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Simon Hughes: It was.

Mr. Lidington: If that video was the outcome of that meeting, I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, she will tell us a little about what those initiatives, about which the Government made much at the time of the summit, have meant in practice over the last few months. I also hope that she will be able to flesh out the comments that she made at the conclusion of the debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January about a successor to the Dublin convention now existing in draft. Will she give some indication of the content of the draft convention, and of the time scale for its introduction and implementation?

Both the motion and the Government amendment recognise that the issue of migrants coming to the United Kingdom from France is intimately bound up with the overall effectiveness of our asylum system. Why are many thousands of young men going to Sangatte with the sole objective—which they declare themselves—of using it as a base to reach the United Kingdom? As other hon. Members have said, it is partly due to the attraction of the English language, and partly due to the existence of communities in this country who are willing to provide support to compatriots who come to Britain. However, it is also due to the fact that many of those young men know that, once they reach here, effective action to remove them if their claim is unfounded is unlikely or, if it happens, is likely to be delayed for a long time.

Last year, after visiting Sangatte and exploring the question in considerable detail, the Select Committee on Home Affairs concluded that administrative and legal measures in the United Kingdom made an appreciable difference to the readiness of applicants and people smugglers to try their luck in the United Kingdom rather than elsewhere. If we look back at the history—the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the introduction of the bilateral agreement in 1995, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the court ruling in 1996 that significantly weakened the effectiveness of the arrangements introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—we see that the number of people applying for asylum in the United Kingdom has altered over the years as a consequence of different Acts of Parliament, administrative actions and judicial rulings. In that context, I have three questions for the Minister on the operation of the system and whether she believes it adequately deters people such as those who live in Sangatte.

My first question is on initial asylum decisions. I welcome the fact that the backlog is down to about 43,000, but it is still far too high. What concerns me is that a large proportion of decisions are refusals on non-compliance grounds, perhaps because not all sections of the form have been filled in or it has been returned to the Home Office late. In 2001, 17 to 20 per cent. of all Home Office decisions were refusals on those grounds alone. Although that is down on the high 25 to 30 per cent. total of 2000, it represents a massive increase on the 3 per cent. of such decisions in 1999.

Can the Minister explain what is going on? Is it the case that people who are not genuinely fleeing persecution and who vanish into the community are not bothering to

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return their forms properly completed, because that would be cause for concern; or is it that people who have an arguable case for asylum are struggling to fill in unfamiliar forms in a strange language, because that would mean that the improvement in initial decisions as reflected in Home Office statistics conceals the fact that the substantive determination of such cases is being shunted down the line to the appeals system and not being dealt with by the Department in the first instance?

My second question relates to appeals. Home Office figures for the third quarter of last year show that it received more than 16,500 appeals, but, as only 10,950 were determined, about 5,500 were added to the backlog. There was also a big increase over the 2000 figures in the proportion of appeals that were allowed by the adjudicators. What does that mean? Either the adjudicators are taking a softer line, which I find difficult to credit, or there are serious doubts about the quality of decisions taken by the Home Office at initial determination and the adjudicators are feeling obliged to reverse them in a greater number of cases.

My third question is on removals. A bilateral agreement with France will work only if we have an effective system for removing people when we decide that they are not entitled to remain here. The number of removals of failed asylum seekers was lower in each quarter of 2001 than in the corresponding quarter of 2000. Although more than 75,000 people were refused asylum in 2000, only 8,900 were removed from this country. There are still questions to be answered about the state of our domestic asylum system. Getting that right is an essential counterpart to the sort of international agreement that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset advocates.

Looking back to the preface to the 1998 White Paper, written in the name of the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), I find it ironic that it says:

I am sorry to have to say that little seems to have changed in the four years since the former Home Secretary wrote those remarks.

My right hon. and hon. Friends' motion represents a constructive start to building a fairer, faster, firmer and more effective and trustworthy system of asylum, which will enable us to discharge our responsibilities under the United Nations convention.

5.35 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I have been tempted to do so by the fact that, in the main, it has been constructive. That makes a pleasant change from some of the asylum and immigration debates that I have sat through here over the past few years.

The debate has not been 100 per cent. constructive. I know that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) did not say that everything that had gone wrong had been since 1997, but he got close at times. I

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think that I am the only Member who served on each of the Committees that considered what became the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. On every one, the Minister concerned told us how the legislation would provide all the solutions to the asylum system. I treated the Bills in the same even- handed, objective way: I voted against all three of them. It looks as though I might have the opportunity in a few weeks to consider my attitude to the 2002 legislation.

It has sometimes been implied in the debate— to some extent, the motion implies it—that the United Kingdom shoulders an unfair burden in comparison with other European Union countries. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, that is not so. Between 1997 and 1999—the last complete set of figures across the EU that I have seen—there were twice as many asylum seekers in Germany as there were in the UK. Certainly when measured against population, we come nowhere near the top of the league. Figures obviously vary from year to year, but in most years we are probably eighth or ninth in the number of asylum seekers per head of population.

To suggest, as has been frequently suggested in the debate, that a bilateral approach with France would go a significant way towards making big changes is to take a very narrow view. I understand the arguments about closing Sangatte, but let us look back at why it opened in the first place. It was because there were large numbers of people on the streets of Calais and neighbouring towns who, exactly like those now in Sangatte, had every intention of trying to make their way to the UK.

We perhaps ought to have learned some of the lessons of the past 10 or 20 years, in that policies that are simply based on putting up barriers will not work. Each change that has done that has not worked. I know that numbers fell between 2000 and 2001, but it has been claimed today that since 1997, there has been an increase in the number of people coming to the UK from France who could otherwise have claimed asylum in France. However, that change is just one that has occurred since 1997. At the same time, we have changed carriers' liability and put airline liaison officers in many overseas countries whose specific job is to stop people getting on to planes to come directly to the UK. As I said, when one route is closed, people try to find another. We should not assume that putting up ever higher barriers will solve the problems.

In the past couple of years, significant changes have taken place within the EU, involving not only Britain and France, but other EU countries. Moves have been made toward a common asylum policy across Europe. The 1999 Amsterdam treaty made immigration and asylum policy an EU competence for the first time. There is provision enabling the UK to opt out, but I think that we should be closely involved in those discussions, because it is foolish to think that if common asylum or immigration policies were achieved across other EU countries, the UK could stand outside with different procedures and standards.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for West Dorset would encounter problems with some of his Back-Bench colleagues if he tried to suggest that EU-wide agreements were desirable. He therefore tries to limit the debate to France.

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