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Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: I am sorry, I do not have time to do so.

The UK share rose from a little more than 16 per cent. in 1998 to almost 21 per cent. of the European total in 1999. That relative performance is an indication that we should be asking the Government for an explanation of their mismanagement of the system.

The Government keep telling us that everything is getting better and that there will be plenty of improvements. The difficulty is that we have heard that tale so many times before.

This morning, I found in my file one of a number of letters that I and other hon. Members had received from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who was formerly the Minister responsible for immigration. The letter was dated 5 March 1999 and it informed me that he expected things to return to normal by Easter of that year. The permanent secretary told the Public Accounts Committee that all current asylum claims would be cleared by October 2000, a target that the Minister confirmed to me recently in a written answer. I hope that when the Minister of State replies, she will explain how the Government will do that.

The Government's progress so far has been miserable. Their target for the current year was 59,000 asylum decisions to be taken, but the expected outturn is 38,000; their target was 46,000 appeals to be disposed of, but their expected performance is 22,100 and their target for the costs for the management of the IND and asylum seeker support was £587 million, but the actual cost is likely to be more than £800 million. That is an extra £200 million that could have been spent on hospitals, schools or the police. Instead, it is being frittered away because of ministerial mismanagement.

It is because of the incompetence of Ministers that the morale of their staff has collapsed and that genuine refugees have to endure the anxiety of waiting for many, many months. For those reasons, it is right that the Government should be censured and that the House should accept the Opposition motion.

6.51 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Let me start on a note of agreement with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and other hon. Members from both sides of the House. They paid tribute to the work of the immigration service and the immigration and nationality directorate, which are doing the best that they can and are working very hard. That is why we are giving them the extra resources that they need and the resources of which they were starved by the previous Administration.

Although all that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) could offer them was their P45, I appreciate what the hon. Member for

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Aylesbury said about the staff in my private office. They are excellent and they provide a very good service. The hon. Gentleman's comments will be warmly appreciated by very hard-working people.

Despite the unpromising beginning by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, this has been a good debate. Immigration and asylum are important issues, and they are sensitive and complex subjects. It is right to say that the decisions that we take sometimes may mean the difference between life and death, so we should not underestimate the sensitivity of what we are doing.

What are we trying to do? First, the key thing is that we are trying to honour our international obligations to genuine asylum seekers. The difficulty that we all face is that the huge numbers of unfounded applications being made at the moment devalue the whole concept of seeking asylum. I do not always see eye to eye with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on this subject, but I recognise his expertise on the matter as he chairs the all-party group on refugees. It is to uphold this country's proud tradition of giving asylum to genuine refugees that we must have a firm, fair and fast system.

The hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) were right to place the emphasis where they did and to speak about their constituency concerns. In the time that is open to me, I wish to respond to as many of the concerns expressed as I can.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked about waiting times. The average time for an initial decision in all asylum cases at the end of 1999 was 13 months.

Mr. Malins: That is far too long.

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Member is quite right. However, let us compare that with the period of 20 months that existed in April 1997. Perhaps, he will congratulate us on the figure.

While I respond to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), may I point out as gently as I can that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) rightly picked him up on his figures? He needs to read the table rather more carefully, and it is important to point out the difference between removal and a deportation order.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) also asked me to consider the figures. In 1996, 4,821 failed asylum seekers were removed and that contrasts with 6,800 in 1998. Before Conservative Members criticise our record, perhaps they should read the table properly. We publish it for their information.

Mr. Clappison rose--

Mr. Lilley rose--

Mrs. Roche: As I have mentioned the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, I shall give way to him. I must then make progress.

Mr. Lilley: Is the Minister repudiating the figures given by the Home Secretary at the Dispatch Box at the

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beginning of the debate? He said that 35,000 people were removed or deported, but the figure for the most recent year is 6,845, including voluntary departures.

Mrs. Roche: I knew that I should not have accepted that intervention; I knew that it would not be worth while. I will answer the question, but first may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that I would never repudiate anything that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said? However, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the table, he will see that the figure that my right hon. Friend gave was for total removals. All that he has to do is read the figures--we provide them.

Mr. Lilley: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: No.

I wish to deal with some of the other points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) raised the issue of DNA testing. This is a--

Mr. Lilley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is something wrong with the hearing apparatus in the House. We all heard the Home Secretary say that 35,000 people had been removed or deported, but the figure in the document that he has published for removals and voluntary departures--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I can hear everything quite clearly from the Chair.

Mrs. Roche: I will try to spell the matter out very softly and slowly. The figure of 6,800 is for asylum seekers; the figure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave was the total figure for removals. It was the correct figure of 35,200.

To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, DNA testing has been considered by the Home Secretary and the Home Office. The decisions taken at the time were made in good faith. My hon. Friend also asked about the bond system. Many Members of Parliament and community organisations support the scheme, but we shall consider the results of the consultation very quickly indeed.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) raised the question of asylum seekers and returns to Kosovo. He will be aware of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's announcement of 13 September 1999 that the concessions that had been made would end. We expect people to return and they are returning now.

Mr. Howard rose--

Mrs. Roche: Please sit down. I can tell the House that 1,570 Kosovans have returned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) mentioned embarkation. It is important that we use our resources not at embarkation, but at entry so that we can target those who would seek to evade our control.

The hon. Member for Hallam mentioned general casework and students. I know that he has a particular interest in that matter, and we are dealing with it.

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The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 represents the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration legislation for three decades, and it is essential to deliver our fairer, faster and firmer system. The civil penalty is crucial in delivering that system because it will deal with those who seek to evade our control. What do we get from the Conservative party? Filibustering through the night so that the measure will not be dealt with. What do we get when we regulate immigration advisers? Opposition from the Conservative party.

It is interesting to read what former Conservative Home Office Ministers have said. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) said on the Floor of the House,

On 29 August 1999, David Mellor said that the last Tory Government had left the immigration and asylum system in a complete and utter shambles.

It is important that we restore integrity to the system. That is why we are providing resources and it is why we introduced the Act. We shall ensure that we honour our international obligations and deter unfounded applications. We shall make sure that this country's proud record is upheld. I ask the House to reject the Conservative motion and the Liberal Democrats' amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 38, Noes 147.

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