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Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend will agree that the backlog depends as well on the number of cases that are determined. Does he share my curiosity to hear the Home Secretary say that the latest figure for the number of applications that has been determined was nudging 4,000? Home Office asylum statistics that I have received show that the figure is only 2,320 and that there has been a further decline in the number since last summer?

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend, who has a distinguished background in immigration and asylum, is right.

Apart from the backlog, I want to look at two other categories of people. One is those who are seeking asylum in this country and with whom the Government have lost contact. Many of those seeking asylum disappear in our system and are never heard of again. I do not think that those are genuine people. They should not benefit from Government inefficiency, but I regret that they do.

In a written question, I asked the Home Secretary for an estimate of the number of people seeking asylum with whom the Government had lost contact completely. His response in 1998 was that he thought that there were possibly 14,000 such people, plus their dependants, in this country.

The second category is those who lose all their rights of appeal in respect of either asylum or immigration. What has happened to them? I have suggested to the authorities that there are tens of thousands of such people in this country, who, having lost all their rights of appeal, are never dealt with further. They are lost to the system and stay here. It makes one wonder what the point is of an appeal.

When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), about that in March 1999, I was told that it was estimated that some 24,000 people, plus their dependants, lost every right of appeal all the way through and were still here, against whom no action had been taken.

When the permanent under-secretary at the Home Office, Mr. David Omand, came to the Select Committee on Home Affairs last year, I discussed with him the retrieval system. I said:

who have lost all their appeals, with whom there is no contact and for whom there is no retrieval system? He agreed that the number of such people was extremely large. He could not give the actual figure. I said that it was a ludicrous world. We had an appeal system whereby people could appeal all the way up, lose all the way up, lose their case and still have less than a 10 or 20 per cent. chance of ever being found and deported from the country. He replied:

    "I agree entirely . . . We"--

the Government and Home Office

    "are trying to . . . get ourselves out of the absurd situation that you have described."

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    He described it, I regret to say, as "a losing battle." That is one of the problems. It is all very well hearing and dismissing appeals, but, after that, one does absolutely nothing. That means that the interests of genuine asylum applicants are not met and are damaged.

Fiona Mactaggart: I intervene precisely on that point. One of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues has suggested that enforcement action has been taken against only 350 asylum seekers. That seems to be a peculiar misreading of Home Office statistics. I am struck by the fact that, since the election of the Government, enforcement action has been more rigorous. From a proper reading of the table, it seems to have more than doubled: about 1,290 asylum seekers had enforcement action taken against them in 1995 and 3,430 in 1998. Will he join me in welcoming the more rigorous enforcement action and the increase in the hearings of appeals, which speed up the system in the way in which he advises?

Mr. Malins: I would join the hon. Lady if I thought that the enforcement action was more rigorous, but I think that it is all talk and no action. In answer to a parliamentary question on the issue that I tabled to the Home Secretary, I was told that, in 1998, only 350 failed asylum seekers left as a result of deportation orders made against them.

Where are the tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers now? Who is paying for their upkeep, and why should the ratepayer or taxpayer pay for it when the applicants have failed in their attempts all the way down the line? Where are the tens of thousands who have lost their immigration and other appeals all the way down the line, but are still in the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman is dealing with an important point. However, given his expertise in the matter, I am slightly surprised at some of his comments. He will know that we are discussing deportation orders, whereas very many asylum seekers in the United Kingdom enter as clandestine entrants. They are therefore subject to administrative removal, not to deportation orders.

Mr. Malins: I hear what the Minister says, and there is some merit in her final point. However, the point that I made to her was based precisely on a parliamentary answer that I have been given.

The general point--no hon. Member can deny it--is that tens of thousands of people lose their immigration appeals all the way down the line but never leave. Moreover, tens of thousands of people with answers to their asylum applications pending lose contact entirely with the Home Office.

When people claim asylum in the United Kingdom, the Government have to ensure that, first, the Home Office knows how to keep in contact with them, rather than lose contact completely; secondly, their cases are heard quickly; thirdly, when the result is known, an appeal is heard soon and quickly; and, fourthly, and very importantly, any enforcement is really acted upon, rather than completely ignored. Unless the Government are prepared to do that, the problem will only get ever worse. The Labour party should also know that those who are genuine asylum applicants and lawfully settled here--and I know many of them--suffer from the problem as much as anyone else does.

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6.12 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I am glad that the tone of the debate has changed. In its first half hour or three quarters of an hour, I felt that we were listening simply to hysteria and to attacks on the Government's record. I say that as someone who has not always supported the Government on the issue, and--unlike any Tory Members in the Chamber--I voted against the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, although I did vote for the proposed amendment to it to restore benefits.

I realise, however, that since the general election visitor visa appeals have been restored, the primary purpose rule has been changed, and action has been taken on same sex relationships and to help the victims of domestic violence. The nature of the Home Office has also changed--it is more open now, and we are able, for example, to go there to read country assessments. All the changes add up to an enormous improvement on previous practice. I also certainly do not regard the Minister as a soft touch when I go to her with cases, but sometimes wish that she was a rather softer touch on those cases.

The debate has sometimes shied away from discussing the issue--I am glad that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) raised it--of the central principles of asylum policy. When people come to us asking for asylum, it is because they have been persecuted. Subsequently, we are supposed to fulfil the international obligations that we accepted in the 1951 convention on refugees.

It is extremely depressing that, whenever there is a debate on asylum either inside or outside the House, it is conducted entirely in negative terms--such as, "These people are frauds and benefits scroungers." In my constituency advice surgeries, I have seen people who make asylum claims that I think are entirely unfounded, and I have told them so. However, in many of those cases they have quite good reasons to be allowed to remain in the country and could use good mechanisms to achieve it, but they have been pushed into making a stupid asylum claim by a solicitor or a so-called immigration adviser.

It is regrettable that, in the past decade, we have built our asylum and immigration policy on the basis of negative assertions. The debate always seems to start with the question, "How can we deal with fraud?", rather than with questions such as, "What are our international obligations on asylum? What should they be? What type of immigration policy do we want?" It seems sometimes as though we are not talking about people, but we are--we are talking about people's lives.

The point on the condition and origin of refugees has already been made and I shall not labour it. However, most refugees are not--and never will be--in Europe. Most refugees are women and children, and most of them go to poor countries adjacent to the countries from which they had to flee. I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber will have seen refugee camps, perhaps in Africa, in the middle east, or perhaps even in Serbia. There are probably more refugees in Serbia than in any other country in Europe. It may not be popular to draw attention to the fact--but it is true--that there are very large numbers of refugees in Serbia.

The top four countries from which we receive asylum seekers are the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Anyone who knows what has been happening in those countries should not be surprised

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about the numbers of refugees that they have produced. Regardless of whether we agreed with the bombing, the fact is that we have just had the biggest war in Europe for 50 years. Wars generate refugees. All refugees do not return to their home simply because the war and the bombing have ended. In the history of movements of people, that has never happened. It just does not happen like that.

The sooner that Governments stop pretending that we can really fundamentally affect the number of people applying for asylum here with our internal laws, the better. I have never believed the argument that benefits are a draw. No serious evidence has ever been produced to back up that argument. Some people say, "When benefits were taken away, the number of applications decreased", but the number increased later. If we seriously compare the number of in-country applications and port applications before and after benefits were withdrawn from applicants, the benefits argument does not stand up. If benefits had been the draw, we would have had far more fraud and applications refused at ports of entry--which is how one keeps benefits--but that has simply not happened. The issue is far more complicated than that.

The first part of this debate really should cause us some concern, because what is happening to asylum seekers in the United Kingdom is worrying. Hostility towards asylum seekers is being generated by the impression that they are all fraudulent. Very real hostility is being encountered by those who say they are asylum seekers or refugees.

We are also saying to people outside London and the south-east, "It's a good idea to disperse applicants. We're going to send you people who are frauds and scroungers." They must think that that is a great idea, after that image of applicants has been created. I have some very real concerns about the way in which the interim support scheme is being operated, and the destitution of some of those who are being cut off from support.

I shall keep my remarks brief, given the time limitations. My final point is on economic migration, and the idea that we shall be able to address the issue of economic migration in our immigration and asylum law. Anyone who believes that is living in a dream world. The pressures of economic migration will not be controlled through asylum and immigration law. Some of the countries that are being complained about now--including Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and Romania--already have association agreements with the European Union allowing economic migration. Soon they will be full members of the EU with freedom of movement throughout the Union. We are not going to address the issue through asylum and immigration law.

We encourage economic migration when it suits us. We are happy to receive a nurse or a doctor or a business man with a lot of money. It is easy for the rich to enter the UK. We will not turn off the pressure of economic migration through immigration and asylum law. We need to deal with it through foreign policy, aid, investment, trade and other mechanisms. Dealing with economic migration should not be the driving force for asylum and immigration policy. We are in danger of concentrating on keeping people out when we have undertaken in international conventions to help people who have been persecuted.

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