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Register of Medical Practitioners (Amendment)

Ms Linda Perham accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Medical Act 1983 with respect to the restoration of names to the register of medical practitioners; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 March, and to be printed [Bill 57].

2 Feb 2000 : Column 1048

Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Asylum and Immigration

Madam Speaker: We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It may assist the House if I explain what I have already explained to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Keen-eyed Members may have spotted the fact that the Government amendment on page 556 of the Order Paper this morning did not relate to the Opposition's motion, but was an amendment that the House passed on 26 October 1999.

It comes down to the expression famously coined by Mr. Peter Preston, the former editor of The Guardian, in a different context: it was down to a "cod fax". As usual, Ministers agreed an appropriate amendment last night but, owing to some infelicity in the arrangements for taking that text off a word processor and faxing it, instead of its coming over to the House, the text of the amendment on 26 October 1999 came over. I hope that that does not in any way inconvenience the right hon. Lady or the hon. Gentleman in their speeches.

Madam Speaker: The Secretary of State is, as always, extremely helpful to the House.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: There is no further point of order. The matter has been dealt with.

3.47 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

As you will take no further points of order, Madam Speaker, may I say that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister on the Order Paper says it all? When I first saw it, I thought that the Home Secretary was so ashamed of his record on asylum that he was desperately

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trying to debate the Mitrokhin archive instead. He now tells us that the amendment in his name and that of the Prime Minister was just an error.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State made it clear to you, Madam Speaker, when he revealed the error--he certainly did not to me--whether he blames himself, his special advisers, his much-blamed officials or his fax machine, but on this occasion he cannot blame the previous Government.

As far as my researches have so far carried me, which is back to 1982, there has never been a single instance of an amendment in the name of the Prime Minister not being selected for debate. The Home Secretary has set a new record, which few of us will be keen to outdo. Presumably, he would sum it up in his usual phrase--as opposed to The Guardian's--as "business as usual" at the Home Office.

Week after week, month after month, we are confronted with the chaotic situation into which the Home Secretary's brief has descended--police numbers down, crime figures up, criminals out of prison early and reoffending when they should be in jail, not to mention the Mitrokhin archive and a host of other gaffes and instances of incompetence, which the Government were so eager to debate today.

We shall concentrate on the Home Secretary's most visible and devastating failure to date. It is devastating not only to his and the Government's rapidly declining reputation, but to the people of Britain, especially the people of Kent, and, above all, to the genuine asylum seekers who need a settled haven quickly. The facts speak for themselves. The number of applications for political asylum in the United Kingdom was less than 30,000 in our last full year of office. Three years later, in the third year of a Labour Government, the figure is 71,000--an increase of 130 per cent. Yet the latest figures show that nearly 80 per cent. of applications are unfounded and thus rejected. None of that is coincidence.

The Home Secretary has only himself to blame. He promised an amnesty for thousands of asylum seekers, regardless of the merits of their cases. That was his decision. The Government deliberately abandoned the checks on illegal working that we introduced in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Again, that was his decision.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Not true.

Miss Widdecombe: The Minister claims that that is not true, but I refer her to the debate during which we considered the Government's measures. A previous Minister of State had to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the decision not to implement our measures against illegal working was wrong. I suggest that the Minister re-read the debate; perhaps it will give her some idea of her Government's proposals.

Mrs. Roche: The right hon. Lady is absolutely wrong. We have not dismantled any of the controls that she mentioned. Indeed, from time to time, I receive submissions from officials about them. As to the implementation of the prohibition on employing people who are here illegally, this Administration, unlike hers, have issued warnings.

Miss Widdecombe: When the Minister was in opposition, she said that our measures against employers

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who took on illegal workers without having made due checks were a burden on business, which a Labour Government would not implement. Only last summer, when challenged at the Dispatch Box, a previous Minister of State admitted that the Government were wrong, and that they were reverting to measures that they may not have dismantled, but did not implement.

The Government also promised to abolish the list of safe countries of origin. They reversed high-profile deportation decisions that we had made. They even returned someone who had already left the country. They also abolished the primary purpose rule. The message was loud and clear: Britain was once again a soft touch. The message, the decisions and the responsibility were all the Home Secretary's.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): I am sorry that I cannot attend the whole debate, but I have to attend a Public Accounts Committee hearing on entry clearance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with asylum applications soaring and chaos in the immigration case load, it beggars belief that Ministers decided to introduce a new computer system and move the immigration and nationality directorate offices?

Miss Widdecombe: Indeed. I shall comment on that later. I hope that my hon. Friend will not have left for the Public Accounts Committee meeting by then.

Thousands of asylum seekers whose applications have been refused are still here. Will the Home Secretary confirm that more than 70,000 asylum seekers a year come to the United Kingdom, that up to 80 per cent. of applications are rejected, but that the immigration and nationality directorate's targets envisage only approximately 10 per cent. of those people leaving the country? Will he further confirm that even that paltry figure is not being met? Does not that mean that the system is in growing chaos? Is it surprising that so many bogus applicants come when they know that they will not be removed even when the due processes have rejected their claims?

That is not all. The backlog of unprocessed asylum applications now stands at more than 100,000. Can the Home Secretary confirm that that is double the number that Labour inherited on coming to office and that last year, the number of asylum claims processed fell to fewer than 100,000 a month as a result of what I can only describe to my hon. Friend as the Government's totally barmy decision to reorganise and relocate the immigration and nationality directorate at the same time as it was introducing a new computer system?

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Why did the right hon. Lady sanction cutting 1,200 staff in the directorate before she found out whether the new computer, which she ordered, was efficient? The Public Accounts Committee says that it is not.

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