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Mr. Connarty: My right hon. Friend was talking generally about the relationship between other European countries and the UK. Does he agree that there should be some change to the current regrettable position whereby our approach to immigration law differs from that adopted in other parts of the European Union, and we experience immigration and asylum shopping? The Foreign Office has expressed a wish for change. Does my right hon. Friend anticipate that a change will occur and will it assist his aims in the Bill?
Mr. Blunkett: There are discussions on agreeing common standards and reasonable benchmarks on common procedures. I do not want to be tied into a definitive set of conditions and procedures so that every country in Europe follows exactly the same processI am sure that hon. Members would not want thatbut to have a benchmark and a foundation for the way that countries deal with and support asylum seekers and enhance their well-being, so that people would not be able to undercut between countries. To that extent, my hon. Friend is right.
However, the majority of countries in Europe say that asylum seekers take the view that the United Kingdom is the most attractive place for them. I am trying to deal with that point through some of the processes that will be enhanced by the Bill. Asylum seekers come to this country for a variety of reasons, which we have debated on several occasions, including the use of the English language and the fact that we do not have identity cards. There is communication from host communities in Britain, which offer sanctuary and a welcome to those from the same parts of the world. All those factors contribute to the collage of reasons why people are likely to seek asylum status in this country.
We are trying to achieve the right balance to ensure that people receive sanctuary and a warm welcome, and that they have the confidence to integrate and to provide the diversity that we welcome. In addition, we want to be confident that the system is working, that it is robust and achieves what we say it should achieve and that we thus provide the reassurance that is crucial for good race and community relations, social cohesion and the reinforcement of the overwhelming commitment of the British people to providing sanctuary.
Mr. Lansley: The Home Secretary will recall that in the White Paper he emphasised the key part played by the Oakington immigration reception centre in the scrutiny of asylum applications and in ensuring that an initial decision is taken within seven days. Can he say anything more about what is to happen to the centre? Can he confirm that the intention is to close it in the latter part of 2004? If a similar facility is to be opened elsewhere, can he tell us when we might know where that would be and how that might affect the staff at Oakington, many of whom are my constituents?
Mr. Blunkett: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I have to repeat what I said when he rightly questioned me about that issue on 7 February: we are awaiting the court judgment on the further challenge. We are therefore being circumspect about what we say in relation to Oakington, other than to say that the site is in doubt, not the facility.
The site will need to be replaced, but we will need to do that in a way that is commensurate with securing the well-being not only of those who go through Oakington, but of those who work there. I pay tribute to the exemplary job that they do. Everyone agrees that it is an exemplary facility in terms of what it provides and the way that it works. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have other hon. Members of all political persuasions, that I will engage him in the process when we know the time scale and the benchmarks for making those changes. That would be a fair thing to do.
Before I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, I want to make some further comments so that we know what we are about to debate. I want to reinforce the fact that I have either done or set in train the things that I said on 7 February that I would do. I said that we would replace vouchers with cash and that we hoped to do so by the autumn. We did so on 8 April. It is amazing how easily and silently even those things that people have been pressing us to do for a very long time slip into being, but there we goso be it.
Mr. Blunkett: I shall use the opportunity of the hon. Gentleman's sedentary intervention to say that I do not expect any accolade for anything in this connection, but I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats welcome that change. That is very good, and it has cheered me up enormously this afternoon.
Incidentally, we shall use this measure to facilitate proper resettlement on returnI shall touch on that laterso that we can use resources legally to enhance people's ability to resettle in the country from which they came, in a more seemly and acceptable fashion than is obviously now the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, has made representations to me on that point, and I am pleased to be able to respond positively to him.
We also said that although we were creating a more efficient and robust system of reporting and tracking where people were, we recognised in the report that I published alongside the White Paper that the dispersal system had received, to say the least, considerable questioning. In fact, last August and early September, not a single day went by when national newspapers or BBC and ITV television news broadcasts did not cover the dispersal problem in one form or another, tragically, because of a murder and some attacks that took place on asylum seekers in communities.
There was a substantial debate, and demands were made that I should do something radical about dispersal. I responded to those demands in the autumn on 29 October, when I made the statement about the future revisions of the system. I said that I would enhance the dispersal system and learn from other European countries and elsewhere to do so. Having dealt with the dispersal report published alongside the statement, I turned my attention to the White Paper. Dispersal will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future and I said that we will improve the system, although we have a long way to go. I also said that I would trial accommodation centres. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor was good enough to allocate resources for that. We are in the process of setting up those centres, which are dealt with in part 2.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): My right hon. Friend will be aware that without dispersal, the situation in Dover would have been insufferable and impossible to manage. We appreciate the practical remedy that that provided for us. Is he aware that Dover already has an induction centre, a removal centre and accommodation for many hundreds of unaccompanied minors? Is it sensible and appropriate that so many facilities of that nature should be concentrated in such a small town? Does he think that that is fair to my constituents? Does he agree with the Prime Minister who, long before the additional facilities were provided, said that Dover had suffered an unfair burden?
Mr. Blunkett: The people and the services in and around Dover have carried a considerable burden. I pay credit again to my hon. Friend for the stand that he took in the period leading up to the general election last year when the atmosphere was not the same as it is today. We did not have the unanimity that now exists across and within parties. It was difficult to hold the line and he deserves credit for the rational and exemplary way he dealt with the situation.
We must ensure that the speeded up and more efficient process deals with minors. Young people arriving unaccompanied is a major problem for Kent county council and the area around my hon. Friend's constituency. We are spending £111 million a year on unaccompanied young people under the age of 18. When we debated this matter before, I said that it was highly questionable whether they are unaccompanied all the way across Europe, but that is a problem of trafficking. The Bill increases the penalty for trafficking to 14 years because it is a dirty, nasty and illegal trade that needs rooting out.