Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): He's the Home Secretary's puppy.

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman chunters happily that I am the Home Secretary's puppet. That is presumably because he cannot understand the possibility that, as a matter of fact, there could be agreement about sensible measures and constructive opposition.

Turning from asylum to the related issue of economic migration, we note with interest the more detailed proposals, contained in the White Paper, to increase the rate of permitted economic migration. We join the Home Secretary, I hesitate to tell the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), in believing that, in a crowded island, there are environmental and social reasons for limiting the rate of immigration, but we join the Home Secretary also in the acknowledgment that the British economy and British society have much to gain from a controlled inflow of talented and energetic people who seek to better their circumstances by setting to work and engaging as entrepreneurs in our society. We strongly welcome the Home Secretary's moves towards ensuring that all those entering the country as migrants should be proficient in English and should acquire an early understanding of our constitutional arrangements.

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1031

We will look carefully and constructively at the details of the proposals put forward in the White Paper for the amendment of the immigration rules, and we anticipate an interesting and fruitful debate when the Bill comes before the House.

Although no one can doubt the work that has gone into the White Paper, will the Home Secretary agree that the proposals, both on asylum and on immigration, will ultimately be judged not by the nobility of the aspirations that they undoubtedly represent, but by their effectiveness in practice?

Can the Home Secretary tell us what targets and criteria he will now establish to enable the House to hold him to account two or three years hence? What does he expect then to be the speed with which asylum claims are processed? What does he regard as the then tolerable backlog? With what speed does he expect removals, where those are necessary, then to occur?

If the Home Secretary is willing to address the remaining practical questions relating to his measures, and if he is willing to state clearly what results his measures are designed to achieve, I believe that he will have the backing of the whole House in seeking to bring order out of his predecessor's chaos.

Mr. Skinner: Come on David, stroke him!

Mr. Blunkett: I will do my own stroking in my own time.

I warmly welcome the approach of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on behalf of the official Opposition. I do hope that, despite continuing disagreements about particular detail, this will herald a new beginning in this country of not using asylum as a political football and not enabling the National Front and the British National party to make mischief with it. We all seek, and I accept that the hon. Gentleman seeks, to find solutions that balance the needs of this country and those who seek asylum and those of the British people and the confidence and security that they demand.

I take the little rap across the knuckles about what may or may not have emerged. I heard the hon. Gentleman—albeit for 20 seconds—on the "Today" programme this morning, so he was quite willing to respond, and I read with interest his Daily Express article before he came to the House on Monday, so we are all a little guilty of wanting to ensure the widest possible debate.

Yes, legal advice will be available in the accommodation centres. Yes, we will seek to provide a coherent way in which the adjudication process can be organised around the centres, which will speed the operation, cut the enormous cost of travel and the dislocation that occurs when appeals are cancelled by the Immigration Appellate Authority, not simply by the lawyers who represent those appellants. We will link the reporting centres—often mobile reporting centres—across the country, so that we can track and know where people live and where they are. In fact, entitlement to the new cash benefit will be dependent on them adhering to those facilities.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the shambles. The shambles was inherited by my predecessor in May 1997—the shambles of the Siemens contract, which did not work

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1032

badly; it did not work at all. There was the failure to introduce computerised fingerprinting, which we dealt with at the end of October, and the failure to have a system that balanced nationality and immigration with asylum. I pay tribute again to the work done by my predecessor and by the then Minister of State with responsibility for immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who worked very hard, including on developing the concept of economic migration.

Let us examine the international position and France. We talked about that on Monday, and the hon. Gentleman raises the issue again today. I explain, once again, that tolerated illegal presence in France is undoubtedly a problem. I cannot deal with that problem bilaterally in the months ahead, but the development of Dublin II in the European Union must address and overcome that problem. If we can do that alongside international moves in relation to border controls and while tackling head on, through economic development, the causes of economic migration and persecution in the source region—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is doing just that with the Chancellor—and by overcoming unacceptable regimes, as we have done in Afghanistan, we will reduce the flow of those who seek a better or safer life in other parts of the globe.

Finally, we welcome economic migration, but it will need to be controlled, and we will be able to achieve that more readily through the new routes that have been explained today. The hon. Gentleman asked me about a judgment of my performance and, by implication, that of those who work for and on behalf of the Home Office. I will, of course, hold them to account, and I will be held to account by Parliament. I shall set out in the Bill the way in which we will have legislative dates for implementation. Of course, I will have to negotiate further resources with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and therefore targets, such as those in the spending review this summer, will be determined at that date. But I am painfully aware that, if I am still in the job in three years' time, it will be me and no one else who will have to answer for the competence, effectiveness and activity of the service.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House will know that I have to protect the business of the House, so I appeal to hon. Members that, when they question the Home Secretary, they should ask one question, and one question alone.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): May I ask the Home Secretary about language restrictions on older people? Home Office records will show that Dr. Louis Pirouet of the Refugee Council, the late Dr. Max Perutz, who died yesterday, and I went to see Home Office officials on that very point. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the restrictions that might be imposed on those who are genuine refugees but who are too old to start learning a language?

Mr. Blunkett: I hope that I can put my hon. Friend's mind at rest by stressing that we are talking about people who are seeking naturalisation—citizenship. Although, as I stressed on Radio 5, it is important not to exclude spouses or older women from language tuition, which has

7 Feb 2002 : Column 1033

been the case because such tuition is currently not free for spouses, I accept my hon. Friend's point and will reflect on it as it relates to naturalisation. There is no problem with those seeking refugee status and wishing to remain here.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I, too, welcome the White Paper and intend to make a constructive, and I hope positive, response. An holistic attitude to the interlinked issues will give us a better chance of getting things right this time compared with the hash made by Governments in the past nine years, once under a Labour Administration and twice under the Conservatives. I look forward to working on the details so that we get them right in the consultation period before legislation is introduced.

On citizenship, we welcome a preparation process, a pledge and a ceremony of citizenship. Will the Home Secretary confirm that he is open to proper and full consultation so that we get those right and obtain the agreement of the maximum the number of people to those steps in the process?

On asylum seekers, what are the implications in the White Paper for the number of people who will be in accommodation or induction centres, and how does that compare with those who will remain in dispersal programmes? What will the Home Secretary do to ensure that we get the decisions right in the first place so that they are not turned down on technical, as opposed to substantive, reasons, as is often the case? Are we going to reduce the huge number of people in detention to about the European Union average? Will those in detention have a right to apply for bail? Presumably judicial review will remain even though the system has changed. Will significant extra resources be available and will a target on the backlog be set?

Finally, in relation to migrants and asylum seekers, the Home Secretary will know that we greatly welcome the existence of legitimate routes from outside the country. Does he have a timetable according to which those are likely to be in place and any idea of the numbers? Will everyone in that position be given advice and support so that they can consider properly whether they will be accepted as asylum seekers rather than as economic migrants before they make an application for one or the other?

Next Section

IndexHome Page