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Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am pleased that my hon. Friend has mentioned bonds. Does he agree that their introduction would discriminate against the poorest people and be divisive for families in this country? They would be discriminatory because they will, I understand, be introduced under a pilot scheme applying to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. That will cause untold anger among those in the south Asian community in this country, who will feel that the Government are discriminating against them.

Mr. Mudie: I do myself no good with the Home Secretary, but I agree with every word that my hon. Friend says. These words from the consultation document should fill any Home Office Minister with dread:

What are those circumstances?

    "This will be when the ECO is satisfied that all other requirements of the visitor rules are met, but there is reason to doubt that someone who has applied for a visa visit to come to the UK . . . intends to return to their own country."

I cannot understand why a person should not get a visa if he has met all the conditions that we have imposed. We could apply that paragraph to the other part of the Home Office and tell the police, "Have this individual, go through every question and get his alibi, but if you have a gut feeling, despite him giving perfect answers, put a bond on him because your gut feeling is enough," but we would not get such legislation past the House. In these circumstances, a person might satisfy every condition and the entry clearance officer might say, "Okay," but he still may face a bond.

I do not think that the bond will be £10,000--that figure represents a bit of kite flying to make £5,000 satisfactory--but it will have to be substantial if it is to act as a deterrent. That is wrong. We should either introduce bonds on the facts and be able to check those facts on appeal or leave things--[Interruption.] I shall finish soon, to the relief of the Whip.

Constituents should be able to say to us, "I can afford it. Put a bond on and I'll pay it," but what would happen to the constituent who cannot afford a bond? This story is not hypothetical. A woman constituent of mine was dying in a hospice and was days from going into a fatal coma. Her brother and three sisters were in Pakistan. She asked them to come and they wanted to see her. The ECO let the younger sister in, but the other two were turned down. They would not be turned down now, but would have a bond placed on them. Such a family would have to find £10,000 to come here to see a dying sister. I could provide other instances in which the ECO turned people down,

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despite the facts. Every Member of the House knows such stories. The Government have introduced the proposal for the right reason, but I appeal for it not to be implemented until we have re-established the appeal system in October, seen how it works and gained confidence in an objective adjudicator who listens to the facts.

5.37 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I do not want to add to the difficulties of the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) with the Home Secretary, but I, too, agree with his last point and what he said about the bond. He made a powerful case against the proposal. While I am in agreement mode, I agree with the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on the work of the immigration service. Although there is no doubt that it does a tremendous amount of hard and conscientious work--it is right to pay tribute to that--the debate is about not its efforts, but the system in which it has to operate.

First, I must nail the repeated falsehoods so sedulously propagated by Ministers from the Prime Minister down--he was at it at Question Time today--whenever they discuss these issues. They never comment without blaming the previous Government for the appalling mess that they themselves created. There is absolutely no foundation whatever for those allegations. Let me repeat the figures, although they are a matter of record. I last quoted them in the House during our debate on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and invited the Home Secretary to challenge them. He conspicuously refused that invitation.

In 1996, which was the last full year of the previous Government's term, there were 29,640 asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The year before, the number was almost 44,000--to be exact, 43,965. That reduction was a direct result of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, for which I was responsible, and of the associated benefit changes for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was responsible.

If we compare the figures month by month--a much fairer comparison, as the changes were not in force for the whole of 1996--we see that the percentage reduction was even greater than that represented by the figures that I have just given. If, for example, we compare the figures for May 1996 with those of May 1995, we see that the reduction was nearly 50 per cent. That was the record of the last Government: a record of substantial progress. Let us compare those figures with the record of the present Government. The number of asylum seekers in 1999 was not 29,640 but 71,160, nearly two and a half times as many.

Those are national figures. I represent a part of Kent that has had to bear more--much more--than its fair share of the burden that inevitably arises as a result of the numbers; and the numbers in Kent are stark. In the first six months of the financial year 1996-97, fewer than 50 in-country asylum seekers--those who apply for asylum after entering the country--were dealt with by Kent county council. Since 19 August last year, less than six months ago, the council has dealt with more than 5,000 in-country asylum seekers. That is the measure of the total failure--the total abdication of responsibility--of the present Government.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What the right hon. and learned Gentleman fails to recognise is that those figures

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reflect the fact that asylum seekers are coming from different parts of the world. That is the main reason for the increase in the United Kingdom, and the main reason for the differential between the impact on Kent and the impact elsewhere. The vast bulk of the increase is represented by an increase in the number of asylum seekers from Europe; the number of asylum seekers from Africa is still significantly lower than it was in the 1980s. I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is misleading the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Lady should withdraw that remark.

Fiona Mactaggart: I did not say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was intentionally misleading the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: In that case, the hon. Lady should qualify her remark.

Mr. Howard: The hon. Lady's assertion is wholly unconvincing. I shall deal with the source of asylum seekers later.

Mr. Shaw: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard: I will, but then I must make progress.

Mr. Shaw: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman regret the fact that the 1996 Act placed the burden of funding asylum seekers on councils such as our own Kent county council? Does he not agree that national Government should bear the financial responsibility, as Kent county council now says?

Mr. Howard: The 1996 Act did not do that. The Home Secretary was partly right in what he said earlier. The Act had the dramatic impact to which I have referred. As the Home Secretary rightly pointed out, that impact was then blunted by a High Court decision on judicial review, which placed the burden to which the hon. Gentleman refers on local authorities, and distorted the intended effect of the Act.

The Home Secretary was right about that, but he was wrong in saying that the judicial review decision was made in the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. In fact, it was made in a lower court; and there were two things that the present Government could and should have done to restore the original effect of the 1996 Act.

First, the Government could and should have appealed against the decision made on judicial review. They decided not to pursue such an appeal. Secondly, they could and should have introduced subsequent legislation to restore the good effect of the 1996 Act. I am sure that they would have had the full support of the Opposition had they done so. If that had been done, the 1996 Act would have continued to have the dramatic, beneficial and constructive impact that it had in 1996.

I must say one more thing about Kent. I must reproach and reprove the Government for the fact that they have yet to reimburse Kent county council for the costs that it has incurred in dealing with this problem.

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I have concentrated on the figures relating to the number of people seeking asylum here, but the last Government also made progress in regard to the number of applications dealt with. In the last year of Conservative government, the number was nearly 50 per cent. up on that of the previous year. Moreover, we managed to reduce the backlog of applications by 10,000. Responsibility for the present mess rests squarely--indeed, exclusively--on the shoulders of the present Government. Those are the facts of the matter.

I have always made it clear that we in this country should continue to act in accordance with our honourable tradition of granting refuge to those who genuinely flee persecution, and none of the changes made by the last Government affected the entitlement of genuine refugees to obtain asylum here. But it is surely crystal clear that our arrangements are being abused--and "abused" is the right word.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who I am sorry to see is no longer present, talked absolute nonsense when he compared an application for asylum that failed with an application for a job that failed. It is a ridiculous comparison: we need only glance at the latest figures in the most cursory way to see that that is so. In every single month of 1999 since May, far the largest number of asylum seekers came from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; almost all came, or claimed to have come, from Kosovo.

It is of course true that, in May and June last year, terrible atrocities were committed in Kosovo. I have no doubt that, at the time, many genuine refugees from that troubled land applied for asylum here, and may well have been entitled to asylum here. Since July, however, we and other countries have had armies in Kosovo. They are there to ensure that persecution does not take place. It is surely ludicrous that we should undertake the burden of an expensive military presence in that land to make it safe, and at the same time allow large numbers of people from that land to enter this country alleging that it is not safe. That is an inexplicable and indefensible state of affairs.

The Government have in their hands a remedy for this abuse. The provisions in the 1996 Act that enabled applications from certain listed countries to be made subject to an accelerated appeal process are still on the statute book. The Government have acknowledged that no unfairness has resulted from the operation of that power. They could have added months ago, and could add today, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to the list. That single step--which I asked the Home Secretary to take as long ago as 9 September--could have a dramatic impact on the scale of the problem.

I urge the Government to take that step, and also to take the steps urged on them by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). If they do not, they will simply confirm the widely held view that they lack the political will to sort out the mess for which they, and they alone, are responsible.

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