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Miss Widdecombe: One could be forgiven for thinking that no asylum seekers were ever returned to those countries, yet the Home Secretary told the House only a few months ago that the Afghan hijackers and all involved in their case would go back to Afghanistan as soon as possible. They are still here, although the Home Secretary said that it would be very easy to deal with them.
Mr. Straw: In a more charitable moment, I might have thought the right hon. Lady had not thought this through. She is an intelligent woman who is capable of a perfectly intelligent contribution to a debate on some issues. Yet on this crucial issue, she implies that with one sweep she would be free, having produced a solution that she would never be able to produce in government.
The right hon. Lady's answer exposed another interesting point. She assumed that the world was divided, almost literally, into black and white: that there were applicants whose cases were genuine and well founded, and those whose cases were not genuine and, therefore--although she did not use the word on this occasion--abusive. There are a number of applicants--I have seen some in my constituency--whose fear, subjectively, is perfectly genuine, but who turn out to be unable to meet the objective test of the 1951 convention. The right hon. Lady would still have the problem of having to return those applicants to their country of origin. She has proposed no policy for doing so, despite being given every opportunity.
As for the right hon. Lady's suggestion, to which she keeps returning, that all one needs is reception centres and detention centres--even on her own analysis, that would take years to achieve. It would not work, in any event; it has not worked in other countries. She would still have the problem that our and every other European country has had--dealing with the realities of the world. They are: that it is straightforward to return people to some countries, in which case we are doing so, but that with other countries, although we are doing our best and will continue to strengthen our work on removals, it is much more difficult.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what effect he believes the treaty of Nice, and enlargement, will have on migration pressures? When the Home Affairs Committee was told by the Home Office that it was reasonable to assume that the internal frontiers between the new member states and the Schengen states would remain in place for many years to come, what basis was there for that assumption?
Mr. Straw: The admission of the new states to the EU will, almost by definition, have the effect of reducing unfounded claims from the applicant countries--for example, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. [Interruption.] I hope that the right hon. Lady will allow me to continue. This is an important question and I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman.
One of the tests that the Interior Ministers have determined should be set for the applicant countries is that their justice and home affairs systems should have integrity, so that there could not, for example, be the kind of abuse alleged to have been perpetrated in the past against the Roma gypsies in the Czech Republic. In a sense, that is a plus.
My answer to the hon. Gentleman's second question relates to the Schengen countries. The Schengen countries that currently maintain a border with eastern Europe are all absolutely clear that they have to maintain border controls--for example, at the eastern perimeter of Germany, Austria and Italy--for many years to come.
Although we are not formally a member of the Schengen area, we take part in Schengen. One of the reasons that I want to do so is to stiffen the resolve of my fellow Interior Ministers. Although the central and eastern European countries have improved their human rights record, countries further to the east may not have done, and their borders may be leaky. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but the EU is putting in place measures to deal with those issues.
I mentioned the civil penalty earlier. That has made a huge difference to dealing with clandestines. I notice that the right hon. Lady made no reference to it. I also notice that, notwithstanding the effectiveness of the civil penalty, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, has said on a number of occasions that he would withdraw the penalty and abandon it altogether. If the Conservative party goes into the next election with that pledge, as well as the fantastical pledges that we have heard today, it would expose even more the bankruptcy of their policies.
Mr. Prosser: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it were not for the civil penalties, the recent huge overhaul of security--not only in the trucking companies but in the port of Calais, and particularly in the P&O Stena company--would never have taken place? That operation has been lauded as highly successful and effective.
Mr. Straw: There is no question but that my hon. Friend is right. He has experienced the chaos that was produced by the previous arrangements under the Conservatives, and the pressure that it produced across Kent. He also knows the effectiveness of the civil penalty. There is no doubt that the imposition of the civil penalty has strengthened security at Dover and is now adding greatly to the strengthening of security where we really intended it to: at dispatching ports such as Calais. The port of Calais has strengthened its security, as have major carriers such as P&O Stena.
On the asylum support system, the right hon. Lady came up with a lot of quotations that were wholly tendentious because they referred to the Conservatives' asylum system, not to the new one that we have put in place. So far as the Shelter report is concerned, Chris Holmes, the director of Shelter, wrote to me to stress that
What the Conservatives did--I now think that they did it deliberately--not only left chaos in the administration and the legislation, but collapsed the resources available to the immigration and nationality directorate, even though numbers were rising. We have increased--[Interruption.] Well, it was either deliberate or utterly incompetent. On this occasion, I happen to think that it was deliberate. We have increased the resources in the IND dramatically. We have doubled the number of IND staff. As a result, we have reduced the time taken to process applications. The backlog has come down, too, from 100,000 early last year to 66,000, and falling fast.
I have said before, and I am happy to say it in the House, that the asylum issue presents me with more acute ethical issues of principle than any other aspect of my work as Home Secretary. I wish, therefore, that we could engage in a serious debate about how we can make our system more humane and effective. Such a contribution was made from the Opposition side when the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle asked a question based on his experience as an immigration Minister.
We attempted to secure such a debate, not least with our decision to commit the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to a Special Standing Committee. That is what makes the recent pronouncements of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald so absurd. If the Conservatives were serious about the alternatives to our reforms, why did they do virtually nothing to amend that legislation? Indeed, aside from the civil penalty, all they did--[Interruption.] Aside from the civil penalty, which they opposed, the only other thing they did--[Interruption.] Well, the right hon. Lady is twittering, as usual. I have got used to it, fortunately. I took interventions, but, unsurprisingly, she was ready to evade them. She does not want to be questioned on her policy.
Aside from the civil penalty, all the Conservative party was willing to do at that stage was not to wind up cash support, but to propose a £500 million increase in it. By contrast with such disreputable, ill thought out and ill judged proposals, the Government are engaged in the long-term process of reform. Those reforms and the investment that we are putting in place have laid the foundations for a fairer, faster and firmer asylum system. I invite the House to reject the Opposition motion and support the Government amendment.