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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): The newspapers put what the right hon. Gentleman told them.

Mr. Blunkett: I shall deal with that intervention in a minute. On 24 October, we published for consultation the exact proposals that appear in the Bill. We spelled out exactly what we would do in respect of family subsistence, benefits and the removal of children. At that time, we made it clear that we were not talking about taking asylum seeker children from their parents. We were talking about destitution in cases in which, despite our best efforts, people refused to leave and so their benefits were no longer paid, because they were—by definition—illegal immigrants.

I heard a sedentary intervention that suggested that I told the newspapers what they printed. I must make it clear that if I were going to brief on an ultra-right wing policy of grabbing asylum seeker children from their parents—as ITN put it to people in the street—I would not have briefed The Observer on it. I would have a little more nous after 33 years in public life than to brief a liberal newspaper on what would be an illiberal policy.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving us that insight into his briefing habits. We all appreciate how sensitive he is on these issues. If what he is now telling the House is correct, why did the Prime Minister not take the abundant opportunity that he had last Wednesday to deny what I was putting to him? Why has the Prime Minister still not replied to the letter that I wrote to him last Friday in which I asked him to clarify the Government's intentions on these matters?

Mr. Blunkett: But the Prime Minister did indicate to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he was wrong. Not only that, we put a statement out on the Sunday of The Observer article indicating that it was wrong, drawing attention to the fact that we had

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published the proposals on 24 October. I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is new to the job, but he really should have whispered in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's ear before the initial debate on the Queen's Speech last Wednesday that this was not an issue on which the Leader of the Opposition should home in, not least because in 1996 he had passed through the House an Act—for which his hon. Friends had voted—that withdrew benefit not simply from failed asylum seekers but from all those applying as asylum seekers. To use a phrase that he used last Wednesday, that really was despicable. Had I been proposing to intervene with asylum seekers and take away their children willy-nilly, which was suggested in some newspapers, and last Wednesday, and by the shadow Home Secretary in interviews, of course, I would have been despicable. Despite the tendency of some of the liberal media to believe that I am, I do not espouse that particular cause.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary, but it seems to me that he has not totally ruled out taking the children of asylum seekers into care. Is he aware that, as far as Scotland is concerned, the children's panel system has jurisdiction, and his writ in this matter—thankfully, some would say—does not run in Scotland on what is deemed to be in the best interests of the child?

Mr. Blunkett: Dealing with asylum seeker families is a central, Westminster responsibility and will remain so. The hon. Lady is simply wrong. Let me take her question head-on. What we have are those who want us to speed up the asylum system but to continue to have multiple rights of appeal in judicial review, those who want us to remove people from the country but not to raid their homes and take away their children who have been embedded in the community, those who do not want us to have removal centres but do not want us to take action with families in the community, and those who do not want us to have removal centres but somehow want us to continue paying benefit to asylum seeker families even when their claims have failed. And when asylum seeker children, because of the responsibility in relation to their parents, are treated in exactly the same way as any child in my constituency or in other hon. Members' constituencies—when the child is at risk, social services intervene—we get criticised for that. I am asked what should we do once an asylum seeker family has refused to go, and, even after trying to raid the household, cannot be removed, subsistence has been taken away, the family are destitute and the child is at risk; the answer is exactly the same as what would be done with any other child. It is then suggested that that is despicable and that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Well, I am neither despicable nor ashamed of myself.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): While some Members of the House think that this is an important issue, for my constituents the issue above all is the collapse of decent behaviour. As in the past, they look to the Home Secretary to be sensitive in the way that he responds to this issue. They know that for the first time for a couple of hundred years politicians are having to concern themselves with the issue of behaviour. We have taken it for granted that families function properly and

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that neighbours behave to one another properly. Knowing what the Home Secretary has already done, and as in his introductory remarks he said that the Government would be thinking of an interdependence between them and the people, may I plead for such a relationship with Back Benchers on both sides of the House? When he brings forward measures to counter antisocial behaviour, can he frame them in such a way that those of us who have ideas from our constituents on what should be done find it easy to amend those Bills?

Mr. Blunkett: I will always seek to facilitate—and I have always encouraged the Ministers in my team to facilitate—changes in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and we have always sought to respond to amendments. We did so with the Sexual Offences Bill, with the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, as far as the terms of the Bill would allow, and we did so—I say smiling—with the Criminal Justice Bill, even to the very last moment. We will certainly do so on the Bills before us, including the measures on domestic violence, crime and victims, which will be very important.

I pick up the wider point that my right hon. Friend makes: what we are seeking is not big government or no government but enabling government—effective and empowering government—that enables people to make a difference in their own lives.

Mr. McLoughlin: While the Home Secretary is on this point, may I ask him, as the head of the Home Office, to look at the way in which his Department responds to Members of Parliament? I received an answer just before the House rose to a parliamentary question that was tabled in March last year, and it said that the Minister would reply shortly. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) tabled a question in January and received a similar answer last week. Will the Home Secretary look at the way in which his Department deals with written answers?

Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has written back to him. If any Member has correspondence or questions that have been outstanding for any length of time, I would be happy to hear from them, and I will deal with the matter. I am keen that the Department's record should be improved year on year and month by month. We have improved dramatically the turnaround time of both correspondence and questions, which happens to be a particular fetish of mine.

I want Government to be engaged not disengaged, including with hon. Members, and I want policies to be in partnership with people and working alongside them. I want us to ensure that we are responsive and that services are responsive to people's needs.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): Before we move from the point of substance on either the incarceration of children of asylum seekers in detention centres, removal centres or former prisons, or the unforgivable idea that we should breach the UN convention on the rights of the child even further by dividing families—children and parents—because of

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circumstances relating to social security provisions, is the Home Secretary trying to pretend that he does not know that most people who have their social security removed, as is happening throughout Scotland and in the city of Glasgow, work illegally and are paid exploitative, low wages but still survive? To single out those people who have children and to take their children into care may not make him feel ashamed, but it will certainly make me feel ashamed.

Mr. Blunkett: I do not know what happens in Scotland, but in my city the social services department intervenes to look after children who are at risk, whether because their family is dysfunctional or no longer capable of looking after them. That is why, regrettably, we have more children in care than I believe is warranted, and more children in care than any of us would want. I am not entirely sure what my hon. Friend is suggesting. Is he saying that we should pay people benefits when they are here illegally, or that we should be more robust in removing them?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the Dungavel removal centre and the difficulties of holding families there. I am aware of the inspection report, and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration will go to Scotland and make statements on that issue shortly and deal with those children who inevitably have to be held at the moment, pending removal. All those issues are deeply sensitive, but they are not affected in any way by the changes that we propose in the Bill because social services authorities, certainly those south of the border, have the same obligations for asylum seeker children or those who have failed in their asylum claims as for any other child.

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