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4. Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): What steps he is taking to reform the asylum system. [29850]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): As referred to a moment or two ago, in the White Paper that I am about to publish I shall build on the statement that I made on 29 October. I want a radical improvement in the way that we operate our asylum system, including in the immigration and nationality directorate and the national asylum support service, and to set that in the context of a managed migration programme. It is time to see asylum not in isolation but as part of dealing with worldwide movements of people, all of whom are either seeking a better life or fleeing persecution.

Mr. Streeter: How does the Home Secretary explain his spectacular failure to prevent asylum seekers who are already safe in France from stampeding through the channel tunnel and ferry ports to seek asylum in this country? Is it not obvious to everyone that the Dublin convention is not working? What does he intend to do about it?

Mr. Blunkett: As we shall debate in a few moments, the very fact that people are seen scrabbling to get over the barbed-wire shows that they are not flooding into Britain in the way just described. In fact, the number of people who managed to get through the French end of the channel tunnel fell from 808 in July to 32 in December. I do not think that that is a sign of failure; I think that it is a sign of success. If the hon. Gentleman had anything about him, he would stand up and congratulate us on making a difference.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Does the Home Secretary agree that although it is desirable that the number of failed asylum seekers to be deported should be increased, that must be done humanely? Does he particularly agree that we should be taking steps to ensure that some facilities await young children on their arrival back home, and that they are not simply flown to the other side of the world and dumped, with their families, at an airport and wished good luck?

Mr. Blunkett: A sensible debate would acknowledge that the longer a family has been here and the longer children have been integrated and have been receiving an education, the more difficult it is both to remove and to resettle them. It is important that we have a policy for returners that is sensitive to their needs, that is effective

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and determined, but that reflects the points that my hon. Friend makes. I promise him that in publishing the White Paper and taking it forward, we will of necessity take that into account.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I share the Home Secretary's desire for a sensitive policy. He and I have shared many views on the return of asylum seekers. Can he tell the House today how many asylum seekers entering this country from France have been returned to France under the Dublin convention since 1997?

Mr. Blunkett: What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that last year 6,828 people were returned automatically to France under a process similar to the gentlemen's agreement mentioned in the Opposition motion to be debated shortly. That was 1,000 more than the previous year. I do not have the number returned under the Dublin convention, for the very reason that I have stated publicly on several occasions, which is that the Dublin convention—to which the Conservative Government agreed and were a party in 1990—has not worked. That is why we are attempting not only to renegotiate under what is now called Dublin mark 2, but to take steps of our own, because waiting for Godot will not get us very far.

Mr. Letwin: I welcome the Home Secretary's conversion to the view that the Dublin convention does not work. Does he agree that its failure to work probably partly explains the fact that the Home Office's expenditure on asylum support is likely to be £600 million more than was forecast?

Mr. Blunkett: No, it does not.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Will my right hon. Friend re-examine the question of the number of people who are refused asylum on the grounds of non- compliance? Generally, it is because they failed to return the statement of evidence form within an extremely brief period. Many people claim that they never had the form, or that they sent it back and the Home Office then lost it. It might appear efficient to make decisions in such a way, but in fact it leads to many unnecessary appeals and contributes to the inefficiency of the system. Will he consider extending the period in which people have to return those forms?

Mr. Blunkett: I should like to ensure the availability of adequate and appropriate advice for fulfilling the obligation, and that induction centres—the first of which opened in Dover on 22 January, as I said in my statement on 29 October—are able to support and help those who seek asylum to complete the form more effectively. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no point in having masses of appeals that could have been resolved earlier and more effectively if the system had been right.

Sex Offences

5. Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): When he intends to bring forward proposals following the report on the reform of sex offence laws "Setting the Boundaries"; and if he will make a statement. [29851]

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The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): Tackling sexual offending is a top priority for the Government. We intend to ensure that the legislative framework enables firm action to be taken against those who abuse others. We are actively considering the recommendations of the sex offences review to Government in the light of more than 700 responses received during the consultation period. We intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows, and I will place a short summary of our proposals in the Libraries of both Houses as soon as possible.

Paul Holmes: Is the Minister aware of the case in January in which the Crown Prosecution Service could not prosecute a man who had persuaded two 11-year-old girls to undress in front of him because he had not physically touched them? Do the Government intend to close that loophole in the law, and, if so, how urgently do they intend to introduce the necessary legislation?

Mr. Bradley: I was as surprised as many Members about that loophole in the law. We want to ensure that the offences that we introduce are coherent and that they protect vulnerable people, particularly children. I am examining the loophole to ensure that the changes that we propose are coherent. We wish to tackle all possible attempts to abuse children.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Will my right hon. Friend examine a letter that I wrote today to the Secretary of State—I suspect that it will end up on my right hon. Friend's desk—about the difficult and serious case of an assault on a child which has gone unpunished? I suspect that the offence will slip through the net because of proposals to reform sex offences legislation. When my right hon. Friend has read my letter, perhaps he will consider the possibility of linking the issue to the concept of dangerousness, which I know the Department is examining. There are a few abusers who will not otherwise fall easily into the categories that my right hon. Friend is considering.

Mr. Bradley: I shall examine the case about which my hon. Friend has written. It is taking some time to come forward with our proposals because we received more than 700 detailed responses to the review. We are dealing with a complex area and we want to ensure, as far as we can, that all dangerous and violent sex offenders are covered by legislation, and that the sentencing policy that we bring forward, as a result of the Halliday review, is severe on the perpetrators of offences that we all abhor.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I am sure that the Minister is aware of the growing scare about child sex slavery in the United Kingdom, which has been more evident recently. It shames us all that the trade should take place in Britain. The Minister will be aware also that the police tell us that the trade is due to insufficient powers to deal with the merchants of this wicked activity. Given the urgency of the problem, would the Department consider kindly a private Member's Bill that sought exclusively to deal with the issue? If help could be given

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with drafting and the Department gave it a fair wind to ensure that it passed speedily through the House, it would deal with a dreadful nuisance that must be tackled.

Mr. Bradley: Most important is that the proposals made in legislation are coherent and clear. We must bring forward a package of measures that are designed to tackle a range of issues, one of which the hon. Lady has mentioned. The awful issue to which she referred must be addressed. I want to ensure that the public understand and have confidence in the legislative framework. We must introduce the correct punishment to meet the crimes that are perpetrated. I shall always consider the appropriate vehicles through which to introduce legislation. If possible, it will be best to have a Government package of plans, which we can debate in the House. There has been an opportunity for all parties to contribute to the review, and I shall consider the hon. Lady's contribution.

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