office on immigration and asylum casework. My researcher was pleased to hear today that she is responsible for much of that correspondence. She is probably towards the top of the list—not that she will be getting a pay rise.

I want to put on record as well my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and his colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee. I have spent many hours reading the report, and it is a significant contribution to the debate on asylum and immigration in this country. It is a debate that in part, thanks to the tabloid press, prejudice and suspicion, threatens to poison race relations in this country.

My constituency of Reading is one of the most ethnically mixed and proudly multicultural towns that one could ever come across. The far right has never gained a foothold on the streets of Reading, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that it never does; it has never been able to exploit some people's well founded fears and other people's prejudices for political gain. However, we have seen it advance, including in the European elections, and we know that this issue is exploited for political ends.

My starting point is, properly, the Home Affairs Committee report and, in particular, some of its observations. It states: We note evidence that conflict, not poverty, is the defining characteristic of asylum seekers' source countries, though not all those who come from such countries are genuine asylum seekers. We consider that, very roughly, about half of claimants can justifiably be regarded as economic migrants rather than refugees". To take slight and gentle issue with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), he must have been very lucky in his advice surgery if every single asylum seeker who came before him was genuine.

All hon. Members who have an extensive case load will have seen people who have tried to abuse the system. I am talking not necessarily about people whose family have saved up to smuggle them from one side of the world to another, but about deliberate overstayers. I remember seeing last year in my advice surgery a lady from India who had overstayed a tourist visa by several months and was advised by a solicitor, unbelievably, to apply for asylum—from one of the most modern democracies, indeed the largest democracy, in the world. It was a blatant abuse of the system, simply intended to spin out the length of time she could stay in this country.

I also remember, with some pride, the amount of effort that it took Foreign Office Ministers, my staff and me to get Elizabeth Siah-Vandi into this country to rejoin her mother. Elizabeth was 11 years old when the fighting broke out in Sierra Leone. She witnessed the horrific spectacle of her own uncle, who was her guardian at the time, being beheaded in front of her. It took us three years to trace her through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and through three African countries, before finally reuniting her with her mum in Reading. It is a tribute to Sierra Leone's education system that Elizabeth was quickly able to attend and compete with others of her age in her class at her local school in my constituency.

Those are two asylum stories: one genuine, the other legally aided, corrupt abuse of the system. That tells us one thing—that we have a problem. As the hon. Gentleman said in his contribution, the problem transcends party politics. I deplore the politicisation of the issue, because it only plays into the hands of those who wish asylum seekers and people of different races, nationalities and religions no good whatever.

I was particularly interested in the Committee's observations on removals. It has been put to me that the system is not unlike a bath, with the two taps full on and the plug out. [Interruption.] From the twitching on the Front Bench, I think that I may be stealing a line from the Minister. The challenge for the Government is how we balance a firm and fair system with one that commands public confidence. Any Government will command public confidence only if there is a credible removal system. It is absolutely absurd that we still do not have a proper embarkation process. On several occasions the Committee made reference to the fact that the Government cannot find out who is in the country at any point in time.

Such research leads me to draw the conclusion that a way of checking identity, perhaps with identity cards, is essential. Having such a system would help us not only to manage our immigration and embarkation systems, but to restore public confidence that our borders are safe and secure, and that the asylum system cannot be abused either by those who seek to profit from human misery or by those who wish the people of this country no good whatever, and who are prepared to take up arms, or use explosions or other acts of terror, for political purposes.

In my community, the reaction to the asylum issue of the settled immigrant communities, of British-born blacks and Asians, is interesting and instructive. By way of preparation for this debate, I spoke to a number of people in my constituency of black and Asian origin. Those people, who are as British as I am, resent the fact that the debate on race and community relationships in this country has become skewed. Someone whose skin is brown or who wears a turban might now, somehow, not be regarded as British any more, but as just another of those asylum seekers whom people read about day after day in the tabloid press. I need say no more.

There was mention of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) as the previous holder of my hon. Friend the Minister's post. I should like to put on record my appreciation of the efforts that she made while at the Home Office to deal with the backlog and the abuse of the system. She was an excellent Minister and I hope that she will be back in the Government very soon indeed. Significant progress was made under her stewardship in getting to grips with the chaos of the asylum system, for which Governments of different political persuasions have been responsible. New asylum claims halved under her stewardship, reducing to 3,500, compared with more than 8,500 a month in October. We saw new claims being decided within two months, and appeals being completed within six months, so people with unfounded claims can no longer use delays to play the system.

We also saw border controls being moved to France, thus stopping 9,000 people from gaining entry last year; the closure of Sangatte; the securing of the channel tunnel; the installation of new technology at ports to screen for stowaways; and the introduction of fingerprint checks to stop asylum shopping. Thousands of new caseworkers, have been employed, the asylum backlog has been reduced to less than half that of 1997, and initial claims ire now dealt with in 2 months, compared with the 20 months they took in 1997.

I say all that not to politicise the debate, but because I believe that my right hon. Friend was treated badly by the media and by some Opposition Members. She has a proud record of getting to grips with one of the most difficult issues in Government, and she deserves recognition for that

It is worth considering how the numbers add up, particularly in relation to new asylum claims, which are mentioned in the report. The figures show that until 1988 we were rattling along with 3,000 to 4,000 claims a year, which was much the same rate as other European countries, but that between 1988 and 1990 the number increased sixfold to 26,200. By 1998, the number had doubled to 46,000. Those increases occurred under the previous Conservative Administration, which sought to grapple with the problem by introducing measures that have since been built on. The fact that asylum claims doubled again under the Labour Administration—they were at 84,000 in October 2002, although they are now back down at the 1997 level—shows that this issue does not bear examination in the party political context.

We should not play party politics with this issue, on which no party can feel particularly proud of its record in government. As the report says, the people who smuggle human beings into this country are organised criminals. They are quickly on top of every change in legislation, whether it is introduced by a Conservative or a Labour Government. They look for new ways around such changes, because the system enables people with no morals or scruples to become multimillionaires overnight.

I did not manage to dig out the exact press cutting, but I remember looking at a criminal rich list—one of those absurd rich lists in The Sunday Times—on which the guy to whom I refer, a trafficker, was seventh, I believe. I will not attempt to name him, even with parliamentary privilege, in case it is somebody else. I found it interesting that someone would actually list the trafficking of human beings as his primary source of income, by which he made billions and billions of pounds worldwide. That is the problem that Governments have been dealing with.

We must ask ourselves certain questions. What is asylum for? Who does it help? How much does it cost? Is it sustainable? The Select Committee report touched on some of those issues, but we should concentrate on those specific questions, rather than have a sterile debate about which political party has done more to say no to a higher proportion of people.

What is asylum for? The definition of a refugee is someone who has a well founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion. That is an incredibly broad definition; I do not know whether a member of the Ku Klux Klan who felt persecuted in an intolerant America would qualify under it, or where members of specific religious groups would fit into it, in the context of a non-secular state or constitution, but I do know that a definition framed in 1951 has little relevance to Britain, Europe and the world today in the 21st century.

A lot has been said about genuine asylum seekers versus economic migrants. People talk about a well founded fear of persecution, but my reading about dictators and dictatorial regimes has led me to conclude that Hitler, Stalin and other dictators did not spare the over-50s. Looking at the gender and age profile of those seeking asylum, however, we find that 82 per cent. are young males between 18 and 34, 15 per cent. are between 35 and 49, and only 3 per cent. are over 50. Very few are women, and very few have disabilities.

When we ask what asylum is for, we also learn how much it costs, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen referred to that. It costs between £10,000 and £20,000 to smuggle people across the world, but the wages of the average Chinese agricultural worker mean that it would take them several lifetimes to pay that level of bribe.

So, although we must always have an asylum policy, the prime beneficiaries seem to be young males who, while undoubtedly fleeing poverty and conflict, have the ability to benefit economically from the opportunities available in Europe. The people smugglers are certainly making millions, if not billions, from trafficking in human misery, with absolutely no regard for human life. Many lawyers are also doing well out of an industry from which, as I read in The Guardian the other day, the Legal Services Commission is having to recoup £8 million of public money in the form of legal aid fees that had been wrongly claimed.

The overall costs of asylum are difficult to quantify, but if we piece together some of the answers to the parliamentary questions, it becomes clear that we are certainly talking about a figure in excess of £1.2 billion, with legal aid bills pushing £200 million. That is an awful lot of resources. Is the situation sustainable? As my right hon. Friend said, if the population of Sudan or Iraq arrived on the shores of a European country, our treaty obligations would mean that we had to process every single claim. Of course, that is not going to happen, but the policy is not sustainable.

It is all very well being critical, but where does that analysis lead us? It leads us to say that our treaty obligations are in need of review, if not radical surgery. The Home Affairs Committee stepped away from the temptation to recommend withdrawing from our treaty obligations, but I refer members of the Committee, and the House as a whole, to the evidence of Mr. Martin Howe, QC. He argued, quite coherently, that the right to asylum should be qualified by what it is practical for us to achieve", thus putting some limits on the obligations of receiving countries. The report summarises some of his points, noting that he argued for the UK to reconsider its acceptance of treaty obligations and that the 1951 Geneva Convention should no longer be directly interpreted and applied by domestic courts. Instead, entitlement to asylum should be judged against criteria enacted in domestic law…The UK should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and not re-enter unless the convention is revised to take better account of the need to tackle terrorism…As an alternative, the UK could withdraw from the Convention and then re-adhere to it after a short period attaching 'reservations' under Article 57 in respect of anti-terrorist measures.

Mr. Martin

Howe is not the only person who has argued that our treaties look tired and that our obligations are possibly unrealistic. In his keynote speech on immigration on 27 April, the Prime Minister said: But since the early 1990s, the nature and volume of asylum claims to the UK has changed radically. It became increasingly apparent that our asylum system was being widely abused. The UN Convention on Refugees, first introduced in 1951, at a time when the cold war and lack of cheap air travel made long-range migration far more difficult than it has become today, has started to show its age. The Prime Minister argues that there is a case for change. The previous Minister of State at the Home Office in her evidence to the Home Affairs Committee argued that too. We know that there is a commitment to a convention—plus process, which hopes to update these tired treaties.

Mr. Denham

Just to correct any misapprehension, the Committee certainly would welcome a change in the convention. The Committee believes that the restriction of the convention to state persecution rather than non-state persecution would be the right thing to do, although we recognise that that is not what our own courts have decided and nor is it in the European convention. However, we did not fight shy of saying we should withdraw; we took a positive decision to say that we should not unilaterally withdraw from the convention.

I can speak only for myself, but I think that members of the Committee took the view that it would be unacceptable for the fourth or, according to the figures, fifth richest country in the world simply to turn its back on an international convention rather than to try to change it through the international system. I would not like the impression to be given that the Committee thought that we should leave, but decided not to say so. The decision to say that we should stay and argue for change rather than leave was a positive decision by the Committee.

Mr. Salter

Just as I probably stole the line from the Minister, my right hon. Friend has stolen my conclusion, but it will bear repeating. Hon. Members will have to hear it twice now, but that is always the beauty of interventions.

The argument, which the Committee and I share, is also shared by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He recently argued, as I will argue in my concluding comments, that, far from throwing money at a system that will inevitably be the subject of abuse, there should be greater emphasis on tackling the conditions from which people are fleeing. In a speech on 9 April 2003, he said: Unfortunately, governments often fail to recognize the important role that UNHCR can play in helping them to address refugee issues. As a former Prime Minister, I know that taxpayers want rational, cost-effective programs. So I really wonder how governments can justify spending millions on reinforcing borders, on all kinds of deterrence measures, on custody and detention centers, and on so many other costly domestic approaches, while refusing to invest in tackling the problem at source, where solutions should begin. It seems quite irrational. UNHCR is working with refugees and the internally displaced in their regions of origin. Governments should see it in their interests to fund us, strengthen us and use us. Those are sentiments with which many of us would concur.

I concur with much of what has been said in this sober debate, which has been in marked contrast to the kind of treatment that the issue gets in the media. I am pleased that the Government and the Committee have not closed the door to reviewing our outdated treaty obligations and, in particular, their somewhat perverse interpretation by our judges, who have probably never seen an asylum seeker outside the court context.

If these reviews do not deliver, we should consider withdrawing from both the 1951 convention and the European convention on human rights in order to force the pace of change. Britain has been proud to argue for and to take a leading role in matters of humanitarian assistance. I do not believe that the current asylum system is sustainable. It is hopelessly exploited, not so much by the asylum seekers as by people who seek to profit from them.

Britain has signed up to the UN target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income for development aid, but we are still a long way from meeting it. Much progress has been made, but Britain is still at only 0.32 per cent., compared with 0.8 per cent. for Norway and 0.77 per cent. for Sweden. For Britain to take a lead in addressing some of the appalling conditions and conflicts from which many refugees are forced to flee, we must hit our UN targets sooner rather than later. Money wasted lining the pockets of gangmasters, suspect lawyers, people traffickers and dodgy landlords could be better spent helping to improve the life chances of our fellow human beings in other parts of the world who are less fortunate than we are.

3.45 pm
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

I offer my sincere apologies to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), but I cannot stay for their concluding remarks, for pressing private reasons.

Asylum, as my hon. Friends have said, is a hugely emotive issue. If we are to reduce the emotive nature of the arguments that we hear, surely we should improve the mechanisms that we use to process asylum seekers when they come to this country. I participated in the inquiry with some hesitation, because, at face value, it seemed enormously complex, particularly for a Member of Parliament who represents a constituency that, by and large, is almost completely white. I have received three inquiries about asylum in seven years; hence my reticence today. So many hon. Members in this Chamber clearly have considerable first-hand experience of asylum seekers and I clearly do not. However, my role on the Committee was to consider process-related issues and to see what could be done to Government processes in order to improve the outcomes for all concerned, because there has been substantial criticism of how successive Governments have executed their role of processing applications.

As my hon. Friends will know, of the 36 recommendations made, 21 were accepted, 12 were rejected and three needed clarification. That is quite something. I have looked at many Select Committee reports whose recommendations were almost all rejected by the Government. I am pleased that, on this occasion, many concessions have been made to the Committee's recommendations.

My remarks will centre on the issues of conflict. I will repeat some of the comments made by my colleagues, but it is right to do so, because the comments are substantial and we feel strongly that our recommendations address a problem that the Government are not tackling constructively.

First, the Committee recommended that the Government should make a commitment to restoring the concession to work after six months once the application processes have been streamlined. The Government rejected that recommendation on the basis that asylum processes to deal with applications are being speeded up. That is undoubtedly true, and the Government are to be congratulated on it, but it does not make the recommendation any less valid. We still have people left in this country for an inordinate amount of time who are not working. That is deeply demoralising and does not acknowledge the fact that the reason why those individuals are here lay well outside their control.

Last Tuesday, I went down to HMS Haslar to visit the detainees in the detention centre there. The centre has been the subject of discussion in the press, and I wanted to see for myself whether there was any substantive truth in the reporting. It turned out that, as usual, the reporting was wildly inaccurate, which supports the comments made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I found detainees who were there for many months, not expecting to be repatriated, but seeking to be repatriated to their country as quickly as possible and knowing that they would have a long wait. If people cannot be repatriated, they should be allowed to work, especially if they are being detained in prison-like conditions, as those individuals are. They should be offered the opportunity to work in the prison. Detainees at Haslar are not prisoners but detainees; the rules about the minimum wage therefore apply to them, and for that reason they are not permitted to undertake work of any kind. I sincerely hope that that problem might be overcome and that they might be allowed to do something constructive to help them to fill their days in such a difficult period in their lives, especially when, for many of them, those days will go on and on.

The Committee recommended that embarkation controls should be reinstated at UK borders to enable credible estimates to be made of the number of failed asylum seekers who remain in this country. It is estimated that reinstating embarkation controls would cost in excess of £26 million a year, but that is not a huge sum of money when one considers the dispute about who is here. The Government should seriously consider the proposal. as the issue was raised not just by one or two individuals, but was a consistent message about how to control the process and know that we have control over it.

I agree with what the Chairman of the Select Committee said about the refugee convention definition. However, we asked for negotiations to be reopened on the EU draft for the qualifications directive, which proposes harmonisation on the broader, rather than the narrower, interpretation of asylum. I hope that the Minister will say how those negotiations are progressing. The Committee visited Germany and Sweden and we are acutely aware that countries throughout Europe have similar problems to our own. A harmonised directive on the issue would therefore be helpful for all concerned.

The Committee believes that the Home Office should commission an independent review of the decision-making process of the immigration and nationality directorate and publish the results, and that the process should be subject to constant assessment and review. I understand why the Government would not want an independent review of the process, but surely, given the failure rate that is inherent in the existing system, an independent review would be helpful and would restore confidence. People take a dim view of those who are both judge and jury; the directorate takes decisions about applications and reviews those decisions. That does not smack of the fairness that the citizens of this country expect of such a process.

On the matter of the late claim in respect of the refusal of support, I, and, I presume many of her members of the Committee, received today an extensive plea from Shelter about the working of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Hon. Members have not mentioned that report, but Shelter referred to numerous cases in which there are serious problems associated with section 55. We have asked for a review, but the Government do not believe that such a review is necessary or desirable. however, I ask the Minister to reconsider. If there is no significant evidence to support those concerns, we have nothing to lose from a review. In fact, we have plenty to say that will confirm that section 55 can bring people to the point of destitution, which is totally unacceptable in this country.

Finally, I should like to touch on the temporary right to remain in the UK for some failed asylum seekers. The Committee recommends appropriate use of the power to grant strictly temporary rights to remain in the UK to those genuinely unable to return to their countries. The Government have, of course, granted leave for those meeting criteria under the humanitarian protection and discretionary leave policies, and to those whose circumstances engage our obligations under the ECHR and other considerations. However, the Government have indicated that they will not grant even limited leave to failed asylum seekers who cannot leave due to factors beyond their control, such as people making unfounded claims due to obstacles to removal. I sincerely hope that the Minister will also consider extending limited leave to failed asylum seekers who cannot leave this country through no fault of their own. We must consider that limited group of people, but that does not mean establishing a floodgate through which many will enter. It would apply to a limited number of people. I ask the Minister to consider supporting that request.

3.57 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I add my name to the list of right hon. and hon. Members who have welcomed the report, the strenuous efforts that have been made and the very thoughtful debate that we have had today. It has possibly been one of the best debates of this sort that I have attended during the three years that I have been a Member. That reflects well not just on the House but on the Committee.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) introduced the debate and made two important points. First, he said that this was an evidence-based report and, secondly, that it was unanimous. Those two descriptions are important. Being an evidence-based report, it can be used to nail a number of myths, particularly those to be found in the tabloid press, to which a number of right hon. and hon. Members referred. I understand that unanimity is not easily obtained, but it is certainly worth striving for. As the right hon. Gentleman said, where there is discord among those of us in mainstream parties on an issue such as this, people on the political periphery will benefit—the British National party and its ilk in particular.

We must also recognise the role of the media—a point that was perhaps not made as strongly as it might have been, apart from in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I do not know whether any other hon. Members present endured the British National party's broadcast during the recent European elections. Time and again it returned to press headlines: the Daily Express says this, the Daily Mail says that. There was talk of swamping and of a deluge of asylum seekers. We should understand that the BNP will use that type of press comment in an attempt to achieve legitimacy and respectability for its views.

Mr. Salter

The hon. Gentleman should not be too surprised about the Daily Mail headline. It is probably worth putting on record that this was the newspaper that in 1934 carried the famous headline, "Hurrah for the Blackshirts"—not that I bear a grudge for a long time. It is funny how leopards do not change their spots.

Mr. Carmichael

I cannot honestly say that I was surprised by the Daily Mail, but its attitude should concern us all. The other remarkable and commendable feature of the report and of the Committee's approach, as pointed out by several hon. Members, is its recognition of the fact that asylum seekers are not a race apart. It is dangerous to classify people in that way. They are individuals. That struck me quite forcefully last year when several students from Anniesland college, all of whom were asylum seekers, visited my constituency. They met the senior classes at Anderson high school in Lerwick. People were not quite sure what they were coming to and what was coming to them. It was apparent after a short time together that these people were seen not only as asylum seekers, but as individuals with names and personalities that were good, bad or indifferent.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) is not here. I was astonished to hear of the small number of asylum seekers in her constituency. More asylum seekers have come to my surgeries in Orkney and Shetland than to hers. Every year, dozens, if not hundreds, of people come to the isles seeking asylum. Some are from places as far away as Birmingham, Manchester, Sussex and Suffolk. We have concerns about the effect that they might have on our local economy and culture, but we welcome them none the less.

In all seriousness, a couple of cases, one of which remains to be processed, are prominent in my constituency at the moment. I am intensely proud of the way in which the local community in Shetland has got behind my constituent Hazel Minn, a Burmese asylum seeker who is currently resident in the northern part of Shetland. Some 6,000 people have signed a petition in support of her case. That means that a significant proportion of a local community of some 22,000 have got behind an individual whom they have identified as being part of their community. Glimmers of hope like that are tremendously helpful at a time when the asylum issue is threatening to poison race relations and wider politics in this country, as the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) indicated.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said that there were three factors at play: the number of applications, the time taken to process them and the removal of those whose applications are not successful. The Government have absolutely no control over the number of applicants, which any number of factors can affect. Indeed, the report on migrants throughout the world, which was published today by the Select Committee on International Development, of which the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) is Chairman, was a useful reminder of the fact that the problem is not a UK problem or even an EU problem, but a worldwide problem.

The other two factors—the time taken to process applications and the removal process for those whose applications are not successful—are within the Government's control. Now that we have seen a dip in the number of applications to be processed, I hope that the quality of decision making at first instance will improve. That must be the opportunity that the decrease in numbers presents to us. The number of applications that are refused at first instance but successful on appeal must concern us all, because it is a matter of life and death for many people. If we get it wrong and send them back, their lives will be in danger.

I suggest that if we are able to restore some confidence in the system as a whole, we will succeed in drawing a lot of the poison that is currently a feature of the asylum debate in the UK.

I recently took the opportunity to visit the Dungavel immigration removal centre in Scotland and, at my prompting, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs recently followed my example. I should like to give my personal impressions of that centre. The Dungavel centre is not the hell on earth that is often painted in the press and by a number of politicians north of the border. However, it is a lock-down institution—the razor wire around the walls and the number of locks on the doors make that clear. I was immensely impressed by the quality of the staff who are employed there and the dedication that they exhibited towards the day-to-day work in which they are engaged.

The institution, for all its softening at the edges, still looks and feels like a prison and I remain concerned that we are keeping children there. I know that one has to balance the need to detain the parents and the benefits of keeping the children with the parents against separating the family, and that there is no easy solution to that problem. The Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland is taking a close look at the situation and I hope that the Government will work closely with her.

The continued detention of children in a place like that is something that we will not be able to tolerate for much longer. It is of particular concern because many people in Dungavel, even though they are kept as well segregated as they can be, are awaiting deportation after having served sentences for drug offences or, sometimes, serious assault. One does not know what those people are capable of and we should work towards ending a situation in which they are kept in such close proximity to children.

I want to say a brief word about the confusion of asylum seekers with economic migrants. That is something which impinges on my constituency because we need extra workers in several skills-based sectors, which cannot currently be met from our own resources. We would welcome extra migrant workers. There is a particular need for extra workers in the fish-processing sector, but that need is being thwarted by the somewhat byzantine rules. I am told by one local employer that they can employ people under the skills-based sector scheme to process white fish or pelagic fish, but not shellfish. I do not understand why that should be; perhaps the Minister could find out for me. That sort of distinction seems unnecessary, hinders business, and seems to be of no benefit to the people who would seek to take on those jobs.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne)

There is an explanation.

Mr. Carmichael

I am not expecting an immediate response.

Mr. Browne

Unless the hon. Gentleman is on tenterhooks about the issue, I shall write to him about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House is grateful.

Mr. Carmichael

If I was surprised at the Daily Mail, I am also surprised that the Minister does not know the answer to that question off the top of his head. I shall await his answer with interest.

I do not understand the Government's resistance to the eminently sensible proposal that there should be an independent review of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, when so many organisations have expressed concern about its operation. Shelter has been mentioned and Amnesty is another. If the Government are as confident of their position as they claim to be, what do they have to lose by having a further independent review? I do not see what the difficulty is.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) referred to the concern about the quality of legal advice given to people entering the asylum process. There is an increasing amount of evidence that people are being advised to make asylum applications when that is not appropriate. One such case is referred to in the press today. I speak as a former solicitor, and if even half of what I read is true, I am exceptionally concerned. It is time that the appropriate professional bodies—the Law Society of Scotland and the Law Society south of the border—took control of the situation. If there is abuse, it has to be tackled and rooted out, because it does no good to the individuals making the applications and brings the whole system into disrepute. Most importantly from the point of view of bodies that exist to preserve our professional reputation, it brings the profession into disrepute.

Mr. Salter

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can advise me. As I understand it, some immigration advisers are not necessarily qualified solicitors. I have also had first-hand knowledge of people being able to get fraudulent case histories and ready-made stories to pursue cases. I believe that that is referred to in the body of evidence of the report. What good would it do to engage the Law Society and Bar Council when another cohort of people is handing out advice, some of which is good and some of which is questionable?

Mr. Carmichael

I would expect that for those engaged in immigration advice who are not lawyers—and there are some even more extravagant claims than those to which I have referred—the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner would be the appropriate regulator. However, the frequency with which such anecdotal cases are produced is such that the legal profession should take the problem seriously and consider named individuals closely and seriously. As a one-time legal practitioner, I hope that the professional bodies will take seriously their duties to their own profession, if nobody else.

This may sound like a routine plea from the Liberal Democrats, but I believe that there must be some consideration of the EU dimension. That plea is often heard from my party, and when it is I often find it necessary to wash my hands or find urgent business elsewhere. I do not share the unbridled enthusiasm that some of my colleagues have for all matters European, but asylum is one area in which the co-ordination of action would make sense. No one European country should take a disproportionate number of asylum seekers. If individuals were claiming asylum in the first country that they reached and one country was taking disproportionate numbers, successful refugees could be redistributed to other parts of the EU. That aspect of asylum policy requires further examination. In passing, I wonder whether a common asylum policy would have the same effect on the number of applications as the common fisheries policy has had on the number of fish in the North sea.

4.14 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con)

I begin by paying genuine and sincere tribute to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and his Committee, not only for the excellent content of their report, but for the courteous and reasoned way in which he presented it to the House this afternoon. The House of Commons works best when members of different political parties discuss issues together in a Select Committee and produce excellent reports—this being no exception. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that in many ways we have more in common with each other on many issues than the outside world would have people believe.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Burton (Mrs. Dean), for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and for Colchester (Bob Russell), with whom I spent happy days on the Select Committee when I had the privilege to serve. I remember their constructive contributions. With at least two of them I spent many happy days, and with at least one I spent many happy nights on a Home Affairs Committee trip to Europe to examine the issue of border controls as part of our first report. I will not say who that was, but I am glad to see those hon. Members in their places.

The report stresses that the asylum system—hon. Members have rightly said that there is an overlap between asylum and immigration in many people's minds—must be efficient and humane. Not a single hon. Member here this afternoon would doubt the proposition that the subject of asylum must be handled and talked about in a sensitive and reasoned way.

I remember our report on border controls about three years ago, which referred in its opening paragraph to the dreadful tragedy of the 58 Chinese who suffered an appalling death in the back of a lorry at Dover. The hon. Member for Dover has spoken about asylum matters with his customary skill, care and dedication over some years, and he will remember the beginning of that report and that dreadful tragedy. In a sense, it matters not whether those young Chinese people were genuine asylum seekers or economic migrants. The truth is that 58 young lives were needlessly lost, and that is a tragedy. That incident brought into sharp focus the issue of asylum and the need to talk about it in a moderate way.

Our report pointed out, as does the latest report, that more people are on the move. At the time of our report, we were told that there were the better part of 30 million people on the move in the world. They are moved on by conflicts, famine and war. One factor that encourages the growth of asylum applications or movement to other countries is the complete change in circumstances, in the world since 1951. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) spoke about the 1951 convention and the changing times. The world was different before 1951, but what has changed it all? I suggest that two things have changed the world in many ways. First, the jet engine has meant that journeys that once took eight months, then eight weeks and then eight days, now take eight hours—and who knows, perhaps one day they will take eight minutes. Getting from A to B is so easy. Secondly, the television has beamed around the world stories about what life is like in developed countries.

We live in a changing world with many more people on the move. A great many of them are genuine refugees under the convention and a great many more are doing an honourable thing, even if they are not refugees—seeking a better life for themselves. They want to contribute wherever they go. It is a complex problem. When hon. Members say that we need to talk about it moderately and sensibly among ourselves, they are absolutely right.

This Chamber is not combative, unlike the House, which is. I sometimes note a different atmosphere here. It is more like a Select Committee, in which we are discussing a matter among ourselves. I want to make a few constructive remarks about asylum generally and some matters mentioned in the report in particular. Yes, asylum applications have increased fairly dramatically in recent years. However, on this occasion, if not on others, let me acknowledge that Governments of all political persuasions—I choose my words carefully—are capable of developing good policies and not such good ones. I hope that I made that point sufficiently gently not to have scuppered my chances of any more promotions within my party. Not every party has got it right over the years—[Interruption.] I may live to regret my last comment.

There was a fairly dramatic increase in asylum numbers from 29,000 in 1996 to 84,000 in 2002. Is that a problem? It is certainly a fact. There has been a drop since then, which has been welcomed in many quarters. Some credit must be due to the Government for the fall in asylum applications in recent months. Applications for indefinite leave to remain have increased so dramatically in recent years that we need to look at the European convention on human rights, and people's rights under human rights legislation. Did other hon. Members refer to that? I think that they did.

In many ways, people have been permitted properly under the law to stay in this country, and have done so pursuant to the Human Rights Act 1998. Indefinite leave to remain was granted in 20,000 cases in 2002, compared with, say, 3,000 some 10 years or so before. We need to consider such matters. The report is in part critical of the Government and in part complimentary. I say that neutrally. I am the first to acknowledge the Government's success in the past six to nine months in certain respects and am pleased to congratulate them. I also join the hon. Member for Reading, West in paying tribute to the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) for her work on asylum.

Let me briefly highlight one or two areas. The report focuses on initial decisions. Those are very important. Please get it right at the beginning, because money is saved in the long term and the system is not extended for so long that people suffer the anxieties that arise when things take too long. I am a bit worried that, even now, initial decisions are being made by men and women who might not have had enough training to get it right. We are talking about a quasi-judicial role. The decision about an application is sometimes a life-or-death decision. I might not be putting it very well when I say that it is almost a judicial function, but it is a very important role and I am concerned that the starting salary of an initial decision maker is in the region of £17,000 a year. That is quite low. The training given to an initial decision maker is somewhere in the order of 27 days. Perhaps more should be given. Perhaps more front-loading—I think that the Committee used that phrase—into the beginning of the process would result in dividends further down the line.

We should consider not only the quality of initial decisions—we know that appeals against initial decisions are successful more often than perhaps they should be—but the speed of them. I do not know why it takes a long time to get an asylum decision. I wish that it could be quicker. All I do know—this is the only parallel that I can draw with my personal life, as I sit-part time as a district judge and a recorder in the Crown court—is that if a lady or gentleman is charged, for instance, with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, it is almost inevitable in the criminal system that the trial will take place with in a month, and that the appeal will be heard within another six weeks. Perhaps I am being too simplistic, but for much of the time the criminal justice system has great speed and it would be good if we could have more of it in asylum cases. I appreciate that this and previous Governments have had problems, but the quality and speed of initial decision making needs to be looked at.

The same goes for appeals. Many appeals can take months to get from the initial decision maker to the adjudicator. That is a pity. Sometimes the conduct of the appeal is in the hands of the Home Office. I know many adjudicators personally, so I know that at some hearings before adjudicators the Home Office is not represented. The result, of course, is that the poor adjudicator often has to give the benefit of the doubt to the Home Office—in effect, he has to conduct the case against the applicant on behalf of the Home Office. Those are handling matters, not matters of great principle. However, if they are dealt with efficiently, that can result in an improved system.

The same goes for removals. In their response to the report, the Government use the words It is well trodden ground that…we have not been good at processing claims quickly or removing people. Let me not be critical today, but let me say that removing failed asylum seekers is difficult. I acknowledge that. However, if the public are to have confidence in the system, those who are granted asylum should be made welcome as refugees and fully integrated, but those who are refused asylum all the way up the appeals system should be removed.

Over the years—I say that neutrally—the percentage of failed asylum seekers to have been removed has not been sufficiently high to secure the confidence of the general public. The Government have made an improvement in the last few months, but I have no answers—at least not today, although I might have some later—to the problems that the Government face on removal. Some countries find it difficult to take such people back. There are some countries, such as Zimbabwe, to which we do not return failed asylum seekers, because we are not happy about the situation there. I understand that it is administratively difficult to return people to China. As a matter of routine, we did not sent failed asylum seekers back to Iraq.

There are practical and handling difficulties, and I am the first to accept that there are no easy answers, save that it would be no bad thing if we continued to discuss the issues among ourselves and tried as best we can to reach more acceptable or better conclusions.

The Select Committee report points out that if we do not remove a high proportion of failed asylum seekers, we will move into an amnesty situation. We have had many amnesties over the years, but I am not sure that they generally inspire confidence in the general public.

I shall say a few words about induction centres. We have had a number of asylum Bills in the past three years, so I rather forget which ones I have dealt with and when. However, I am pretty sure that the 2002 Bill—it was about two and a half years ago—dealt with induction and accommodation centres. The Government say in their response that a network of induction centres will be up and running during 2004, and I believe that the Committee applauds that. Will the Minister tell us more?

We had a tremendously long debate about accommodation centres during the passage of the 2002 Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) for his diligent work on the issue, not only generally but on behalf of his constituents. The Immigration Advisory Service, the Refugee Council and many others said a couple of years ago that accommodation centres ought to be sited in urban areas and that they should accommodate 200 or 300 people rather than 750. In short, we were worried that the accommodation centres proposed by the Government were too big and in the wrong places. Our worries remain. I believe that not one accommodation centre is yet up and running. It must surely worry the Minister that that is the result so far of a flagship policy announced two or two and half years ago. Is there time over the summer months for the Minister to consider, as my hon. Friend suggested, the prospect of a slight change of tack—the possibility of smaller centres, in urban areas?

Mr. Carmichael

Is it still Conservative policy to use an offshore island as an accommodation centre for processing asylum seeker claims? The hon. Gentleman will know that I may have a constituency interest in that.

Mr. Malins

I am afraid that I have lost a bet with myself. My bet, which I worked out this morning, was that within a minute of getting on my feet I should be asked by someone today about the so-called fantasy island. I shall answer the hon. Gentleman in my own way: we are not here today to engage in an argument about party policy. In my party, at any rate—and I think that there is a semblance of understanding of this in the Home Affairs Committee's deliberations—we are considering quite carefully the merits of offshore processing of asylum applications. The so-called fantasy island was a bit of a dream of the press. We said, and we are still trying to make progress with the idea, that we have a lot of sympathy with the prospect of deciding asylum applications offshore rather than within our shores, in areas near to the asylum applicant's original country.

Mr. Browne

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Malins

I will, but I hope that the Minister will bear in mind that I began in a conciliatory way. Before I give way, I point out that I have not spent the afternoon trying to slam the Government for their policy in any way—yet.

Mr. Browne

I am obliged. Why is the hon. Gentleman so worried? I want merely to seek a clarification. His right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, is quoted in the newspapers today as saying that it is still the intention of the Opposition to unveil an explanation of how they intend asylum applications to be processed offshore. That is different, even if subtly so, from the hon. Gentleman's expression of sympathy with the idea. Are we to rely on his hon. Friend's reported remarks in today's newspaper or on his own more conciliatory tones?

Mr. Malins

My best answer is to say that the Minister must rely entirely on my right hon. Friend on policy matters. He will understand that I began the afternoon in a very conciliatory and kind way. I hope to continue in that vein a moment or two longer.

I repeat that one of the matters that I am currently charged with is investigating further how offshore processing could be efficiently carried out, and where it might happen; we are extremely attracted to that approach and as committed as we can be, in opposition and without a Government's resources behind us, to putting it into practice when the next Conservative Government are elected. I do not say anything like "and may that be soon", because that is not my style. I say, "when the time comes".

I have been distracted. I shall return to the report that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen presented to the Committee, and the paragraph about illegal working, to which several hon. Members have referred. It deals with a rather vicious situation, because most of the victims of illegal working are those who do the work, not their employers. As often as not, the employees are treated badly, paid badly and operate in unsafe, unhealthy conditions—a very sad state of affairs. I hope that the Minister will be able to put more resources into finding more illegal employers—under, I think, the 1996 legislation—and into more prosecutions of such persons than have hitherto taken place.

Bob Russell

Would the hon. Gentleman accept my earlier point about the need to follow through such investigations? We should not necessarily prosecute the immediate employer, but follow the chain, perhaps even right up to our major supermarkets, which are responsible for the suppression in agriculture, certainly in salad production.

Mr. Malins

I hesitate to agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, whose judgment I broadly respect on every issue that we have ever discussed on the Committee together. However, his point is genuine and fairly sensible—that at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, is the small-time person committing a criminal offence and below that person is the worker, who may be suffering deeply. It is not a bad idea to see whether there is any responsibility—if not legal, moral—among those a little further up the ladder who might be making profits. The hon. Gentleman's point is not at all bad and I accept it.

My last fundamental point is about money. Our asylum system is expensive and there is a lot to be said for diverting resources and investing them in areas of the world from which asylum seekers come. The Committee seemed to agree with that and the hon. Member for Reading, West made the same point. We should invest in their economies, if we can, or in the areas nearby, and try to create conditions in which people do not want to leave those countries for economic or other reasons. When I read in a parliamentary answer from a year or two ago that it cost £1,600 a week and £80,000 a year to keep somebody at Oakington detention centre, I wondered whether that money could be better spent anywhere else, or in a different way. We all agree with that point, so I assure the Minister that I am not being critical, but reinforcing the Committee's report, which says that investment in troubled areas is wise investment indeed.

I have tried to speak with moderation to reinforce much of what was said in the all-party report and to confirm my belief that Select Committees probably represent the best workings of the House of Commons. They bring together people who are interested in getting a good result and a good policy. Select Committees are non-confrontational and are most excellent, so I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen very much indeed.

I am left, as we all are, with the thought that the more we study such issues, the more we become aware that there are no easy answers. I was struck by Lord Rooker's remark when he said, I think a year or two ago, what we all know to be the truth: that, really, there is now no lawful way to claim asylum. People must either pay to enter this country illegally, so are perhaps the wrong people, or enter under one visa and then claim asylum. I do not know the answer to that, but I do know that if good MPs in Select Committee continue sensible discussions, such as those that we are having and those that gave rise to the report, we have a better chance of making progress towards the goal that we all seek.

4.39 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne)

As a Minister of three months' vintage, I am grateful to the Home Affairs Committee under the sterling leadership first of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and latterly of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham)£for producing such an insightful report. I would have been hard pressed over the past few months to find a better summary of the complex issues of asylum and asylum processes. I must confess that I read the report only in the past two weeks, in anticipation of this debate, and I deeply regretted not having read it in the first week after my ministerial appointment. During that time, however, I was kept well occupied by my very able officials who provided me with substantial briefings. Indeed, there are no quiet times or slow news days in this area of public policy, and I have been busy ever since. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the Committee for its report, and to the House for timetabling the debate, which caused me to read the report. It has greatly added to my understanding of the complex issue for which I have responsibility.

While I am on the subject of reports, I take this opportunity to welcome the wide-ranging report by the cross-party International Development Committee, and especially its finding that migrants benefit the United Kingdom. That is clearly the Government's view. The evidence in the report also shows that they benefit the countries from which they come. The report was published only today, but I shall read it in full.

Those who enter by legal routes contribute economically and culturally to the United Kingdom, and they most certainly should not be seen as a problem. I include refugees among those who enter by legal routes, because the acquisition of refugee status means, of course, that people are here legally. Refugee status gives people a retrospective stamp of approval. They may have been asylum seekers at one stage, but once they get refugee status, they are here legally.

Like other hon. Members, I want to take a few minutes to comment on the great disservice that is done to debate on this issue by the lack of any moderate discussion of it. In saying that, I am, however, mindful of this afternoon's discussion, which has clearly been moderate, moderated and informed. Indeed, I might have to resist the temptation to use all the remaining time to answer the detailed and important questions that hon. Members have raised, having been informed by the report. Indeed, they may want me to do that.

However, as I was listening to right hon. and hon. Members' observations about what some organs of the media and other politicians had said about this issue, I made a short note of three episodes from my own limited experience of it. Taken together, they provide a degree of balance, and they will be a constant reminder to me—indeed, I am sure that I will have similar experiences in the future—of how important facts, not myths, are in this connection.

The first example involves the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins); indeed, he involved himself in it. At the most recent Home Office questions, he asked me about the evidence that an immigration officer called Mr. Owen had given during a criminal prosecution in Swansea a short time before. Some hon. Members may remember the case, which later collapsed, amid concerns about the presence of witnesses.

The immigration officer, who had been seconded to the National Criminal Intelligence Service from the immigration service, had been put forward to the court as an expert on people trafficking. His evidence was reported the following day in certain newspapers as proof that the Government were covering up the true number of asylum seekers in this country. The headline said that there were eight times more asylum seekers than the Government said there were. In fact, the man's evidence was that in Manchester, during his experience as an immigration officer, the Chinese community disputed the census number of people in their community in that city, reckoning that the census underestimated the number of Chinese people in the community by a factor of about six.

One might ask what that matter had to do with asylum seekers, and that was a question that I asked myself when I read the story underneath the headline. That man's evidence has also been prayed in aid on the same theme by the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister's questions, but subsequently, at Home Office questions, I was asked a question by the hon. Member for Woking. The question was informed by the reporting of Mr. Owen's evidence, which suggested that there was a significant underestimate of the number of people who were in this country illegally, and that we had lost control of the situation. Because of my legal background, I obtained the man's evidence and read it. He had said those things, but the problem was that he was talking about 1991. I criticise the hon. Member for Woking only gently, because like others, he is probably prepared to rely on the press, but he must be careful what press he relies on.

Mr. Malins

Yes, when I asked the Minister that question at Question Time, it was based on a report in The Daily Telegraph, and the Minister replied to me that the gentleman was giving evidence about his experiences in 1994, not 1991. That is what Hansard says, not 1991, which is what the Minister just said—but that is a minor point. However, I came out of Home Office questions and have spent the last fortnight trying to find out exactly what was said, and I still do not know. I decided in my own mind that if the Minister was right about what Mr. Owen said, I would offer him an abject apology for my misunderstanding of a newspaper report, but that if it was as I had been led to believe, I would put that to him. It may be necessary for me to apologise for quoting something inaccurately to the Minister; he does not know me well yet, but when he does, he will know that I shall be the first to do that, and that it would, if necessary, be an unreserved apology.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the non. Gentleman for his generosity and I shall ensure that he receives the verbatim record of what the man said in that part of his evidence. He is right that I said 1994 in response to his question, because that is when I understood that Mr. Owen had stopped working on the front line of the immigration service and had moved to the National Criminal Intelligence Service. At that stage I did not have access to the detail of his evidence, but I knew that he had given evidence based on his own experience, which stopped in 1994.

However, by referring to the source of his question, the hon. Gentleman also raises a i interesting point, given my own research and observations on this story. I shall not trouble hon. Members much further with the matter, but I collected all the reporting of that evidence, and although all of it in different newspapers ran under different bylines, it was almost verbatim. In fact, in the more lurid tabloids, the reporting was almost verbatim, as it was in The Daily Telegraph, but it was presented to the public under different bylines. There may have been five or six court reporters from various newspapers, but I suspect not. I suspect that a stringer gave that information, either through the Press Association or in some other way, to a number of newspapers, and stories were written with only one word different here or there.

That is exactly the sort of thing that can inflame the situation and cause serious difficulties. If people who may be suspicious about certain tabloid newspapers can go to quality newspapers and find exactly the same facts reported in exactly the same way but under a different byline, they will treat that as corroboration, and because of the way in which our newspapers are compiled these days, that is not always the case.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has already referred to my second experience, which was the way in which my publication of the EU accession states figures on migration yesterday has been received. In my view—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for proving that this is correct—that evidence proves conclusively that there will not be the flood of migrants from the EU accession states with which we were threatened. One newspaper threatened a flood equivalent to the size of the population of Latvia.

We are not going to be flooded. Despite the hysterical whipping up that such reports were designed to engender, that has not happened. However, far from admitting that that was the case, one such newspaper identified part of the figures this morning, and under the headline "14,000 come out of the woodwork", it suggested to its readers that somehow people who had been working in this country and had subsequently registered under the workers registration scheme were to be equated, one would assume, with woodlice or some other form of beast. However, it ignored totally the reality of those figures and the conclusions to which their evidence leads.

I want to share one final anecdote with the Chamber. As part of the process of learning this job, just to show hon. Members that I am not naive and do not have blinkers on, I went to the asylum seekers unit in Croydon to experience as far as I could the process of making a claim for asylum. It was easy to participate in part of that process, but there was a part of it that I could not do; I could not actually be interviewed. Arrangements were made for me to sit in on the interview of an asylum seeker.

As I sat in on that interview, I was struck by how manifestly honest the asylum applicant was being. He narrated a story that in no circumstances would ever have secured refugee status under the 1951 convention. He said quite simply—it was an appealing story in its own way—that he had been living with his parents, who had died in a car crash, and he wanted to come to London to live with his brother, who was settled here. One can understand that; it is an entirely human need, but it would never qualify anyone for refugee status under the 1951 convention. Having listened to that, and having confidently expected that he would have been tutored to tell an entirely different story—if not by his brother, by an agent or someone else—I was impressed.

As he left the room with the caseworker who was dealing with the case, I was left with the interpreter. I said to the interpreter. "Well, at least he was an honest man." He said, "No, he wasn't." I asked why, and he said, "Because he's an Egyptian." I said, "How do you know?" and he replied, "Because he has the strongest Egyptian accent I've ever heard in my life. Just as I know you're a Scot, he's an Egyptian." Tangentially to that story, the report raises the issue of language analysis. We will have to develop our skills in that area and share them with the skills being developed by our partners around the world, with whom we work closely on such issues.

There is a lot to be gained from language analysis, just as there is a lot to be gained when making decisions about the credibility of claims by improving our ability to identify the age of applicants and to distinguish minors from those over the age of majority. It is known, of course, that we will treat minors in a particular way, particularly unaccompanied minors. I accept that it is helpful to have a discussion informed by the Select Committee's work on language analysis, and we are continuing to work on that. The evidence of that interpreter would probably not be led by us or produced before any judicial authority because an interpreter, although he is a skilled person, is a not a language analysis expert, and expertise of the nature that we are being encouraged to use does not come cheaply. I share those few short and quite moderate stories to show the nature and complexity of the area of public policy for which I now have responsibility.

This debate gives me an opportunity to express my unstinting admiration for my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes). I bow to no one in my admiration for her as a Minister. We have heard in contributions from across the House recognition of the significant improvement in the processing of asylum claims and the security of our borders, much if not all of which is down to her work as a Minister.

It is my deep regret that I came to this job in the way that I did. It is characteristic of the woman that she should have resigned. I did not think that she needed to. I thought it was perfectly understandable that she had forgotten about the information that she had been given, which turned out to be misleading, given the pressure on her and her work load, which I now have some experience of. She did not need to resign. But she did, and it is characteristic of her that she should have done. She is an intensely honest and honourable person. My further regret is that at the point at which she resigned and when she was under most pressure, so few of those who have since told me that she was a good Minister and an honourable individual spoke up for her. They remained silent while some of their colleagues were doing the maximum damage to her. I deeply regret that that has happened.

Some of those successes have been recorded in the report. It would do no harm and it would be helpful to some of the other remarks that I have to make in response to this debate if I just record some of them. Asylum applications in the UK are now down to their lowest monthly level since 1997, a cut in intake of over 60 per cent. from its peak in 2002. Whether that will turn out to be a dip or the beginning of a trend, time will tell. But no one who understands this area of public policy would be silly enough to say that that reduced level will be sustained. It is subject to many other factors, some of which, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, are outwith the control of any Government.

It should be noted that that is the biggest percentage reduction in asylum intake in the EU. Contrary to those who suggest that our success is based on the smoke and mirrors of fiddled figures, these statistics have been verified by an independent inspection by the National Audit Office as being genuine. The backlog of cases waiting to be decided is at its lowest level since the early 1990s. The last figures that we published put it at less than 18,100, compared with 60,000 in 1996. I happen to know that the current figures are even lower.

Hon. Members stressed the importance of quick decisions. Decision-making processes are quicker than ever: 80 per cent. of asylum claims are now decided in less than two months, compared with an average of 20 months under the previous Administration. I say that for illustrative purposes only. Cases that go through our fast-track procedure are dealt with even more quickly. As has been recognised, we have increased the number of removals to record levels, as well as putting in place measures to encourage failed asylum seekers to leave the country voluntarily and to support them in doing so.

These successes have come through the application of the strategy outlined in the 2002 White Paper "Secure Borders, Safe Haven", which I am pleased the Select Committee endorsed. As well as taking robust action to prevent abuse of this asylum system, we are committed to an international approach to helping genuine refugees worldwide. As has been recorded in the debate, we have, for example, recently welcomed refugees in need of our protection who were brought direct to the UK from west Africa. We are also supporting better integration of those who are granted refugee status or another form of protection, including through the new citizenship ceremonies that we have introduced.

I will now seek to answer as quickly as possible some of the points made by hon. Members. It is not my intention to fill the available time, but a number of important points were raised, not the least of which concerns the quality of decision making. I have spent almost all my professional life dealing with processes—judicial and quasi-judicial processes—involving decision making. I therefore know that if one has an unmeritorious case, the best thing that one can do is to delay. In almost any judicial circumstances, delay is the friend of the party who has the case with least merit, because, as Mr. Micawber said, something will turn up. Things turn up because circumstances change. Any lawyer worth his salt knows that delay is the friend of those whose case is without merit.

Consequently, I am, and I was when I came to this job, unimpressed with the argument that the high overturn rate on appeal reflects the quality of initial decisions. I have spent significant time over the past three months considering a correlation between the overturn rate on appeal and the layered appeal processes that exist in asylum cases, including the quasi-appeal processes that are quite often brought to bear at the very end of the process and mostly in the 12 hours before removal. That is when people make further asylum claims or human rights claims.

I have considered all that with some care and have come to the view that the reason why many cases—I do not say all—are successful at subsequent appellate stages or later stages and have not been successful at initial appeal stages has more to do with the time gap between the initial decision and the eventual resolution of the case than anything else. Significant things happen to change people's circumstances in that time. In many cases that I have read—I have read hundreds in the past three months—the circumstances that applied to the eventual decision were quite far removed from those that applied to the initial decision.

That is a function of a number of factors that come into play. The hon. Member for Woking identified one: we have made the European convention on human rights justiciable in this country. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has a quizzical expression on his face and his brows are furrowed as if he does not understand that point, but I will explain it to him simply. A single man who comes to this country and applies for asylum may well within a comparatively short time, and almost certainly within a longer period if he manages to stay here, have a claim under article 8 in relation to his family life.

That is only one example; there are any number of others. Some have to do with the changed circumstances of the country of origin, and some have to do with changes relating to the Government of the country of origin. Some have to do with all sorts of other factors that are outwith the control of most of the individuals involved in the case, and certainly of the asylum seeker himself.

What is known to asylum seekers and those who advise them is that by far the best friend that someone has in the asylum process is time. If the process can be elongated, the chances are that even the most unworthy claim will come out the other side with some argument. I am not saying that that happens in all cases, but we should be wary of equating the outturn of appeals with the quality of initial decisions and of saying that there is a direct correlation. There is some correlation, but it is not straightforward.

The Government take the quality of initial decision making very seriously. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, and the phraseology that he used, which was repeated by others: we should front-load resources so hat we get quality decisions at the outset. That is what we are doing. We have a comprehensive action plan to raise standards further, we are looking at training, and we are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I recently met representatives from that organisation, and it is about to embark on a pilot with us to find out how it can significantly assist us.

Treasury solicitors already provide some external assessment of decisions, and there will be ongoing external assessment by the UNHCR. That will respond to the Select Committee recommendations to some degree, but it will not take us as far as the Committee wants us to go. We are satisfied—I qualify that by saying that we are satisfied in general terms—that caseworkers finish their initial training with the skills required to make sound initial decisions in asylum claims, and that we are putting in place the level of support and continued training needed to help them through that process.

It is not entirely clear to me what the hon. Member for Woking suggests. I do not think that he suggests that we should recruit people with a better quality of professionalism to do that work; I think that he suggests that if we pay people only £17,000 to do that job, we are not likely to get the sort of people who can make decisions that will stand up to the appeal process. I do not agree. I accept that such decisions are important, and that they are administrative decisions of a quasi-judicial nature, but I believe that we can, with the caseworkers and decision-making process that we currently use, get a level of support, certainty and professionalism with which we can improve on the improvements that we have already made. However, we are open to a degree of independent assessment of that.

Mr. Malins

I have never heard the answer to this question. Does the Minister have any idea—I am sure that he does, considering his expertise in this area—what percentage of initial decision makers are graduates?

Mr. Browne

I do not know, but I spend an increasing amount of my time at the front line of this business, which means going to Croydon and speaking to and working with the people who make initial decisions—I urge right hon. and hon. Members to do the same, as it is an important thing to do—and I am impressed by their expertise. I came to this job with an interest in certain areas of the world, and I have had some of the most informed and best discussions about the politics of such areas with caseworkers in Croydon who specialise in cases involving those areas.

That leads me to the Select Committee's recommendation that asylum caseworkers should specialise more on applications from particular countries. The obvious purpose of that recommendation is that people should build the expertise to make the sort of difficult judgments that need to be made in asylum cases. There is already a good amount of country specialisation, but the requirement to decide 75 per cent. of all new applications within two months of the date of application that we have properly introduced, and the huge range of nationalities of those applying—albeit that there is a top 10 list of countries from which most applicants come—mean that caseworkers have to consider a range of cases.

I should also point out that with over-specialisation there is a danger that people will become case-hardened to particular circumstances, or that they will become so used to hearing about those circumstances that they do not treat cases on an individual basis. We must be careful not to create that sort of unintended consequence.

I come to the issue of enforcement and removal. As I said, although we have, in the past year, managed to return record numbers of asylum seekers to their country of origin or to third-party countries where their asylum claims ought better to be processed, we are not complacent about this issue. There is still a significant amount of work to do, but we are determined to remove those who have no right to be in the United Kingdom, particularly failed asylum seekers. Provisional figures show that, excluding dependants, we removed 21 per cent. more asylum seekers in 2003 than we did the year before.

Bob Russell

The Minister will agree that Russia can he described as a safe country. Will he accept that Chechnya, which is officially and technically part of Russia, is not necessarily safe, and that Chechens returned to Russia, to Moscow or St. Petersburg, may not necessarily find their way back to Chechnya? In such circumstances would the Minister accept that returning Chechens, especially young males, to Russia other than directly to Chechnya puts their lives at risk? The British Government should think very carefully about what route, if any, should be given to young Chechen males who perhaps are so much in fear of their lives that they should be allowed to remain here.

Mr. Browne

I suspect that what lies behind the hon. Gentleman's question is a specific case, or cases. If he wants me to respond to the circumstances of a particular case I should prefer to have an opportunity to identify that case and to check whether the factual basis of his question is borne out by the circumstances as we have recorded them. I shall deal with his question in a general way, but not in relation to a specific country.

A couple of years ago, the Home Secretary stated that there were no longer any no-go countries in respect of returns. There is an inherent logic in that approach, because our current processes allow people to claim asylum on the basis of the convention, and then they will be considered for discretionary leave to remain or humanitarian protection. With respect to members of the Committee, who are intelligent, well informed and able, there is an illogicality in having a further process of protection after people have gone through that process, and an even deeper illogicality to say that that person cannot then be returned to their country of origin, because those are just the sorts of arguments that should be considered in an earlier part of the process.

I was not a Minister at the time, but I accept the Home Secretary's logical approach. He said that we would no longer deal with the issue on the basis that there are countries to which we will not return people, but we will consider individuals on a case-by-case basis. The hon. Gentleman will understand my reluctance to be drawn into discussions about nationalities or countries, but I agree with him that whether an individual should be returned should be considered on the merits of that individual's case. It is crucial to consider the route by which a person is returned, because it would be counter-productive to have ambitions in terms of a safe return but to attempt to return people by a route that would expose them to unnecessary dangers.

Mr. Denham

I do not think that the Minister is right to say that it is illogical to have a further stage of protection, because the issue that is being determined is different. The first question is whether someone has a right to be a refugee. The question whether someone who has no right to be a refugee none the less cannot be safely returned involves the application of a different test under a different law. The reality is that there is a set of people who, I fully accept, clearly have no right to be here as refugees, but whom we cannot practically return. The question raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and by this report is: how do we most appropriately deal with those people who cannot be returned to their country? It is not illogical to say that we must deal properly with that part of the system, just as we deal properly with the initial application.

Mr. Browne

I have no difficulty in agreeing with every word that my right hon. Friend said. I do not shirk from my responsibility to apply our policies in a humanitarian way that serves our overall policy objective of considering the process holistically. We should consider asylum applications as being applications processing. If status is granted, quick movement to integration and settlement in our community should follow. Alternatively, if the judicial and appeal processes conclude that someone has no right to be in this country, there should, if possible, be quick removal. We will enhance the prospects for achieving that by doing the sorts of things—recommended by the Select Committee—although not all of them.

One recommendation was to speed up the process, and we have moved significantly towards that; 80 per cent. of asylum applications are dealt with at the initial stage within two months. Proposals before Parliament at the moment would allow us to shorten the appeal process significantly. That would mean that the element of unnecessary time injected into many cases can be removed—I accept that it is sometimes injected because of the inefficiency of Government processing. We should be able to deal with people at the point at which we seek to remove them in a context near to the circumstances in which they presented themselves. That would reduce some of the blockages to removal created by changed circumstances and further appeals.

We are faced with the challenge of designing a system of support and contact management. The Select Committee report made interesting observations about the handing over of decisions. I read them carefully and will take them into account. We must maintain contact with people so that we know where they are and do not have to use expensive enforcement resources to find them and get them to the point of removal.

Equally, citizens must be internationally documented so that they can travel to where we want to return them. That would interdict the almost 100 per cent. practice of claimants destroying, losing or hiding their documents, or in some cases not having them. It would also interdict agents from encouraging them to do so. Legislation before Parliament would help us to deal with that problem, but we will deal with it in practical ways as well. We are becoming far better, particularly at ports of entry, at identifying where people have come from. For example, if we know which terminal building they arrived at, we can identify flights that they might have come on.

With the help of carriers we will ensure that, where appropriate, copies are made of travel documents before people travel. That will greatly help in the process of returning people with their travel documents. We also need co-operation from other countries and Governments to re-document their citizens. We have great difficulty re-documenting citizens of some countries. That may be because of slow administration, as the hon. Member for Woking identified, or other factors such as a country's view on accepting citizens returned against their will or other diplomatic and political issues. We need to address those issues, and to improve our ability to re-document those citizens.

However, there will always be failed asylum seekers in the UK whom we are unable, or unlikely to be able to return to their country of origin. We therefore, as the report identified, need a policy that supports those people appropriately. The Government's view is that the support appropriate for those people is available under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The report identified a lack of knowledge about section 4—that point was responded to by the Home Office—and we are now making it clearer to individuals. Indeed, in letters that I send to representatives I am making it clear that section 4 exists and we are making clear to some individuals the opportunities that section 4 provides.

As with all this area of policy, the situation is not static, but dynamic. Hon. Members are right to identify that our responses to the challenges of a substantial increase in the number of asylum seekers generate policies that may not be entirely appropriate when those numbers are considerably reduced and maintained at a reduced level. If these reduced numbers persist, that may give us the opportunity to examine carefully how we apply those policies, and to consider some of the issues that are raised by the report.

Several hon. Members raised the important issue of illegal working—

Tony Baldry

Do I take that last sentence or two to be a policy line on accommodation centres—that changing circumstances may mean a change of view—or did I misunderstand that?

Mr. Browne

No, I was talking specifically about the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen—the need for us to be able to work in a coherent way and for then to be a process that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State often refers to as being firm, fair and fast, By fast, we also mean efficient. That is at the heart of what we need to do. If we are able to do that with reduced numbers, the challenges that will face us at either end of that process may be different, and we may be able to respond and apply our policies in different ways. However. the policies remain the same, and that would include the policies in relation to accommodation centres. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but he will understand why, on the day that the dispute in relation to the accommodation centre in his constituency is before the court, I do not want to discuss that in detail. I hear what he has to say but, as presently advised, our policy on accommodation centres remains unchanged.

We are disappointed that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister decided not to grant planning permission for an accommodation centre at RAF Newton, but we have now accepted that decision. I have been true to my word that we would respect the planning process in relation to accommodation centres, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to use that fact to convince his constituents that some of the more extravagant suggestions about a grand conspiracy by the Government in relation to that issue could not be true. We will respect the decision of the court on the accommodation centre in his constituency. However, he knows what the Government's position is—we debated it in this Chamber not long ago.

I shall now return to the issue of illegal working. Illegal working is an important aspect of asylum policy. There are calls in the report for us to improve the operation of section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, and I believe that we have done that since the report was published by amending the list of documents that employers can accept as proof that job applicants are entitled to work in the United Kingdom to include documents whose security we are more able to guarantee.

As hon. Members will know, part of the problem was that it was difficult to prosecute an employer under section 8 because so many documents that were acceptable as evidence that a pen on had the right to work in the UK were forged. Since the report was published, we have removed documents that are easily forged from the list, and our courts will now be able to accept a defence only if the secure documents are produced. In addition, we have significantly increased our enforcement activities on illegal working. Although that has not yet been reflected in an increase in successful prosecutions of employers, significantly more are in the pipeline. I am sure that hon. Members will be reassured by that.

As I would argue that success on appeal is not necessarily a correlated reflection of the value of initial decisions, hon. Members should not see the numbers of successful section 8 prosecutions as a reflection of police or immigration service activity. Collection of information is often crucial in enforcement, and the objective of an investigation may not be an employer whose premises house the illegal workers, but perhaps a bigger fish—an illegal gangmaster or agent for example. It is appropriate that we are having this debate on the day that the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill receives Royal Assent, and we will work to ensure that that legislation works as intended.

Bob Russell

In the spirit of what the Minister has just said, will he urge his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to call on the four major supermarket firms to produce an audit trail for the produce on their shelves, covering whence it has come and the route it has taken?

Mr. Browne

That is an interesting suggestion, and if I recollect correctly, there was some discussion about the issue in a relevant Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that, in implementing the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill and the processes relating to it, the Government intend to consult supermarkets widely and involve them. I do not think that the Government have the power to require the supermarkets to do what he suggested, but I suspect that there will be such dialogue between supermarkets and my colleagues in DEFRA in the context of that new legislation.

I have taken all the available time, but I have not answered all the questions. That is a reflection of the importance and complexity of the issues that have been raised rather than an inability to get through them all. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) asked a specific question about the current state of the negotiations on the EU qualifications directive. The negotiations have finished, and the directive has been agreed and adopted. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that.

I will write to hon. Members on the other issues that I have not been able to reach during this summing up. My final point is to say that I am grateful to all hon. Members for the way in which they have approached the debate and for their obvious support for the thrust of the Government's policies. I look forward to that spirit—

It being half-past Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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