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4.18 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): After that speech, Madam Speaker, you might have done the House a favour if you had allowed the Government amendment, because the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) covered the same ground as she covered on 26 October, but less well. What I now regret is that the parliamentary department in the Home Office did not fax over that speech as well as our amendment--she could have just read it out.

I am always ready to hold a serious debate on the important issue of immigration and asylum, but a serious contribution to that debate was the last thing that we heard from the right hon. Lady. Instead, we heard a speech that was as confused in its analysis as it was empty of any serious propositions to deal fairly and firmly with those who apply for asylum in this country.

The right hon. Lady's bare-faced opportunism is best shown by the extraordinary lurches in policy over which she has presided, first in government and then in opposition. Today, we hear that she is on the side of toughness, yet she is the same shadow Home Secretary who, just three months ago, backed a Conservative amendment in the other place to restore social security cash payments to all asylum seekers, at a cost of £500 million a year--an amendment that she described as both common sense and sensible. She is the same shadow Home Secretary who, despite the thousands of clandestines entering the UK, smuggled through our ports in the backs of lorries, has sided with negligent or complicit hauliers by opposing the civil penalty against those truck drivers and owners who fail to take any reasonable precautions to stop people gaining access to their trucks.

The right hon. Lady now talks about those who are facilitating bogus asylum seekers. However, she is the same shadow Home Secretary who, when Minister with responsibility for immigration and confronted with mounting evidence of the connection between the serious criminals who traffic in unfounded asylum seekers and the unscrupulous immigration advisers and solicitors who help them manufacture their claims in the United Kingdom, did absolutely nothing. Worse, when the Government were in opposition and we tabled amendments to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 to control those unscrupulous immigration advisers, what was her response? It was not to say, "Yes, we have a problem and should introduce controls", but to wash her hands of the problem and to reject those controls.

Miss Widdecombe: Currently, some lorry drivers are discovering that, against their best endeavours, they have

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people in their loads who should not be there. Until the right hon. Gentleman introduced the new measures, those lorry drivers were able to feel quite secure in reporting that fact to the authorities. Is he aware that I have been receiving letters from lorry drivers who have done that in the past, but who say that, in future, they would be very wary of reporting it to the authorities in case they were faced with a fine for their pains?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there have been plenty of instances of illegal entrants being detected, claiming asylum--naturally--and then being issued with a voucher and told to go to Croydon, but never getting to Croydon? He has said that there have been no solid proposals from us. Does he not accept that a proposal for automatic detention in such cases would solve an awful lot?

Mr. Straw: I shall deal with the right hon. Lady's point on detention in a moment. However, her first point was absolutely extraordinary. The proposition she is advancing is that if a haulier has 20, 30 or 40 clandestines--not one or two, typically--secreted in the back of his lorry, he should be under no duty before his lorry is put on the ferry to check whether those clandestines are there. That is her proposition.

The Government are proposing a sensible and fair system under which, if hauliers take the reasonable precautions specified in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, they will not incur a penalty; but if they do not, they will. I think that that system is accepted by the whole of the British people except--extraordinarily--the right hon. Lady.

The burden of the right hon. Lady's speech is that the unexpected increase in asylum seekers that occurred in 1999 is the consequence solely of the Government's approach to the issue. However, on that puerile analysis, Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Baker were entirely to blame not for a doubling of asylum seekers, as happened last year, but for the tenfold increase in asylum seekers that occurred at the beginning of the 1990s. Moreover, on her analysis, the fact that the Berlin wall had come down and communism had collapsed in the intervening period was only a minor irrelevance.

We do face--as do all other prosperous nations--a significant problem of unfounded asylum seekers who are in truth simply economic migrants. However, if we look down the list of the top countries, what do we find? We find the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan--which together last year accounted for almost 31,000 asylum applicants; more than 40 per cent. of the total. Even the right hon. Lady would find it difficult to deny that each of those countries has faced severe upheaval of one sort or another, and that many of the applications from those countries are genuine and well-founded.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): If that is the Home Secretary's defence, how does he explain the fact that last year the number of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom increased by 98 per cent., whereas the number of asylum seekers in Germany decreased by 3 per cent?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to explain that point. Some, but not all, European countries faced similar and, in some cases, larger increases than the United Kingdom.

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Germany still has a higher number of applicants in absolute terms than we do, but the figure is diminishing. The reason for that is that some years ago Germany put in place the systems of control that we are introducing and made the necessary investment that we need to make in order to make good the failure over which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald presided.

Mr. Gale: Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that in October 1997 my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and I visited the Home Office on the advice of the police, who had told us that there would be an influx of 3,000 illegal immigrants from the Czech and Slovak Republics? Does he deny that we asked then for visa restrictions to be imposed? Does he deny that his junior Minister said that there was not a problem and nor was there likely to be? Does he deny that it took him a year to introduce a visa requirement for the Slovak Republic? Does he deny that he has still done nothing about the Czech Republic? Does not all that show that the Government are seen by others as a soft touch?

Mr. Straw: No, the Government have not been seen as a soft touch. We have to consider the problem of playing the race card. We need a swifter system to deal with well-founded applications, but we have to be careful in our use of language. I gave the figures for the four countries that I mentioned because under the 1951 convention, which the Conservatives have observed just as we have, we are obliged to consider every application on its merits, regardless of whether the applicant comes from a country that is currently on the white list or one from which only a tiny proportion of applicants--or even none--have been accepted for asylum.

Miss Widdecombe: Of course.

Mr. Straw: Yes, but the natural consequence of the emotive language that is used is that we should somehow abrogate our responsibilities under that treaty. The Conservatives have to accept that 40 per cent. of the large increase that we have faced comes from countries that, on any analysis, have suffered the most serious political upheaval and violence that any of us could imagine.

During the past two years only 2 per cent. of applicants from China have been granted leave to stay, but only three months ago the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and many Conservative Members condemned China during its President's state visit for its record on human rights, indirectly giving encouragement to all claimants from that country.

The right hon. Lady claims that numbers would be under control if we had followed the policy and approach of the Government of whom she was a member. She rests a large part of her case on the fact that numbers had started to go down as her Administration left office. If the 1996 Act was so good, why has it produced such poor results? The stark truth is that all the increase in asylum seekers about which she protests occurred under a legal and administrative framework that the Conservatives laid down.

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The dip in numbers in late 1996 and 1997 came about after the previous Administration removed any entitlement to welfare support or benefit for those who applied in-country. However, one of the Conservatives many failures was not thinking through what they were doing. They were bound to be faced with a judicial review of that decision, which resulted in the policy being overturned by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. That badly thought-through policy resulted in a huge burden being placed on local authorities--not spread evenly throughout the country, but principally in Kent and London--to provide support for those who applied in-country. The restoration of that support is one reason why numbers started to rise.

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