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Westminster Hall

Thursday 3 May 2001

[Mrs. Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Border Controls

[Relevant documents: First Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2000-01, HC 163; and the Government's response thereto, HC 375.]

2.30 pm

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned--[Mr. Dowd.]

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): The report that we are debating is well timed, as asylum and immigration have zoomed almost to the top of the political agenda in the past few months, not only here but elsewhere in the European Union and as far afield as Australia. I had a conversation in the House with the Home Affairs Minister of Australia about the matter, and although it comes from a different source in that country, that shows the scale of the problem.

My colleagues and I took part in discussions on the issue in Brussels, Rome and Stockholm, as well as in those places that we visited in the course of our inquiries, including Budapest. The statistics are stark. The estimated number of illegal immigrants coming into the European Union has risen from 40,000 in 1993 to 500,000 last year. That is an astonishing increase. Of those who apply for asylum in the EU, one in six apply in the United Kingdom. We are seventh out of 15 in the European league table for the number of asylum applications per head of population. As we note in the report, family and language links are important for those who decide to apply for asylum here.

We said early on in the report--it hardly needs saying, but I shall say it anyway--that it is right that there should be a proper, wide public debate about immigration and asylum and the policies that surround the subject. Paragraph 22 of the report states:

Having handed out the bouquet, I shall now deliver the brickbat. On 1 February, when reporting the results of our inquiry into border controls, the Daily Mail said that the report branded Britain as

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There were three important images behind our report. The first was an X-ray photograph taken by a scanning machine of some people outlined in the back of a lorry, sitting on crates of bananas. It came from a brochure about scanning equipment and it demonstrated vividly the conditions that people are prepared to tolerate to come to this country. However, it also showed how technology could be used to deter and detect those people.

Throughout the inquiry, we asked about the use of scanners and other modern technology. Until last Wednesday, we were led to believe that they could be used by Customs and Excise only in the detection of drugs, tobacco and explosives. Although the scanners show up the presence of human beings, we were told that they could not be used specifically for that purpose because of the health risks involved. We were not totally convinced of that, since I had been told by one of the manufacturers of the devices that they are in place on many of the borders of the United States, and they are also used to screen visitors to the White House. I could not believe that anybody in the United States would take risks with people's health in those circumstances.

I am glad to say that my disappointment was overcome by an announcement made in the House last Wednesday. I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Even if we were slightly disappointed in the Government's response to the part of our report that deals with scanners, we were delighted last week when it was announced that £9 million had been made available to buy five X-ray scanners to help to detect and deter illegal immigrants at points of entry to the UK. Some of the scanners will be deployed in France to try to detect people and prevent them from boarding trains and ferries crossing the straits of Dover, and that highlights an important conclusion of our report, the most effective recommendation of which is that border controls should be applied when people board the vehicles bringing them to England--the ferry, the train or the plane--rather than on arrival in the United Kingdom.

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There have been some very welcome developments with the French. I will say quite openly, because we have said it in the report and elsewhere, that members of the Committee were bitterly disappointed when we visited the port of Calais and found it to be almost totally insecure. Indeed, on the way from a meeting with the president of the local chamber and other dignitaries, who were explaining all that they were going to do to secure the port, we passed a group of three or four obvious asylum seekers making their way towards the ferry, probably in the hope of jumping on the back of a lorry. That was taking place under the eyes of the authorities, if the authorities had had their eyes trained on it.

It is good to know that steps have been and are being taken at Calais. They are long overdue, but very welcome none the less. I also welcome the increased co-operation through, for example, the introduction of controls in the Gare du Nord to screen those boarding the Eurostar to Waterloo. It has taken a long time, but it illustrates the point that we can only move as fast as we can persuade somebody else to move. That is one of the frustrations of our job, on all levels, because it is obvious what needs to be done, but lots of bureaucracy has to be gone through.

The second poignant image from our inquiry was that of a huge warehouse, which had been used during the construction of the channel tunnel, in featureless countryside just outside Calais on a grey day. That is the Sangatte centre, used by the Red Cross to offer a temporary home to hundreds of people, many of them young single males wanting to come to this country. Desperate people from all over the world are drawn to that place as a jumping-off point for a hazardous crossing of the channel by one means or another. The absurdity of that struck us throughout our year-long inquiry. Everyone knows why those people are there and that they will repeatedly attempt to smuggle themselves aboard a lorry and on to a ferry to make their way to the United Kingdom, but in the past, little or nothing has been done to try to deter them.

That does no one any good, but it highlights another aspect of the matter, which I mentioned when I began the debate. No single action by this country can deal with the issue; it is something for the whole EU to tackle. Encouraging progress has been made and the United Kingdom can take certain action, because of our island nature, but the problem is certainly Europe-wide and in many senses worldwide. The relative simplicity of international travel in a world where there are still too many despotic and tyrannical regimes makes it easier for people to take the hard decision to leave their home country for safety or a better way of life.

The third image is of a port that we visited in the south of Spain, Algeciras, the landing point after crossing the straits, which can be seen all the way across the water on a clear day. The vehicles from the ferries are routinely stopped and searched and we were present when the rear engine panel on a coach was opened. I am sure that the incident was not staged. There before our very eyes, snuggled under the engine and, I should think, half baked to death, was an illegal immigrant. A machine for detecting heartbeats was in use in a building for vehicles to be driven through, and that had alerted the officials

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to his presence. That incident showed the superiority of some countries over us in the use of technology to deal with these issues.

Perhaps the worst image, which we all still remember--and in a sense the worse for being an imagined one--is that of the 58 Chinese people found dead in the back of a lorry in Dover last June. We met one of the immigration officers who were on duty on the night the dreadful discovery was made. I suppose that the event and the publicity that it received all over the world focused attention here and throughout Europe on the pressures of migration and highlighted the networks of people smugglers who make a living out of that appalling, evil trade.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems facing Britain and our European partners concerns how effectively we can deal with criminal gangs, such as drugs-related gangs, who show no concern or compassion for their victims? If those people are able to enter Britain illegally, no doubt every pressure will be exerted on them, or on their relatives back home, to obtain money. The evil criminal gangsters should be exposed in every way. The media would be doing a positive job if they contributed to that.

Mr. Corbett : My hon. Friend is right. An example from this end of the country concerns four members of the same family, engaged in a small way in farming and a major way in haulage, who have recently been jailed after being convicted of smuggling illegal immigrants into this country. Hon. Members will recall that raids were recently made in Southampton. Although I suppose that it is silly to expect criminals to have consciences, one of the astounding aspects of the matter is that people could knowingly do such a thing--deliberately and for gain break the law and subject people to all kinds of misery.

We have evidence that some people smuggled into the country illegally in this way are sold into what is akin to the slave trade. They dare not go to the authorities, they are paid very low wages and they live in the most dreadful conditions. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about that. I believe that there are plans to create a team--I have forgotten its name--that will work its way along the travel routes to find the "Mr. Bigs" behind this evil business. Other measures can be taken, and I shall mention them in a moment.

The lorry in which those Chinese people were found dead in Dover was opened not because there were legions of officers on duty that night with nothing to do, but on the basis of intelligence. With all but a handful of the 4,000 or so lorries a day coming through Dover, never mind the millions of travellers coming through major airports such as Heathrow, there are no problems at all. It would be a waste of resources to create systems to check all those movements. They are not the ones that we should be bothered about. We should concentrate on those that give cause for concern. That means the gathering and analysis of up-to-date intelligence. Another point that we make strongly in the report is that such intelligence should be shared among the agencies that operate separately at the borders, although I acknowledge immediately that co-operation in that area is increasing.

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Those points are worth remembering, especially by those who think that there are easy and instant answers. There are not. "Send them back, dead or alive" is not a solution; life is not that simple.

The report addressed five or six major issues. We wanted to find out why demand for asylum in the United Kingdom had risen and how it compared with what has happened in other European countries, and to evaluate the effectiveness of controls at UK borders by the responsible agencies. We examined whether border controls would be enhanced by the creation of a single border agency, as exists in other countries, and we wanted to see whether there were more efficient ways in which the UK could meet its international obligations to those coming here to apply for asylum. We were especially interested in investment in modern technology.

We found no radical solutions, and certainly no simple ones that could, by themselves, deal with this complex issue. As for the effectiveness of border controls, the agencies are well organised and increasing in number. We learned that not only from the governors, as it were, but from the rank and file immigration and Customs and Excise officers, who had been through some lean times and who welcomed the new investment and the extra colleagues who were to join them in their important work. However, in some areas, modern technology, as long as it works, would be of immense assistance to the people who are doing this extremely difficult job. Everywhere that we went in the UK, we were deeply impressed by the commitment of those carrying out those duties. They were completely immersed in what they were doing, and that was reflected in their morale--one could almost feel the bubbles in the air. The situation was enhanced by the recognition that new investment was on the way in the shape of extra people and better equipment.

We concentrated on border controls to deter and detect illegal immigration. However, that quickly led us to examine the work of Customs and Excise, particularly that relating to tobacco and drug smuggling, and, to a lesser extent, that of the police. Some lessons can be learned from that. It is worth recalling that, in the case of the Chinese found in the lorry in Dover, it happened to be customs who stopped the lorry. They had little or no idea of what was in the back when they did--no one in his wildest dreams could have anticipated what they found. We suggest that a single border agency should be developed in the longer term. While that is being considered, however, agencies at the ports of entry must have increased scope to work closely and effectively, which they are doing at present.

I want quickly to illustrate one of the issues. Someone in the immigration service--I think that it was at Dover--told me, "Yes, of course we should share intelligence, but we've got to have confidence in the person in the other service with whom we're sharing it." People do not want to feel that they are simply scattering information on the wind. A lot will depend on the relationships between people on the ground. They must respect each other's different skills and experiences and, on that basis, feel that others can be trusted with sensitive information. We welcome the Government's moves to give some immigration officers extra powers, in particular those announced on 25 April. That should help.

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As to why demand for asylum in the United Kingdom has risen, there are some obvious pull factors. We had an empire. When I was a little lad at school--I am going back into deep history--we had little scented cards for something called Empire day. We used to pay a penny for them, and the money would go into a fund to help children in other parts of the empire. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will not remember this, but when we looked at a map of the world, many parts of it were coloured pink, which meant that we owned them, as it were. I am not making light of the issue, because those links are important. In many countries, we left our language behind. We are proud of the fact that English is the language of the net, and we must not be surprised if it then becomes a pull factor, because many people in the world speak English.

The other factor that we must recognise is strong family links. People who flee their countries to apply for asylum and illegal immigrants who are seeking a better way of life will, if they have family links and speak the language, find this country much more attractive than one whose language they do not speak and which they might have difficulties learning.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Chairman of the Committee makes a good point. Does he follow it through to the same conclusions as I do? First, people who start their asylum-seeking journey from within the old empire, the new Commonwealth or those parts of the English-speaking world which formerly had links with Britain, might well want to end up here, irrespective of where they go first. Therefore, it is not reasonable to say that they must always limit their aspirations to an application in the first country in which they arrive, or the third country under the Dublin convention. Secondly, is it not reasonable to assume that Britain might have to accept a relatively greater burden because of the greater number of countries that have links to us rather than to other European Union states?

Mr. Corbett : I am not sure about the last point. A lot will depend on the state of the economy and the jobs market. Last September, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), tried to open up a sensible debate on the subject, and the responsible Minister in Spain told us that his country was 200,000 people--200,000 heads and pairs of hands--short for the jobs that needed doing in agriculture and construction. There is a real debate to be had about that.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the Committee came to the conclusion that it wanted the asylum application made in the first safe country, certainly as regards the EU. However, the application need not be for that country. If someone leaves Afghanistan for Pakistan and wants to apply for asylum in the United Kingdom for family reasons, we do not see why his asylum application should not be dealt with in Pakistan. Issues follow on from that. Pakistan is not the only country that has turned down such applications. We have tried to say that the EU, and others outside it, should stand ready to assist countries that border states from which large numbers of people flee for their lives. At the moment, the policy forces people to use people smugglers and cross half the planet in conditions that

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pose great risks to themselves and their families. That does not make sense, which is why we want agreement in the European Union on the implementation of a common policy on the subject. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that things are on the move on that score.

There has been some evidence of what is known as "asylum shopping", when people weigh up what is good and bad and which country is best. I recall a story that everyone from Romania who landed in the UK and applied for asylum was immediately given £800. I do not know where the figure came from, but presumably someone involved in people smuggling put the story round to develop the business. Such legends are in no one's interests.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): The pressure on immigration into this country, especially the great volume of asylum applicants, does not come from former Commonwealth countries, those that the hon. Gentleman described as the old empire when he mentioned Queen Victoria's birthday, Empire day.

Mr. Corbett : Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. Countries with evil regimes and civil wars top the table--Iran and Afghanistan spring immediately to mind. No one would claim that Iraq was democratic. Applications from Sri Lanka have increased because of its continuing civil war. The United Kingdom is not without links to most of those countries, although they may go back a bit. Such countries are bound to top the table, which is what makes it difficult to predict numbers. Increasing numbers of people will want to leave their homelands and go somewhere safer with more respect for human rights, if their countries have civil unrest, civil war and vile regimes that deny human rights and worse, as in Iran,

We considered the effectiveness of current controls at UK borders, against the background that the number of illegal immigrants estimated to have come into the UK has more than doubled, rising from about 10,000 in 1995 to more than 20,000 in 1999. The number of clandestine entrants more than tripled, increasing from 5,000 in 1997 to more than 15,000 two years later. Three quarters of illegal immigrants now arrive in a clandestine way.

In a sense, that is no surprise, but it makes another point about the UK. One might have thought that our borders were easier to defend than those of our EU partners with land borders. However, that is not the case, because some people are willing to take money and smuggle people in in the back of lorries. The majority of people in jail in France for such offences are United Kingdom citizens, mainly minor criminals from Kent and that part of the country. That is food for thought for everyone in the Chamber. People used to get under, over and all around the iron curtain when it was in place. It is virtually impossible totally to seal a border, but one must obviously take a stab at it.

We know from the amount of tobacco--let alone drugs--being smuggled of the effort involved. Some years ago, my colleagues and I went on a trip to the United States and witnessed the efforts being made there to deter drug smuggling; everything short of nuclear

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weapons was used. We discovered on that trip that when the papers report that customs have been successful in seizing heroin with a street value of £20 million, it is viewed by some as a sign not of success but of failure, because customs, by and large, get hold of about the same percentage of the stuff coming in, so the bigger the haul, the bigger the amount being smuggled.

We must get smarter at solving the problem of drugs and tobacco smuggling, and of the smuggling of people, putting controls in place at the ports from which people embark to come to the United Kingdom and on the long and winding road used by people-smugglers from the other side of the world.

As the figures, when they are available, will show, one effect of tightening the controls at Dover and Calais will be to displace some of that traffic to Zeebrugge and Harwich, for example. That is bound to happen. I spoke to an airline liaison officer who had spent three or four weeks in Budapest on a voluntary basis trying to get airlines to tighten their procedures for verifying passports and travel documents. He had a telephone call from Bucharest, where he had been previously, saying, "You did good work here, but now you have turned your back. It is as bad as it was before you came here." People are not playing around; there is lots of money to be made from smuggling.

A single border control agency has been discussed. Someone driving off a ferry in Portsmouth, for example, can be stopped and searched by three separate officials--Customs, immigration and police--and we heard stories of people who had that experience, although not at Portsmouth. The division of agencies risks wasting resources because of duplication, gaps in communications and so on. The Government do not accept the proposal, but our recommendation for a single frontier force was designed to overcome the inefficiencies of three separate agencies operating at ports, not to create a new body for its own sake, but to show that cost savings could be achieved by such a unification and put to better use across the board. Kent police, for example, put forward the idea of a single force but the police border control budgets are spread over 50 separate forces, so they will show less significant savings.

On the use of modern technology, I was pleased with the Home Secretary's announcement last week of an extra £9 million. It is a good feeling, especially as the Government's response to that part of the Committee's report was less enthusiastic than we would have liked. We felt that we had a substantial point, which has now been acknowledged by the Home Secretary. That was gracious of him, and I hope that the Minister will convey our thanks to him. I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge the help of our reports in getting the money from the Treasury when she speaks to her colleagues in that Department. I am proud that there was a positive and quick response to our report. I hope that that is a good sign that the work of Select Committees across the board will be taken a little more seriously than in the past and that the Government not only listen, but understand and respond to suggestions made by those important Committees.

There was a little surprise in the report. None of the evidence from the Home Office told us about the three separate pieces of research on asylum claims. Will the Minister say how they are progressing and when she

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expects reports on them to be published? It would also be helpful if she could say whether the new scanners announced last week by the Home Secretary will be operated by joint immigration and customs teams or by one service at a time. That is important because, apart from detecting illegal immigrants, the scanners should act as a visible deterrent. The mere existence of scanning equipment at airports deters some people. We also very much welcome the announcement about the promised mobile fingerprint equipment, although perhaps more for the detection and removal of people who are already in the country illegally rather than at ports of entry.

I pay tribute to the members of the Home Affairs Committee, because the report could, frankly, have been split along party lines. We avoided that, but not by fudging the issues, all of which were debated openly and at some length. We were lucky enough to be able to agree on a form of words to which we could all sign up, which is important. I do not pretend that we can always do that, but one of the system's strengths is that, when agreement is possible, it gives a report much more weight that it would otherwise have.

We have no doubt that the UK has, as I said, a long and honourable record of offering asylum to people seeking to flee for their lives from persecution in their home countries. Nothing should be done to take away from that, but effective steps can be taken the better to deter illegal immigrants and people who use the asylum system without just cause because it is seen as a convenient way of getting their feet on UK soil. I understand that that is not known until cases are investigated.

That is why we especially welcome the effort being made to review, revise or replace--I am not sure which--the Dublin convention. There is agreement all round that the convention--let me put this kindly--does not work as it was originally intended to when it was agreed and signed. It was supposed to facilitate the return of those whose asylum claims were refused, but that has not proved to be the case. I think that, somewhere in the evidence, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that there were many times when he could not fully understand what the Dublin convention was about. Work is being done to clarify and revise it, which is welcome.

The Committee's view is that it is important for us to consider asylum alongside the need for each EU member state to have a clear and stated immigration policy. In other words, they should set out the classes of immigrants, with the relevant skills and experiences, whom they are prepared to admit for settlement in their countries. It came as a surprise to learn, for example, that the Italian Government had got round to doing that only in the past two years. That is part of the jigsaw. Another part is the general agreement, certainly in this country, that EU development aid is not sensibly or effectively applied. We would like a much more coherent use of that in the countries from which most illegal immigrants and asylum seekers come--a key to which is giving people more and better reasons to stay in their homeland, particularly where there is a prospect of improving the economy. It bears repetition to say that there is a huge head of steam in the European Union to achieve agreement on common policies on immigration and asylum and all the procedures around that.

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I attended a meeting in Stockholm of those who chair home affairs and justice committees in the member states of the European Union and was astounded at the strength of support on that issue. Indeed, people wanted to go further up the road than any of us here would want in having the European Union rather than national Governments implement those policies. I assure the Committee that I did not go anywhere near the end of that road.

This is likely to be the last time that I speak in Parliament, if what we all expect to happen on 7 June happens. We call the first speech that we make in the House a maiden speech, and I was trying to find a way of describing the last speech that we make. That was leading me into some politically incorrect terms, which I shall avoid.

I should like to end by thanking my colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee for their help with the report. As I said, it had serious potential to divide us but we managed to avoid that. I also thank the Clerk and his staff; Angus McIntosh, our special adviser; the Minister; my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary; officers at all levels in the various services of the immigration and nationality directorate; the immigration service; Customs and Excise; the National Criminal Intelligence Service; the Association of Chief Police Officers, and all the other bodies.

It has been a deep honour to chair the Home Affairs Committee. We have worked well together and done a first-class job of work on the report--and on other reports. I do not single out that Select Committee as special; all Select Committees are productive. However, the inquiries on which we have been engaged have had a real influence on the outcomes and on the Government's decisions. I am pleased and privileged to have been associated with that.

3.13 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). I wish him well in his retirement. He can look back on his career with much satisfaction, particularly in regard to his work as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I congratulate him and the Committee on the report, which sheds much light on a difficult and important area of public policy and makes many extremely useful and well-judged recommendations, with most of which I agree. I do not agree with all of them, however--or with all of its judgments.

To be reasonably brief, I shall confine my remarks to the areas on which I am not in complete agreement. I shall start with what is almost an incidental, throw-away judgment made quite early in the report, at paragraph 18, where the Committee considers what it calls the "pull factors" relating to asylum. It states:

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The decrease was directly the result of legislation for which I was responsible and which the previous Government brought forward, and the associated benefit changes introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who was then the Secretary of State for Social Security. Last year's figure for asylum seekers was 76,000.

Those figures give the lie to those who, like the Liberal Democrats--the Government do not take this view--say that nothing can be done to influence the number of asylum seekers. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) shakes his head. I refer him to an article in my local newspaper, the Folkestone Herald, which was written by his leader just a few weeks ago. It says that nothing can be done to influence the number of people who apply for asylum in the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to rise to defend his leader, I am happy to give him the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Simon Hughes : The right hon. and learned Gentleman made a claim about the reduction of numbers at the end of the Conservative Administration. His claim is correct, and I do not disagree with it. However, he has not proved that there is a direct link between such a reduction and the policy decisions and legislation that is passed in this country. Research has been referred to in the debate; I know of no research that shows that connection. It seems simplistic to say that what we do in this country is a greater relevant factor in determining the pull or the lack of it than factors outside this country over which we have little control.

Mr. Howard : With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a ludicrous point. The change in the number of applications followed directly on the changes in the law that we introduced. One does not need to carry out research to see the connection; it is there for all to see.

If one goes to Sangatte, as I did the other day, and talks to the people there who are waiting to enter this country illegally, it becomes clear beyond doubt that people choose the country in which they apply for asylum. I was told at Sangatte that the choice is based largely on the amount of money and the type of accommodation that they expect to get in the country in which they apply for asylum. There is a direct link between those factors and the numbers that apply. It is true that if the Government make changes in policy, as we did, the numbers will decline.

It was not only in the numbers applying that the previous Government had a good record. The number of applications decided rose by 50 per cent., and the backlog fell by 10,000. We were making real progress in bringing the problem under control. However, that is

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not the whole story, as the Minister will doubtless be quick to point out. Shortly before the 1997 general election, the courts did what, alas, they so often do: they intervened to sabotage the policy.

Mr. Hughes : They upheld the law.

Mr. Howard : I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what happened. The courts held that because our legislation had not expressly and specifically repealed certain sections of the National Assistance Act 1948--an Act that had largely fallen into disrepute in the light of the rise in the national social security system, which had been introduced in the intervening period to deal with benefit problems--they still applied. That, of course, brought in new responsibilities for local authorities, which had not been the intention of Parliament, and largely sabotaged the policy that we had introduced.

That matter could easily have been put right. All that was needed was a one-sentence Bill making it clear that the National Assistance Act 1948 should not apply. That was the previous Government's original intention, and that is what I would have endeavoured to do had I returned to the Home Office after the election. It is something that the present Government could easily have done. I believe that, had that been done, there would not have been the exponential increase in the number of asylum seekers that has since taken place.

The present Government did nothing for three years. They then introduced the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and I wished them well with that Act. I hoped that it would succeed, but alas, it has completely failed. The Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that the Government had inherited collapse and chaos, which is what they always say, but that is far from the truth. On the contrary, they inherited a situation in which the problem had been brought under control. There had been a hiccup because of the intervention of the courts, but that could easily and quickly have been put right.

That is one of the false alibis on which the Government rely in that context. The other is the Dublin convention. We should understand the intention behind the Dublin convention and what the present difficulties are. The Dublin convention was agreed in 1990, against an entirely different background in relation to asylum. Asylum was not the problem in 1990 that it has since become. However, we should not be too critical of the authors of the Dublin convention. The Home Secretary, in his evidence to the Committee said:

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Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I am glad of the opportunity to put questions to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the subject, since he was so intimately involved in drawing up the Dublin convention.

Mr. Howard : No, I was not. That was in 1990.

Mr. Linton : I mean that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was involved in administering it. Although it states that asylum applications should be dealt with in the first country of arrival, it fails to establish a method by which to prove what that country is. People arriving in Italy or France can subsequently enter the UK and refuse to say where they entered the Schengen area, leaving this country's immigration authorities with the impossible task of proving it. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that that is a major flaw of the Dublin convention?

Mr. Howard : Let me make it clear that I had nothing to do with the drafting of the convention, which was agreed in 1990, or with its administration, because it did not come into force until after the 1997 general election. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, how could the Dublin convention possibly deal with the issues that he raised?

Of course it is difficult when people arrive in this country and refuse to say where they first entered the EU or where they should have applied for asylum. How can a convention deal with people's behaviour in that respect? The convention laid down the principles that ought to govern the way in which people apply for asylum in their respective countries. No one would disagree that the convention is not working properly. As Mr. Boys Smith told the Select Committee:

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It might complete the equation if I remind the Chamber that during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act in 1996, the Opposition home affairs spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), said:

Mr. Howard : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention. It reinforces everything that I have said.

When the convention came into force in the summer of 1997--under the present Government--and it became clear that it was not working as intended, the

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Government, who had nearly four years to do so, should have built on their supposedly excellent and wonderfully close working relationships with their EU partners and co-operated to ensure that it did so.

I am aware that there is a presumption against purely partisan attacks in this Chamber, but we must discuss these serious matters robustly, and I must point out that part of the Home Secretary's evidence to the Home Affairs Committee was particularly disreputable. It was a pretty shoddy attempt to rewrite history in respect of the so-called "gentleman's agreement" between the United Kingdom and France that obtained under the previous Government. It allowed us to return quickly to France people applying for asylum at the Channel ports who had obviously come from France. That significant factor made a difference in the number of people who stayed to apply for asylum in this country.

In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary on page 61 of volume II, said:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche ) rose--

Mr. Howard : The Minister would be well advised to wait before intervening.

In the Home Secretary's next answer to the Committee Chairman, he made it crystal clear that there was no reason for the agreement not to continue. After he had said that France would mention that we all signed up to Dublin, the Chairman asked the Home Secretary:

Mrs. Roche : Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that part of the agreement--when he

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was Home Secretary, I think--between the previous Conservative Government and the French Government was that the gentleman's agreement would last only until the Dublin convention came into force?

Mr. Howard : That is not my understanding, but if the Minister could show me some document to that effect, I would like to see it.

The sequence of answers that I have read out makes it clear that there is no reason for such an agreement not to co-exist with the Dublin convention. If they co-exist between Germany and Denmark, they may do so between the United Kingdom and France.

Further on in the Home Secretary's evidence, he went into great detail about the closeness of his relationship with his opposite numbers in France. At the top of page 63 of volume II of the evidence, a list of French Ministers' names is trotted out, and the frequency of their meetings with those Ministers is lovingly embellished. Undoubtedly, they were wonderful meals out; I like to think that I had good relations with my French opposite numbers over equally excellent meals. The difference was that my relationship produced an agreement between the two countries that worked and enabled us to return to France those who should have applied for asylum in France, but who wished to do so in the United Kingdom.

I have made my two principal points, but I should like to make two or three more short points before I sit down. First, I want to comment on one of the Government's exercises in spin, which I was sorry to see had been wholly accepted by the Committee Chairman. He referred to the position of the United Kingdom in relation to other members of the European Union and the number of asylum seekers per head of population of the receiving country. That is an entirely new measuring device; it is an entirely new piece of spin devised by the Government.

I cannot see any greater reason for measuring asylum by reference to the numbers per head of the receiving population than by reference to the acreage of the receiving country or the number of take-aways it has. It is a completely irrelevant criterion. The point is simply which country has the greatest number of applications. Last year, for the very first time, there were more applications for asylum in the United Kingdom than in any other EU member state.

Mr. Corbett : I do not want to get in the way of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but paragraph 8 on page viii shows that the Refugee Council suggested measuring the number of asylum applicants against head of population. If he thinks about the matter, he will realise that it is possible to get a wholly disproportionate picture of a small country with a tiny population, and a massive misrepresentation of the real position. That is why we recorded the measurement.

Mr. Howard : I am happy to accept the attribution of this new method of measurement to the Refugee Council, but I do not accept the second part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The truth is simple. Not until last year was the United Kingdom the country in which

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more applications for asylum were made than any other European country. In view of the geography of the UK in relation to the rest of the European Union, the countries of origin of asylum seekers and the fact that most of them have to travel through other EU member states before they reach the UK, that is extraordinary. One would not expect more people to apply for asylum in the UK than anywhere else unless the pull factors were such as to cause them to do so--and that is precisely what is happening.

I hope that the Minister can give me the up-to-date information that I asked for in a written question some time ago, which she told me she would answer as soon as possible. How many illegal entrants to this country have been apprehended this year at the Eurotunnel terminal at Cheriton in my constituency? I have been told unofficially--I should like to hear the Minister's comments on this--that before the end of April, the number stood at 1,650. That is quite astonishing. I am told that the number who were apprehended there in March exceeded the total of those apprehended last year.

The hon. Member for Erdington, the Select Committee Chairman, talked about how, when one avenue is blocked off, people find others. There is a good deal of evidence that Eurotunnel freight trains are now being used because it has become more difficult to use the ferries. One problem of key significance is the failure of SNCF to erect proper security fences at the Eurotunnel terminal at Sangatte. Eurotunnel is improving the fencing for which it is responsible, but some of the fencing is the responsibility of SNCF, a French nationalised industry.

The Minister has told me that she will raise with the French Government the failure of SNCF to make good the promise that it made as long ago as June last year to see to the security fencing in that part of the Sangatte terminal for which it is responsible. SNCF has done nothing about that. I hope that the Minister will tell us what action she has taken to get her French colleagues to force this French nationalised industry to accept its responsibilities in the matter.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next Member, I should say that I know two things for certain--I have to bring this sitting to a close at 5.30 pm and I have three Front-Bench Members to call. I am unsure of how many other Members wish to speak, but I would like to be able to call all those who do, and I hope that hon. Members will take that into account when making their speeches.

3.37 pm

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on what should perhaps be called his valedictory speech. I imagine that to be the opposite of "maiden", and I would hate to try to find another word. I pay tribute to his work as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. The inquiry that resulted in the report under discussion was the largest that took place during his chairmanship, and it is a fitting tribute to his approach to the job that he succeeded, on this sensitive and difficult subject, in achieving unanimity on the recommendations.

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I preface my comments about the report and the Government's response to it by commending the approach of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and that of the Secretary of State, on the issue of asylum. Their approach has the interests of genuine refugees at heart, but is tempered by the realisation that one can help such refugees only if one prevents asylum from being exploited as an alternative to ordinary immigration. If asylum is used in that way, that casts doubt on the veracity of genuine asylum seekers. It discredits them in the eyes of people in this country and undermines the welcome that this country should be giving to those who are genuinely fleeing torture and persecution in their country.

One of the paradoxes that make this subject so difficult is that, in order to help genuine refugees, one has to subject them to tougher tests, relative indignities such as dispersal to other parts of the United Kingdom and the voucher system. Such measures are part of defending the integrity of the asylum system itself and preventing it from being discredited.

We are all familiar with the difficulties that have been put in the way of genuine asylum seekers in the past--I am familiar with them from my constituency surgery, where they have been an issue right from the moment that I was elected to the House. Asylum seekers are prevented from working for at least six months; they are often prevented from travelling, because they do not have travel documents; and they often have no access to their relatives--even if those relatives are dying in another country, they cannot go and visit them or attend their funerals. They often have no access to education, benefits or services that the rest of us take for granted. Worst of all, they suffer from the terrible uncertainty of not knowing, sometimes for years, whether they will be given the right to settle permanently in this country.

I know, from many graphic examples in my own constituency, how difficult that uncertainty can be for asylum seekers. Genuine asylum seekers are kept in suspense and uncertainty for years. One's heart goes out to them.

We should be aware of the work that the Government have done to try to tackle that situation. They have tripled the staff of the immigration and nationality directorate. Last year, the backlog was cut by a third--it may have increased again, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will supply the figures. Under the new system, asylum cases are being dealt with within six months. Indeed, it is taking only four weeks at the Oakington centre. They have taken action against migrant smugglers, and an extra £6.3 million has been made available this year. They are fining lorry drivers who carry stowaways; about 4,650 stowaways have been found so far. They have replaced benefits with vouchers plus cash and introduced an asylum dispersal system. They have increased the number of staff in the enforcement agency and thus its effectiveness; about 9,000 people were removed from the country last year. By any standard, the Government have done much to improve the system.

I was interested to hear the contribution of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). He was Home Secretary in the previous Government and was able to point to a 50 per cent. reduction in asylum seekers in 1996. However, that was a temporary phenomenon. That shows how one can

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make a different point by choosing a different time, because the whole of the Tory Government's time in office showed a tenfold increase in the number of asylum seekers. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not want that to be seen as the result of his Government's policies, but he cannot have it both ways. Whatever temporary effect those measures may have had, the end result was a tenfold increase.

The introduction to the report includes a list of "pull factors". I suggest that the right hon. and learned Gentleman pays a little more attention to the sixth and seventh factors, which were slow decision-making and the lack of an enforcement procedure. I have no doubt that those were the two most important pull factors, certainly the most important of those that were under the Government's control, because by the end of the last Government's time in office it was clear that many people applying for asylum knew that their cases would never be agreed but believed that it would take six or seven years for a decision to be reached. I know of many people who, in 1997, had been waiting since 1990 or 1991 for their asylum cases to be heard by the Home Office. That delay had a simple cause: there were too few staff at Lunar house, the Croydon headquarters of the immigration service, to handle the number of people claiming asylum.

I know from Lord Dubbs, my predecessor as Member for Battersea, that in the 1980s, long before I became a Member of the House, it was thought to be the deliberate policy of the then Government to keep staffing levels at Lunar house low so that the staff could not deal with the case load, in the belief that it would put a brake on immigration. In a way, that policy worked because it delayed the process. With asylum, however, it has the opposite effect. People claiming asylum are already in the country, and taking longer to deal with their claims is of benefit to them--especially non-genuine claimants--because they spend those years working here, which is all that they want. Add to that the unofficial amnesty allowed--I nearly said declared--by the previous Government in the early 1990s, which was intended to cope with the fact that so many people were waiting for asylum interviews, but which had the effect of encouraging more people to come because they knew that their friends or relations who had already come to the UK to apply for asylum had been given an amnesty, and they reasoned that they, too, would be allowed to stay.

Many of the previous Government's decisions contributed to the problem, most of all the decision taken in their dying months to lay off a large number of staff at Lunar house, in the belief that they would be surplus to requirements as a result of the new computer system--a laughable notion in retrospect, as it lengthened the queues and encouraged even more people to come to this country to seek asylum. That is why it is so important that this Government have taken firm action by tripling the staff of the immigration service, so that we can deal with asylum claims in a reasonable and humane time and genuine asylum seekers do not have to be kept in limbo for years.

I hope that the Minister has found the report helpful, as the Government response was not as positive as I and other Committee members had hoped. Too many issues raised were answered with "we are already doing that", "we are already thinking about doing that" or "we remain unpersuaded".

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I do not have time to go through all the cases in which the Government are either already doing something or thinking about doing it. I am glad that they were doing all those things unbeknownst to us--perhaps even unbeknownst to themselves--and that they did not need our prompting. However, we like to think that some of our ideas have speeded up the process and have got them to think about an issue.

I shall concentrate on the two issues for which the report uses the wonderful phrase, "they remain unpersuaded". One is the single frontier force, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington. The Government remain "unpersuaded" that it is useful to have a single frontier force instead of the three agencies that currently operate. My hon. Friend mentioned the case that a member of the Dover harbour board cited. I refer to it, because it illustrates so graphically why a single force is necessary.

A family in an Escort van were on an innocent day trip in Dover--I think that their only crime was that the van was white. Immigration officers stopped the van to check the family's passports. Two minutes later, they were stopped by Kent police ports unit and asked to unpack the entire van and to load it again, and were then told that they could go. Ten yards down the road they were stopped by customs, who also asked them to unpack the van, again found nothing and told them to load it up.

Looked at from the customers' point of view, how can it be right that someone can be searched three times within the space of 50 yards by three different Government agencies? How can we defend that on the ground that we cannot prove that a single frontier force will improve the efficiency of the service? It seems obvious that a single frontier force will be better for customers.

I am glad that the report goes on to say that the issue might benefit from further consideration, and that the Committee looks to the relevant Departments to take the matter forward. I hate to say this, but our experience of customs and the immigration service is that, like all arms of the civil service, they will be reluctant to take this forward because it will mean surrendering part of their independence. However, the work of the joint entry clearance unit and the National Criminal Intelligence Service shows that co-operation between Government agencies that are concerned with the same function can be fruitful and effective.

I draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 26 of the Government's reply, which concentrates on clandestine entry. In the course of one paragraph, the following agencies involved in the job of catching clandestine immigrants across the channel are mentioned: Police aux Frontieres--PAF; the IND intelligence section; the facilitation support unit; the NCIS; the National Crime Squad; and OCRIEST, which is a French acronym. I shall not spell them all out, and most of those present will probably know what they are. However, the fact that so many organisations must work together on the simple job of checking clandestine immigration across the channel surely shows that we need more co-ordination between the different agencies on our side.

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The other issue on which the Government have not been persuaded is entitlement cards. I recognise that that is a difficult and sensitive issue; indeed, it was one on which the Committee found it difficult to agree, although we did in the end. I want briefly to go through the reasons that the Government gave for not having even a review of the subject. First, they said:

The Government's second argument was that the

The Government's third argument related to civil liberties, and we considered it carefully. They said that the cards

Mr. Winnick : The Committee managed to find suitable words to make the report unanimous, but my hon. Friend knows that I have the deepest reservations about an entitlement card. Moreover, he minimises the dangers of the card becoming an identity card. Does he accept that ethnic minority organisations have many reservations, although he might not agree with them? Those groups feel that, even though someone from an ethnic minority was lawfully entitled to live in this country, he or she would need to produce a card to demonstrate that.

There are dangers. Although it may be the view of a minority of one on the Committee, I welcome the Home Office's rejection of our recommendation.

Mr. Linton : I certainly referred to--and happily emphasised--the great doubts that my hon. Friend and, indeed, all of us had about some aspects of the entitlement card. The most dangerous possibility is that ethnic minorities would see it as a discriminatory measure against them or that it would be seen as leading to a compulsory identity card. All that I can say is that,

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as far as I know, no member of the Committee had that in mind. As with all thin-end-of-the-wedge arguments, we must deal either with perception or with someone with a sledge hammer who intends to push the wedge in. If no one is trying to do that, it is unfair to draw attention to what might happen as an argument against what is being proposed. Like my hon. Friend, I never want to see a time when people are stopped in the street in this country and asked for proof of their identity. However, I do not agree that giving people an opportunity to have a way of demonstrating what they are entitled to when they want to access services is in any way comparable with that. At the same time, I do not want to take away from the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend, which are entirely legitimate.

The fourth argument against entitlement cards was that of cost. We do not need to dwell on that, because it is an argument put forward against any reform, and I do not think that the measure would be particularly costly.

I was very interested to hear the opinion of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe on the Dublin convention. It is encouraging that, as the Government response explains, a draft proposal, which was promised for this spring, will take the place of the Dublin convention. We are now at the beginning of May, and I had thought that spring was largely over, even if we have not had one. Its publication was promised for sometime during the Swedish presidency, which takes us up to the end of June. I hope that a proposal is issued soon, and that it does not take us as long to go from proposal to law as it did in the case of the Dublin convention, because as the right hon. and learned Gentleman correctly observed, the Dublin convention was prepared in the late 1980s and signed in 1990, but did not become effective until 1997. If it took that long for it to be amended, the process would finish long after the amendments were needed.

The Committee's essential point was that, in principle, asylum applications should be dealt with in the first country within the EU. That is enshrined in the Dublin convention. In the Schengen area, where there are no immigration or customs controls, it is impossible to return people passing from one country to another to the country from which they have just come. They have to be returned to the country that they originally entered, and nobody except the people in question knows which country that was, and they will not reveal that fact.

The whole Dublin convention can be turned into a dead letter because of a fundamental flaw in the drafting. It does not entitle countries as of right to say, "You have just come from France, which is a safe country. If you wanted to apply for asylum, you should have done so there." The convention simply states that, if it can be proved through which country the person entered the EU, that country can be asked if it will accept the person back, which is a completely different proposition. I should be interested to hear the views of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on that fundamental issue.

We now have the issue not only of genuine and non-genuine asylum seekers and refugees in Europe, but of those who are genuine asylum seekers in that they are fleeing persecution of the worst kind, but are economic migrants in that they have chosen not to exercise their right to claim asylum in several countries--sometimes

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six or 12 countries--before they reach the country of their choice. That issue is very different from that of whether or not asylum seekers are genuine.

The question is the extent to which such asylum seekers should be able to choose their destination. The Committee's view was that it is important for the Government to put money into the neighbouring countries that shoulder the greatest burden of asylum seekers and refugees. We also recommended that Britain take refugees directly from trouble spots such as Kosovo where it is necessary, on a multilateral basis, according to which they would be shared among all European countries.

It is not necessarily a good idea for people to be able to go from country to country seeking asylum, far away from the country from which they are fleeing. We do not yet have a clear statement of the Government's view on that matter. I appreciate that the issue is thorny and needs to be discussed at a multilateral level in the EU and the United Nations. It involves redrawing not only the Dublin convention, but possibly the 1951 Geneva convention. A question lies unasked at the heart of the issue, and I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister's reply.

4.4 pm

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): First, I commend the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) on his brazenness in seeking to gloss over the recent chaos at Lunar house by saying that it was the result of pre-1997 staff cuts. He has shown a degree of hutzpah. If he reads the Public Accounts Committee report on the subject, he will find that the responsibility for implementing the changes in information technology lay with the Minister and her colleagues. It is extraordinary that, at the same time as those changes were implemented, some physical changes were made in the layout of the office space and accommodation in Croydon.

I cannot resist saying a little in response to what the hon. Gentleman said about asylum shopping. The Geneva convention is clear on the subject, as he suggested. What matters is the first safe country that an applicant reaches. Much of the confusion that has dragged the principles of the Dublin convention into disrepute has been because people want to duck the issue. If an immigration officer or someone dealing with an asylum applicant at the port of control at least establishes the previous safe country in which the applicant was present, the applicant must be returned to that country in the absence of better information. Some may feel that that threatens to put into action an undesirable chain of events, but it is the only way to enforce the principle of the convention.

I am aware of time limits, so I say immediately to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) that I sympathised with him when he talked about his valedictory speech in this place. I have made a few of them recently. I made one on 30 March because I thought that a general election was imminent, but now I am making a speech today. Before walking into the Chamber this afternoon, I checked next week's Adjournment debates and discovered that this is not my valedictory speech either.

In passing, I think that I am right to say that you and I, Mr. Pike, made our maiden speeches on the same day. Another hon. Member who did so on the same day in

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the summer of 1983 was a Mr. Dave Nellist. He had the office next to mine and, well as I came to know him in the following few years, I did not imagine that he and I would have something in common, but we do: we both wound up without our Whips. When I received the fax from the Opposition Chief Whip, I do not think that even he thought that I had so much in common with Mr. Dave Nellist that I would back a militant tendency candidate in the next general election.

I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman and his colleagues on raising an important topic and dealing with it effectively. There is a great deal of public concern and much media attention, and there are some real problems. The social pressures that exist, especially in inner cities, have spread further afield with the dispersal of asylum seekers. As I have said time and again in broadcasts on the subject over many years, we should never forget that the first people to feel the tensions and pressures of growing immigration numbers are British-born and bred ethnic minorities in inner cities, not people living in leafy suburbs. In inner cities in such circumstances, there has been and will be pressure on local authority housing, general practitioner lists, school places and so on. Tensions are likely to rise there.

I agree with those who have already spoken that this must be an open, constructive and level-headed debate, without anyone playing the race card. To do so would be highly regrettable. Whether it is done deliberately, or inadvertently in the excitement before a general election, it is to be deplored.

The report has made a valuable contribution to the debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few observations; I am not trying to come up with a comprehensive list. The Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Erdington, referred to the "pull factors" listed in the report. Much research has been done on the subject, especially by European Commission Ministers, notably from Germany, for understandable reasons, given the immigration pressures that that country has faced. The idea behind much of the research is that if enough aid is given and there is enough direct investment in the source countries to create stable conditions of economic prosperity, the desire to move out and move on will eventually abate. That theory is fine, but the emphasis should be on "eventually" because it will take generations for things to settle. No one should be confused about that.

No one would disagree that the three "push factors" in the report are valid: fleeing persecution or simply getting out of the way of civil strife, whether or not it is targeted at a particular family; wanting to find work; and wanting to join family members. However, there is a broader reason that needs to be understood when considering what control measures to take: people want what they perceive as a better life in the west. Often, people who are, or have been, in work in their own countries are trying to save money to pay racketeers in whatever part of the world they live so that they can move on. People can see what life is like in other countries on television and the internet; now that the iron curtain has gone, there is the visible evidence of affluent tourists from the west who go to eastern

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Europe, for example, and that desire has grown. People want what they have heard about in the west for themselves, and no one can criticise them for that.

The desire of people to better themselves, however understandable, is not a reason to relent on implementing immigration controls. That must never be; the two concepts must be separated. Three of the big four reasons that pull people along the path of economic migration, and in some cases asylum shopping, are the English language, which is most important; the perception about social security, to which the report alludes; and, possibly, United Kingdom asylum law. The big attraction, however, is not so much our asylum law as the fact that the queue is there and if people get to the back of that queue they can stay. That is a bee in my bonnet and I am unashamed about repeating it before the Minister.

Another "pull factor" that is not mentioned in the report is north America, as I know from my experience at the Home Office. Many economic migrants get it into their heads that the United Kingdom, where English is spoken, is a stepping stone to north America--to Canada or the United States.

Not long ago, a Russian immigration officer said to me, "You ain't seen nothing yet. People are on the move in tidal proportions." There is no time in the debate to go into the fortress Europe arguments, but the report mentions international co-operation to exercise some measure of fair but firm control on such movements. No one would dispute that co-operation with our EU partners is a good thing. The EU policy of harmonisation, the member states that have signed the Schengen agreement and the bilateral co-operation with the French should all be borne in mind.

It is also worth considering what happens in practice. No matter what statements come out of Councils of Ministers or what conclusions are made by joint working parties of officials, the plain fact is that co-operation does not always occur in practice. While that is not a reason to give up on cross-border liaison and joint working, it is worth bearing in mind that to many--possibly all--member states, home priorities come first. I said earlier that Germany faced a huge scale of immigration--it all comes down to a question of geography. It is not surprising that Italy, faced with the increased influx of "clandestini" from across the Adriatic, is not too worried when a little encouragement is given for people to move on. The same applies in Austria and in France. One has to ask for what possible purpose the French transit camps on the channel coast exist. There is only one possibility. People who arrive in them intending to travel across the channel into this country to apply for asylum should be--but I am sure am not--told there and then by the French authorities that, under the Geneva convention, they should apply in the first safe country they reach and therefore should not contemplate coming here. We need to co-operate with French intelligence on clandestine entry but, as we have heard, co-operation often founders when it comes to returning manifestly unfounded asylum applicants across the channel to the first known safe EU country they reached.

Because of pressures of time, I shall not dwell on the Dublin convention. The report places emphasis on advance controls at the point of departure for the United Kingdom--juxtaposed controls, as they are

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described--and refers to stringent application of carriers' liability. Carriers' liability has never been a popular topic of legislation; it was not popular when it first came into force with airlines, with the channel ferries, or subsequently with Eurostar. It is, however, essential to legislate on that. It was sensible and practical to introduce measures to penalise lorry drivers; it may not have been pleasant to enforce it, but it was right to do so.

In considering those controls and the system of immigration control in this country, which has not changed since 1971, it is worth bearing in mind that control pivots on a stamp in the passport--which is why border controls, the headline subject of our debate, are so important. If a third country national's passport is not checked at the port of entry and he or she is subsequently arrested and questioned under the enforcement procedures, he or she could say, "Well, I came through a port of entry last week but nobody stamped my passport." There is no way of proving that that is not the case because the person could have got rid of the ferry ticket, for example.

The issue of overstayers gets forgotten when one focuses solely on border controls, but a huge amount of pressure in terms of illegal immigration is also created by people who are welcomed here as visitors for a maximum of six months and who then overstay. The theory held by successive Governments since at least 1971 on overstaying is that it is similarly controlled by the stamp in the passport.

We must not forget the accident of our island geography, which presents a natural advantage that we should not sweep aside. Although enforcement can and should be pursued, controls at the port of entry remain one of the biggest deterrents--even allowing for the increase in clandestine arrivals. I come back to the bee in my bonnet and say that that should be combined with the removal of the queue, which requires a brave stand against the Treasury. I say that to the Minister, as I said it to predecessors in her job. I have said it to the Home Secretary time and again, and to his predecessors. The Treasury must understand that sometimes money has to be spent to save a lot more money and, in the process, to create a climate of fairness and decency in which one can tackle difficult problems.

I agree with the recommendation in the report that the border control working group should remove obstacles to improve joint data collection and sharing. However, I am wary of the proposal to merge the work of immigration officers, police and, from the Treasury side, customs into a single frontier force without first addressing the important subject of training for those people. I hope that the Minister agrees. Some people who sweep through the EU channel when they arrive at a port of entry to this country might think that there is not a lot to an immigration officer's job. There is a heck of a lot to that job. Some fine men and women work hard in that job, exercising sophisticated judgment based on their experience. I am sure that the people from customs have rules to follow, but it is terribly important not to assume that immigration officers' responsibilities can be shared at the drop of a hat. For a long time, those who processed asylum applications had their own special training as well.

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There is a plea in the report for more modern equipment. I disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) about that matter. I have long respected his views; we have not always agreed, but we have had many discussions about the subject and have a common interest. I understand his concern about identity cards, but I do not share it. If everyone carried an identity card--if the libertarian arguments and the arguments to which the hon. Member for Battersea alluded were set aside--one would have to ask why anyone would not want to carry a card.

The problem with identity cards--this might please the hon. Member for Walsall, North--is that more money must be spent on the technology before we rush down that road. The Minister knows what progress has been made with hand prints, thumb prints, voice prints and all the rest of the technology that can be used to verify identity. A few years ago, one of the biggest problems for immigration officers at ports of entry, particularly on the channel coast, was forged French ID cards. They are not difficult to forge and require secondary verification. My feedback is that that is still a problem. I come back to the question of Treasury funding and, dare I say it, the asylum queue that acts as a lure--in this country, at any rate.

I mentioned the first safe country principle. Another simple, pivotal principle in the Geneva convention is that a successful applicant must have a well-founded fear of persecution. That should remain the case. Siren voices say that the convention is not working, that the problems today are too large and that we should scrap the convention. I disagree with them. The problem today is the number of people on the move, and it will not be solved by tinkering with the Geneva convention. It is a separate, parallel problem but, in seeking to deal with it in a firm but fair and humane way, it is important to keep in place and focus upon the cardinal principles of the Geneva convention.

One should always welcome media attention, but immigration and border controls is an issue that has been confused by media attention. The public, perhaps understandably, does not always know what is going on. That is why the report is so important. If there is sufficient Government funding and a tough resolve to say to our EU partners, "Look, if somebody transited your country first, at the very least they come back to you", there is a better chance of holding the line.

Finally, EU enlargement will inevitably add to the problems. That may influence EU priorities and the desire to look afresh at the subject. We may decide to change a policy of zero immigration with a few minor exceptions, and allow people in in larger numbers. If that happens, the UK needs to fight its corner. There will always be pressure within the EU for us to make further concessions in the name of harmonisation, and they should be resisted unless they are in the UK's interests. The public deserve to understand that, with enlargement and closer harmonisation of the policies, a price that this country will pay for closer EU integration is that the larger problems in other EU member states will be passed over in part to this country. Concessions should also be resisted for those reasons. That is why we should not lose sight of our island, and why we should not be afraid to insist on our own control priorities, even if that means resisting further EU harmonisation.

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4.27 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), not only on his speech today but on the way in which he has controlled the Home Affairs Committee for over a year. He has been a fair Chairman. We should also mention the years of dedicated service that he has given to the House. I thought of calling his speech his "retiring speech", but he has never been retiring.

The subject of immigration and borders is important, and it sometimes dominates media headlines, as hon. Members have said. One could mistakenly believe that we are the only country that has seen increased numbers of illegal entrants. I reiterate that the Select Committee was told by the Refugee Council that EU countries, with 6.2 per cent. of the world's population, take 4 per cent. of the world's refugees. While, among EU countries, the UK was second to Germany for the total number of entrants-- that may be where I and the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) differ, as he talked about asylum seekers--we were only ninth for the number of entrants in proportion to the population. That is important because, as other Members have said, the number of entrants has a greater impact on a small country.

However, there is understandable concern about the dramatic increase in asylum applications in recent years. The Committee looked at how illegal entrants could be deterred and detected. The inquiry lasted nearly a year, during which time there were some developments, including the implementation of civil penalty provisions, followed by the action taken by P&O Stena Line to increase security measures at Calais and Zeebrugge. As other Members have mentioned, the tragic death of 58 Chinese people in a container lorry, some months after we began the inquiry, served to emphasise the desperate measures that people will take to flee their country and the despicable trade in human life.

As the Home Affairs Committee Chairman said, the Committee was shocked to see the hundreds of people at the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. We were disturbed to hear that the numbers housed there have increased since our visit. We shall probably always remember the smell from the chemical toilets, which cannot be sensed on our television screens. As the report states:

Members have mentioned that establishing where someone first entered the EU is the key difficulty. It is easy to discover that someone was last in France before entering the UK, but not to ascertain first entry to the EU. I welcome the Government's recent attempts to tackle such problems--tripling the staff of the immigration service last year, speeding up assistance, increased funds to fight organised crime and the

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introduction of a mobile fingerprint unit. I particularly welcome the extra money provided for X-ray scanners to detect illegal entrants.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington mentioned that members of the Select Committee were bemused to receive contradictory advice on the possible use of X-ray equipment for detecting human beings. It was said to be safe, but could not be used by the immigration service. The change in that position is welcome.

We must address the problem of illegal entry in different ways, not least by examining the "pull factor", which draws people to Britain. The report recognises that perceptions may be more significant than reality in attracting people to seek asylum. A recent television programme showed Romanians who had been told that asylum seekers were given £800 a month in the UK. People here also believe that asylum seekers receive more money than they do, which causes further friction. It is a sensitive subject and it can stir up considerable concern.

Together with our European colleagues, we must ensure that when conflict arises, people are helped to remain close to their own countries. People should not feel the need to trek across the world at great risk to themselves and their families. We must also ensure that the United Kingdom continues to give asylum to those genuinely escaping persecution.

4.33 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am happy to participate in the debate, to which this forum is ideally suited. Whatever our differences of emphasis, we have so far had--and are likely to continue to have--a reasoned and intelligent debate on the basis of good work by colleagues. It has led to a common view across the parties on a highly controversial issue of public interest.

I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) and join others in thanking the Select Committee for its work. I, and others with responsibility for home affairs in the House, have benefited from it. I wish him and the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) well in their now somewhat deferred retirement. I feel slightly older than I am because while they were talking about when they entered the House, I realised that I came here before almost every Member in this Chamber, with the exception of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary.

The debate is, rightly, centred on border controls, but hon. Members have stepped back before dealing with that specific issue. We have had three debates on the subject in the past couple of weeks--two in European Standing Committee and now this one. The Minister has certainly been earning her pay for duties in the House recently.

There were no border controls until Napoleonic times--200 years ago. People travelled around Europe and the world without passports. Now we have controls. There is a perfectly reasonable, free-market argument that things might be better controlled if there were none, although before the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe gets excited, I should point out that neither I nor my party has adopted it.

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I have always taken a view which sometimes, arguably, puts me in a slightly less eurocentric corner of my party, and with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle: we should take advantage of our island status for the time being. It gives us additional opportunity for control, and I have always said, on the difficult issues of managing immigration generally rather than asylum in particular, that we should reserve and not sign away our rights. At the moment, we should not be party to a common European Union policy that means no frontiers between us and the rest of the EU. That would not be pragmatic. The difficulties experienced by other countries outweigh the advantages of dropping that form of control.

The report was initiated to examine the number of illegal immigrants that we have and the pattern of such immigration, and to remind us that there are always two categories of people seeking to come here. The other category is those who are exercising their asylum rights under the convention. We should always keep the categories separate, as the Minister and I publicly agreed recently, and have a separate debate about immigration policy. I think that there is now agreement that the two categories are interrelated, but we need to keep separate their definitions, rules and processes.

This morning, I attended an event to help the Christian Council for Racial Justice to launch a report and a pre-election leaflet entitled "Bonus not Bogus", which deals with the myths about asylum seekers. The Church seeks to counter those. No figures in that report or elsewhere suggest a crisis--only a challenge.

I understand the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe that one relevant consideration is how many people come here, whether as immigrants, visitors--including those from other EU countries--or asylum seekers. It is also relevant, however, to talk about how we can cope with the numbers given our wealth, population and historical links. There has been a failure, which I do not attribute to any past or present Minister in this debate, adequately to deal with the number of people who required their admission to be certified and agreed to. For significant periods over the past 10 years, the backlog has grown.

The more extreme press has reported a crisis simply because of the number of people waiting to enter the country. Huge numbers enter and leave all the time and from all over the world. Most immigrants come, perfectly lawfully, from other EU countries. A crisis has been perceived only because there has been a great queue of people waiting to have claims processed.

As the Minister knows, exactly the same situation arose when the passport system suddenly did not work. Every year, thousands of people apply for passports. That became a crisis only when the processing system stopped working. As soon as it started working again, the crisis went away. I hope that we can agree that we should not find the numbers anything more than a challenge. Yes, they are higher than they have been, but it should not be beyond the capability of the fourth most successful economy in the world to deal with them. Compared with Ireland, and relative to head of population, we have had half as many people. We are only 10th in the European league table relative to population, but about 75th in the world relative to our wealth.

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I reflect on the places that I have been to. You have visited some of them too, Mr. Pike, as have other colleagues. I have been to Palestine, southern and central Africa and Kosovo; huge numbers of people are being dealt with by much poorer countries. They just get on with it. That is why I endorse the part of the report that recommends assisting, via the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, countries that must deal with many people just outside their frontiers who seek refuge.

There is an important distinction to be drawn between asylum and immigration. Asylum applicants must be treated without discrimination under the convention. They have to be dealt with individually and then treated fairly on the individual merits of the case. It is interesting how monthly figures show that, as the hon. Member for Erdington pointed out, the league table of countries varies considerably from one year to the next. At the moment, it is headed by Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Somalia; a year or two ago it was headed by countries in southern Europe. At the time of the most violent conflicts in Sierra Leone, the table was headed by Sierra Leoneans, and at the worst times in Sri Lanka, by Sri Lankans. That is why the push factors are just as important, if not more so, than the actual or alleged pull factors.

We cannot discriminate on the ground of the nationality of the asylum seeker, but it is proper to do so for the purposes of immigration--for all sorts of historical reasons. We discriminate in favour of EU applicants. We have a discriminatory policy towards people who have Commonwealth and other links. That is a perfectly proper basis for an immigration policy, on which we are now building. The Government are right to move in that direction. We should now have a sensible debate with our European partners about how we meet our economic shortages and the needs gap.

We must be careful that we do not allow into the country only those with high academic qualifications. We are not short of people at that end of the market. Yes, we are short of people in the IT industries, but we are equally short of people in some of the most low-paid and less-skilled jobs. The example that I have given before is of cleaners in our public services. People who come here also work in the catering industry. The best car wash within striking distance of the House, for those who need it, is at Elephant and Castle and is entirely run by Kosovans. They do a brilliant job at very good rates and work furiously well. We must understand that it is proper to discriminate in immigration policy, but not in asylum policy. Having done so, we still need a border control system, and therefore need to consider how we deal with it.

An interesting debate, quite rightly prompted by the Select Committee report and taken up by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and others, is how one deals with the simple process of the person leaving his country and going somewhere else. Once this great fury of a debate has begun to settle, I hope that people will be able to come to this country as economic migrants without having to pretend to be something that they are not. People often pretend to be asylum seekers because that is how they think that they will succeed.

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We then must ensure that the asylum seeker can get here lawfully too. As the Minister knows, I argue that, currently, they cannot do so. They cannot leave any of the countries that we know about and arrive in the UK lawfully to claim asylum; they have to enter the country illegally. There are sensible and obvious ways of dealing with that problem. One is to allow British missions around the world to deal with the applications. Another is to allow EU missions or agencies around the world to act on our behalf and to deal with applications at the nearest safe place outside the country from which the people are fleeing--or alleging that they need to flee. I am in favour of a system that tries to process applications as near as possible to people's homes; that seems intelligent. However, that leads us to a more difficult question.

Effectively, under the present system, people are entitled to put their case only at the place where they land, yet the accident of travel may land people in places with which they have no linguistic or family links, and no ties. I often cite the example of those who fled from the civil war in Sierra Leone to French-speaking neighbouring countries in west Africa such as Ivory Coast. They were not in those countries because they wanted to be there. When they came to leave, they found that, because of the historic links between the French-speaking countries of the former French empire and France, the only European flights available went to Paris. Despite landing in Paris, all their links were with the UK, since our links with Sierra Leone are strong.

We must have a system that reasonably allows people to express the wish to go to the place to which they are logically attached and with which they have links, irrespective of where they are when they make their applications. I welcome European Union discussions on the matter, and I hope that, when reflecting on the economic issues, we remember natural links and linguistic, historical and family ties. The nature of the historic link means that Britain may take more people from some countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and African Commonwealth countries than from others.

Although it was mentioned only once and not pejoratively, we should remember that a so-called fortress Europe would be extremely dangerous and unhealthy. To her credit, the Minister made the same point. Europe is successful not because it is populated only by generations of Europeans; EU member states are successful not because they are populated only by people from those countries whose families span 17 generations. The mixture and sharing that Europe has accommodated makes us what we are.

On the push-pull factors, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and I had our usual exchange. I do not doubt that what we do here has an influence, but I do not believe that the evidence that he cited in support of his view, which he said had been communicated to him by people who are waiting for asylum, is the overwhelming or even the predominant view. For example, I do not believe that having to wait a very long time for cases to be processed is as much of a pull factor as others have argued. However, under the

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old system, which I criticised, cases were so delayed and there were so many chances of appeal and re-appeal that it became a nonsense. That system worked to the advantage of some good lawyers, and of many far worse or pretend lawyers. That certainly needed to be dealt with.

I do not believe that a voucher, as opposed to a benefits, system acts as a pull factor. Indeed, it works to the contrary. If the Minister is still in office when her review is concluded, I hope that she will remember that a benefits system is cheaper and fairer than the voucher system. Some things act as incentives. For instance, those who think that they will never be caught break the rules, and those who believe that they can slip through the net and earn money will do so. They are just as much push factors because of the criminals who try to exploit immigrants. Those are the same criminals who, 10 or 20 years ago, were exploiting drugs; who, 10 years previously, had an interest in pornography; and who, 10 years before that, were interested in armed robbery. They go wherever the pickings are to be found, and need to be dealt with strongly.

Mr. Howard : I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would tell us how the problem will be resolved by his party's recent commitment to a review of the dispersal system.

Mr. Hughes : I can answer that. The review of the dispersal system is a marginal issue. As I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the current dispersal system often sends people to places that are unprepared for them, with the result that they do not stay.

I can give an example that I know to be factual because I was there. I was in Newcastle when a Czech family arrived under the dispersal system--driven in a taxi from the station to a housing estate. The house was boarded up and there was nobody to receive the newcomers or anybody of the same nationality available. They were settled in, but they had no community and no likelihood of assimilation. They are not likely to stay there for long. As the Government have said in one of the responses, regional centres should meet people's language, health and educational needs. I have always supported the introduction of reception centres and reception--not detention--arrangements that provide support in appropriate locations around the country. The review would not force people to go to places from which they were bound to return, but would send them to places where there were known to be back-up facilities that worked.

We also need to address the question of how to set up permitted routes for asylum and for economic migration. We need to do better on both and to be clearer on both and, so far as is possible, to adopt a common European approach.

In any system that the House controls, there must be better police intelligence, better services intelligence at home and abroad and better technology. Criminals must be dealt with increasingly severely. That is done by Interpol, Europol and other agencies, and our Ministers need to approach them.

The interesting and provocative matter, on which the Select Committee and the Government did not agree, is that of whether immigration, Customs and Excise and

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the police should be integrated. I subscribe to the view that they should be. I have not yet reached the stage where I am so committed that that will appear in an immediately forthcoming manifesto, but I am persuaded. I am persuaded for all the reasons that the report gives, and for one other. That is that, for perfectly understandable reasons, different incentives drive different agencies, especially Customs and Excise and the police. The police want to catch the people; Customs and Excise wants, to catch the goods. Customs and Excise wants, to stop the loss to the economy; the police want to stop people breaking the law. They are often in conflict.

I have been told clearly by both agencies that people often slip out of the loop because of the agencies' rival aspirations. One agency wants to score its points at the expense of the other. The illustration given in the report and quoted by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) about the triple stop is a silly but practical one. I am sure that we would do better by integrating those agencies, and the only reason why we are not going down that road is what I might call institutional conservatism--the Government are being led by their civil servants. People will always say, "No thank you, we want things to stay as they are." It will take a strong Government to say that we can and should do better than that.

Mr. Wardle : Institutional conservatism is about the only kind of conservatism that I would rail against. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, a few years ago, several complaints against immigration officers about searches at ports of entry turned out to concern those conducted by customs officials? People confused the two agencies. Does that not highlight the need, at the very least, to be cautious and to ensure training across the board before any change?

Mr. Hughes : I have had experience of the first point, and agree with the hon. Gentleman. I also agree that, as a minimum, training is needed. However, I urge this Government, and whoever might form the next one, not to be conservative about the issue. I understand the resistance, but all the evidence points to the fact that shared, unified services work better, and I think that we should go down that road.

I will not duck the next issue, because it is a real one. All parties must face up to the problem of how we get people to go when they are told that they cannot stay. Many people are there one minute but not the next once they are told that they have to go. The system lets them slip through the net. That is unfair on those who go through the process, whose cases are adjudicated on and who are told that they can stay.

I have three suggestions. I do not have a perfect solution, but I want to show that we have at least addressed the issues. First, there is merit in ensuring that everything is clearly explained to people when they arrive. The process for telling them what will happen at the end of their time should be much more clearly explained. There should also be regional centres to which they are required to report.

Secondly, there might be an argument for a financial incentive--not for asylum seekers, but for others. That was suggested by the Select Committee, and it is worth

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considering. Thirdly, technology could play a part. There is a vague European notion of European citizenship mark 2, which is for those who do not have a permanent right of abode in EU countries, but have the right to remain for a limited period. People with limited rights to be in this country might have to be clocked in so that we can check whether they have clocked out. I do not believe that we cannot pray in aid technology, at least to give us a better assessment of when people cross the line between being here lawfully and being here illegally.

We are not yet ready for the entitlement card system, and the Government put the case in that regard. There is a big debate about the issue. Having entitlement cards for one lot of people and not another would raise issues of discrimination. There is a proper debate to be had, but we are not ready for it.

I welcome this debate and the fact that we are conducting it in relatively measured terms, despite the hoo-hah and the bruhaha of recent weeks.

4.56 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I want, at the outset, to congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on three counts. I congratulate him first on the drafting and publication of the report; secondly, on his chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee; and, thirdly, on his 23 years' service in the House--he spent five years as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead and 18 years representing the people of Birmingham, Erdington. Last year, I had the pleasure of going to Egypt with the hon. Gentleman, his wife, Val, and several other hon. Members, and I hope that he and his wife greatly enjoy the next phase of their lives.

It is important that we have a good debate. The subject of asylum and illegal immigration attracts twin evils. The first is the attempt by the advocates of political correctness to deny debate, which is wrong. The second, which is equally wrong, is the tendency for inflammatory exchanges to take place. As recommendation 19 of the Select Committee's report rightly emphasises, we have a proud and honourable tradition of not only accepting, but welcoming people who are fleeing genuine persecution. We should celebrate and continue that tradition, and countenance nothing that flies in the face of it. One can genuinely say that all the contributions to the debate have reflected the priority that we attach to that principle.

Many hon. Members have drawn attention to some of the pull factors on which the report focused, and which have played a significant role in the substantial increase in applications for asylum in the past 10 years and in the scale of illegal immigration. I do not want to focus on those factors at length, but the Committee was right to draw attention to family, cultural and historical links; the English language; and the availability--or the skewed perception of the availability--of social welfare benefits, to which the hon. Member for Erdington, rightly referred. Other factors that might be considered are the generous interpretation of asylum law in this country; the absence of a requirement for the production of identity cards or the demonstration of one's nationality; the lack of an efficient removal system for people who are refused asylum; access to public

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services, such as free health, education and housing; slow decision making in asylum cases; the scope for living in the country without documentation; and the general economic prosperity that we are fortunate to enjoy in our islands.

A related debate involves the level of immigration and the purposes for which flexibility might be required in our immigration procedures. It is important to distinguish between the debate about flexibility in immigration law and policy, and the phenomenon that we are principally discussing, which is large-scale abuse of the asylum system and our immigration laws. That abuse is perpetrated not merely by individuals who come to our country, but by the connivance of organised gangs that operate on a massive scale, make vast profits and employ thoroughly disreputable and even evil methods in pursuit of their trade.

From time to time, we have all talked about the various methods by which people enter the country. It is a commonplace and a truism that when we tackle a method through the pursuit of a certain policy, it is safely to be expected that the criminals who tend to be at least up with us, if not a step ahead, will opt for alternative routes. We should not underestimate the enemy, as these people are sophisticated and have extremely good communications, extensive resources and an absolute determination to defeat the forces of order.

I draw attention to one regrettable anomaly. European Union and European Economic Area passengers have to be admitted with the shortest delays, yet it is the documents of those countries that have most often been forged. Sixty-one per cent. of the 4,225 forgeries found at ports from 1 October 1999 to 30 June 2000 were of such documents. The British passport was the most frequently forged. Methods of entry can change in response to enforcement action. For example, the effect of a £2,000 fine on airline and ferry operators for each passenger with inadequate documentation is that people now hide in lorries instead.

The absence of effective decision making and enforcement must necessarily explain, at least in part, the large number of people now coming to our islands who should not do so. I shall give a snapshot by referring to the 57 per cent. rise in Lithuanian asylum seekers in the first six months of 2000.

To the credit of the Committee, the report focused on no fewer than 22 findings and recommendations, to which the Government replied at the end of March. The Government claimed to be implementing some of the recommendations, appeared not to have decided in favour of others, and objected--predictably but unconvincingly--to some of the most damning criticisms. One such criticism is the inefficiency of the system. The Committee highlighted the major pull factors, and the Government's response to the report stated that they were undertaking three studies on why asylum seekers are attracted to the UK.

One major factor must surely be the inefficiency of our asylum system and the long delays in the consideration of applications. The current average time taken to initial decision is 14 months. In those circumstances, it is no wonder that figures from the United Nations High

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Commissioner for Refugees show that the UK received more asylum seekers than any European country in 2000. It had 97,860 applications, including dependants, as opposed to Germany in second place with 78,760.

In February 2000, the Minister said that the Government were committed to getting rid of the backlog by April 2001. However, in a written answer on 5 February 2001--column 440W of Hansard--she defined removal of the backlog as a reduction to 25,000. At the end of March 2001, the figure was 33,390, so the Government have palpably missed their target.

The report mentions the Red Cross holding centre at Sangatte, and the Committee stated that it was clear that the hundreds waiting in and around it were simply waiting for the opportunity to enter the UK illegally. That point was acknowledged by the Minister on 22 March. Approximately 25,000 people have passed through the centre in the past 18 months. The fact that the Government do not even keep proper records has made matters difficult. Ministers admit that they have no idea how many failed asylum seekers remain in the country; some estimates suggest at least 200,000. In the past two years, there have been 150,000 arrivals, excluding dependants, but only 15,000 removals, all of which would necessarily have been from previous years. In 1999, enforcement action was taken against 22,880 people, but only 6,410 were removed.

The Committee--much to the credit of the hon. Member for Erdington and his colleagues--was right to conclude in paragraph 69 that

It is no good for the Minister to look quizzical or hurt by the criticism. The Home Office's figures show that only one fifth of failed asylum seekers who are eligible for removal are being removed. I emphasise again that Britain should be a safe haven for genuine refugees, but the Government's shambolic policies have made us a soft touch for racketeers who traffic in human beings and misery. It is horrifying that the Immigration Service Union, whose members work at the sharp end, says that perhaps only a dozen people who do not want to leave the country are being forcibly removed per month. In the circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that since 1997 asylum applications have risen from 32,500 to 76,035--a rise of 134 per cent.

Mrs. Roche : Will the hon. Gentleman accept my assurance that the Immigration Service Union, with which I have regular meetings, has assured me that that remark was taken completely out of context and that it recognises the Home Office figures?

Mr. Bercow : I will not accept that here and now. I do not dispute the Minister's veracity, but I am suspicious

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of her interpretation of the remark. It is on the record for everyone to study, and I believe that it is persuasive because it reflects the reality of the situation.

The Government justifiably talk about the juxtaposition of immigration controls, but there is nothing new about that. The Home Secretary has repeatedly sought to spin the situation; that point was made effectively in relation to the Dublin convention by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) during his incisive input. Significant problems have resulted from the policy of civil penalties against, for example, lorry drivers. The Government should not simply ignore them. Many people who have been penalised have had bogus asylum seekers in their trucks unbeknown to them, and it is wrong for them to be penalised in such a way.

The extension of civil penalties to rail freight in March has been a disaster. The Minister will have received representations about that. [Interruption.] It is no good her chuntering from a sedentary position in an expression of disapproval of anyone who happens to take a different view. Those points have been made by the commercial sector and people who feel that they are being unfairly held responsible for errors that are not their own.

There is an important debate about entitlement cards, which the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) dealt with sensitively. I am grotesquely embarrassed to express sympathy with the point of view articulated by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). That is deeply uncomfortable and unedifying for me, and I hope that I do not have to repeat it, but he has legitimate concerns. The Government have clearly not accepted the fact that such cards should be introduced. The Minister will have heard the opinions that have been expressed, and I hope that the Government will continue to reflect on the arguments, as they will on the case for a single frontier police force.

This has been a long debate, but I shall focus briefly on several vital steps that could help to overcome some of the worst excesses of the abuse of our asylum and immigration procedures. The Conservative party wants such steps to be taken but, regrettably, the Government have eschewed taking them since they came to office, so we all want to hear the Minister's response.

First, we need greater use of reception centres. In Germany and France it is normal practice for asylum seekers to be housed in designated reception centres. There is nothing inhumane or uncivilised about such an approach. When we gave refuge in this country to the Ugandan Asians and the Vietnamese boat people, we housed them in reception centres while longer-term arrangements were properly organised. Such an arrangement is not only civilised, but more straightforward than a complicated voucher and dispersal scheme.

By ensuring that the centres are secure, we can also guarantee that people seeking to evade immigration control are kept in one place and are unable to disappear into the wider community. Those whose claims are refused can be speedily removed from the country. That is why we propose that all new applicants for asylum--whether port or in-country applicants--should be retained in reception centres until their cases have been

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determined. Conservatives believe that that would have a significant deterrent effect, and we appear to be joined in that view--

Mrs. Roche : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow : No, the hon. Lady will have an opportunity for a full response in a minute.

Mrs. Roche : Frit.

Mr. Bercow : I have never been frit about anything; I am not frit now; and I will not be frit in future. If the hon. Lady wants me to give way, I will, but it will take me longer to conclude my speech.

Mrs. Roche : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and agree that he can take longer to conclude.

I am genuinely interested in the issue of detaining asylum seekers in reception centres until their case is determined. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that they should be detained there until they are removed if they receive a negative decision on their application?

Mr. Bercow : That would certainly be the expectation in developing the policy. There is no uncertainty about our motives, but I shall not be diverted in any way--I am sure that that was not the hon. Lady's intention--from the invocation of support for Conservative party policy. Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, professor of international refugee law at Oxford university, shares our analysis. As he told the Select Committee:

We shall take action to speed up asylum decisions and appeals. A report commissioned by the Home Office from the consultants Vantage Point identified huge and unnecessary delays in the system. An asylum seeker who arrives in Dover or at Heathrow is interviewed at length by an immigration officer, who then has to refer the case to the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office in Croydon for the papers to be reviewed and a decision made. It is an exceptionally long-winded process, and a much more streamlined operation is required.

We will amend the law to deter applications by people who have come from a country that is obviously safe. It is bizarre to receive applications from countries that have been accepted as candidates for membership of the European Union. How can we simultaneously accept that a country has the rule of law and good government that would qualify it to join the EU and believe that its citizens are suffering systematic persecution? A future Conservative Government will draw up a list of countries enjoying the rule of law from which we will not

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ordinarily accept asylum applications. The presumption of the law will be that a claim is unfounded if an applicant has travelled directly from, or begun his journey in, a safe country.

We shall signal to our European partners that we expect them to take seriously their obligations under the Dublin convention. Those obligations are on the record. People have signed up to them. They should be implemented fully and rigorously. When people have been refused asylum they should be removed from this country without delay. What is the point of spending all this time and money on assessing whether asylum seekers have a genuine case, when nothing is done with those who do not and when in the meantime those with bogus claims learn how to disappear into the melting pot of society?

The Government's ill-advised and poorly implemented dispersal policy has exacerbated an already serious situation. The next Conservative Government will set up a removals agency with the sole mission of ensuring that people who are supposed to leave the country do so at once. That will take a burden off the police and simplify the process of removals. The removals agency will be largely composed of immigration service staff assigned permanently to removals duties.

Mr. Corbett : I have a word of caution to offer the hon. Gentleman. Most of the asylum applications at the moment come from people from countries that cannot remotely be described as safe: Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to name just three. He might want to consider whether a future Conservative Government would contemplate forcibly returning people to those countries when it is almost certain that they would either go to prison or lose their lives.

Mr. Bercow : The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point but I emphasised at the outset, and I welcome the opportunity to repeat now, that if people are at risk of death, torture, being maimed or having their human rights trodden upon, we do not propose that they should be deprived of a safe haven here. We are concerned about the people who are seeking a better standard of living. I do not blame them for doing so, but those whom we cannot reasonably be expected to accommodate should be returned. That seems a perfectly reasonable proposition and one with which the vast majority of people would concur.

Today's system is neither fair, nor firm nor efficient. It is weak and arbitrary. As a result, it is losing public support. A democracy that sets rules and does not enforce them loses the respect of its own citizens, and understandably so. Some people are untroubled by the present situation. My hon. Friends and I are not among them. There are those who would prefer not to talk about it. We think that they are wrong and we intend to do so. A tolerant, welcoming society is right, but a weak society that is prey to abuse is rightly and roundly rejected by our fellow citizens. The asylum crisis is serious. We cannot allow British democracy, the rule of

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law and the protection of our citizens to be undermined. We need a firm, fair, robust and efficacious policy. Under this Government there is none such. The Conservative party intends to provide it.

5.17 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche ): This has been a good debate, and for the large part extremely thoughtful. Our deliberations have been full of good humour. It shows that we can quite properly debate these important but sensitive issues.

I should like to thank the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and others for their warm tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). They commended his excellent chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee and his long service to the House. The fact that tributes have come from both sides and in the warmest possible terms shows not only the high regard but the great affection in which he is held by us all.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I apologise for intervening at a late hour, but I have been in the Standing Committee on the International Criminal Court Bill. As a member of the Select Committee throughout this Parliament, I should like to add my words of tribute to those that the Minister has already paid to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). He has been a splendid, good natured and skilful Chairman.

Mrs. Roche : On my hon. Friend's behalf--if I may be so presumptuous--I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, because I am a former member of the Home Affairs Committee, having had the pleasure of serving on it when I first came to Parliament. I feel a little like a poacher turned gamekeeper, but I shall do my best. In the short time available, I shall try to respond to several of the points that have been made.

In response to my hon. Friends the Members for Erdington and for Battersea (Mr. Linton) and the hon. Members for Buckingham and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I must emphasise that we should distinguish between asylum and migration. The refugee convention was never meant to be a migratory instrument, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agrees. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in response to the European debate and to the global consultation initiated by UNHCR, set out in major speeches--in Lisbon last year and London this year--how the convention should operate in the modern age, and how we can establish resettlement programmes to help the poorer countries that are supporting many refugees.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington, we have responded in detail to some of his points, but I want to reassure him on a couple of others. He asked whether there would be joint use of equipment. Yes, the new equipment will be joint use. It

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is fair to say that the X-ray machines and the money that has been secured is a good example of how Select Committees can influence Government. We not only listened, but acted. Minds were influenced by the report, which is a tribute to the Committee. We have also listened to the Committee's views on research, and have acted on its recommendations, although we had realised that there was a lack of research.

My hon. Friend asked about fingerprinting, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean). That is important, which is why the new mobile system is up and running. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) cannot, alas, be with us now; he had to go to an urgent constituency engagement, but he sent me a note with his usual courtesy. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton and the hon. Members for Buckingham and for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle), he rightly referred to the evil trade in people smuggling and trafficking. We make a distinction between smuggling and trafficking--between the transport of people and the dreadful trade of trafficking children and women for prostitution. We are determined to do everything possible to crack down on both.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made an interesting speech, particularly about the figures. I have them here, and the number of asylum applications in the two months of May and June 1996 decreased, but then the figures started to rise.

Mr. Howard : The figures went down and then, as I explained, the courts intervened to sabotage the policy, so they increased again.

Mrs. Roche : No, that has nothing to do with the figures. They reflect, as do those for elsewhere in Europe, the rising number of applications over the years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, the Tory record shows that there was a ten fold increase in the number of asylum seekers in the early years of the Conservative Government, very much reflecting what was happening in Europe and the rest of the world. I listened closely to the comments of the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the Dublin convention, and I understand the gloss that he puts on it. However, there is absolutely no doubt that the Dublin convention was fatally flawed, and that the previous Government, of whom he was a member, signed up to it.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked an important question about SNCF and fencing. He knows that I take a close personal interest in that matter. I understand that SNCF has now secured the funds and drawn up plans for securing that particular site, and I undertake to let him know when that will occur.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea and the hon. Member for Buckingham asked about processing. The record of the previous Government for asylum processing was deplorable. They brought in a computer system that was going to do everything but make the tea--if my memory serves me correctly, a computer system that the Public Accounts Committee said was

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overly ambitious and seriously flawed. They laid off staff at the same time and then wondered why the backlog had increased--absolutely amazing.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle used the term "chutzpah", which is one of my favourite words. An example of chutzpah is the story of the man who murdered his parents and then, in his plea of mitigation to the court as to why he should not be sentenced to life imprisonment, said that he was an orphan. It is chutzpah on the part of members of the previous Government to deny their responsibility.

It is because we have put enormous resources into the immigration and nationality directorate--nearly £2 billion will be spent during the next four years--that the asylum backlog is at a 10-year record low. It is now down to working levels. On 1 May, I had the great pleasure of visiting the asylum caseworkers to thank them for their hard work. In the last financial year, 130,000 decisions were taken. That is a remarkable achievement, and I give credit to them.

I also want to give credit to the immigration service. I was pleased by the comments of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, because he knows about the immense efforts of immigration officers. I take issue with the hon. Member for Buckingham: the immigration service has achieved remarkable levels of removals--the highest ever. We still have ambitious targets and there is much to be done, but we have done much better than a Conservative Government would have done, and he should understand that.

Mr. Howard : Will the hon. Lady indulge me once more?

Mrs. Roche : I have two minutes left, but yes.

Mr. Howard : May I associate myself with everything that has been said by way of tribute to the immigration officers? Will the hon. Lady now give me the figures for those apprehended at the Eurotunnel terminals at Cheriton?

Mrs. Roche : I am unable to provide the exact figures at the moment, but I undertake to give them to the hon. and learned Gentleman as soon as possible.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham about removal. Presumably, they were an early insight into the Conservative manifesto. What they show is a woeful misunderstanding of removal. The expensive, possibly illegal, proposal for detention centres that will keep people until removal, when we know that for some--

Mr. Bercow : Nonsense.

Mrs. Roche : I commend to the hon. Gentleman an excellent report on the subject produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington. I am sure that a copy will be sent to him. It shows that it is very difficult to remove some people. The hon. Gentleman might want to reflect again on his proposals.

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The discussions about co-operation between agencies and the entitlement card were interesting. The Government have commented on those matters, and we will reflect very carefully on what has been said today.

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The issues that we discussed are important, and we have had an interesting and good debate. It is important to do several things. We must respond to the UNHCR--

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