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Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: No, because I do not have time to do so. If the Minister will not take powers to deal with the problem, he should adopt a policy of naming and shaming the boroughs which are in breach of a duty of good will to their fellow councils on the south coast. The consortiums approach may be successful--I hope so--but it is clear that certain councils, especially in London, are abusing the situation and placing unnecessary burdens on areas such as Eastbourne and its hard-pressed services, including health, social services and education. There is no sign at the moment that anything is changing and I hope that the Minister will address that issue when he replies to the debate.

7.46 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

That is of course a quotation from the speech by the current Home Secretary in the Second Reading debate on the last immigration and asylum legislation to come before the House. As it happens, that quotation touches on some of the points that I wish to make about the Bill.

I represent one of the largest refugee populations in the country. My constituency has refugees from every quarter of the globe, including Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria and Somalia, and it has a huge population of Turks and Kurds. My concern about how we treat refugees and asylum

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seekers is based both in principle and in practice, because I will have to deal daily with the consequences of the Bill if it is not properly and carefully drafted.

As someone who for 12 years now has had to lead constituents through the highways and byways of immigration legislation to try to help them with their manifold problems, I believe that the Bill is a lost opportunity. One of the problems with the current immigration and asylum legislation is that it is a mess. All too often, legislation has been forced through Parliament in response to a scare, whether about east African Asians or refugees from Kosovo. I have tried for 12 years as a Member of Parliament, and for many years before that in the community, to try to understand the legislation and to help people find their way through the rules. However, asylum seekers face a labyrinth that is full of inconsistencies.

The Government have missed an opportunity to begin the process of constructing an asylum system that is transparent, fair, equitable and, above all, free from any taint of racism. For example, the legislation contains no fewer than 50 order-making powers. I have spent much time working on immigration and refugee issues and I know that much of the unfairness of the system creeps in through the circular instructions, the orders and the statutory instruments.

I shall first address the Bill as it relates to our obligations under international law. I remind the House what the United Nations convention on the rights of the child states in article 26:

I also remind the House of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. Article 24 states:

    "The Contracting States shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in the territory the same treatment as is accorded to nationals in respect of the following matters . . . social security."

I do not therefore believe that the proposals in the Bill for maintenance and support are in accordance with the spirit and possibly even the letter of our obligations under international law. My concern is not merely a technical, legalistic quibble. I live in the middle of a large refugee community and I want to know whether the proposals will work. If they do not, they will cause an awful lot of suffering and unhappiness to some of my constituents.

Ministers, of this Government and the previous one, have insisted that cash benefits draw refugees to this country. I hope that evidence is provided in Committee to support the contention that cash benefits are the draw, rather then the length of time that it takes to sort cases out.

Moreover, will the arrangements for support include minimum standards of maintenance? How much cash will people have? My son goes to school with children who are refugees from Algeria, Somalia and west Africa: will the mothers of those children lack the money for school outings or coach fares, or to buy drinks? Will there be clusters of second-class refugee children whose mothers do not have access to those simple things that cost a few pounds here and there every week? I should hate to think that I supported a Government who would impose such a regime on children.

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I am not happy with the voucher system that is currently in place. The Children's Society has found, from its east London project, that families and children who depend on vouchers to get food are often subject to racial harassment and discrimination in local shops. I understand the reasoning behind the voucher scheme, but it can be degrading and demeaning.

I turn now to the proposals for dispersal. Given what happened to the Vietnamese and the east African Asians, I thought that it had been demonstrated that dispersal does not work. The Government propose that refugees and asylum seekers--who will not have access to benefit--will be separated from family and friends and dispersed outside London. However, many will come back to London, even though they have no benefits. Some of them will find themselves in places where they cannot buy the food to which they are accustomed, or where there is no mosque for them to attend. Many will be illiterate: there will be no language networks for them to plug into, nor any of the informal information networks with which they are familiar, and the schools will not be used to refugee children.

I believe that many asylum seekers will drift back to places such as Hackney or south London and that the Members of Parliament who live and work in those communities, as well as the Churches and the volunteer groups, will have to pick up the pieces. I want to hear more about how dispersal will work. My fear is that it will prove unfair, cruel and unworkable.

What I have to say about race and community relations has less to do with the contents of the Bill than with some of the appalling comment that has appeared recently in the press and in the public debate about refugee and asylum matters. It has become common, in the media and among Ministers, to talk about economic migrants as if they were subhuman, yet--regardless of whether they are Irish navvies, east African Asian shop owners, the West Indians who came to work on buses and in hospitals or the west Africans who do the cleaning jobs--it is economic migrants who have built London.

I am the daughter of economic migrants, and I take exception to the tone sometimes used to describe such people. It is as if there is something wrong with travelling thousands of miles from starvation and poverty to try to better the lot of one's family. Economic migrants may not be easy to accommodate under the letter of refugee law, but it is wrong to ignore the fact that they are honestly trying to do the best that they can for their families. There is a long tradition in my part of London of welcoming economic migrants, who have done so much to make Hackney the vibrant and energetic place that it is.

The public debate in which refugees and asylum seekers are blamed as the cause of so much crime, for example, is most distasteful. It is sad that it was the Kent police, rather than a Minister, who said that some of the media comment was tantamount to an incitement to racial hatred. I note, in passing, that the Bill does not take the opportunity to repeal section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which requires employers to take details of people's race and nationality. Labour Members at the time argued long and hard that section 8 would be racist in its effect, so I am surprised that the opportunity to repeal it has not been taken.

Finally, the Bill gives immigration officers new powers of arrest and search. Those officers have no formal training in such matters, there is no published manual

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covering safe methods of restraint, and there will be no independent complaints body: it is as if Ministers had never heard of Joy Gardner. I can think of nothing more likely to undermine community relations in Hackney and elsewhere than a proposal to allow the immigration officers we know and love to enter my constituents' homes with the power to arrest and search people but without proper training and oversight. I sincerely hope that Ministers will tackle that matter.

If I understand Ministers correctly, constituents of mine who are asylum seekers and who are in council housing will lose the housing benefit and other social security benefits that they receive at present. They also stand to lose their housing. Given that most of them belong to the black and ethnic minorities, that will do no good to community relations, and I agree with what has been said about the loss of appeal rights for overstayers.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when he was in opposition and speaking against the 1996 Act, said that it would be neither firm nor fair. No one has more experience of dealing with the immigration authorities than my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East(Mr. Vaz), and he has noted that the real problem is Lunar house. It is a shambles: no matter how wonderful the Bill might be, unless coherence, proper management and the necessary resources are devoted to Lunar house, there will be no prospect of refugees and asylum seekers getting a fair and effective service.

I shall support the Government in the Lobby tonight, because I believe that the Bill can be improved in Committee. I am aware that an interest in and knowledge of a subject is not sufficient to recommend me for membership of a Standing Committee, but I make my claim here and now, on the Floor of the House.

I live in an area that has welcomed refugees and asylum seekers for more than a century. I am therefore well aware of the human side of these matters. It is one thing to put legislation on the statute book, but it is another to live with its consequences if it is insufficiently thought out. I hope that Ministers will change the tone of some of their remarks on immigration and asylum, as they create the wrong climate. I hope that they will address some of the practical consequences of the Bill and that they will listen carefully in Committee to the representations from the community and concerned organisations.

British people have a tremendous record of welcoming asylum seekers and refugees. I want the Bill to aspire to the best traditions of this country, not to adopt the worst reflexes of some of our tabloid media.

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