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Bob Russell: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the Home Office figures which show that people born outside the UK, including asylum seekers, contribute 10 per cent.

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more to the economy in taxes and national insurance than they consume in benefits, which is worth about £2.5 billion a year to the British economy?

Mr. Lilley: I will not comment on the figures, most of which are pretty dubious, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's general point, which I made earlier. As individuals, not just genuine asylum seekers but economic migrants can make a positive contribution to this country. However, I do not believe, and I should be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman and his party believe, that we can open up the country to unlimited immigration. We cannot—there must be some restriction.

The number of asylum seekers coming to the UK last year approached 100,000, taking into account their dependants. The vast majority will stay, under our present arrangements. That equates to the population of my constituency. It means that every year we will have to house the equivalent of the population of my constituency. One of the great issues in my constituency is the constraint on housing and building in the green belt. I would be hypocritical in the extreme if I said that all those people should be allowed to come into the country as they would make a wonderful contribution to the economy, but that we would not provide extra houses for them, or extra towns or settlements.

We cannot have it both ways. Not being a Liberal Democrat, I will not even try to have it both ways. We must accept that we have to make this country less pleasant in terms of the magnets of attraction, or less easy for people to stay in by exploiting legal loopholes. We need to review the way in which the Geneva convention has been enshrined in law, rather than the process of dealing with asylum seekers being essentially an administrative one, relying on a judgment of officials which will inevitably prove fallible and difficult.

The reason is that, ultimately, the courts cannot, while meeting the usual standards that we require of them, assess what happened in a distant country on the basis of evidence supplied by the people who are coming here. It is nonsense to suggest that we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that such people have no case or that they can prove beyond reasonable doubt that they have a strong case. An assessment must be made as to whether they are genuine asylum seekers, but ultimately it cannot be made to the normal, rigorous standards that would apply in the court in relation to events that happened in this country.

We must also realise that the process of dealing with asylum seekers has specific problems. I had to look into the matter in some detail when I was Secretary of State for Social Security. My right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary and I conducted an analysis—it was carried out by my officials and his—of the whole process. We established that there was a series of bottlenecks, arising in respect of initial asylum applications, appeals, judicial reviews, further appeals and deportation and removal orders. All the effort of the bureaucracy tends to be spent on widening the bottlenecks that are already widest, but as anyone who has ever understood process engineering will know, that is the wrong way of going about things. One should try to widen the narrowest bottleneck first. In this case, that is the process of removal and deportation. Until we enhance and speed up that process and reduce

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the length of the pipeline—the period between an initial claim and liability for deportation and removal—we will not solve that problem, or at least we would be able do so only by taking the less humane approach of making this country less attractive for people to live in. I do not think anybody in the House would like to do that.

I hope that the Government will take the small step that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pressed upon them so eloquently and endeavour to renew the bilateral agreement. In the longer term, I hope that they will look to see whether we need more fundamental changes in the process and the legal structures through which we handle the asylum problem, if we are to gain some control of it in future.

6.12 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I welcome this very reasonable-sounding debate. I hope it is a sign that the approach that the Opposition adopted on asylum during the election campaign—certainly in my constituency—is now behind them. The issue was used to create fear among residents in an attempt to generate support for the Conservatives, but I am glad to say that it was unsuccessful, and I hope that such tawdry exploitation of people's genuine anxieties about the way in which asylum is administered will be a thing of the past.

I also hope that the positive tone of the debate reflects a recognition that such discussion cannot be based on the assumption that the presence of one extra asylum seeker is inevitably a problem. Such assumptions have always damaged the debate on asylum and immigration in Britain. Let us not forget that Einstein was a refugee, or that many of the most entrepreneurial and dynamic communities in Britain started their lives here as refugee communities and have contributed hugely to Britain's success and international reputation in many different fields. We should celebrate that. The tolerant character of this country in welcoming people who flee persecution is one of our great strengths, and we should be proud of it.

I fear that, in trying to present itself as being very reasonable, the Conservative party is portraying an issue that I think of as a matchbox lid as a vast set of gates comparable to those at St. Stephen's entrance. Although better bilateral arrangements with France could make some difference to the number of people seeking access to Britain to claim asylum, let us not pretend that it would make a huge difference. Such an assumption would once again contribute to the sort of misinformation that has dogged debates on asylum.

What would most improve the situation in terms of the numbers of applicants and of the way in which we deal with asylum applications? The answer is pretty straightforward. More than anything else, we must improve the speed and integrity of the current system. I know that the one-stop appeal introduced under the most recent legislation was an attempt to reduce delays, but it was established on top of a failing administrative system. The current delays benefit only bogus applicants. Some people are making bogus claims, and are aware that they are doing so. It is they who benefit hugely from bad administration, lost files and delays. We must remind ourselves constantly that that is the case. I hope that in his statement later this week my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make proposals that put speed, efficiency and integrity back into the asylum system.

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I was both depressed and amused to hear the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) tell the Minister about an Afghan who had sought asylum in his constituency in 1999 but had received no decision. I felt like sending a note to my office asking for details of a bunch of cases in which people have been here for a decade without receiving a decision. I promise hon. Members that it is possible to find such cases. Before this debate, I looked at the cases of the people who have come to see me in the past week about asylum claims, as well as the letters that I have received in that time. One letter from the Minister said that I was slightly wrong in connection with a point that I had made to her about a constituent who has been served with a notice of decision. I was glad to receive the letter, but in the meantime another development had occurred. I had been trying to ensure that my constituent's case was considered with her husband's. That did not happen. Her husband was given asylum and she was again refused it in the letter with which she has now been properly served.

Similar examples of failure in the administrative system are common. At my advice surgery on Friday, I spoke to a Sri Lankan family who appealed in May 1997, before I was elected as Member of Parliament for Slough. Their decision was received in June 1998, so it took more than a year for it to be promulgated. It gave them asylum. The husband received his status letter confirming the decision in July 2000, but his wife and children have still not had that notification, even though I have been re-elected in the meantime. Those examples are not extreme—I picked them because they were recent—but they illustrate problems that have developed over time and that are so serious that they in turn create new problems.

A properly administered decision-making system is more important than an agreement with France. Expert decision makers should operate early in the system, thus leading to fewer stupid decisions, such as refusals because of out-of-time returns of applications, to which other hon. Members have referred. The quality of initial decisions should be good so that adjudicators do not overturn so many decisions. The system should enable us to recognise genuine refugees early and reduce delays for them.

Mr. Letwin: Does the hon. Lady share our hope that the forthcoming White Paper will propose to include in accommodation centres, or even reception centres, a full suite of the experts, ranging from doctors and lawyers to decision makers and adjudicators, who are required to make on-the-spot, effective decisions, for the sake of those who try to get into the country because of dire circumstances?

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