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15 Jun 1999 : Column 267

Immigration and Asylum Bill

As amended in the Special Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Treatment of certain overstayers

'(1) The Secretary of State must prescribe a period ("the regularisation period") during which overstayers may apply, in the prescribed manner, for leave to remain in the United Kingdom.

(2) The regularisation period--
(a) is to be not less than three months; and
(b) ends on the prescribed day.
(3) Section 7 and paragraph 6 of Schedule 13 come into force on the day after the prescribed day.
(4) The Secretary of State must publicise the effect of this section in the way appearing to him to be best calculated to bring it to the attention of those affected.
(5) "Overstayer" means a person who, having only limited leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom, remains beyond the time limited by the leave.'.--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 28, 29, 91, 92, 96 and 139.

Mr. O'Brien: I said on Second Reading that we would consider any representations that we received, as well as what was said in the Special Standing Committee. The new clause is part of that process.

Too often in debates on immigration and asylum, people have taken fixed positions and made knee-jerk reactions to proposals for change. The left too often saw every change as xenophobic and racist, while the right tried to be tough and often seemed to believe that every asylum seeker was bogus and every immigrant was unwelcome. Neither reaction has characterised our discussions on the Bill.

In the Special Standing Committee, we discussed with refugee groups, interested parties, the Opposition and others how to develop a policy with broad-based support. The refugee groups, particularly the Refugee Council, the Refugee Legal Centre, Justice and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, responded positively to the opportunities to express their views. Lawyers also responded through the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. The Opposition came forward with some constructive proposals in Committee. I thank them for the tone in which they conducted the debate. We said that we would consider their proposals. We did not promise to accept every proposal or always to agree, but I hope that we are at the beginning of a process of sensible discussion on sensitive issues.

Setting aside the knee-jerk reaction of the appallingly racist Dover Express and the bilious mendacity of the odd leftist journalist, the debate on the Bill has been constructive in the national press and among pressure groups and many hon. Members. The Kosovan refugee

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crisis has shown everyone that many refugees are genuine. That has helped us to focus on devising a balanced package aimed at creating a system that works.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I do not want to spoil the wonderful consensus that the Minister is trying to generate, but does he include in his comments about knee-jerk reactions the reactions of his Front-Bench colleagues when we introduced our much milder Asylum and Immigration Bill in 1996 and were accused of playing the race card and being racist? Will he repudiate that?

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Lady voted for a Bill that removed all support from in-country asylum seekers and those in the appeal system. That was not an acceptable or humane approach.

Miss Widdecombe rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I hope that the right hon. Lady will allow me to reply to her. In an attempt to encourage her not to pursue the abrasive approach for which she is renowned, I welcome her to her new Front-Bench position. I wish her a long period as Opposition home affairs spokesperson.

Miss Widdecombe: I was rather surprised by the hon. Gentleman's answer which confused the social security measure, for which I was not responsible, with the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which introduced measures with regard to safe third countries, safe countries of origin and illegal working, all of which, to an extent, have been picked up in this Bill. Will he repudiate the opposition that his party mounted to that measure?

Mr. O'Brien: We properly opposed the 1996 Bill, which the right hon. Lady put forward, because it was a bad Bill that created a shambles in the asylum and immigration system. The problems that we have to sort out were caused during her time at the Home Office, when she was responsible for immigration and asylum. Before she tries to preach to us, let her remember the shambles that we inherited from her and those with whom she worked at the Home Office in the previous Government.

Let us return to the more proper and sensible discussion that we were having until the right hon. Lady intervened. Perhaps she wants to use these difficult, complex and sensitive issues as a party political football. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who ably represented the Conservative party in Committee, did not seek to do that. She ought to learn the lessons of the failure of the 1996 Act and start engaging in sensible, adult discussion about the issues.

When we discussed what is now clause 7 in the Special Standing Committee, concern was expressed about the position of those current overstayers who have come to the attention of the authorities and are likely to be deported. At present, they have a suspensive right of appeal. They have a full right of appeal if they have been here for more than seven years, but only on a point of law if they have been here for a shorter period.

Under clause 7, such people would be removed, with a right of appeal against the legality of the removal decision, but the appeal could be exercised only

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from abroad. It is important to note that asylum seekers will retain a right of suspensive appeal. The concern is about immigration offenders--overstayers--who may have been here for many years.

We will not condone overstaying--it is as much an evasion of our immigration controls as is illegal entry--but we have listened to representations and we are prepared to allow overstayers a limited and final opportunity to take advantage of the right to a suspensive appeal against deportation. New clause 1 achieves that. Importantly, it will allow them to remain in the United Kingdom only until their appeal is decided--a matter of months--and it will be for the adjudicator to decide whether they can remain beyond that date. Some may be able to remain; others will not and will need to be deported.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): To which overstayers does that apply?

Mr. O'Brien: It applies to those who come to the attention of the immigration authorities during the period for which the regularisation procedure will apply. There will be a period during which they will be allowed to bring themselves to the attention of the immigration authorities; if they do that, we intend to allow them that right of appeal. We will consult the various organisations on the length of the period, but I anticipate that it will be about a year.

We will expect those who want to take advantage of the suspensive appeal to bring themselves to our notice, or they may be brought to our notice because they are detained, and in those circumstances an appeal will be allowed--but after that period is over, it is anticipated that such an appeal will no longer be available to those who are merely overstayers and have no other right of appeal.

Mr. Clappison: Is the Minister referring to all overstayers, or only those who have overstayed by more than seven years?

Mr. O'Brien: I am referring to those who currently have a right of appeal. Those who have been here more than seven years will have a full right of appeal, as at present. Those who have been here less than seven years have a very limited right of appeal, which is basically on a point of law, and that will continue to be the case. We are not extending the appeal rights beyond what we inherited from the Conservative Government. We will maintain the existing rights for a time and say, in effect, that if people want to exercise their right to a suspensive appeal in the specified period, let them come forward then, or that will be that.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Does my hon. Friend intend to set out any guidance on how the appeals should be conducted, or will existing case law apply? Will there be any new criteria?

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps it will help hon. Members if I set out in some detail how we shall do that, and in doing so I shall deal with the point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): This is a tricky subject. Several people will have a copy of the Bill

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as it was first debated on Second Reading. Hon. Members have the Bill as amended in Committee. Some people outside will have the old notes on clauses and some clause numbers have changed. If possible, could the Minister refer to the present clause numbers and, if his officials can provide the information, the previous clause numbers? In that way, those watching our debates would be able to understand what we are talking about.

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