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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that the Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.29 pm

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): I shall not pursue the arguments of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), but he may not object if I tell him that I found his contribution a radical change from those that we have heard from his predecessors on the Tory Front Bench. Speaking as an individual supporter of the Government, I certainly welcome his general tone and his argument for rational discussion. That can do nothing but improve our future debates on the general questions of nationality, immigration and asylum. He adopted a most moderate attitude and tone and he should be complimented on that.

At the end of the hon. Gentleman's speech, he said that he and perhaps other Tory Opposition Members would support the Government in the Lobby if there is a vote. I can only say that previously that would have driven me into the other Lobby, but on this occasion it is not likely to have that effect.

The Home Secretary reminds me greatly of his predecessor, now the Foreign Secretary, in the way that he introduces and responds to debate. His technique—like that of his predecessor—appears to be to take the venom out of every punch that is delivered to him. He offers himself as a punch-bag, so that at the end of an hour, when he has absorbed so much punishment and all his opponents on his own Benches are so exhausted by presenting their points and having them refuted, we go away feeling not only that he is an honourable gentleman—we know that—but that he is also one of intellectual stature who, despite apparent differences of opinion, agrees with us all anyway. His approach certainly appears to work.

The House will probably have gathered that while I cautiously welcome the Bill, I am not an ardent supporter. For the first time in 40 years, however, we have a measure on nationality, immigration and asylum that tries to address the current and future economic and social problems of the United Kingdom rather than being predicated on the need to prevent non-white immigration. That is to be warmly welcomed.

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If I may, I shall introduce a discordant note as regards some of the comments made earlier by my right hon. Friend. I heard his explanation for the use of the word "swamping". He claimed that he could have used other words, such as "overwhelmed" or "overburdened". Although I understand his need to address the real issues, I think that it is a mistake, in the context of the more rational debate that we are conducting at present, to introduce the word "swamped", which is redolent of remarks made in opposition by a former Tory Prime Minister.

I want to address my remarks to those parts of the Bill that deal primarily with nationality and immigration. I want also to draw attention to factors that should have been included in the Bill and to factors that will, I hope, be addressed in later immigration rules.

I welcome the easing of entry controls for unmarried partners and those in long-term relationships. I also welcome the speeding up of the decision-making process on naturalisation applications and the need, in future, to give reasons for refusal.

I now have no difficulty in accepting citizenship classes if they are intended, as appears to be the case from paragraph 2.2 of the White Paper, to improve civic participation and awareness, not to promote cultural uniformity. I have no problem with those classes if the intention is carried out as outlined in paragraph 2.2.

I wish that I could say the same about the language test, but I cannot, especially given the decision to apply it to the spouses of existing British citizens. I certainly have strong reservations about that. British citizens should be free to marry and choose as their partners whomever they wish and those partners should, after a suitable period, be able to become British citizens without having to show linguistic ability in English. I also believe that there is a need for great sensitivity towards dependent relatives, the disabled and others who may have little enthusiasm or capacity to learn English, especially people who are in their declining years.

One thing that should have been tackled in the Bill but has not been is the position of British overseas citizens. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). The Government have made a great mistake—it is certainly an error—in not including future provisions for British overseas citizens. As the House will know, those people have no status apart from their British overseas citizenship, which does not endow the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Although it can be argued that those people are technically British nationals, they are effectively stateless and have no automatic right of entry or abode in any state in the world.

I also believe that the Government made a mistake when they announced the abolition of the special voucher system some weeks ago, but I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement today that he will take a fresh look at that problem. I hope that, in the not too distant future, he will introduce a modified replacement for the special voucher scheme if he cannot offer all British overseas citizens full British citizenship. That will not create future problems for the United Kingdom. We are dealing with a dwindling number of ageing people and if we were to offer all of them British citizenship, and they were to accept it, the effect on net migration into the United Kingdom would be negligible.

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I hope that the rules will also cover the probationary period on marriage and that, rather than increasing the period to two years, the Home Secretary will reduce it from 12 to six months, or abolish it altogether. I have always opposed the probationary period on marriage. The argument for it has always been that bogus marriages enable people to gain entry into the United Kingdom. No evidence has ever been adduced to show that bogus marriage provides a large number of people with entry into the United Kingdom. I do not believe that any evidence has been adduced to support the Home Secretary's decision to increase the period from 12 to 24 months.

Those who have come to see me in my constituency to complain about the probationary period share my view that increasing the period to two years will adversely affect all such marriages, especially as all couples will need to show an ability to maintain and accommodate for up to two years. In certain circumstances, an intolerable burden could be imposed on couples if they have to give such a financial commitment for two years. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider that problem.

I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's decision to lay down orders today to abolish the payment of fees on appeals against the refusal of family visiting visas. We have argued for that in the past. I am delighted that he has seen reason and accepted that it is both unfair in principle and acts as a disincentive to those people who want to exercise a right of appeal.

There is one glaring problem that the White Paper and Bill fail to address: the appalling delay in the immigration system, and in particular, the time that it takes to appeal against a refusal to be brought before the Immigration Appellate Authority. The Government have shown, especially in asylum cases, that the process can be speeded up if there is the will to do so. I just hope that the Home Office shows the same regard to people who are waiting in the immigration queue for their appeals to be settled.

5.41 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome the debate. The Home Secretary was generous in giving way and his speech took 68 minutes. His Conservative opposite number took 34 minutes. I cannot promise to take only 17 minutes, but I shall try hard, not least because many hon. Members want to participate in the debate.

Before the last general election, the Liberal Democrats called, and were too often frustrated, for a rational and calm debate about immigration and asylum. It is encouraging that the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary spoke in such measured terms, and we welcome that greatly. I hope that everything I say will be similarly measured. Indeed, that has been my experience since the general election of most exchanges with the Home Secretary and his colleagues, including the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). We propose to continue in that vein.

In our manifesto last year, my party began its section on asylum and immigration by saying:

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That sets out our approach to the debate. We are a country of people who have migrated within Britain and who have emigrated from, and migrated to, Britain over hundreds of years. That has made us the rich, varied and successful country that in many respects we are today.

At the last election, we put some specifics on the agenda in the context of asylum and immigration. We proposed, as we did when we debated the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the abolition of vouchers and their replacement with a more cash-specific system. We therefore welcomed the announcement that vouchers were going. I am sorry if I was not more profuse in that. Next time, I shall send the Home Secretary my press releases and mark them "personal" so that he is even more aware of my views. We were grateful for that change of policy.

We support the piloting of what the right hon. Gentleman calls accommodation centres. He would be right to rebuke us if we did not because we had proposed the piloting of regional reception centres in our manifesto. We believe that people should be gathered together in one place where all the processes are undertaken. I welcome the programme to run different pilots around the country.

The Home Secretary sensibly responded to the call for a more inclusive and widespread review of immigration policy so that more people can enter the country lawfully to do the jobs that British society and our economy need them to do. I was also encouraged by the Home Secretary's comments about considering with his colleagues in other Departments how to ensure that we get not only enough doctors of philosophy and computer scientists, but enough people to carry out the manual and technically unskilled jobs that many of us also rely on recent immigrants to do. The example that I often give is the people who do the car wash at the Elephant and Castle, who are almost all from Kosovo. They are filling a gap in the market. When I went to the Royal Surrey County hospital some time ago, I was told that they could not get people to clean the floors. There is a huge demand for immigrant labour in south-east England. We rely on it greatly, as do most other European countries.

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