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7.6 pm

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I add my voice to those who have praised the largely constructive and consensual tone of this debate. That is particularly

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important as the very ugly head of racism is raised just a short way across the channel. The way in which the House and this political process addresses sensibly, positively and constructively the real issues thrown up by asylum and immigration is in stark contrast to what has happened in France. We all deserve some credit for the way in which our political process is handling those issues in a responsible way.

I come to this debate with much less experience and expertise than many other Members, who have been here for much longer than I have. Nevertheless, I have some knowledge from my constituency of the asylum process, of the problems that asylum seekers face once they have arrived in Britain, and of the problems of the communities in which they are housed. Although we do not have the large asylum population of the neighbouring seaside resort of Hastings, there are asylum seekers based in my constituency, particularly in Bexhill.

In January, two young lads who had sought asylum from Afghanistan came to see me at my advice surgery. That brought home to me the failure of the asylum system. These two young lads had been smuggled into this country in a lorry, and the grandfather of one of them had paid £10,000. They had come into the country in November 1999. One of them, after he had been to my surgery, told our local paper:

He came to my advice surgery in a state of desperation; he had yet to have an interview. Although I believe that there has now been some progress, he has still not had an interview. His colleague is also in that position. For years, he has lived with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, not knowing whether he had a future in this country, but, at the same, being a real burden on the taxpayer and the community in which he lived—unable to work, unable to study properly and unable to plan a future.

I welcome the clear distinction in the Bill between asylum seekers fleeing persecution and economic migrants. Receiving asylum seekers is the hallmark of a civilised society, and Britain has a long and proud tradition of doing so. We have also received economic migrants. We cannot blame those who come from other parts of the world that are far less wealthy and successful than our own and often plagued by oppression for trying to make a better life. Who of us, were we in the same position as many of those young lads, would not take that opportunity?

There is, however, a fundamental difference in the position of those people. Whether they are fleeing persecution or coming here to try to make a better life, the key point is that they deserve to be dealt with civilly, promptly and efficiently, but as the Home Secretary acknowledged in the House today and at the last Labour party conference, the current system is a mess.

Arrangements for dispersing asylum seekers are in chaos and the National Asylum Support Service bureaucracy has

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become something of a legend. I note a recent press report about a standard NASS letter to asylum seekers, the bottom of which bears the statement:

Such inept handling of the number of asylum seekers entering Britain has impacted badly on all concerned.

The system put in place by the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 has failed to address the high number of people seeking asylum and the necessary provision of services to those claiming refuge here. The list of problems, which is endless, has been alluded to by other Members—overwhelmed GPs, inadequate legal support and long journeys to and from Croydon for interviews, often without travel warrants or sufficient money—but it is worth remembering that the current system was put in place only two years ago.

The Prime Minister claimed that the 1999 legislation would sort out

In fact, a record number of asylum seekers have entered Britain—more than 80,000 in 2000. Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said:

I am glad that the Bill attempts to sort out the current chaotic system, but I have clear reservations, which I look forward to clarifying in Committee, about how it will do that. How long will people be held in the accommodation centres? That is a key question, as it underpins the provision of suitable services in centres and their effectiveness in taking more than a tiny proportion of those who enter Britain claiming asylum.

I, too, share the concerns about the size of the centres, perhaps because, as a Conservative, I innately distrust large-scale projects imposed by central Government. Intuitively, I prefer smaller, human-sized projects that are in step with their local communities. What risk assessment have the Government made in setting capacity at 750 people? The House needs no reminding of Yarl's Wood, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has described the tragic consequences that followed at that centre.

What provision is there for legal advice to be made available to residents of the centres? On-site legal services are essential for asylum applicants and for processing cases quickly and efficiently. What provision has been made for appeals? A quick, one-site system risks becoming nonsensical if appeals are not held at the centre. Will the proposals have a significant impact on the poor removal rate? Will the Home Secretary give a new indication of how many failed asylum seekers will leave Britain after the reforms are fully implemented?

The Bill, despite its many virtues, fails to address the crux of the issue—namely, the constant flow of asylum seekers across the channel and into this country. Asylum shopping is a genuine problem in the European Union, and as other Members have pointed out, the Dublin convention is little help in addressing it. I am in good company in being baffled by its uselessness.

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In 2001, the Home Secretary's predecessor himself told the Home Affairs Committee:

It is complex, bureaucratic and burdensome, and those who attempt to operate it would concur with that description. However, in one sense, people understand it perfectly. All those resident at the Sangatte camp understand it. They understand that they can enter Britain and, de facto, not be returned to France. That is making a mockery of the system. Until 1997, a bilateral agreement ensured that asylum seekers could be returned to France within 24 hours. Now, we have problems returning any of them at all.

Reform of the asylum system must be accompanied by reform of the underpinning agreements, which govern our admission of asylum seekers. If an asylum seeker has genuinely suffered oppression, it is right and important for our country to be able to offer refuge. If asylum seekers come here with an ability to contribute to our economy, it is right that we welcome them. However, without the ability to remove asylum seekers back to France, the system simply will not work. The Government must act now to reinvoke the bilateral agreement and put our asylum system on a manageable footing.

In all our interests, everyone—asylum seekers, economic migrants or just plain, old-fashioned immigrants—must be shown tolerance and understanding, but perhaps most importantly, they must be dealt with efficiently and promptly. I hope that the Bill takes good strides towards that goal.

7.17 pm

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): It was particularly pleasing to hear the Home Secretary's words on fees for visitor visa appeals, as I asked a question about them during the February statement. It followed a campaign to have the fees removed that, frankly, went on far too long, especially as they should never have been imposed in the first place. The work done by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and others has been rewarded at last, but we should not have had to wait so long.

The situation with visitor appeals epitomises the problems with the administration of immigration and asylum. About 75 per cent. of oral appeals are successful, which begs a question about the quality of the decisions made in the first place. Even more worryingly, about 35 per cent. of appeals decided on the papers alone are successful. They involve an adjudicator looking at exactly the same evidence that the entry clearance officer saw when issuing a refusal. No additional information is provided and no representations or sponsor's declarations are made, but 35 per cent. of decisions are overturned. We must call into question the training given to ECOs, and perhaps even their motivation in arriving at decisions.

I have made this point many times, but I shall make it again in the hope that it will register: it is nonsensical to give as a reason for refusing a visitor's visa the fact that the person has never travelled before. That argument is self-defeating, but it still appears all too often, especially in my favourite place in the whole world, Islamabad, which must have the worst decision-making record in the entire immigration system. Not to worry; we have a success.

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One of the great bugbears of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is the fact that the more we legislate, the more we add to the complexity of the system, the more delays we create and the harder it is to get to the bottom of the problem. However, the Bill is a step forward, not a step back, as we have suffered in the past. It contains many good measures, including some administrative arrangements, such as the abolition of vouchers.

Under the present system, 22 per cent. of appeals against refusal of asylum succeed. In an ideal world, no appeals would succeed. It seems to me that 22 per cent. is a high figure, and it calls into question the decision-making process.

There is a question mark over the length of time that it takes to get to appeal, and the consistency of decisions arrived at by adjudicators. The White Paper foreshadowed a significant increase in the number of Immigration Appellate Authority adjudicators. Where will they come from, how will they be trained and how soon will they be any good? Many adjudicators have been in the system a long time, but are not of the required quality.

One of the first acts of the previous Home Secretary after 1997 was to abolish the primary purpose rule. We had campaigned for that for many years, so it was very welcome. It is not often that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), but I am afraid that I think that he is wrong about the probationary period. I have spoken to people from all communities, and its extension to two years has been widely welcomed. That is also my view.

Unfortunately, some spouses come to this country from abroad and the marriage breaks down. British spouses, especially women, come under intense pressure to sign a false declaration that the marriage is subsisting to allow the husband to obtain indefinite leave to remain. If they refuse to do that, and they send information to the Home Office, they immediately become a third party as far as the Home Office is concerned, and are not entitled to any information.

I have a case in which the spouse has provided evidence of domestic violence, including medical and police records, evidence that her husband has remarried and illegally brought his second wife into the country, and evidence of where he is living and working. The Home Office has told me off the record, because it is not allowed to talk to third parties, that the evidence is insufficient to take any action against the husband. This man regularly beat his wife, who had to have hospital treatment. He has previous convictions. It has been proved that he forged her signature on a document to obtain indefinite leave to remain. He has illegally brought another person into this country. He has illegally married that person: the marriage took place in the United Kingdom. However, that is insufficient evidence for the Home Office to take any action. That woman lives in fear of that man coming back and repeating the domestic violence because she is trying to get him removed.

Frankly, people who risk physical attack and intimidation to bring such cases to the Home Office's attention deserve better than a two-line letter saying that they are a third party and it cannot give them any information. We must find a way of ensuring that people get rewarded for being honest citizens, not punished.

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I am not very good at reading Bills, because I am not a lawyer. I think that clauses 53 and 55 will allow action to be taken to remove people without the degree of proof required in a criminal case. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain those provisions.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for fairness in the immigration and asylum process, and the need for confidence in the system. Not just the host community, but all communities in this country should be able to have confidence in the system.

I make no apology for referring once again to the position of people who are now classed as over-age applicants. In the 1980s, children were refused admission because it was said that they were not the children of their parents. Subsequently, they proved their parentage by DNA, but they were then told that, as they were 18, they were too old and could not come into this country. That must be the only part of public policy in which, even if people prove their case, they are still losers.

In 1993, when I first went with a delegation to the Home Office, we were told that such a move would confer rights on 120,000 people. That was a typical Home Office response. By 1998, the figure had dropped to 60,000, but the same reason was given for not putting right that injustice. It was argued that it would open up the possibility of a huge number of people coming into the country, because those 60,000 would by now be married with three or four children, so the figure would be 300,000.

We are actually talking about some 1,000 individuals. Many of those people have settled into a new way of life and do not want to come to this country, but many families, mainly Bangladeshi, have been divided for 20 years because of the brutality of the British legal system and its inability to admit that it was wrong and to correct that wrong. Today would be a good time for the Home Office to agree seriously to consider this issue with compassion. Let us get it sorted, and we can all move on.

There are many concessions and exceptions in our immigration system, and it is about time that they were codified. About three years ago, the previous Home Secretary introduced a concession for overseas spouses who were victims of domestic violence. They were allowed indefinite leave to remain. There is conclusive proof that that concession has not been abused, and it is time that it was codified so that those people can feel safe.

I shall conclude on citizenship and language. My city has many communities, and 64 different languages are spoken in our schools. I think that it is an advantage for children to share a language in which they can all talk to one another. However, I wonder why, in all our pronouncements, such emphasis has been placed on learning English. Since 1981, it has been a requirement for people to have a reasonable command of England before they can get citizenship, so that is nothing new. The only new thing in the Bill is the provision that people may have to go on a course or produce a certificate. I fail to see why we are making that—

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