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7.53 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): There is little doubt that our current immigration and asylum system is unmanageable. It does not serve the genuine immigrant, asylum seeker or British taxpayer well. I welcome the opportunity for constructive debate that will lead to the introduction of measures to bring the situation under control as quickly as possible.

One of our greatest challenges is to separate, among all those arriving in our country and seeking to stay, those who are entitled to do so from those who are not. Under the present system, this is virtually impossible. The numbers arriving are too great for immigration staff to cope with and the process takes far too long.

This country has a long and proud tradition of accepting genuine refugees from all over the world and will continue to do so, but we must have a manageable system that enables us to identify them readily. Support services must be in place to enable them to settle and become independent contributing members of society.

So many people choose to seek asylum in the United Kingdom because it is a much more attractive destination than many other European countries. Why else would they travel through so many other safe, democratic countries without seeking asylum along the way? Why else would so many gather at Sangatte without seeking asylum in France—another safe, democratic country—awaiting their chance to smuggle themselves into Britain on lorries, freight trains or Eurostar, often in extremely dangerous circumstances? There have been several deaths on these excursions. A recent United Nations survey showed that more refugees select and reach Britain than any other European destination.

Between 1995 and 1997, there was an agreement with France that allowed the swift return of asylum seekers who had crossed the channel illegally. It was very effective. When it came into force, applications for asylum fell by 33 per cent. The advantage was that of those who arrived in this country, the percentage of eligible applicants was much higher.

The year after the bilateral agreement was replaced by the Dublin convention, applications increased by 41 per cent. However, the Dublin convention did not deliver on its intention to solve the problem of "asylum shopping", where people claim support from local authorities here when they have already been granted refugee status or leave to remain in other European Economic Area countries. There is an urgent need to renegotiate the bilateral agreement; it would facilitate the efforts made here to improve the asylum system.

The agreement alone, however, would not be enough. There are many circumstances that attract such large numbers of asylum seekers to our shores in preference to

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neighbouring countries. Those include the availability and perception of social security benefits, more generous interpretation of asylum law, slow decision making on asylum cases, lack of an efficient removal system for people refused asylum, access to public services such as free health care, education and housing and scope for living here without documentation or the need for proof of identity.

Ms Abbott: The hon. Lady gave the availability of benefits as the number one reason why economic migrants—bogus asylum seekers, if you will—choose to come here. Economic migrants come here, whether as asylum seekers or anything else, for the same reason they have come here down the centuries—to work.

Angela Watkinson: Four years ago, 20,000 refugees with unresolved appeals, who had been here for at least two years, were allowed to stay indefinitely. That was a great incentive to others to hope that they might receive similar treatment. If the system is to be made fairer and faster, no further amnesty must be allowed.

Controlling the cross-channel flow of asylum seekers is important for two reasons. First, a reduction in numbers would enable a faster, more compassionate service to be provided to those fleeing persecution in their own country, whose human rights have been violated and who are in fear of their lives. The proposed accommodation centres must offer comprehensive on-site services, including reliable legal advice. I use the word "reliable" advisedly. I know from my surgery and from telephone calls to my office here from my constituents that so-called legal practitioners have been engaged whom I suspect may not be qualified but who offer advice on immigration matters. Individuals seeking asylum have spent large sums of money on advice that is virtually useless and, in some cases, they have spent it on no advice at all. That should be brought under control.

The on-site services should include reliable legal advice from qualified practitioners so that asylum decisions and appeals can be made accurately, humanely and speedily. The Bill is deficient on that point and I hope that the opportunity will be taken to amend it to include a one-stop shop style of accommodation centre that will deal quickly with genuine claimants—that is, in a few weeks. Six months is far too long and it should certainly not take years. The centre should remove equally quickly those who are not entitled to remain.

As the accommodation is intended only to be very temporary, it would be acceptable for the children of asylum seekers to receive their education on site and not in a mainstream school. That would be much more difficult to justify if the stay were a long one. However, that is not the intention; indeed, if the stay was long, the system would be failing.

Secondly, the cross-channel flow of asylum seekers has had a devastating effect on freight transport between the United Kingdom and France.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): It may assist the debate if the hon. Lady were to distinguish between asylum seekers and economic migration. She keeps referring to asylum seekers, but many of the people coming in through

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the channel tunnel are economic migrants and the Bill sets out different policies to deal with different groups of people.

Angela Watkinson: I accept the hon. Lady's point that not everybody falls into the same category. However, I was pointing out that the education services were intended to be provided for only a short period. If the stay were longer, the children would need to be in a mainstream school.

I was referring to the effects of the cross-channel flow on freight transport. In November last year, SNCF suspended all cross-channel rail freight services through the tunnel after repeated attacks on the staff at its Calais terminal from people trying to enter the United Kingdom illegally. The French Government increased police protection at the terminal and a reduced service was resumed.

Unfortunately, however, 54 illegal immigrants were found on a train that had entered the United Kingdom, so in just one night, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways became liable for fines of more than £100,000, as the Government have reintroduced fines of £2,000 per immigrant. The industry as a whole faces losses of £500,000 a week due to cancelled trains on both sides of the channel. Both Governments have a duty to ensure the free movement of goods between EU member states. It is unreasonable to place the whole responsibility for controlling stowaways on rail operators; a much greater official presence is required at terminals. Ferry operators and individual lorry drivers experience similar problems.

Part 3 and the proposed capacity of accommodation centres make it clear that the existing dispersal system will continue for the majority of asylum seekers for the foreseeable future. The system has been fraught with problems, including the fact that people were sent to places to which they did not want to go, away from people they knew, and then they moved on without informing the authorities. Many "disappear" in that way, so the power to ensure that the whereabouts of asylum seekers are reported is welcome. However, further details are needed as to the reporting requirements and the penalties for non-compliance.

The target for the removal of failed asylum applicants, set at 30,000 in 2001, has been abandoned. The most recent figures show that only about 1,000, including dependants, are being removed each month, despite the fact that about three quarters of the 70,000 applicants each year are refused asylum status. The proposed improvements in the dispersal, reporting and removal systems are welcome.

I very much welcome the increased penalties, set out in part 7, for those guilty of trafficking in human lives, especially in respect of sexual exploitation. The proposals on language and citizenship are positive; they aim to ensure that everyone can communicate and be fully included in the daily life of their adoptive community.

It is clear that control of the cross-channel flow of asylum seekers and a faster and more effective application and appeal process need to be processed concurrently if the system is to be made manageable. Closer scrutiny of the Bill in Committee will, I hope, lead to measures that make that possible, and I look forward to contributing to the process.

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8.4 pm

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not just because I am a black Member of Parliament—although I heard the comments of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and I am grateful for them—but because I hope that the consensus in which the debate has been conducted marks a turning point on these issues in this country. That is set against the very depressing scenes in France that we have witnessed during the past few days. However, we can take hope from the fact that many, many people, young and old, are on the streets of France making it clear that they are against extremism and the racist points of view of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which would segregate and exclude vast parts of French society.

The debate has been conducted in a consensual manner because the measure is, in general, favourable to the majority of people—those seeking asylum and those who already live in the UK. I welcome much that has been said.

As a young Member of Parliament, I believe that many young people look to much that we say on these issues.

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