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6.33 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I am pleased to sum up on the Liberal Democrat amendment which was fortunately selected today. I was also pleased to hear the Home Secretary's comments--not only when he confessed his slight error in manipulating fax machines, but the

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general liberal tone of his speech. I mean liberal not in the woolly sense, but in the rational sense. The right hon. Gentleman certainly advanced a more rational argument today than he has on many previous occasions about why we get a flow of asylum seekers and what the responsible factors are. It is not something that has always characterised the Government's contributions to the debate.

I am old-fashioned enough to feel that we should be judged on how we treat the worst off in society. I also believe that society does not end at the white cliffs of Dover. That view is held by many citizens in this country and many right hon. and hon. Members.

I was extremely proud of the way in which the people of Sheffield treated Kosovan refugees who arrived there during the height of the crisis. Children gave up their toys in order to make the refugees feel at home and the entire community supported them. As well as the most obvious cases, I feel some sympathy for individuals such as the Roma people from the Czech Republic who have a history of persecution. Tens of thousands of them were killed in concentration camps in the second world war and they now see their families and friends murdered in the streets by skinheads, often with very little response from the authorities.

Although they and many similar groups may not qualify for asylum, we must never forget to relate on a human level to people in such appalling circumstances whatever strict criteria of the refugee convention or the Immigration Rules apply. Many hon. Members would join me in praising the Labour Members who have to deal with such people on a daily basis for the way in which they have maintained their sympathy and humanity.

I thank the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) for raising this important debate, although I question her motives in doing so and fundamentally disagree with virtually everything that she said.

Not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe we are at a crossroads in terms of our attitude towards immigration and asylum policy. We have to decide whether to become fortress Europe or to accept reality and embrace globalisation. One view of the world is summarised by Jorg Haider and the Freedom party in Austria, which should fire a warning shot across Europe and remind us that some people are trying to create a climate of fear surrounding immigration and outsiders.

Although the debate today has been quite measured, some of the comments outside the House demonstrate that there are forces within the Conservative party seeking to play to a different agenda by scaremongering and making the problem seem worse than it is. That is despite the party leaders all signing up to the excellent declaration on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Refugee Council. It states that

We need to take that seriously, as some people do not take such a charitable view and interpret differently words that are uttered in all innocence to create ugly scenes such as we have witnessed in towns in the south-east where incidents of public disorder have been deliberately stirred up.

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The alternative is to accept reality and respond properly to the challenges of globalisation. That is what we have sought to do in our amendment today, which proposes a system of immigration and asylum which is genuinely able to cope with the legitimate demands of a world in which many people live and work and marry people in different countries. National borders are no longer the barriers that they used to be.

I remind right hon. and hon. Members that we should judge matters according to how we would wish to be treated. If I sought to marry someone from another country, I would not expect to have to jump through a huge number of hoops, to have my passport held by the authorities for six months at a time or to have to wait nine months to get an interview before a decision was taken as to whether I could live with my partner. However, that is the reality for many people today.

We live in a world where students who wish to travel face problems. We all desire and need a good-quality immigration service. The comments from the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) were particularly instructive in pointing to some of the detailed problems that arise on a day-to-day basis and are wholly unnecessary. Such problems should belong in the past. One of the positive messages that we are trying to draw out of the debate is that the immigration service should exist to assist citizens and not to erect a series of barriers to try to stop citizens of whatever country going about their perfectly legitimate business. The vast majority of people who apply for visitor visas or student visas or wish to marry are perfectly decent people who simply wish to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the modern world.

As we heard from the Home Secretary, recent asylum claims have been from people from countries such as the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka, where there are clearly acknowledged problems. We need continually to remind ourselves that large numbers of people are being displaced because of the security situation, which is unlikely to improve. If we are planning for the next 10 or 20 years, we should invest in the asylum system because we shall need it. Let us not kid ourselves about global peace and security, as that is not our experience. Anyone with any understanding of foreign affairs will realise that we need to plan in order to cope with future influxes from flashpoint countries such as Kashmir. If anything blew up there, huge numbers of refugees would be displaced, many of whom would have a legitimate claim and wish to stay with relatives in the United Kingdom, for example.

In that climate, it is our duty to show real political leadership; to reaffirm this country's commitment fully to participate in international affairs and to support international justice and human rights. We live in a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. We have always done so--since the Celts mixed with the Romans, followed by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans. From that time, through the British empire and up to the present day, we have never been anything but a multi-ethnic society.

Many immigrants and refugees have made an enormous contribution to British society and will continue to do so. Where better to celebrate that than in this global city of London? London is one of the foremost global cities; it benefits tremendously from its people. A recent report showed that more than 300 languages are spoken by

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London schoolchildren. That is not a threatening fact; it is one of the great strengths of the city and of this country and should be celebrated.

I hope that the House will make it clear that we should show true political leadership. We must not fall prey to the blandishments of the likes of Jorg Haider, offering people simplistic and inaccurate solutions to the genuine problems that we face on the economy and on the global movement of people. The solutions lie in immigration and asylum services that are adequate to meet current and likely future demand. I hope that the Government will tell us that they are prepared to commit serious resources to that matter.

I urge the House to support our amendment and thus to show that we can still take a rational and humane view on these matters. The Home Secretary spoke quite warmly to our amendment, and suggested that he did not find it wholly unpleasant. Despite his failure to condemn it, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will still feel able to support it.

6.42 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): The hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) have spoken with considerable parliamentary and constituency experience of immigration and asylum issues. I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that have been paid by Members on both sides of the House to the work of the staff at the immigration and nationality directorate. I add a tribute to the work of the private office staff of the Minister of State at the Home Office; they have always handled my constituency casework with great courtesy and efficiency.

Mr. Straw: And Ministers?

Mr. Lidington: I have to disappoint the Home Secretary with a less generous verdict on Ministers.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) spoke with the benefit of several years of ministerial experience in handling these matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) was able to speak both from his experience as a Member of Parliament and from his work, over several years, with the Immigration Advisory Service.

I was particularly struck by two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking. He made telling comments about enforcement action. My answer to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) would be that the figures on page 27 of the Home Office statistical bulletin show that, in a period during which the number of asylum applications has more than doubled, the amount of enforcement work has not even remotely kept pace with that upsurge in the number of cases coming to the notice of the IND.

My hon. Friend referred to the position of ethnic minority communities. My experience is that some of the people who are most concerned to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of our asylum controls are members of British ethnic communities who are in this country

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lawfully. They are concerned partly because many of them had to surmount all the hurdles described by the hon. Member for Leeds, East--they, or members of their families, may have had to wait for many years to come here--so they feel that it is grossly unfair for other people to enter the country unlawfully.

Furthermore, they are concerned because, sadly, as we saw last year in Dover, the security of Britain's ethnic communities within British society is questioned and comes under threat because some unpleasant racist groups take advantage of the genuine anxiety about failures in our system of asylum and immigration control. For that reason, it is right that the Opposition should assert our continuing commitment to work and speak for racial harmony and for the full integration of ethnic communities in Britain into the mainstream of our national life. We must also make it clear that we have grave concern as to the failures in the Government's management of the system of asylum and immigration control.

The Government tend to offer several excuses for the acknowledged crisis that faces the system. The first and easy excuse is to say that it is all the fault of the Tories; it is all down to the previous Government. That excuse wears thinner every time that it is deployed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe gave us an account of what really happened--the Government's inheritance of falling queues during 1997 continued in 1998, as a result of the legislation introduced by him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

Not only does that point give the lie to the excuse peddled by the Government, their own words make it clear that their explanation is untenable. The Government's annual report in March 1999, when they had been in office for almost two years, stated, in respect of the problems at Croydon:

The Government published a White Paper on immigration and asylum in July 1999--more than two years after they came to power--in which they set out the targets that they thought they were on track to achieve for the current financial year and for future financial years. Presumably, they had decided on those targets after taking into account any administrative difficulties, or any perceived trends in the number of applications. That excuse is untenable.

The Government's next excuse is that the problem is due to great international trends that are beyond our control. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was right to describe the international dimension--the age of mass movements of people in which we live. However, the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Walthamstow over-egged the pudding; they appeared to be saying that the Government could do nothing to influence the number of applications to enter the UK.

It is true that last year in particular, because of the Kosovo crisis, there was tremendous pressure from the large movement of people into western European countries. However, the comparison between the relative shares of asylum seekers taken by countries is striking. Today, I studied the latest figures from the UNHCR--an unprejudiced source of information on the subject. Four European countries--Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland--account for more than 60 per cent. of all asylum applications.

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The UK was the only country whose share of the total increased during 1999. Germany's share fell from 27 per cent. to 22 per cent. In the Netherlands, the share fell from 12.5 per cent. to 9 per cent., and in Switzerland, from 11.4 per cent. to 10.7 per cent. The UK share--

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