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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Audit Commission report was on the interim arrangements--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Lady must know that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Miss Widdecombe: We are used to bogus points of order from a Government who have no intention even of getting on top of bogus asylum claims. I shall tell them what they do not want to hear.

The Audit Commission's report stated that there were inadequate support services outside London--[Interruption.] Yes, it did. It added that that presented a major barrier to successful dispersal. Large groups of asylum seekers have been sent to distant parts of the country where appropriate social, language and legal support has not been available.

The Government's actions have caused suffering for genuine refugees. The dispersal system is being implemented cruelly. Applicants are dispersed by a chaotic system that sends them to areas often without appropriate support. They are often exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Is that fairer? It might be faster, but it is certainly not fairer.

The Guardian--no friend to the Opposition--reported on asylum barons in May 2000. They were growing rich on providing substandard accommodation for the Government's dispersal programme. [Interruption.] Apparently, substandard accommodation for the dispersal programme is of amusement to Labour Members. When they talk about genuine refugees in future, we shall remember that they laughed about a report that some people were growing rich at the expense of others.

The report by Shelter, which was published yesterday, again reported that the Government's actions were still leading to taxpayers' money being used to house asylum seekers in substandard property. Is that a fair or kind way for the Government to fulfil their responsibilities?

The dispersal scheme has been a disaster. The Government set targets for the dispersal of 65,000 asylum seekers, but the number dispersed has been a fraction of that. Meanwhile, local authorities are picking up the bill for the Government's failure. Kent county council has reported a backlog of more than 1,000 people waiting for dispersal. That same council says that spending on asylum has increased from about £250,000 in the year 1996-97 to

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a forecast £50 million in 2000-01. The council had to deal with only 50 asylum seekers in the last six months that the Conservative Government were in office, whereas it is now dealing with 10,000.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): That is the previous Government's fault.

Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman has the gall to call out from a sedentary position that that is our fault. We left a manageable situation, with applications falling. The Government have imposed on local authorities and on genuine asylum seekers a miserable failure of a system for which they alone are responsible.

Another news report in October last year was that the relationship between local authorities and the Home Office was at breaking point because of the lack of co-operation between the two. The Government are trying to palm off their responsibilities on to local communities.

In addition, the Government's voucher scheme for asylum seekers has ended in disaster. Refugee Action--[Interruption.] Perhaps Refugee Action is also a source of amusement for Labour Members. It was forced to close its office in Liverpool at the end of last year because workers there had been inundated with asylum seekers whose accommodation was unsafe and who had not received vouchers for essential items such as clothing and food. The charity said that it could not cope with the demand and it refused to compensate for what it called "Home Office inefficacies". The Government should be ashamed that they have put a charity that is devoted to helping refugees in that position. Instead of apologising, they continue in their intransigence, claiming that a system which everybody can see has failed is successful.

Once people have been cleared for citizenship, they face another backlog--possibly with the exception of those who make large donations to the Labour party. The number of undetermined citizenship applications has risen under the Government from 54,970 in 1997 to 73,000 at the end of last year. The current waiting time for applications for naturalisation is almost 20 months--that is, unless one is bailing out the dome, when the waiting time is reduced to six months.

Is that not evidence of the Government's record? We have a serious crisis in our asylum and immigration system. Thousands of people are stuck in backlogs, but the Government do nothing except sit and laugh. The thousands have to grin and bear the Government's empty promises. I visited Croydon 18 months ago and spoke to the queues of desperate people who had been waiting for months. They had been obeying the law and making due applications for visas and renewals of their leave to remain, or requests for citizenship. Every one of them was doing what he or she should be doing. Many of them were on their fourth or fifth visit, and they were being told, "No progress." What can the Government say? They can say only that since then the situation has become much worse.

Our policy, as announced last year by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, would be to provide secure reception centres, which would reduce the incentive for unfounded applications. As the former head of the Immigration Service Union commented:

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Mr. Straw rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I think that I made my intentions--[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady made it clear at the commencement of her speech that she had no intention of giving way.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand why Labour Members do not want to hear such things, but they are going to hear them.

Professor Goodwin-Gill--[Interruption.] The House is going to hear what the professor said, because it is important. He is professor of international refugee law at Oxford university, and he said that if all new asylum seekers were held in secure reception centres while their claims were processed, the system would be speeded up. Furthermore, he said:

Our policy of secure detention would mean that Britain would no longer put down a welcome mat for those who abuse our asylum system with unfounded claims, and it would aid genuine refugees. Instead of the Government's disastrous dispersal policy, reception centres would provide legal, linguistic and medical support for those seeking asylum. That policy, along with our national removals agency, would make sure that those whose claims were judged to be unfounded would be removed.

It is often said that that policy would be highly expensive. The Government are providing a reception centre which, when fully up and running, will cater for a fifth of all applicants. It cost £6 million. Are we really to believe the Home Secretary's extravagant claims that, as one fifth can be dealt with for £6 million, somehow the remaining four fifths will cost between £2 billion and £3 billion? That costing is nonsense, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it. He looked at the possibility of universal reception centres himself, and knows that they would work. He is simply not taking the single step that other countries have taken, which has proved to be successful.

Our policy will really produce a fairer, faster and firmer asylum policy. We shall know where those whom we are going to reject are and we shall be able to remove them. We shall be able to provide those whom we are going to accept with a proper resettlement package, which will mean that they go out with the necessary support. That is a hit-and-miss business with local authorities at the moment. We left a 40 per cent. fall in applications because we took measures that had a deterrent effect. We shall repeat that success when, in a few months time, we take over the asylum system. It will be a good day, not just for the British taxpayer, but for the man genuinely fleeing persecution.

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2.33 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I always welcome the opportunity for a serious debate on asylum policy, to discuss how we might make the system a little more effective. I was looking forward to that, but as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) finished her extraordinary speech, the image that was conjured up was of a fairy godmother, dressed as Widow Twankey, waving a magic wand, and suggesting that with one bound, it would be possible to solve the asylum problems that have affected every single European country.

Instead of serious, constructive proposals, we heard the usual mixture of the unworkable and the unthinkable from a party which, while mouthing its supposed commitment to the rights of the genuine refugee, adopts an approach with an altogether more sinister motive. That approach is designed for one purpose only: not to deal with the issue, but to exploit it in the hope that fear will encourage some voters to support the Conservative party. That approach has nothing to do with principle or even workable policy; it has everything to do with prejudice.

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