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Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tenor of his remarks and for his full support for the approach which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government have taken in respect of the priority, which has to be to secure humanitarian relief in the region of Kosovo. As my right hon. Friend said a few moments ago at Prime Minister's questions, let it be clear that the United Kingdom's contribution to the humanitarian relief within that region stands comparison with that of any country in the world.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would keep the House fully informed. Yes, of course I will. I made what turned out to be a full statement at parliamentary questions just a week ago, and I shall continue to keep the House informed. The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the total number of refugees. We thought it wise from the start not to set either a minimum or a maximum limit, because the situation is changing. I believe that our original judgment not to set an upper limit, but instead to say that we stand ready to take some thousands of refugees, was correct because, as we have seen in the past few days, the situation on the ground in Kosovo--and therefore in Macedonia and Albania--is changing all the time.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about local authorities. I am aware of what one particular local authority spokesperson said, but the truth is that local authorities, through the Local Government Association, have been fully involved in these arrangements from the start, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect. One of their representatives was present at a meeting last Friday, when the contingency plans to take between five and seven flights a week were discussed. It is our judgment that the facilities will be sufficient. As I made clear, as the numbers build up, the arrangements for the initial housing of the refugees will have to be in reception centres and perhaps in service accommodation, given the numbers.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the families admitted on UNHCR nomination will be subject to the regime in the Immigration and Asylum Bill when that becomes law. The answer is no, because the regime specified in that Bill is for those who seek asylum status and have no formal leave to remain in this country, other than a pending asylum application. Those who are coming in are being given either leave to enter, consistent with the leave that their close family members have already been given, or exceptional leave to remain. That means

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that they are automatically passported to social security benefits and to the right to work, and the full obligations of local authorities under the Children Act apply from the start in respect of those children.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I very much welcome the step that my right hon. Friend has taken to admit refugees from Kosovo and to give them exceptional leave to remain. In the next week or two, while we are still discussing the Immigration and Asylum Bill, will he reflect on what the position might be? Those who are given exceptional leave to remain will not necessarily be debarred from applying for asylum. If they then applied for asylum, would they still be entitled to the benefits to which they are currently being given access?

Mr. Straw: They would not be deprived of those benefits because they have a pre-existing right to remain in this country in terms of exceptional leave. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Is the Home Secretary aware that we share his view, because it is the overwhelming view of the refugees themselves, that the primary objective of the policy should be to create safe conditions for those people to return to their homes, and that everything that we do in the meantime must be consistent with that objective but must meet human need as best we can? In that context, does the Home Secretary not recognise that there was considerable concern that, whereas Germany had taken nearly 10,000 refugees, we had taken only some 300? His statement today will be welcomed.

Can the Home Secretary say whether there is sufficient support from the Home Office for our missions in Tirana and Skopje, which will have to facilitate the movement of refugees? Is he satisfied that the UNHCR will have obtained the necessary information for war crimes tribunals and the return of refugees?

Finally, may I return to a point raised by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)? Will education authorities be reimbursed for all the relevant education expenditure that they may incur for the children of those refugees?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and to his party for their support for the overall approach that we have taken. He asked me a number of questions. He mentioned Germany. It must be acknowledged that refugee flows are never symmetrical. The number of refugees who seek access to any individual country in Europe has a great deal to do with historic and geographical ties. It is a matter of history that there are already 170,000 refugees from Kosovo in the German Republic: that is getting on for a tenth of the total population of Kosovo Albanians. Germany was bound to be able to offer many more refugee places because many of the refugees can stay with members of their family, and because there was great pressure in Germany for that country to receive refugees. I repeat what the Prime Minister said in Prime Minister's questions. We must judge the United Kingdom's contribution to humanitarian relief in this country and in the Kosovo region as a whole, and that stands comparison with any other country in the world.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there is sufficient support for the missions in Skopje and Tirana. I pay tribute to the huge effort of officials from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. However, they can always do with more support, and we are aiming to give them that by way of the Home Office team that is going out to Macedonia shortly.

Every effort is being put into the investigation of war crimes. On the issue of reimbursement of expenditure by local authorities, the details are being worked out at the moment. I said in my statement that the additional costs of local authorities and the voluntary sector would be reimbursed by central Government.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): I am sure that there will be overwhelming support from the British people for the Government's decision to admit refugees in larger numbers than previously. The British people are keen on that idea, and many of them have signified that they want to welcome refugees into their own homes.

What is the status of the 10,000 Kosovo refugees who have already come into this country? How many of them have been given refugee status? If it is a small number, can consideration of the other cases be speeded up? When I was in Albania last week, I was told by our embassy that it was granting no visas for refugees to this country. Will my right hon. Friend look into that matter, because I was also told that refugees seeking visas were being sent to Istanbul? That sounds ridiculous, and there must be an explanation. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would comment on those two points.

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. No new decision has been taken to admit larger numbers than have previously been admitted. The original decision that we would take some thousands of refugees was made at the beginning of April. We have merely sought to bring the arrangements consistent with that policy into play.

My hon. Friend asked about the status of the 10,000 or so people who have claimed asylum on the basis that they are from Kosovo and are ethnic Albanians. From recollection--I am happy to write to my hon. Friend--between 3,000 and 4,000 of that 10,000 have been granted either asylum status or exceptional leave to remain, and we are making arrangements to speed up the consideration of the other cases. Consideration of those cases is bound to be more complicated than the granting of exceptional leave to remain to those nominated by the UNHCR. Sadly, although a high proportion of those who claim that they are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and are in need of protection under the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees, a number of others are not, as claimed, from Kosovo but are either Albanians who have no basis of claim under the 1951 convention or come from other parts of the region. We must ensure that the genuine applicants who meet the criteria are separated from those who are either genuine but do not meet the convention criteria or who are abusive and fraudulent applicants.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about our post in Albania, and I shall certainly follow those up.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): When I raised this issue on Monday, the Home Secretary said that

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the United Kingdom stood ready to accept some thousands of refugees. May I point out to him that, before the exodus began, my local authority sent me a communication stating that it was already under refugee pressures that it could not sustain?

While the British people's hospitality is wholly commendable, may I say to the Home Secretary that this crisis was entirely predictable? From the time when the first bomb dropped, a mass exodus was to be expected. I suggested to the right hon. Gentleman that Her Majesty's Government ought to prepare plans on the scale of the dispositions made to receive refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda, but that clearly has not been done. Will he now reassure us that the efflux will be spread around the United Kingdom, and that hard-pressed London boroughs that can already barely cope will not have to bear an excessive burden?

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