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Much of Scotland consists of highland country that is not easily built over. England on its own is now nearly as crowded as India, and southern England is particularly crowded. There is a duty--which, to be fair, the Government have recognised--to try to prevent the flow of unfounded asylum applications.
Time considerations force me to confine myself to four concrete points about the workings of the asylum system. First, I firmly believe that we should reintroduce the white list. In the time available, the Library has been able to give me only the figures for the first year after its introduction, but it appears that in that period the number of applicants from democratic countries on the list, where there is little risk of human rights abuse, fell from 7,000 to 5,500 in 1997, although the tide of applications from non-white-list countries was still rising sharply. Surely it makes sense to reintroduce the list.
Let me give an example of a country that I think should be on the white list, if the list still existed. By November 1999, the horrendous exodus of genuine refugees that followed the commencement of bombing in Kosovo had, in terms of numbers, already been reversed; with substantial reconstruction under way, people were returning to their homes. Yet last year people claiming to come from the former Yugoslavia formed the third highest category of applicants for asylum in this country. That cannot be right when we have invested so much time and treasure in trying to make the area secure, especially as there is plenty of evidence that a large proportion of the applicants were Albanians pretending to be Kosovars. I refer to entrants in 2000, not 1999.
My second point relates to the point of entry. The Minister emphasised the imposition of civil penalties on lorries. I think that it is right to accept those penalties now, and I do not believe that there will be another vote on the matter; but if it works to have civil penalties that involve a certain amount of self-regulation, in the long term it must be worth the extra resources to extend spot checks to every lorry. Such a system would pay for itself many times over.
Thirdly, I think that we need a proper mechanism for return. The Select Committee report makes a constructive point that, curiously, has not featured in the debate so far. It points out that there are plenty of relatively stable but very poor third world countries that, in many instances, neighbour the countries we are debating. Surely it must be possible, as part of our overseas development programme--which, rightly, is a large programme by international standards--to offer grants to some of those countries to take some asylum applicants who could comfortably be housed there. The report touches on the point only fairly lightly, although I have dealt with it in more detail, and it proposes consideration of various options.
My fourth and final point is about a court ruling that has not figured at all in the debate. Our international undertakings on asylum, which I take very seriously, must in most circumstances deal with persecution by Governments. If we allow those undertakings to be extended to cases in which people claim that they are persecuted by their neighbours or by criminals--the courts have chosen to do so in various rulings in the past 12 months--we will simply be opening the floodgates. Are we going to say that people living in high-crime areas in the United Kingdom should be able to claim asylum in other parts of the country? We have to take a tough line, and it is reasonable that we do so.
The United Kingdom has a long and honourable record on asylum. It is right that we should have such a record. However, the tensions that are building up in southern England in constituencies such as mine are unacceptable and are working against the interests of racial harmony. [Interruption.] The best way of ensuring racial harmony and decent treatment for the minority of genuine applicants is to tackle abuse by using the measures that I have suggested.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), may I enjoin the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) to silence? We do not want a running commentary from a sedentary position.
Mr. Lidington: Like many hon. Members, I regret the lack of time available to debate this subject. One way of dealing with that might be for the Government's business managers to make time available for a debate on the report published yesterday by the Select Committee on Home Affairs.
On a first, quick read through, I have been very impressed by the quality of the argument and some of the proposals from the Committee. I tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) that, having been Chairman of a Select Committee that managed to produce a unanimous report on asylum subscribed to by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), his future as the Government's special diplomatic envoy must be assured.
One of the matters that the Select Committee and other hon. Members have acknowledged is that external pressures for migration across continents are continuous and are not likely to diminish in future years. They arise partly from the political instability in many countries, especially in the developing world; partly from the natural desire of people who are not entitled to refugee status to move to a place where they can seek a better life for themselves and their families; partly from the availability of relatively cheap international travel compared with previous decades; and partly, as the Home Secretary has acknowledged many times, from the activity of organised criminals--racketeers who trade in human beings.
Something is wrong when, last month, almost one in six asylum applications were from European countries, excluding Turkey from the definition. Something is wrong when, last year, the United Kingdom recorded not only the largest number of asylum applications in our history, but the largest number of applicants of any country in Europe, and--according to figures published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees--significantly more than Germany in every month of 2000. On the United Nations method of counting, the figures for the United Kingdom were 97,900, compared with 78,800 for Germany and 43,900 for the Netherlands.
Delay is undoubtedly one of the reasons for that. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister of State repeats the Government's pledge that by 1 April 2001 the backlog of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision will have been reduced to what the Government term "frictional levels". I hope that they succeed, but the record so far gives me considerable cause for doubt.
It is not only Conservative supporters who have been pointing out the relationship between chaos in the administration and decision-making process, and the incentive that it gives people to try their luck in the United Kingdom rather than elsewhere. That issue was addressed directly by Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, of the university
Something is wrong when, in the first 10 months of 2000, only 8,000 failed asylum seekers were removed from the United Kingdom. In those 10 months, approximately 63,000 new applications were made. Something is wrong when just under 2,000 asylum refusals have been issued against people held at Oakington reception centre, but--according to the Government's evidence to the Select Committee--only 254 of them have been removed or have left voluntarily after those decisions had been taken. It is a matter not only of effectiveness, important though that is, but of humanity.
I should like to deal with a point that the Home Secretary made--that a system that embodies delay, inefficiency and ineffectiveness is unfair to the genuine refugee who has to wait in the queue with everyone else. In practice, a dispersal system that was introduced for perfectly good motives, and that I certainly hoped would work effectively, is causing tremendous difficulties for all types of asylum seekers.
Evidence from the Immigration Advisory Service describes applicants having to travel by night bus from London to another city, then having to wait after a sleepless night for three or five hours before a detailed interview that will be the basis of a decision on their application. I have no idea whether those cases are well founded or not, but that is not a sensible way of organising our asylum policy. That is why a system under which people are housed in secure reception centres with board and lodging and legal advice, and interpretation and translation facilities available, would be not only a deterrent to unfounded asylum claims, but in practice a much more efficient and humane way of dealing with asylum seekers who claim on British soil than the current, shambolic arrangements.