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3.12 pm

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I cannot say that the debate so far has been either constructive or educative, and even to call these proceedings a debate may not accord with the "Oxford English Dictionary" definition because I do not believe that a lot of listening has been done on either side. However, the debate is timely as it comes the day after the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report and in the week during which hon. Members will have received the Shelter report on housing asylum seekers in the private rented sector. The right hon.

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Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred to the report only in passing, not in detail.

Miss Widdecombe: I had no time.

Jackie Ballard: We choose our priorities for the little time available.

I notice that the Chairman of the Committee is no longer in his place, but the report makes 22 detailed and serious recommendations that are worthy of serious consideration. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches would support many of them, particularly better co-ordination between the different services and better use of technology. The report refers to push and pull factors, and I shall discuss first some pull factors.

If people in other countries know of a backlog of applications in the United Kingdom, how long it takes to process applications and the inadequacy of the system to monitor the departure of failed asylum seekers, that may act as a pull factor that draws them to the United Kingdom. So may a faulty perception of what they will receive under the benefits system. Many think that they would get many times the amount that they would really receive and do not realise that people are given vouchers, not cash. Knowledge of the language, cultural and historical links and family links are also pull factors. However, no matter how bad the country of origin of an asylum seeker, it must be difficult to leave behind one's homeland and home, so asylum seekers naturally seek somewhere with which they are familiar in terms of people, place or language.

The standard of accommodation for asylum seekers cannot be a pull factor. The Home Secretary said that the Shelter report was undertaken between January and March last year, before the system changed, but it says that asylum seekers largely live in houses in multiple occupation. I would be pleased to hear his assurance that those details have changed measurably.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Surely the hon. Lady accepts that, however substandard or undesirable we may consider such conditions to be, many of those seeking refuge in this country would consider them to be a zillion miles better than the equivalent accommodation in the countries from which they are fleeing. Therefore, that is one pull factor that she should not ignore.

Jackie Ballard: Asylum seekers largely live in HMOs, and 17 per cent. of those were found to be unfit for human habitation. Such conditions may or may not be better than those which some people have left. Many people are persecuted for their political views or for membership of certain organisations and they may have lived in houses that are much better than my house or that of the hon. Gentleman. The fact that some people come from worse conditions does not justify their living in inhuman conditions when they reach this country.

Furthermore, 86 per cent. of those HMOs were unfit for the number of occupants that they held and more than 80 per cent. were exposed to an unacceptable fire risk. I readily accept that many people who are indigenous to this country live in substandard HMOs, but the one does not justify the other.

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I do not know how many Members of the House have the time or the inclination to watch soap operas, but I happened to watch "EastEnders" on Sunday, immediately after the Home Secretary's appearance on another channel. One character was trying to persuade another to buy a house and turn it into bedsits. The person being persuaded said, "Look at the state of the house; it is disgraceful. No one would live in it." The person doing the persuading said, "Yes, but we can pack it full of asylum seekers and students. People who are desperate will live anywhere."

Soap operas often reflect real life and I suspect that the authors of that scene were reflecting the attitudes of a number of landlords across the country, and perhaps of people who have listened to the Conservatives on the subject of asylum seekers. The Shelter report concludes by saying that there is a need for an urgent review of housing and greater support from the NASS system, especially in relation to homes subcontracted from private landlords. I hope that the Home Secretary will take note of that.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Is the hon. Lady aware that asylum seekers in Liverpool, particularly in the Inn on the Park, the Landmark and Sunnyside, live in deplorable physical conditions and under a regime that provokes--indeed, organises--intimidation and causes great concern? Can she shed any light on why the Liberal Democrat city council has not used its powers under environmental health laws to take action?

Jackie Ballard: Clearly, I do not know the details of what is happening in Liverpool. The hon. Lady, as a representative of Liverpool, will know those details. If she wants to speak to me afterwards, I shall be happy to ask my colleagues on Liverpool city council about that.

The demeaning and ineffective voucher system cannot be a pull factor and I hope that the Minister of State will tell the House when the results of the voucher system review will be made public. She will know that there is a lot of anxiety among her Back Benchers about that. Perhaps she will also tell us how many submissions were received and how many of those opposed the system.

We believe that the asylum dispersal system needs urgent review. According to the Refugee Council, it has led to a massive increase in the number of applications not being considered at all. When the Conservatives cite their statistics, they do not take that into account. There was a huge increase last year in the number of applications rejected on the grounds of non-compliance. Many asylum seekers have difficulty in completing the statement of evidence forms. That difficulty is compounded by postal delays, and problems in finding a legal representative and in access to translation services.

We must treat people who come to this country humanely and fairly. I hope that no hon. Member would disagree with that statement. However, the Conservatives speak as though the most important issue was the number of people coming to the UK seeking asylum. They imagine that asylum seekers can be deterred from coming to the UK by an even tougher regime than we already have. How can asylum seekers be deterred from coming from countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan? The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald did not have an answer to that.

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I shall spend a little time considering the push factors, which get less airing in debates about asylum. In his evidence to the Select Committee, the Home Secretary said--I paraphrase--that the primary determinant of the number of people seeking asylum was not the attitude or competence of the UK Government, but pressures in other parts of the world.

There are an estimated 30 million displaced people across the world. EU countries make up 6 per cent. of the world's population and last year took only 4 per cent. of the world's refugees. We had more than 70,000 applications in the UK last year, but as the Home Secretary says, pro rata that puts us only 10th in the league of European countries. We host a small fraction of the world's refugees.

The poorer countries in the southern hemisphere receive the most refugees. We cannot expect the developing world to absorb all the problems of refugees. The UK contribution pales into insignificance compared with much poorer countries, such as Pakistan and even Iran, which have taken, respectively, 1 million and almost 2 million refugees from Afghanistan.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jackie Ballard: No. Time is short and others want to speak.

As the Select Committee said, we should focus on conflict resolution and on an EU-wide effective development aid policy, if we seriously want to deter asylum seekers by reducing the number of people who need to flee from conflict and poverty. We need to establish in this country an open and clear immigration policy. I welcome the Minister's recent remarks on the positive contributions of immigrants, and on the need to attract skilled workers to our shortage areas.

People, particularly Conservative people, speak about economic migration as though it was somehow immoral or sinful for people to seek to better themselves. [Interruption.] I should have thought that Conservatives would applaud economic migrants, rather than criticising them. We need also to establish nationally and internationally the legal methods of claiming asylum.

In conclusion, I shall ask the Minister a specific question, which I hope she will have time to answer. What advice would she give to a woman persecuted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, who speaks English and wants to come to the UK as a refugee? How does she do that legally? The Minister's answer to that woman will be the true test of the fairness of the Government's policies on asylum.

3.23 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I might be the only Back-Bench Member who speaks in the debate, so I might be the only hon. Member restricted to 10 minutes.

I respectfully ask those on both Front Benches, particularly the Opposition Front Bench, to get together quickly, to see whether the debate can extended by at least an hour. That would take an hour out of the debate on agriculture, in which not enough hon. Members have

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applied to speak, as I understand it. That would enable us to deal with the serious matter of asylum at slightly greater length.

As there will be only one or two Back-Bench speeches, I wonder why the two Front-Bench spokesmen need 20 minutes to reply. I realise that my remarks are of great importance to them, but--

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