Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Is my right hon. Friend saying that, through the UNHCR, people who are suffering oppression and seeking refuge outwith their own country will have access to the new work permits and can enter the work force directly? In other words, can they proceed through the UNHCR door and enter the country through the work permit system, or will they be excluded and have to choose between one door or another?

Mr. Blunkett: I am pleased to be able to clarify any misunderstandings. I am proposing that those who currently enter the country clandestinely, with inappropriate papers, or by applying for refugee status "in country" will be able to enter on a managed basis through the UNHCR without needing to put their lives at risk or to present fraudulent papers. In that way, as we gradually build up the process, we can ensure that people can approach this country honestly if they are at risk. Separately, we are expanding the work permit system dramatically—as I shall spell out later, to do so more rapidly we will need to charge employers—so that more people can apply for permits outside the country, as well as within it, when they are seeking a longer stay.

I use the phrase "outside the country" because, at the moment, the work permit system operates when employers seek people who can become skilled and valued workers. However, as I said on 7 February, with a degree of care we can develop in some sectors of the economy and regions of the country a system of entry for reasons of economic migration that would not rely on a person having a job with a specific employer beforehand. Such a system would rely on the ability of employers and trade unions to meet needs on a managed basis in a particular sector. We talked about expanding the agricultural workers scheme, and about the way in which young workers could enter the country on an expanded Commonwealth scheme.

With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I am exploring how that approach could apply to people with lesser skills or no skills at all. The service economy, especially in London and the south-east, relies on clandestine and illegal working. That is unacceptable, and it undermines the wages and conditions of work of those involved and of other workers. It also leads to bad employers undercutting good ones because they do not pay tax or national insurance. There are therefore two ways we can operate that gateway.

In addition, we need to secure trust and confidence in the system for people who have applied for asylum. In the White Paper, I spelled out an end-to-end revision of the process. In the future, the new reception and induction process will allow us to assess the needs of applicants very quickly, to determine their likelihood of success, and to refer and register them. As a result, applicants going through the process will receive the support that they need. They will also be monitored and tracked, as we need to know where they are when we want to call them for interview. That information will also tell us what resources they are entitled to, and what they are receiving.

24 Apr 2002 : Column 343

Earlier this year, we introduced the new smart card to make that monitoring possible and ensure security. We also set in train an end-to-end review of the audit of the system to ensure that we can eliminate unnecessary expenditure, including fraud.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): In addition to resettlement programmes under the United Nations, does the Secretary of State envisage working continually with his European colleagues to try to make sure that asylum seekers do not have to try to smuggle themselves aboard trains crossing under the channel? At present, such people have to get here illegally before they can make their case. Will they be able to make asylum applications from other countries across Europe, on the basis of shared responsibility?

In that context, Home Office figures show that over the past decade about 45 per cent. of applicants were accepted, either as refugees or as people granted exceptional leave to remain. Will the Home Secretary confirm, however, that that proportion has fallen to just under a third in the past year? Does he agree that the figures show that there has always been a significant number of people whose cases have been accepted as valid, and that we have a duty to resolve their cases in the most humane and efficient way possible?

Mr. Blunkett: I certainly have a clear commitment to meeting those people's needs in the most humane and efficient way possible.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we in the Justice and Home Affairs Council are engaged in a debate about how we can move forward rapidly the agenda set out at Tampere in Finland three years ago. That agenda set out a Europewide approach to a problem that is international.

Australia's Immigration Minister visited London earlier this week, and he made it clear that this is a global issue. Countries across the world are having to deal with it as worldwide movements of refugees and people seeking a better life place a strain on mechanisms put in place in a very different era. Unfortunately, it is difficult to iron out the disagreements between 15 member states about how that should be done. In future, of course, that number will be much larger as countries accede to the EU. However, I am hopeful that the improvement in overall border controls will become evident soon, as that is crucial for all EU members.

Secondly, I hope that the more managed, more sensible and more balanced approach to dealing with, assessing and being able to support asylum seekers in Europe will take effect soon. Thirdly, I hope that we will be able to establish a sensible system that ensures that asylum shopping and benefit shopping do not take place. I shall speak about both those activities later in my contribution.

I heard the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on "The World at One". The figures that I gave this morning were correct for those who are eventually agreed to be refugees. He is right about those who receive agreement on the right to stay in our country, many of whom receive exceptional or indefinite leave to remain. That applies to countries where we have been unable to return people even when we do not accept that they are refugees under the 1951 convention—I choose my words carefully—and which are at the top of the league in terms of those who come to

24 Apr 2002 : Column 344

Britain. I refer to Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has the largest inflow, followed by Afghanistan—they seem to change places—and both pose a major problem, even if no individual case is being made through the appeals process, in returning individuals to the region. So there is an issue on which we agree and the statistics add up.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Before we leave applications from other safe countries, does the Home Secretary agree that as we move towards the second Dublin convention, the aim should be to make it impossible for people to apply for asylum here if they are resident in another safe country?

Mr. Blunkett: I do not think there has been a principled disagreement about the importance of people simply passing through other countries and, as I said a moment ago, asylum shopping. The issue is how we reach agreement on those matters. With the House's indulgence, I shall spend a moment dealing with the substantive issue. We debated it on an Opposition day a couple of months ago, and I thought that we had a rational and intelligent debate, led by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I respond in kind today.

After the elections in France, we will need to reach agreement with the new French Administration, whichever party is in office—obviously, I hope that the Administration will be led by the Socialist party—on a sensible system of dealing with those who need to be returned because they should have sought asylum in France, or a country they had passed through prior to reaching France, rather than the United Kingdom. We have an agreement that predates the implementation of the Dublin convention, signed at the beginning of the 1990s but not implemented until 1997. The agreement in 1995 reached by the then Home Secretary was a gentleman's agreement that related to those who are returned but have not, at the point of return, claimed asylum. The agreement is still in place and, as I spelled out two months ago, about 6,000 people have been returned under it in the past year.

The agreement also covers people who claim asylum in the United Kingdom, having come from France where we believe—rightly, in my view—that they should not have been a tolerated illegal presence, as the term is there, but should have sought asylum or been returned to the country from which they were in transit. However, the opening paragraph of the gentleman's agreement said:

I am grateful to my Department for finding that quote this afternoon; we were not able to lay our hands on it when we had the debate two months ago. We make slow progress, but at least it is progress.

Simon Hughes: An honest motto.

Mr. Blunkett: I am always honest about these matters, if nothing else.

We are all agreed that we need to renew that original commitment so that we can have a bilateral agreement with France. I shall take every possible reasonable step to achieve it. At the time, I explained that pending the presidential and Assembly elections, it was a delicate matter, although even I—who had realised that there were

24 Apr 2002 : Column 345

problems in Europe—did not realise just how delicate. Regrettably, the events of last Sunday show how dangerous the issue is for the French, but there will be danger for us all if we do not get it right. With the agreement of the House, therefore, I shall turn to part 2 of the Bill before dealing with part 1.

I want to address an issue that has come up during the past 48 hours in relation to the proposals that I set out in the White Paper two months ago. They have been debated since then; indeed, questions were taken about them on the day that they were announced. They relate to the way we deal with people who claim asylum once they have come through the reception and induction process.

Next Section

IndexHome Page