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Mr. Byers: I hope that that will be the case, but I regret the fact that the Conservative Opposition did not join us in asking Corus to reconsider its approach.

We shall certainly raise my hon. Friend's specific point about pension rights with the company, because the issue is of great concern to the people who might be affected. I also share his concern about the way in which the work force on Teesside learned of their future. To hear the news on a local radio station must have rubbed salt into their wounds.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Corus's behaviour makes it a founder member of those who represent the unacceptable face of global capitalism. A steel mill in Sheerness in my constituency is owned by ASW Holdings of Cardiff. Workers there and at Corus have raised the issue of pension funds. One of the attractions of takeovers arises when the smaller company has a much richer pension fund. The pension funds of the two companies are merged, the trusts are changed and the owners of the new pension fund raid it. That has happened at Corus, and it could happen at ASW. Will my right hon. Friend examine the way in which pension funds are operated in the steel industry?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have already considered in some detail the way in which the new company, Corus, which emerged from British Steel, has used the pension fund. So far, it appears

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that it has operated perfectly lawfully, although I know that many Labour Members think that its conduct has been unacceptable. Perhaps we should re-examine the rules that apply to pension funds.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, just over 12 months ago, Corus invested in a French steel plant that cost £80 million? A further £22 million was invested in that plant to produce rail lines that could easily have been produced at one of the plants in the United Kingdom that is now suffering from redundancies. That is unacceptable.

Mr. Byers: The House will understand that companies take commercial decisions on what might be a good long-term investment. We are saying to Corus that it needs to take a long-term approach to the steel industry in the United Kingdom. If we had had the levels of investment that my hon. Friend mentioned, some of the difficulties being experienced today might have been overcome.

The Government can impress on Corus the damaging effects of its decision. We stand ready and willing to work with it to identify a practical way forward that will overcome the problems that Corus is facing--clearly, there are problems--and to do so in a way that will secure the long-term future of the industry in the United Kingdom and the 6,000 jobs that are at risk as a result of today's announcement.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Today's news will be devastating to my constituents who work at Llanwern and an insult to those who worked there and paid the price in early retirement and redundancy to help to contribute to making the plant more profitable. Sir Brian Moffat met a group of Welsh Labour Members on Monday evening and assured us that he had made no decision about any plant. If that were the case on Monday, what happened during the past two days? Have all the decisions been taken in just two days? If they have, does that not show how short term they are? If he was not telling the truth, does it not show his deceit and the contempt with which he has treated the Government, the House and the work force?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend speaks powerfully on behalf of his constituents, and I fully understand his concern. It is clear that over several years the work force at Corus have demonstrated a lasting commitment to the industry and done everything asked of them. They have improved productivity and have been prepared to take early retirement, where appropriate, to secure the future of the industry and their colleagues. It is about time that Corus demonstrated a similar commitment to its work force, and it can do so by reconsidering the decisions and announcement that it made earlier today.

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Opposition Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

Asylum System

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister and that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

2.11 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

Before I embark on my speech, it may help the House if I say that as we have had an important statement, to which it was quite proper to allocate a large amount of time, there is less than two hours for this debate, so I ask for the indulgence of the House because I shall not take interventions from hon. Members on either side of the Chamber.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Shame!

Miss Widdecombe: It is intended to help as many Members as possible to speak in the debate.

From April 2000,

Those are striking words, as are the following:

Those were the promises made earlier this year by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary respectively.

The reality has been totally different. This country's asylum system is in utter chaos. That chaos not only continues to devalue the promises made by the Government in the House, but most of all is detrimental to genuine refugees. The Home Secretary is once again faced with a crisis of his own making--something with which he is all too familiar. Last year, we saw the implementation of his so-called flagship legislation, which he assured us would reduce the number of asylum claims. However, Home Office figures released at the end of last month show that the number of those seeking asylum in this country is the highest ever, with 76,040 applications for asylum received last year, compared with 32,000 at the end of 1997.

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The Government might claim that the number of applications has fallen this month, but that is a fall from a record number in November, when we saw the highest ever number of monthly applications. The number of applications in the last quarter of last year was the highest in the year and is an increase on the figure for the last quarter of 1999.

We left office with the number of asylum seekers falling. Our tough measures led to applications falling by 40 per cent., but under this Government we have seen huge increases in the number of applications every year. Those figures demonstrate once and for all the abject failure of this Government's asylum policy. They claimed that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 would cut the number of unfounded applications and tackle the abuse of the system.

Despite the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, and despite the claims made by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), that the Government's policies were beginning to work, there has been a month-on-month increase for seven of the eight months since April 2000, when the policies came into effect.

The Prime Minister stated in the House that:

He also promised:

The Government's measures have indeed made a difference: they have increased the total number of applications in every year since 1997, and since the measures that were supposed to tackle the problem came into force, there has been a further increase in the percentage of asylum seekers whose claims are judged to be invalid.

Since April 2000, things have got worse. The Government have failed in their aim of reducing the number of unfounded claims on our asylum system. Whereas the previous Government saw falls in the number of applications, this Government have propelled the country to the top of the league table in Europe for the number of asylum applications. Other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have taken measures that have led to a fall in the number of applications. Under this Government, all we have had is year-on-year increases. Those figures show that our asylum system under Labour may be spun as successful but is in fact a total failure. It is not fairer; it is not faster; it is not firmer.

Claims have not been considered fairly. The huge backlog of unprocessed claims continues. The dispersal and support system is in a complete mess and is failing local authorities and those whom it is supposed to be helping. The immigration and nationality directorate is beset by bureaucratic blunders. The Home Secretary's flagship policy is now an expensive farce.

Rather than there being a fairer policy, which we were promised, case files are routinely lost and Home Office lawyers are left without vital information. The Minister of State admitted to the House that the immigration and nationality directorate has lost an incredible 15,855 files. According to the Home Office, vital files have gone

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missing with increasing frequency. However, it is so desperate to get itself out of this mess of its own making that instead of allowing adjournments in cases where files have been lost, it has pushed ahead with asylum appeals when lawyers have not had the files to challenge applicants' stories. What is fair or firm about asylum tribunals not being presented with all the available evidence, or about initial refusals of unfounded applications being overturned because the material to challenge the case is not available?

The backlog of asylum applications rose from 51,000 in 1997 to 66,000 in 2000. In between, in 1999, the number rose to a horrific 101,000. In March, the Minister of State said:

I am sure that the whole House shares that sentiment. However, asylum seekers are still faced with enormous delays before decisions are made.

The Home Office is so desperate to get out of the morass of backlogs and delays that it has created since 1997 that it has had to resort to using an amnesty. In a 1998 White Paper, Labour stated:

The Government might claim that the backlog has been reduced, but is it fair that thousands of asylum seekers have been allowed to remain in this country without a full consideration of their case or, in many instances, after their claim has been refused? More than 21,000 asylum seekers have benefited from the amnesty. Is that a fair way of dealing with the problem? As well as the Government's inaction in taking measures to discourage the number of unfounded asylum claims, they have done little to remove those whose claims have been found to be bogus. Why is it that the number of removals and voluntary departures of failed asylum seekers was only 7,610 for the first 10 months of last year, against a total number of refusals for that year of 76,850?

Yesterday, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is Labour dominated, in a report which we may all pay tribute to and respect, accused the Government of being dilatory in removing rejected asylum seekers. It reported that during the first 10 months of last year, 58,885 asylum claims were rejected, but only 7,610 claimants were expelled in the same period. A recent report on Channel 4 news referred to at least 18,000 people who were officially listed as having been refused asylum last year, but who were for various reasons allowed to stay.

What is the point of an asylum system that, having rejected applications as unfounded, does not remove the applicants from the country? It is no wonder that thousands of asylum claims are being made in order to get round immigration controls. It is well known that it will be months before a case is decided and that there is little chance of the Government getting round to deporting asylum seekers, even after their claims have been rejected.

Another part of the Home Secretary's flagship policy was the dispersal and new support arrangements that were introduced as part of the Immigration and Asylum Act

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1999. We were told that the introduction of the voucher system would cut abuse. Instead, the voucher system and dispersal schemes have been beset by problems and have failed to do what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister claimed, which was to reduce the number of claims and deter abuse while providing support for genuine asylum seekers.

In June 2000, the Minister of State said:

However, in the same month the Audit Commission, on the implementation of the dispersal scheme under the 1999 Act, concluded that there were significant problems with the Government's--

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