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8.27 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): My constituency is historically a place where refugees and asylum seekers have come. Ever since I came into the House in 1987, I have taken a close and detailed interest in immigration and nationality matters. Ministers have not always welcomed that interest but, undeterred, I have pursued it down the years.

Let me begin by dealing with unfounded asylum claims. People on my side of the argument often do not want to touch on that. I probably see more unfounded asylum claims than most hon. Members because I deal with more asylum claimants. The answer to people sticking in unfounded asylum claims is not to pile unfairness on unfairness. It is not a case of having a punitive and discriminatory system. The key to choking off unfounded asylum claims is to get rid of the delays. The biggest single incentive for unscrupulous immigration legal advice telling people to stick in an unfounded claim is the delay. It has been common knowledge for a long time that it takes years and years to process an asylum claim.

I do not deny that unfounded claims exist—I see them all the time—but the answer does not lie in punitive measures, deterrence or patterns of social exclusion. It lies instead in a fair, efficient and speedy system for both the initial decision and, crucially, the appeal. In fact, the delays for appeals are higher than they have ever been.

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The Home Secretary sets great store by the fact that we are united on the Bill and that he has the support of those on the Tory Front Bench. As I said in an intervention, however, the fact that those on both Front Benches agree does not mean that the Bill is any good.

During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999—which Front-Bench Members on both sides of the House agreed on, with the single exception of the provisions relating to lorry drivers—I was told that the dispersal system, far from being punitive, unfair and brutal, as some of us insisted, meant that people would get high-quality facilities and advice wherever they went. If hon. Members care to read reports by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Immigration Advisory Service and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants they will find, sadly, that the promises made to us by Ministers on the Floor of the House about the quality of services available to dispersed asylum seekers under the 1999 Act were not fulfilled. So if some of us question what exactly the quality of the services will be, especially as regards the new accommodation centres, people will have to excuse us. We are only building on what we know from past experience.

The Home Secretary talked about his use of language. I do not want to harp on individual words, but, as other hon. Members have said, the use of the word "swamping" was unfortunate in this context. The Home Secretary is not here to hear it, but let me say this. He prides himself on being blunt-spoken and on having no truck with political correctness, but he needs to be careful in his use of language regarding this matter. There is a danger that by being the blunt Yorkshireman and trying to conciliate white people's fears he strays into using language that many people find offensive. I say that in the most comradely fashion. [Interruption.] All my remarks are made in a comradely fashion, as comrades know.

There is much in the Bill to welcome. I particularly welcome the announcement that fees for family visit appeals will be abolished—as someone who argued against it in the beginning, I am very glad about that—and of course we all welcome the abolition of vouchers. However, I advise colleagues who are so rapturous in welcoming the Bill that during the passage of the 1999 Act many of us argued consistently, on the Floor of the House and in Committee, against vouchers. We predicted how they would end up and how unfair and humiliating they would be. Colleagues lined up to ask, "How can you say that?" and to say, "We have confidence in the Minister", and they trooped happily through the Lobbies for vouchers.

As it was on vouchers, so it will be on exclusion from mainstream education. Of the hundreds of Labour Members who voted for vouchers, very few can remember doing so. I believe that in years to come, many hon. Members who vote tonight to exclude asylum-seeking children from mainstream education will have a convenient memory loss about it.

Mr. Gerrard: Can my hon. Friend jog our memories as to how many Labour Members voted against the Third Reading of the 1999 Act?

Ms Abbott: I think that there were seven of us. We now find that more than 307 have come round to our point of view on vouchers.

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The single most important aspect of the Bill is that it is the beginning of a debate that acknowledges the legitimacy of economic migration. I do not believe in open borders, and it is a slur to say that of any of us who criticise any element of the Bill, but as the daughter of economic migrants, in the past I have often said on the Floor of the House that I hate the tenor of remarks made by Front-Bench Members about economic migrants, which suggest that they are criminals. There is nothing wrong with coming thousands of miles to better oneself economically. That is what my parents did and what millions of Irish, Jamaican, Nigerian and Jewish people have done. Economic migrants have made London a great city. Of course the process must be managed; of course we cannot have open borders. The single most important aspect of the Bill is that it begins to open up a debate on how to ensure legitimate, managed economic migration.

Simon Hughes: Given that if any country has sent people out as economic migrants to half the world, then conquered it, run it and brought its wealth back, it is this one, it is extraordinarily hypocritical for people to say that others cannot come here.

Ms Abbott: I entirely agree.

On the language test, of course people should be encouraged to learn English, and there is already provision for those who wish to obtain British nationality to have a reasonable command of English. However, I worry that a language test will discriminate against the elderly and others.

On arranged marriages, the response from Ministers was not very illuminating. It is not for Ministers to tell people whom they should marry. It is wrong to accept that someone can have an arranged marriage so long as it is to someone on the British mainland, but to try to persuade them not to have an arranged marriage to someone from overseas. It causes massive offence, not only to those communities that have historically had arranged marriages, like some sections of the Asian community and European royal families, but to all of us.

On accommodation centres, I know that people are saying that those of us who query the standard of facilities are old miseries and that they are asking why we are not prepared to go bright-eyed into the future with our Front-Bench colleagues. Nevertheless, I have a few questions to ask of Ministers. When accommodation centres were originally discussed, one of the most important services that was to be provided was legal advice, so why has that been excluded from the Bill? In the short term, what asylum seekers need more than anything else is high-quality legal advice. I will not be persuaded of Ministers' good intentions in relation to the accommodation centres unless they include that in the Bill.

On education, I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who suggested that the education provision in accommodation centres would be on a par with that at Eton. Well, maybe. I do not want to sound scornful or mocking, but the reality is that it is not right—I know that it is not very new Labour to speak in terms of right and wrong—to exclude any group of children from education, not only from an academic point of view but for the sake of their social and personal development.

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Anyone who believes that those children will be in an accommodation centre for a maximum of six months has clearly not sat through the passage of four immigration and asylum Bills. If I seriously thought that those children would be in the centres for only a few weeks, I would have no problem with classes, because it would take a few weeks to sort out a school for them anyway, but I believe that they will be there for months and months. In any case, in the long run such an attempt to exclude from full-time education children who are resident in this country would be challengeable in law, and I advise Ministers against it.

Mr. Lammy: I think that it has been acknowledged that children are not to be excluded from full-time education. Education services will be provided through the Department, working alongside the local education authority. In any case, all LEAs in this country have pupil referral units and learning support units, which take students out of school and educate them. This is a similar provision for children who have just arrived in the country, and it will apply to them for a maximum of only six months.

Ms Abbott: It is separate but equal, with no guarantees as to the quality of the education. It is wrong, and I will continue to argue and vote against it.

I am concerned that the Bill, which does have things to recommend it, says nothing about speeding up appeals or about clearing the backlog of appeals. It says nothing about improving the quality of decision making, which is an absolutely key issue.

On immigration and asylum, it is far easier for us to go with the tide and to reflect popular opinion, and it makes our Front-Bench colleagues look on us more kindly, but the way we treat the most marginalised and excluded—the people whom the tabloid press choose to stigmatise—is the test of a civilised society. There are good things in the Bill, but it needs improving in Committee. I will never vote to see any group of children resident in this country excluded from school for months on end.


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