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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: In a moment.

I remind the right hon. Lady--who, even by her standards, seems extraordinarily poorly briefed--that for the time being the 1996 Act remains binding on the Government. We are replacing most of its provisions by more streamlined and effective measures in the new legislation, but until they are implemented, the 1996 Act remain in force--including the so-called white list which she claimed we had already abolished.

The right hon. Lady also claims that the Government have somehow encouraged the increase. That is a complete travesty of the facts. There has been and there will be no amnesty. The arrangements in the White Paper for dealing with the backlog of cases which had been waiting for an initial decision--not during our period in government, but since 1993--reflect the reality of those cases. New applicants have been in no doubt that their applications will be considered in the usual way.

The difference between Labour and Conservative is that we announced the policy for dealing with that backlog, but until this afternoon, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), never before has the right hon. Lady or any Conservative Member admitted that they had any policy to deal with the backlog from 1992-93, that it was an amnesty, and that it was a mistake. They were so ashamed of that amnesty that they failed to report it to Parliament. I wrote to the right hon. Lady three times last year asking her to accept responsibility for what happened and three times she failed properly to answer. The simple fact is that in 1992-93, under her amnesty, 26,000 people were granted exceptional leave to remain, compared with fewer than 6,000 in the years around that period.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he is dealing in simple facts, the simple fact is that he inherited from us a backlog approaching 50,000, which he described at the time as scandalous. The backlog now stands at 102,000. The whole of that increase has occurred under his administration. Will he take responsibility for that increase?

Mr. Straw: Of course I take responsibility for what has happened under my administration. I have never denied that. It is part of my role. In my very first speech as Home Secretary I said that I would take responsibility for what happened under my administration and my holding of

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this office. I invite the right hon. Lady to accept that we are not in the era of Pol Pot and 1 May 1997 was not year zero. What happened before may just have some bearing on the circumstances and systems that we inherited.

The right hon. Lady complained today, as she has in previous years, about the pressure on asylum seekers in her county of Kent. In her conference speech last year, she even had the audacity to say:

Yet she was the Minister responsible for the shambolic arrangements which have piled the pressure on Dover and other towns in Kent--keeping social security cash benefits and housing benefit for port applicants, with all the incentive for sucking in unfounded applications which they provide--and then forcing Kent and London local councils to bear the brunt of supporting almost every other applicant who applies in-country and then, on top of that, proposing an extra £500 million in social security cash handouts. What sort of message did that £500 million in unnecessary cash handouts send to asylum seekers?

Mr. Prosser: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the damage that the right hon. Lady did in Dover when she pirouetted through Pencester gardens? At a time when Labour Members were trying to quell social tensions and solve community problems, she came along surrounded by television cameras, looking for a quick soundbite and a headline. Is she aware of the terrible damage that she did on that day?

Mr. Straw: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has undertaken in Dover and in the surrounding area. Secondly, I point out to the right hon. Lady that the Liberal Democrat amendment--which is better than a curate's egg, although I am sorry that I cannot accept all of it--includes an important reference to the statement signed by all party leaders on the need for those of us who hold office to conduct our debates and arguments in a way that does not damage race relations.

When I listen to the language used by the right hon. Lady and examine some of the things that she has done and her complete evasion of responsibility for what has happened in Kent and in Dover, I wonder whether she does not come perilously close to what the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) invited his party to do--to use immigration as an election issue.

Some of us remember all too well the hon. Gentleman's chilling words when he was the head of the Conservative research department. He stated that immigration was "an issue which we"--the Conservative party--

The hon. Gentleman was talking about hurting the Labour party, but that language--that sort of invitation--does not hurt our party nearly as much as it hurts people from black and Asian communities. It hurts genuine asylum seekers, as well as those who are not.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that those who suffer most from the failing asylum system are the genuine asylum seekers, who, as I said in my speech, need a rapid and safe haven? They are at the centre of our wish to have a streamlined and

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effective asylum system. Is it really his view that, when asylum applications and the backlog have doubled, it is improper for the Opposition to criticise the Government for that, to point out why it happened and to make our own proposals for rectifying it? Is he saying that to do that is to come perilously close to racist language? Let him grow up.

Mr. Straw: For five years, we have been asking for the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire to withdraw those remarks, or for them to be disowned by Opposition Front-Bench Members. I am looking forward to that.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. If he cares to look back, he will find that my remarks were made entirely in the context of the Labour party's policy in both the 1992 and the 1994 elections. He will remember that policy well; it was to extend a right of residence in the United Kingdom to everybody who enjoys the right of residence in other EU countries. He knows that that was a damaging policy--as we argued in both elections. He acknowledged that and dropped the policy.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me or my constituency--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that one bite of the cherry is sufficient.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire protests too much. I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison).

Mr. Clappison: I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. May I take him back to the collapse in the administrative machinery at the Home Office that is at the root of the problem? Last March, he told the Special Standing Committee on the Immigration and Asylum Bill that he was taking personal responsibility for that machinery and that it was the most important task that he faced. Since then, the backlog has grown by a further 30,000; it is now more than 100,000 and growing every month. When will he bring that matter under control? When will the backlog start to go down?

Mr. Straw: Later in my speech, I will give the hon. Gentleman the figures that spell out how, after a period of considerable difficulty, the processing of asylum applications, as well as the casework on other immigration applications, is improving.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Like my right hon. Friend, I have no time for bogus asylum seekers. Is it not true that time and again the Tory party has played the race card--including an onslaught on the ancestors of several Members sitting on the Tory Benches?

Mr. Straw: I bow to the greater historical knowledge of my hon. Friend.

What, above all, gives lie to the posture of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is the Opposition's record during the passage of our Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. She calls today for a huge extension of detention, yet at no stage did those on

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the Conservative Front Bench or any Member of the Opposition table such an amendment during the passage of the Act. She calls now for a continuation of the white list, yet those on the Conservative Front Bench were evidently so satisfied with our alternative to the white list that they did not even seek to debate the proposals in the Act, still less to vote to against them.

Twice in the space of three years the Conservative Government tried to reform the asylum system. If their first Act--the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993--had worked, the second would not have been necessary. Dramatically short turn-around times in processing applications were promised when the Act was considered in 1992. The then Home Secretary promised that many applications would be turned around in 10 days.

The 1993 Act failed, so the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) had to introduce the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. He admitted what has now happened. He said:

It was fundamentally because of the failure of the 1996 Act that we decided that the system needed root- and-branch reform. Following a comprehensive review of the system, our White Paper set out the provisions for that reform.

The 1999 Act, unlike the provisions of the previous Administration, will deliver a single, comprehensive right of appeal. It will create a new asylum support system to replace the current shambles and it will regulate immigration advisers to eradicate the unscrupulous who exploit and cheat vulnerable applicants. It will strengthen the power of the immigration service to target the criminal facilitators who profit from the traffic in clandestine and illegal immigration.

At the time of our 1998 White Paper, asylum applications were projected to increase to 44,000 in the current financial year, but we now expect to receive more than 80,000. As I spelled out in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, numbers in many other countries have increased to a similar degree. The Republic of Ireland, proportionate to its population, has seen a huge increase, and so has Finland. Under figures just released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, per head of population Britain is not at the top of the league tables; it is ninth. That fact needs to be taken into account if we are to have a balanced and sensible debate about the well-founded and unfounded problems of asylum seekers.

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