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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: No. When the Opposition first announced their choice of debate for today, they put it on record--I ask my hon. Friends to weigh these words carefully--that it was to be about the Government's failure to run an efficient and humane asylum system. I checked the motion last night when it went down to the Table Office, and noticed that the word "humanity" had disappeared. So the Conservative party's commitment to humanity on this issue lasted exactly seven days. In the intervening period, one can imagine the scene in the shadow Cabinet. That loyal body of people in the shadow Cabinet, who spend most of their time dropping the proposals of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald like hot

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bricks, might have said, "Do you really think it's a good idea for us to mention humanity? Do you think that will really appeal to our core voters?"

For the Conservative party to talk of humanity on this issue takes us into high Orwellian regions of double-speak. I shall take two examples, one from the Conservative party's past and one from the future that it promises. Five years ago, when the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was dealing with immigration matters, the Conservative Government passed into law provisions with the sole aim of ensuring that asylum claimants who, for whatever reason, applied inside the United Kingdom, were denied any means of support at all. Under the plans and legislation of the right hon. Lady, there was to be no food, no shelter and no housing whatever. Those provisions were included in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. There was to be no support whatever. But for the incompetence of the Conservative party, that is exactly what would have happened. Because the right hon. Lady failed to draft the legislation properly, the courts held that the responsibility of providing for all those asylum seekers would land on local authorities.

Today, the right hon. Lady said that, at the end of 1996, Kent had a responsibility for only 50 asylum seekers, but that it is now responsible for 10,000.

Miss Widdecombe: The Government let them in.

Mr. Straw: That is because, under the right hon. Lady's legislation, it was intended, first, that asylum seekers should have no support. Then, under the legislation, the responsibility for dealing with thousands of asylum seekers fell indiscriminately on local authorities in London and the south-east. That was the result of the right hon. Lady's policy, and the dispersal policy is there to put that right. If the right hon. Lady has any complaints about those 10,000 asylum seekers, the person who has to answer for those complaints is none other than herself.

The right hon. Lady was fortunate to have an excuse for not taking interventions in an extraordinary speech that was riddled with even more inaccuracies than usual. Towards the end, she presented her policy to lock up all asylum indefinitely seekers in what are called secure reception centres. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition has said that

That claim applies to everybody, rather than only to those whose claims appear to be unfounded or to young single men. It applies to elderly people, and to women and children, regardless of their circumstances.

Leaving aside the fact that it would take years, if not decades, to build the number of centres that the right hon. Lady would need to implement that proposal, I point out that its cost would run into billions of pounds. It is extraordinary to suggest that she can base her plans on Oakington, which is a processing centre, and to argue on the basis of its costs that indefinite detention would be a matter of millions of pounds. At least 50 centres would be needed, many of them in the green belt and in Conservative constituencies, in Kent and elsewhere.

I attempted to intervene on the right hon. Lady to remind her that we are trying to build additional detention capacity in Aldington, which is just outside Ashford. We

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have looked around the country for sites that will enable us to increase detention capacity to 2,500 places. That increase is necessary because of the inadequate detention capacity that was left by the previous Government. We searched the country for sites and found Aldington--but what is the result? The Conservative party, which supports the expansion of detention centres nationally, opposes it locally. The Member of Parliament for the area is a Conservative and opposes the centre. The Conservative council opposes it so much that it has even invoked the Human Rights Act 1998 to argue against it.

We know that local Tories are opposed to the centre, but what of the right hon. Lady? She knows the area and may know the 14 other sites that were considered. After 18 months of careful work by officials, we decided that Aldington was the best available site. Given her prominence in Kent and her policy of establishing more detention centres, about which we have just heard, should she not have been able to form a view on this one centre? However, when she was asked directly whether she was for or against Aldington, she ducked and dived pathetically:

Whether it is my policy or hers, the simple fact is that, if she wants 50 extra detention centres, she must start with one centre. Aldington is the first one, so I offer her the opportunity to tell us whether she supports it.

Miss Widdecombe: First, if one detention centre can cope with one fifth of all applicants, why will it take 50 to deal with all of them? That is nonsense arithmetic. Secondly, I shall consider the merits and demerits of every site, including Aldington.

Mr. Straw: That is why I said earlier that the Tories do not have any serious policies to deal with the problem. I assume that the right hon. Lady has more influence with Kent Tories than I do. One word from her to tell them she would certainly establish a centre in Aldington, since 50 centres are needed, would change the current circumstances. The simple truth is that she wills the end, but not the means. It is utterly disreputable of her to call for detention space in general, but then to oppose it or sit on her hands in respect of particular details.

I say to the right hon. Lady that there is a huge difference between processing centres such as Oakington--

Miss Widdecombe: Why 50?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady asks why there should be 50 centres. That is the case because, on any basis, she would have to hold 30,000 applicants if she wanted any chance of success. I am happy to share those figures with her. Furthermore, to understand the sheer incredibility of what the right hon. Lady proposes, we must try to accept not only that she is going to build a network of centres throughout the country and find the necessary money, but that she will magic into existence safe, stable Governments in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia, to allow unfounded applicants to be immediately sent back once their claims have been rejected.

Even the most cursory scrutiny of that fantasy policy exposes its deceit. There is not the slightest chance that such a policy could ever be implemented. It is completely

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and utterly unworkable. I know that, as does anybody who knows anything about the issue, and the right hon. Lady knows it too. Of course, however, that is not the point for the Opposition. It is not a question of whether their proposals are workable, but of whether they appeal to people's base prejudices. The truth about asylum is that it does not lend itself to her glib pronouncements. It is a hugely complex matter, for which a solution cannot be provided overnight. Instead, it requires concerted and long-term efforts, both in the United Kingdom and with our European partners.

As the Select Committee on Home Affairs recognised in its report on border controls, which was published yesterday, action is necessary at a European level to deal with the asylum issues that affect all European countries.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Why here?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman keeps asking why the problem has not affected other European countries. The answer is that it does affect them. In the three months from July to September last year, UK asylum applications increased by 6 per cent. on the previous three months. Sweden saw an increase of 48 per cent., Belgium 52 per cent., Germany and Austria 24 per cent., Denmark 23 per cent. and the Netherlands 16 per cent.

One of the reasons why we happen to have more asylum applicants in absolute terms--this is another point that the right hon. Lady may not have noticed--is that we have a bigger population. If she wants to refer to league tables, let me tell her about the league table on asylum applications per thousand of population. We are not first, second or third in that table, but eighth, which is in the middle of the asylum league. Belgium has more than two and a half times our rate of asylum applications. In Ireland, the rate is almost twice ours, and in the Netherlands it is getting on for 60 per cent. The rates in Switzerland, Austria and Denmark are all greater than ours. They have significantly higher proportions of applicants per head of population than this country. This is a European problem that can be resolved successfully only by European action.

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