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4.56 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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    for Racial Equality agreement, signed by all three major party leaders, not to use problems in the immigration and asylum systems in ways which could damage community and race relations.".

It comes as an unexpected pleasure and surprise that, for the first time in my years as a Member of Parliament, on a Conservative Supply day, a Liberal or Liberal Democrat amendment has been selected for debate. At the end of the debate, the choice will be between one Conservative policy and one Liberal Democrat policy, which might explain why the Government amendment was not selected--if it had been, the choice would have been between two conservative policies.

The Home Secretary was kind enough to alert my office to the fact that there had been a technical hitch with the Government amendment. As I told him just before the debate stated, we had already noticed that something had clearly gone wrong because we had seen the Government's amendment on a previous occasion and voted against it then. I know that the Government suffer from amnesia, but to put the same amendment before the House twice in three months strikes me as somewhat excessive. However, it is not inappropriate that, in a debate on the poor administration of the Home Office, the Home Office has not even managed to get the right amendment on the Order Paper.

Mr. Straw: I thought that he would say that.

Mr. Hughes: I thought that the Home Secretary would think that I would say that. As I told him previously, I hope for his sake that things can only get better.

I have been looking back at debates on what became the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. In large measure, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), with the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), dealt with that legislation for the Liberal Democrats. On Second Reading in the House of Lords, the current Attorney- General, then a Home Office Minister, said:

I start on a non-partisan and non-party political note by saying that our job when we debate such issues is to rise above jingoistic politics, which are often too easily resorted to. We must try to deal with a matter that is hugely important, not only to all our constituencies, but nationally and internationally. Over the generations, many of the great contributors to British life have been the children of immigrants. Many of those who have given most have been the descendants of refugees. Many Members of Parliament have sprung from families who fled persecution in other parts of the world.

I entirely concur with the Government in saying that it is not normally the attitude, behaviour or competence of the UK Government that is the largest single determinant of the number of people applying to settle in this country, either as immigrants or as asylum seekers. They come here principally because of the politics and pressures prevalent in other places in the world. We are not immune from those pressures, nor should we be. We have to behave responsibly and play our proper part in the world.

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It is quite wrong of the Conservative Opposition to suggest that the number of asylum seekers shows whether the Government are a soft touch. I heard the Leader of the Conservative Opposition make his allegations today. The number of applications from people coming to Britain has gone up, as it has in almost every other country in Europe, for self-evident reasons. Only someone who has not read a newspaper or watched a television news bulletin in the past 10 years would imagine otherwise.

Mr. Howard: Did not the hon. Gentleman listen to the Home Secretary? Did not he hear the Home Secretary say, in answer to my question about the fall in the number of asylum applications in Germany, that the reason for that fall is the fact that there are effective arrangements in Germany for dealing with asylum applications? In other words--the Home Secretary did not use these words, but it comes to the same thing--he said that the number of applications had fallen in Germany because Germany was no longer a soft touch.

Mr. Hughes: Those were not the words that the Home Secretary used. I listened to the exchange. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is a former Home Secretary, knows that immigration into Germany during the 1990s was often from countries immediately to the east of it and from Turkey in large measure. The pattern of immigration to Germany in the past few years was different from the pattern of immigration to Britain.

Of course, the measures taken by a country have an effect. The Home Secretary was right in what he said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

The pattern across Europe is revealed by the figures for the 13 European countries, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman can obtain from the Library, just as I did. The UK rate for asylum applications last year per head of population was 9.8 per 100,000, compared to an average of 9.5 per 100,000. Germany had a slightly higher number last year than we had. Yes, its rate is now going down, and yes, ours is going up, but it would not be wise or reasonable to suggest that that is entirely or largely due to the measures adopted by the country in question. They are a factor--

Mr. Howard: That is what the Home Secretary said.

Mr. Hughes: I do not believe that, and the record will show that that was not the case. I was present for the exchange between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Home Secretary.

The Home Secretary has on previous occasions accused me and other colleagues of being woolly liberals. Many of us who deal with immigration and asylum matters are far from woolly liberals about those issues. We have constituencies with huge numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants. I checked the figure this morning. There are just under 3,000 refugees being looked after by my local authority, and large numbers in my constituency. My office receives a significant number of new immigration cases every day, as do those of some of my hon. Friends around the country.

We come to the issue first from our constituency experience. That is why we are critical of the present system. People can wait for up to six years for their cases

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to be dealt with. People hand in their passport for a new permission to stay to be approved, and they do not see their passport for weeks, months or sometimes years. Documents handed in are lost and not found. Documents are not returned. One Department does not know that another Department has transferred the case to it to be dealt with. The case does not get to the tribunal for weeks to be dealt with so that the appeal can be heard, because the papers get lost in the system.

Those are administrative problems, but behind them are real people with real concerns. There are people in refugee camps waiting to join their families. There are people who want to come on a visit, like the person who wanted to come from Sierra Leone to see his dying mother but never made it because the system would not process the application in time, and the mother died while he was still waiting for his case to be dealt with in Sierra Leone.

From all over the world, the experience is that the system is not working. That is not in the interest of the asylum seeker or the rest of the community, because it builds up the number of people who are literally waiting in a queue, some of them on our doorstep, and it builds up the cost.

Let us be clear that none of us in this country is being overrun by immigrants or asylum seekers. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and his constituents, and those in London boroughs have borne the brunt of large numbers, but compared with many countries and the numbers with which they deal regularly, asylum seekers constitute a small additional burden on this country. A rich, western country should be able to deal with that competently and fairly.

It is true that there have been significant increases in numbers in recent years. The Home Secretary was right to say that we must be careful to get the facts right. Approximately one third of asylum seekers are accepted for settlement on the first request. After appeal, approximately half are accepted. It is not an abuse of a system for people to try, even if they are rejected. That is why the system exists. It is comparable to a court. It is not an abuse of the jury system for someone to want to go to Crown court, and it is not an abuse of the immigration system for someone to try to come to Britain. In both instances, some cases are turned down.

Of course, some people enter the country illegally, and they should not; others remain illegally, and they should not. However, we should not punish those who often come from traumatic backgrounds simply because others try to sneak through when they should not. Doing that is comparable to punishing 25 good pupils in a classroom for the behaviour of five naughty pupils. That is not the right way to run a system; indeed, it would be illegal.

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