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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to respond to the shameful attack by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) on the councillors, editors and people of Kent. Does my hon. Friend agree that Kent needs a reduction in the number of asylum seekers, as was achieved in the last year of the previous Government, and not the enormous increases that he has just described?

Mr. Malins: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in that area. He has shown great devotion to his duty to his constituents, and he has been in his place throughout the debate today.

Why is the backlog of asylum and immigration cases so big? It is because decisions are being made at half the rate at which new applications are made. It is no good continuing with a system that makes decisions so slowly. This morning, at the meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, I put some straight questions to the Home Secretary. I said, "Home Secretary, there were 7,300 applications for asylum in September. How soon will their cases be heard? How soon will the results of those cases and any appeals be known? How soon will those who fail in their applications be removed?" The Home Secretary could not answer, and nor could the official who accompanied him.

That is the scale of the problem that faces the country, and the Home Office is not getting to grips with it. It has let the problem, which it admittedly inherited from the previous Government, get worse and worse. Incidentally, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) for the outstanding work that he did as an immigration Minister in the previous Government.

The Government are not doing enough and the Home Office is in chaos. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon faces impossible queues. Telephones go unanswered and the computer system is in chaos. In my surgeries on Friday nights in Woking--which has a large, settled ethnic community--I see many constituents with ongoing cases who come to me in despair because their correspondence and telephone calls are never dealt with. They tell me, and I tell the House, that the Home Office appears to the communities outside the House to have lost its grip on the problem.

The Home Office needs to decide asylum and immigration applications quickly. In Croydon, the 28 teams of 16 people each are doing their best to decide the cases, but more money may be necessary and may save time in the long run. More money now may lead us to a system that would be in the better interests of those many genuine cases who are being elbowed aside by those

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who have less claim. Therefore, we should decide cases fast and hear appeals quickly. There is no reason why they should not be heard quickly and why decisions should not be made thereafter. If it is decided that the appeal has failed and someone has to be removed--remove them fast. The slower the system, the worse the problem will get. Nothing that the Home Office said this afternoon or the Home Secretary said this morning gives me any reason to believe that the system will do anything save slow down even more.

Finally, what of the problem of those tens of thousands of people whose immigration or asylum applications have been lost all the way down the line and who are out there in the community? Many thousands of asylum applicants have lost all contact with the Home Office. That is not good enough. In this modern computerised age, this Home Office ought to be able to get to grips with retrieval. Those people who should not be here should be taken to account and removed. One adjudicator told me recently, "It is ludicrous that I hear appeal after appeal in the certain knowledge that even if the appeal fails all the way up the line, the applicant will go to ground and stay in this country for ever."

The current situation will not do. The many thousands of people in the ethnic communities in this country recognise that the Government have lost their grip on all matters connected with asylum and immigration. They have come out with a good line, but they have not acted and thought through the problem properly. They may need more money or resources. If the House finds in six months that the list of those waiting for an initial determination in an asylum or other immigration case is getting longer, it will be a clear sign that the Government are continuing to fail.

6.22 pm

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spelled out why the total number of asylum seekers coming into the country has increased, and why many of them are settling at their ports of entry due to the changes in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. I shall concentrate on some of the difficulties that this has caused my constituents.

Until 1996-97, although about 21 million passengers travelled through Dover every year, very few stayed in the port. Few asylum seekers who passed through settled in Dover because the legislation was very different. At that time, we had an ethnic minority of less than 0.6 per cent., which was one of the smallest in the country.

In the past few years, as the changes introduced by the Conservatives took effect, asylum seekers have been required to claim in the port of Dover. Therefore, the numbers started to increase. For sensible and practical reasons--practical in the short term--the county council, which is picking up the bill, and Dover district council, which is settling the housing, housed those people in inexpensive accommodation in bed-and-breakfast areas close to the port. Large numbers of asylum seekers were concentrated in one small area of the town--an area that is not prosperous.

The early settlers who came across in large numbers in 1997 were mostly Slovakian Romany people. The local perception was that they were not fleeing from oppression--certainly not from state oppression or tyranny--and were not genuine claimants.

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Given that background, social tensions started to get worse. They were badly exacerbated by some of the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). The hostile comments in one local newspaper, the Dover Express, and the attacks of editor Nick Hudson on asylum seekers in his editorials raised tension and created an inflammatory atmosphere. He used the terms "human sewage" and "dross" in referring to asylum seekers. He published stories that most respectable newspapers would flush down the sink, puffing them up as story of the week, with headings like, "The good ship DSS Scrounger docks at Dover" and with many pejorative remarks. Those stories almost gave some legitimacy to the feeling of local people that they were being put on and having a hard time, or that they were not being dealt with fairly. His language was really hostile.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford could have told the House that senior members of the Kent police called in that same editor twice because of the language that he was using and the atmosphere that he was creating with his newspaper. The Dover Express is one of a number of local newspapers, but it stands alone in terms of that coverage. It changed its response to asylum seekers only when that editor took control. Many of the reporters have been at the paper a long time and still have the respect of the community, although I know that they have some problems.

Apart from being called in by the police, the Press Complaints Commission judged that the editor's coverage was likely to incite racial violence. Just this week, local churches in Dover put together a petition, which has been mentioned from the pulpits, entitled, "Christians against the Dover Express". It was handed in to the local paper last week. The police in Kent, the Press Complaints Commission and the local churches all say that that coverage is exacerbating the problems and adding to our difficulties.

Something else that added to our difficulties was the unwelcome intervention of the shadow Home Secretary in the summer. When we were trying to heal wounds, asylum support groups were coming in, the police were explaining the situation to the community and we were looking for calm, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) came posturing and pirouetting into Pencester gardens, saying all sorts of silly and spurious things--some of her remarks were inflammatory. On numerous occasions, she asked why the Government did not do something and why the Home Secretary had not acted.

The reality is that most of our problems were due to the large numbers of asylum seekers. What the right hon. Lady should have known--perhaps she did know--was that Kent county council could move asylum seekers who wished to go outside Dover and Kent. What she should have known, but did not tell the newspapers, was that months before the violence in Pencester gardens, the council had encouraged more than 100 asylum seekers to move away voluntarily. The numbers had started to decrease, but that did not suit the right hon. Lady's agenda on that day.

Today, the situation in Dover is much calmer. The police are taking appropriate action--not merely enforcement but liaison work. They are getting into the community and talking to both sides. A liaison officer is working with Kent county council and Dover district council, and talking to local people, especially in the hot

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spots. Life is returning to normal. The last figures that I have seen show that the number of asylum seekers in the area has dropped from 1,000 or more to less than 600.

In the remaining time, I must mention the good news stories in Dover--the stories behind all those headlines, which have been blown up and exaggerated by some Conservative Members. Local groups within the churches and voluntary asylum support groups have joined together into a network of asylum support without much outside funding and without any direct advantage to themselves. In a difficult situation, they have been working with asylum seekers and their families, in particular with the children, to give them some sort of welcome and to help integrate them into the community.

I am convinced that the practical changes in the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which I hope will soon become an Act, will deal with nearly all the problems that I have identified in Dover. The large numbers of asylum seekers can be reduced through sensible and sensitive dispersal, and Dover's attractiveness to asylum seekers can be removed by reducing the cash benefits to sensible support level. I welcome also those other provisions in the Bill that will give further protection to Dover.

I shall conclude my remarks with the message that there is a mixture of stories to be told about Dover, and that the hostility of one particular newspaper means that it will be very difficult to return matters to the way they were before 1996.

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