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11 Dec 1995 : Column 697

Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given you and the Home Secretary notice of this question and I am grateful that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is present. On the Order Paper for 6 December questions 180 to 189--10 questions that I asked--related to the Home Secretary's responsibilities. The questions were for a named day. Four related to information concerning consultations that he had had, or had not had, with various bodies, including the high commissioners for the Commonwealth, three police consultative committees relating to the federations of the police and the London consultative committees that have been established. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would answer those questions, along with others that are not relevant to this point of order, as soon as possible. Of course, those answers, and the questions, did not appear in the Official Report for that day. As hon. Members might know, if a holding answer is given, the question is not published until the holding answer becomes a substantive one, so no one would know that the questions had been asked, or that the Home Secretary had not replied to questions that fairly related to what he had or had not done up to that time.

My point of order is to ask whether our practice could be adjusted to ensure that non-printing of such questions and answers be confined only to matters that you or the Table Office reasonably regard as unanswerable at the time. Otherwise, other Ministers could fail to answer reasonable questions, as the Home Secretary has--in this case, he has failed to do so in time for a debate that is taking place today.

Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. The questions were printed on the Order Paper. He is quite right that they did not appear in Hansard. As I know that he is careful not to abuse the system of tabling questions for answer on a named day, I have some sympathy with his point of order. Ministers will have heard this exchange. I cannot, of course, oblige them to answer in any particular case. I believe that the Home Secretary is seeking to catch my eye. Although I will not allow a debate on the matter, the right hon. and learned Gentleman must be able to answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for giving me notice of the question that he proposed to raise. I have had the matter investigated. I apologise for the fact that the hon. Gentleman's questions were not answered in time for the debate. In so far as it is possible so to do, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone

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(Miss Widdecombe), will answer them in her winding-up speech up this evening and we shall answer the remainder as soon as possible--I hope within 48 hours or so.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is in his place on the Front Bench, may I ask whether there has been any indication that we might have a statement on the law relating to the carrying of knives, bearing in mind the murder of my constituent, Philip Lawrence, on Friday? It is of great importance to St. George's Roman Catholic school in Maida Vale, its acting headmaster, staff, pupils and teachers, that they should know that they will have proper security in and out of school. Is there any chance of a statement?

Madam Speaker: I cannot allow the Home Secretary to go on answering questions. The point of order is for me. I have not been informed that there is likely to be a statement on that issue. However, senior Cabinet Ministers are available on the Front Bench and will have heard the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I regret that I have not had the opportunity of giving you or the Home Secretary notice of my point of order.

Clause 1 of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, which we are about to consider, empowers

That is the so-called "white list".

You will know, Madam Speaker, that I and several other hon. Members have, over the past month, been asking when the Home Secretary intends to publish the list. I have just been told by the Home Secretary's office that it is intended that the list will be contained in a statutory instrument under the negative resolution procedure. That means that the list, and the powers that flow from the Bill, will be in force before the House has an opportunity to debate or consider properly the countries on the list. As these matters are truly concerned with life-and-death issues, would you reflect on whether this procedure is appropriate for such a vital matter, bearing in mind that Second Reading takes place today? If you share my reservations about the proposed procedure, will you prevail on the Home Secretary to adopt a more appropriate procedure?

Madam Speaker: This is a case where hon. Members who oppose the procedure must persuade the Home Secretary to change it during the course of the debate. It is a normal procedure of the House. Although the hon. Gentleman has put his own connotation on it to say that the matter is more serious and important than anything that we have touched on or debated for some time, these are matters that must be discussed in exchanges across the Floor of the House today. We must now get on with the debate.

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Orders of the Day

Asylum and Immigration Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker: Before I call the Home Secretary, I must tell the House that I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. I have had to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 and 9 o'clock this evening.

3.38 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government are firmly committed to maintaining a tolerant society in which the diverse cultures and backgrounds of those who are lawfully present in this country are fully respected. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

I wholeheartedly endorse the Prime Minister's sentiment. Our race relations are as good as--if not better than-- those of any other country in Europe. Firm but fair immigration control is a necessary condition for such a society. That is the context in which this Bill should be seen.

The Bill has three objectives: first, to strengthen our asylum procedures so that bogus claims and appeals can be dealt with more quickly; secondly, to combat immigration racketeering through stronger powers, new offences and higher penalties; and, thirdly, to reduce economic incentives, which attract people to come to this country in breach of our immigration laws. The Bill would erect a stronger defence against unauthorised employment and provide powers to restrict entitlement to housing assistance and child benefit.

Britain has a proud record of giving refuge to those fleeing genuine persecution, but we cannot ignore the fact that our procedures are being abused. Only 4 per cent. of those claiming asylum are deemed by the Home Office to be genuine refugees and just 4 per cent. of appeals are upheld by independent adjudicators.

Asylum applications are rising rapidly--up from 2,500 a month at the start of 1994 to more than 4,700 last month. Action is being taken to process claims more quickly. We employ seven times more case workers than in 1988. Between June 1994 and June 1995, they took 25,000 asylum decisions--10,000 more than in the preceding 12 months. In February, I announced that £37 million would be spent on extra asylum case workers and adjudicators over the next three years.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill): Does the Home Secretary accept that, despite the 4 per cent. figure that is bandied around so much, an additional 20 per cent. are accepted, even in terms of the Home Office's fairly tough criteria, as people who might be in some kind of danger, were they to return home, and are given exceptional leave to stay? Some of those cases even

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include torture. So although they do not fit the 4 per cent. description, they come within a much broader category than he admits to the House today.

Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman has a point in relation to applications, but not appeals. It is important to appreciate that none of those who comes into the category that he has identified is relevant to the consideration of appeals. Only 4 per cent. of appeals from the decision of the immigration officer to independent adjudicators actually succeed.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Could the Home Secretary assist the House in considering the Bill by providing us with two pieces of factual information? Both today and when he made his statement last month, he gave monthly figures. He is now giving the November figure whereas he previously gave the October figure. Could he give us the cumulative figure of applications for the 11 months of 1995? Secondly, could he give us the number of applications outstanding, as of the most recent date?

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