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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's use of the words "abusive" and "bogus" is unhelpful? Those expressions whip up the media. An unsuccessful applicant for a job is not necessarily a bogus applicant. If applicants are refused entry, it simply means that they have not fulfilled the IND's strict criteria. The terms "bogus" and "abusive" also attach blame to people who are fleeing or trying to better themselves.

Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend is right. In his short time in the House, he has gained huge experience of immigration matters, not least because Campsfield is in his constituency.

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Let us consider the international background. We should not duck the facts: this continent is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the second world war. There are 1 million displaced people in Europe. European applications have increased by 20 per cent. in the past year. Our figures tell a story: the largest number of applicants come from former Yugoslavia. That is not an accident, but the consequence of civil war. People come here after losing their families, homes and everything they ever possessed. There are hundreds and thousands of people in refugee camps in southern Europe. I have visited central Africa, where there were refugee camps of tens of thousands of people. We must consider our position against that perspective.

As the Home Secretary said, we signed the United Nations convention in 1951. There has since been an updating protocol. The key element of the convention is that this country must treat every case on its merits. That is the test. We must look at every case, without lists for fast treatment and lists for slow treatment, or cursory treatment for some and not for others. All asylum seekers, no matter where they come from, must be considered on their merits.

The Liberal Democrats believe in a firm and fair immigration policy, which must be non-racist and non-discriminatory. There should also be a policy on asylum, and it should honour our legal and moral obligations, not deter or penalise genuine asylum seekers. Ultimately, we must be able to say that when somebody needed us, we were there; that when people justifiably needed to come to Britain, we let them in. We join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to those in the IND who have laboured under huge pressure and who are almost always as helpful as possible.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) had to leave the Chamber; she apologised to me before she left. The criticisms are therefore made in her absence, but they apply to the motion.

Three documents show clearly that the current problems preceded this Government. I pray in aid those documents, all of which are available to hon. Members and date from last year. The first is the evidence given to the Special Standing Committee on the Immigration and Asylum Bill in the spring of 1999 by the Public and Commercial Services Union, which described the problem with which it was trying to deal. It said that it believed

that is, those in the Bill--

    "needs to be fully informed as to why the time limits set appear to be wholly unrealistic. The grounds for this belief include:

    --the rise in the asylum backlog during 1998

    --the reduction in IND staff during the same period, in preparation for the 'computerisation' of casework . . .

    --the delay in the delivery of the I.T. system

    --the transitional problems currently being experienced in IND and their repercussions in the medium term

    --doubts about the anticipated longer-term efficiency gain. . .

    --the insufficiency of the additional funds made available to IND following the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review."

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    The PCS concluded that it

    "firmly believes that unless the implementation of these provisions are accompanied by the investment of significant additional resources in the form of extra staff, further delays and backlogs are inevitable, jeopardising not only the viability of this particular strategy but the main aims of the Bill, in general."--[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 22 March 1999; c. 448-49.]

That was the union's evidence and it was clear.

As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is clearly aware, the Public Accounts Committee more recently produced two other relevant documents in the autumn. One looked into the Home Office IND casework programme and the other was on improving the delivery of Government information technology projects. They are both damning indictments of the system as set up, the failure to provide the resources and to plan for an increase in the number of people who would arrive, and the absolutely mad--those are my words--decision to move the whole operation while changing the operating system and at the peak of demand.

If ever anything was bound to have caused complete confusion and add to the backlog--and it did--it was that administrative change last year. The incompetence and failure to plan adequately began under the Tories and they failed. The number of people who were not picked up and should have been and who were told to leave but were not deported was no better under the Conservative Government than it is now, and the system was no more competent, as I know from personal experience. Therefore, it is a bit rich to say that the problem is the fault of this Government since 1997.

However, the PAC did not let the Government off the hook. The PAC and its report made it abundantly clear that the Government did not respond quickly or adequately enough and that they could have done. The PAC was very critical indeed. The truth of the matter is that every increase in the number of cases that are not dealt with increases the trauma of the person in the queue, who may be a valid immigrant seeking asylum, as well as having two other harmful effects. It increases community tension--the longer the queue and the larger the pool of people, the more tensions and pressures are put on the system. As great a folly, however, is that it costs everyone more.

The PAC made the case explicitly. The cost of processing an application is of the order of £400. The cost per month of keeping a family here in the queue is of the order of £1,000 more than that. Therefore, it is in no one's interests to have a huge number of people waiting and we do not have the resources to deal with them. It was a terrible mistake not to have anticipated these problems, as the Government failed to do, and not to have provided resources and investment.

Sometimes when we argue about resources, for example for the health service, the Government reasonably say, "Well it takes three years to train a nurse and seven to train a doctor, so we can't suddenly sort out all the problems." The Home Secretary knows that it takes between three and six months to train people to deal competently with IND cases in the Home Office and that after that time those people will be as competent as those who were dealing with them before. The system can be turned around quickly. It is not an impossible task and it must be tackled.

I have some questions and propositions for the Government. There are still huge pressures on the system. First, we need to know whether the cost of the system that

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the Government have introduced--the asylum support directorate national system, which will come into force in April--is still per person or per unit administratively much more expensive than the system that is being replaced. If that is the case, it will have immediate knock-on implications for additional resources.

Secondly, the Home Secretary said a moment ago that he still hoped that most of the cases could be dealt with in the target of two months by April next year--four months for appeal cases. Will the right hon. Gentleman be more specific? Are the Government on course to deliver that target? From now on, will the backlog reduce and the target time come nearer?

Thirdly, we always criticise the Government for choosing the waiting list test for hospital beds and treatment. The number of people on the list matters little. What matters is how long one waits. The issue is not how big is the backlog, but how long one must wait for one's case to be heard. What is the present average length of wait for a case to be dealt with? If that is not decreasing, we are not winning the battle. If the time that one has to wait for one's case to be processed and for an appeal to be dealt with is not decreasing, we are not moving forward.

Finally, there is great concern about the provisions for local authorities and their ability to provide under the interim system dispersal places for asylum seekers. The authorities are keen to help, but they do not appear to have come up with places. There is even greater concern that after April there will not be places to enable the new system to work. When the Minister of State replies I should be grateful if she told us how far short we are of the number of guaranteed places that are necessary if dispersal is to happen. It is no good to plan the dispersal of refugees from Kent, south London or Islington if there are no places to receive them. That is not an acceptable policy and it must be changed.

Our position as expressed in our amendment is straightforward. We believe that one must start by trying to reduce globally the number of people who become refugees. Good foreign policy, diplomacy and conflict resolution will play their part in reducing the sorts of crises that we have recently seen on our continent. Those require us to work internationally and not put our head in the sand and be little nationalists. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said, it is no good Conservatives using language that suggests that everything will be fine so long as we look after our own and that anyone else can come second.

We have to be ruthless about reducing the waiting times. That is in everyone's interests, not least those of the taxpayer, and that has to be a priority.

Also, we are nearing the Budget. The Prime Minister always accuses my hon. Friends and me of wanting more money. The truth of the matter is that investment now in good-quality staff to process the cases in the system will save money in the medium and longer term. There has been movement in that direction, but if we are to make progress, the Chancellor must put his hand into the contingency reserve in the Budget, and the comprehensive spending review needs to produce more money for the IND. We find money quickly when there is a war in Kuwait or southern Europe, for example. We have no problem with paying for the troops to go there. When a war somewhere else has a knock-on effect for us, however, we find it more difficult to respond.

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Finally, as the Home Secretary was kind enough to say, the former leader of our party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), signed with other party leaders, at the request of the Commission for Racial Equality, a document which stated that when debating immigration and asylum matters we must be particularly careful to ensure that we say and do nothing to harm race and community relations in this country. The test of the right policy and the right approach will be passed by the politicians who rise above the temptation to foster party advantage and racial disharmony and argue for immigration and asylum policies that allow Britain to honour its obligations and those who come to us for help to be dealt with quickly and fairly in their interests and in ours.

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