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9.14 pm

Mr. Blunkett: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I should like to thank both past and present Ministers for their work and support over the past few months in introducing a complex and difficult measure. I should also like to thank Labour Members for the forbearance that they have shown and the contribution that they have made, and the two major Opposition parties for the way in which the debate has been conducted from Second Reading, through the Committee stage and over the past two days. That impressive difference in tone, compared with the way in which nationality, immigration and asylum issues have been dealt with in the past in this House and elsewhere, has made a difference to the way in which hon. Members and people outside the House have been able to address these very sensitive issues.

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We have had disagreements and will continue to do so, but there has been a unanimity about the way forward that could not have been expected even a year ago.

In the White Paper and in subsequent debates we have tried to balance the critical issues involved. We want to offer a warm welcome to people from across the world who wish to come to our shores to settle, to work, to be educated, to visit, to be able to integrate through diversity in our society, to bring different cultures, experiences and enterprise, to contribute to the development of our economy and our social life, to make a difference to local communities and to be able to show a different face. This is Britain—a nation that has been built up over the generations and centuries and of which we are proud today.

Only six months ago, there was controversy about being proud of that heritage and welcoming people as British nationals prepared to learn our language and about our citizenship, culture and history, and to participate in a ceremony to celebrate an important event. Over the past six months, that controversy has died away. The Bill's passage through Second Reading, Committee, Report and, I hope, Third Reading has signalled that people no longer believe that that is a controversial issue.

It is also no longer controversial to take the view that we can welcome people legitimately into our country while being robust in developing a system that is trusted, that has the confidence of the British people and that protects our borders and prevents clandestine entry and illegal working. The Bill encapsulates, as the White Paper sought to, the balance between that warm welcome and a hard-headed and sensible, but sensitive, approach to ensuring that our hospitality is not exploited. I said that when I presented the White Paper and on Second Reading, and I say so tonight. We can be proud of providing a sensitive and balanced policy that gets it right in terms not only of our humanitarian obligations and simple humanity, but of our common sense and knowledge that there will always be those who exploit the weak and the timorous, who do not hear the clarion call of clear leadership. That is why, in taking on prejudice and racism, we must be clear about our own leadership and the values that we hold. We must take a common-sense approach that ensures that people know both that we are not to be taken for granted and that we understand what is necessary to protect their interests.

It is in that spirit that I ask the House to give the Bill its Third Reading. I do so briefly, so that hon. Members can express their views and have their opinions heard in that broader context: not on individual items on which we may have differences, but on the broad thrust—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I mean the right hon. Gentleman no discourtesy, but he should address the Chair.

Mr. Blunkett: I shall happily address the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

That broad thrust, which unites so many hon. Members and people outside the House, is not to make mischief, not to pretend that we are introducing measures that we are not, not to use terms such as "concentration" for open accommodation centres, and not to encourage people to believe that we are introducing measures that suppress the right of people across the world to come to our shores and

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to be welcomed in doing so, but to ensure that we as a Parliament express a unified view that we can take all these measures in a manner that commands the support of the British people. If we can do that, we shall do the British nation and our global humanitarian interests a great service.

I intend to try to achieve the goal through bilateral and multilateral negotiations with our European partners on behalf of our Parliament, and by ensuring that we build social cohesion in our communities, understanding for our stance and a deep and lasting commitment against racists, who will always exploit differences and would bring us to our knees if they had the chance.

9.20 pm

Mr. Letwin: I join the Home Secretary in welcoming the tone of our national debates on asylum in past months. I am also pleased that our discussions have been rational and that some progress has been made in understanding each other's positions. I welcome the Government's significant moves towards our position.

The Bill remains a curate's egg—it has some good and bad bits. It is good that it sets out the legal foundation in domestic law for the move towards bilateral and multilateral agreements. The Home Secretary knows that I pressed him on that for months, and I shall continue to do that for, I hope, not many more months. I have no doubt that he will claim a great victory when he achieves the bilateral agreement. I hope that he will remember that there was a time when he did not believe in the need for it. I shall consider it a major success if we manage, through him, to achieve that necessary goal.

The measure sets out a framework for accommodation centres—another Conservative suggestion with an older origin. It is a credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that she began the process of persuading the Labour Government of the need to move in that general direction. We have pointed out at many stages that, although the accommodation centres are an improvement on our starting point, they remain unlikely to fulfil the critical role that is essential if the system is to work properly. I shall not speak about the many detailed amendments that are required for the centres to operate properly.

I want to animadvert to perhaps the most ingenious coup that the Home Secretary has pulled off in his term of office. I know of no other major officer-holder in the Government who has managed to create a problem and subsequently collect so much praise from so many quarters and so much opprobrium from others for solving it.

By dint of moving towards large centres in rural areas, the Home Secretary created the problem that local schools could not withstand the effects of having all the children in the centres deposited on them. He subsequently solved the problem, thereby acquiring a reputation in parts of the right-wing press as the sort of Home Secretary who should be the shadow Home Secretary. I wrestle with that problem daily. I cannot understand why his production of a solution to a problem that he created is a matter for congratulation in the right-wing press. I hope that we will persuade him of the need for smaller centres that will not cause the difficulties, and thus deprive him of a victory for solving a problem that did not need to arise.

The need, which the Home Secretary identified, for a balanced and effective system remains. It has to balance the needs of people who are desperate with those of our

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nation to control the flow of immigration through proper and fair rules. It has to be effective, because if it is not, the whole immigration system will be brought into disrepute, and control over it will cease to be a possibility. We share those acknowledgments, not just across these Dispatch Boxes but more widely, in Parliament and beyond.

The great advance that we have made is that there is now a general recognition—I agree with the Home Secretary about this—that this subject needs to be addressed, and that we need a system that is not only balanced but effective. I hope that three years from now, the Home Secretary's measures will have achieved that, and that he will make enough further changes to the Bill to maximise the chances of achieving that desirable result.

9.25 pm

Angela Eagle (Wallasey): I had not thought, when I wound up the Second Reading debate on the Floor of the House on 24 April, that I would be making my contribution on Third Reading from the Back Benches. But the view from up here is quite good, and I am sure that I am going to enjoy myself.

I should like to thank those right hon. and hon. Members who were kind enough to compliment me at the beginning of the debate on Report—it was much appreciated. I also wish the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), very well in her new post. I admire her greatly and I am sure that she will do a good job.

Given my new-found freedom, it will not surprise the House that I shall now be making a different speech on Third Reading from the one that, two weeks ago, I had anticipated making. Before anyone gets too excited, I should say that this speech will not consist of sudden and spiteful anti-Government rhetoric. Indeed, I continue to support what the Government are trying to achieve in the Bill. I wish, however, to air publicly a couple of the points that I have been making in private, which I believe will increase our chances of success.

We are right to see immigration and asylum as one of the most emotive and difficult issues facing us today, which is why I welcome the tone of our debates, both Upstairs in Committee and on the Floor of the House. We are right to see it as a difficult issue for Governments of the progressive left, and to accept that it is not one that we should duck. A superficial analysis of recent elections in Europe will blame worries about illegal immigration and asylum for the string of losses suffered by social democrats. While the uncertainty and hostility to illegal immigration was undoubtedly a feature in some cases, that analysis is an over-simplification.

I cannot agree with the third-way guru, Anthony Giddens, who recently argued that the far right can be beaten by being tough on immigration. I might have agreed with him if he had said "illegal immigration", but since he did not, I have to say to him that we will not deal with this issue by out-Powelling Enoch. Indeed, it would be immoral to be caught triangulating with far-right fanatics. Fortunately, that is not what the Bill does. We need a system that makes decisions fairly and effectively, cuts out the profits of the traffickers and deals firmly with

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those who seek to abuse either the asylum or the immigration system. This should include those who employ clandestine immigrants illegally in the United Kingdom.

Giddens went on to argue that we need to be

That is part of his agenda with which I can agree, and this is an area in which we need to do much more. Too many of our ethnic minority communities still suffer a daily experience of racism and discrimination, exacerbated by certain debates and by hysterical press coverage of the asylum issue. The Government must work harder to make our vision of equality a reality for these communities. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and the recent introduction of tougher sentences for racially and religiously motivated crime is a step forward, but that should be only the beginning. The work being done on community cohesion in the aftermath of last summer's riots is vital if we are to demonstrate by our actions rather than just by our rhetoric our absolute rejection of racism and our abhorrence of the discrimination that is its inevitable consequence.

We need to look at the White Paper and the Bill as a whole. They present a more holistic approach to the issues than we have seen in the past, and I for one take some pride in that. The Bill, for example, provides for the development of a resettlement programme that will, for the first time, afford a legal gateway into the UK for UNHCR refugees, better integration programmes for those accepted as refugees, and the extension of legal routes for economic migrants to enter the UK to work in both the high and medium-skilled categories. The Bill also strengthens powers to tackle illegal working and introduces new offences of people-trafficking to fight the organised gangs that are currently making huge profits from the trade in human misery and exploitation. Those are all extremely welcome developments, which I support wholeheartedly.

I now want to take a little time to raise the two issues that I mentioned earlier. The first concerns administrative coherence in the immigration and nationality directorate, and the second is the lack of a low-skilled migration route into the United Kingdom, which regrettably the White Paper omitted to deal with.

I am not the first hon. Member to make an observation about the IND, but I believe that more needs to be done on general administrative coherence and competence. Some standards are improving, and many staff do a superb job, but they are badly let down by the systems in place. The systems are largely paper based, and files are too often duplicated or lost, or go missing, which leads to unnecessary delay and confusion. The system can be especially slow for those who are waiting for upgrades. Although Labour in office has improved the Conservative average for end-to-end casework from 20 months to 13, that is clearly still not good enough. We need a step change. Without good progress in this area, these reforms will not lead to the improvements that we all want.

The second issue is the creation of a new, low-skilled migration route into the UK to assist our returns policy. We know that there is a demand for low-skilled labour in the UK, which is currently being met by illegal immigrants in the black economy, often in exploitative conditions. Their arrival in this country is usually facilitated by the traffickers.

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We know that many of the countries whose citizens are involved benefit from the flow of funds that such workers send back, so they are reluctant to accept them back when we seek to return them. It is impossible to return any citizen of a country without that country issuing papers to the individuals concerned to allow them to go back. Despite the arrival of many Chinese citizens every month, last year the Chinese Government issued papers for the return of only seven of them. Would not it be more sensible to say to such countries that, if they take back their clandestine entrants, we will issue permits that allow their citizens to come and work in the UK legally in the low-skilled areas that are currently short of labour? I believe that everyone would gain from such an approach. The demand for such labour here is far better filled legally than illegally. We and the countries with which we reached agreement would decide which individuals could come and work here and for how long, rather than the criminal gangs that currently make such decisions for us, usually upon payment of large amounts of money. I was disappointed that that chance was not taken when the White Paper was written, and I hope that we will be able to put that omission right soon.

I welcome the chance to speak in the debate. For the first time in many years we have an opportunity to make progress together across the Floor of the House on these difficult issues. I support the Bill, and I wish it progress and every success.

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