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4.36 pm

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Earlier, we had the treat of hearing a Member confess to changing his mind, and when the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, said that he used to be in favour of identity cards but is now against them, it struck a chord; I, too, have changed my mind on that issue. I used to be against them, and against CCTV cameras and intrusive searches, but we live in a changing and dangerous world. It is right that we should change, but most of us change in the right direction.

I want to put on record my support for most but not all the measures in the Gracious Speech. If I were speaking at another time, I would put on record my opposition to tuition fees and my disappointment that

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there was no mention of a ban on fox hunting, but that is for another day. Today, I shall limit my remarks to the new Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill, and the many measures in it designed to stem abuse. However, I also recognise the welcome development of managed legal immigration that the Home Secretary has been brave enough to introduce. That is a path on which we have just embarked, and we will watch with interest.

When I was first elected to this place in 1997, almost immediately—within weeks or months—the issue of asylum reared its head in Dover and caused major problems and difficulties, mostly because large numbers of people from central and eastern Europe were coming across on the ferries to the port of Dover, and then being settled in small and not particularly wealthy areas of the town that did not have the capacity to receive them. That gave rise to all sorts of friction and concerns. People were genuinely alarmed; they felt threatened, and no matter what the real numbers were, perception is important in such matters.

At the time, the local authorities did not have the resources or the housing to support those arriving, nor the power to disperse them or share them across other parts of the area, so problems began to arise. On the south-east coast, there were unwelcome visits from the far right. The British National party marched on the seafront, and the National Front came down and leafleted at the weekend. They inflamed the problem. Many people felt that the situation was out of control. At that time—1997 and 1998—and under those measures, they were largely right.

In due course, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was introduced, which greatly relieved the situation. In those early days, I felt that, although this was a major problem that had to be tackled—not just in my constituency but elsewhere—it would abate and go away, like other political storms. But it has not gone away, and to be frank, in gateway constituencies such as mine it probably never will. However, the various legislative provisions are beginning to bear down on the problem, and to deal with it in a responsible and balanced way.

The 1999 Act relieved the situation by allowing dispersal, and by introducing support for asylum seekers. The whole process became more structured and people began to have more confidence in it, but the numbers remained high.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 continued the process of bearing down on abuse of the system. It is very difficult to talk to those in the front line about what are, in their terms, almost academic issues. They know that we need to support asylum seekers, and that we will always give support to those who are genuinely fleeing for their lives. But they reply by saying, "Yes, but what about the Dublin convention? What about other countries? What about our borders and security?" Over the years, most, if not all, of those issues have been addressed in some measure. The new Bill will continue to close the loopholes and to bear down on the abuse of asylum, while at the same time preserving the basic principle.

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When I talk to immigration officers in my constituency—the people on the ground who meet asylum seekers, and who take the initial decisions—they express bemusement at the fact that, after all these years, they have no sanction to operate against those who deliberately tear up their documents and hide their identity cards and passports. No such sanction has ever existed, and such behaviour has almost become part of the process of claiming asylum, be it genuine asylum seekers, economic migrants or those moving to this country for less savoury reasons. I have received anonymous calls and letters from people who work at the Dover port, telling me that the practice of destroying passports is so common that the remains can be picked up on any day of the week. Just last week, someone sent me two partly destroyed passports, with a covering anonymous letter. That puts the issue into context. We are talking not about the theory of immigration and asylum, but about the practice that local immigration officers have to deal with. Being on the front line in places such as Dover is a very difficult job. We should at least offer some support, and introduce measures that will bear down on the abuses.

We know that some who flee their country genuinely need to travel on false papers; indeed, they might not have papers at all. As long as they can prove a genuine purpose, that is a defence in itself. But it is not a defence to turn up at the immigration desk at Heathrow—having travelled on an international airline, and having de facto bypassed all the required documents and security measures—and say, "I've got no passport, and I'm not telling you where it is, how I came here or where I've come from." That is not acceptable. Such behaviour is designed only to deceive and frustrate the system, and it makes matters more difficult for genuine asylum seekers. The reality is that the great majority of people who try to destroy their documents do so partly to deceive, and partly under the instruction of their traffickers. They want to protect their traffickers and the criminal gangs behind these rip-offs.

I welcome the Bill and the other new measures to crack down on criminal traffickers. We should remember that currently there are very few sanctions that can be used against people smugglers. The crime of trafficking people is difficult to define, and the Bill tries to do that, but this is not a victimless crime. We need only think back a few years, to the tragic and horrific story of the 58 young Chinese people who were found dead in the back of a container lorry in Dover, to remember the background to this shady business.

I give qualified support to the acceleration of the asylum appeals process. The system is abused by stringing out appeals. That costs a lot of money and people use it as a means to stay here for longer, not to get a just result. When we look back at the claims, we find that they had hardly any chance of success from the outset. Again, I have had unhappy experiences in my constituency. In one case, an asylum seeker family were—outwith the norm—an especially objectionable group. Most asylum seekers are courteous, friendly and co-operative, and make good neighbours. However, this particular group were the ultimate neighbours from hell, to the extent that even the charitable institutions and asylum support groups wanted to see the back of them. They were undermining community relations by their

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behaviour. It took more than three years to remove that large extended family because they took every recourse of law.

The withdrawal of benefits from those asylum seekers who have run out of time is a vexed subject. I share some of the concerns that have been expressed, but I have talked to Ministers who have convinced me that the effect will be marginal and that the consequences of withdrawing benefits and then possibly taking children into care will be minimal. If that is the case, perhaps we should at least give those involved the option of choosing to go into safe detention, instead of being separated, which could appear draconian.

4.46 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I welcome in principle several of the Bills in the Gracious Speech. The first is the charities Bill, which will provide an important legal framework for regulating the charitable and voluntary sectors. The voluntary sector wants the Bill, and that is all-important. It will remind us of the importance of the voluntary sector, which plays a role in areas covered by many of the other proposed Bills. For example, where would we be on the issue of domestic violence without all the voluntary work that has been done over the years? It is the same with child protection, and there are other examples. I would like to see even greater input from the voluntary sector in the future. When we talk about public provision of services or private provision of services, or even a partnership between the two, we miss out on an important dimension. I hope that discussing the voluntary sector will enable it to progress further and provide even better services.

I welcome the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. It has been a long time coming and it is a great credit to the Government that they have finally introduced it. However, I share the reservations of those hon. Members who have mentioned the protection of children, especially in cases of access visits for parents. Many people say that it is up to the courts, but we all have examples of cases that have torn at our heartstrings and not only aroused great concern, but involved physical harm to children. Children must be at the heart of everything we do.

I also welcome the children Bill, although it has taken so long for it to be introduced. I visited Sweden earlier this year and discovered that it had had a children's ombudsman for 20 years. We have finally reached that point, and I am delighted. Other countries put children first and listen to them, and we have taken a long time to get to that point.

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill contains not only measures on domestic violence, but provisions for witnesses and victims. I welcome those provisions also, because I recently visited Dorset Victim Support on its open day for Members of Parliament. I was very impressed by all the work that it did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the staff pointed out problems with funding. I mention that because I am not sure exactly what role Victim Support will play after the introduction of the new provisions. I tabled a parliamentary question earlier this year, which showed clearly that while funding to Victim Support has increased, because it has been providing this incredibly

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important witness protection service and helping witnesses, its core activities have been squeezed in terms of money. I do not think that its activities have been cut, but volunteers have been asked to do more and more, and barely get expenses for the work that they do.

Many Members welcomed the fact that trafficking will be addressed in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, but I fear that the important aspect of trafficking for child labour may not be included. We have moved so far by including trafficking for sexual purposes in the Sexual Offences Bill, and many Members would also have liked trafficking in child labour and trafficking in children's organs to be dealt with at the same time, although, of course, that was not possible. I hope that in the near future it will be possible to address those important issues.

As many Members have mentioned, there have been many Bills on crime, yet the public's perception is that crime is going up and they do not feel entirely safe. Whatever the statistics, we must take on board the fact that people have a fundamental need to feel safe in their communities. It comes down to not only legislation, but police personnel engaged in prevention and successful detention. I am afraid that I will touch on funding again, because, like most other Members, I have received representations from my police authority, Dorset, which tells me that although the percentage increase in funding is perhaps a little more than it had hoped for, it is not enough to cover unavoidable cost increases, and certainly not enough to address what the public want. Dorset police have carried out a thorough consultation, and, not surprisingly, the answer has come back that people want a more visible, uniformed presence on the streets.

I want to mention a specific issue relating to my police authority. I was fortunate enough to have an Adjournment debate on funding for Dorset police not long ago. On their behalf, I raised their concerns that £1 million in fines from the safety camera scheme was being returned to the Treasury. The Minister said that that was not the case, and that the money was allowed to stay in Dorset for use in safety schemes. I was delighted to hear that. I have received a further representation from Dorset police, however, which tells me that that is really not the case. It states:


It is really worrying that so much money is being channelled back into the Treasury and is not going into safety schemes. The mission of every Member of the House is crime reduction, but surely preventive measures are best. We need openness and honesty about what is happening to the fines. Most of all, the people who pay the fines and have got caught out would like to know what happens to the money that they are paying.

Ironically, the success of our police forces in reaching their targets means that we have the current crisis in prisons, to which Members have referred. We must remember that there is a crisis—some wonderful projects and wonderful work take place within the system, but the overall situation is appalling.

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I visited Finland earlier this year to look at different criminal justice systems. I want to quote briefly one statistic—while we were there, just one woman under 21 was in prison. Even multiplying that to take account of the size of the respective populations, it tells us something very sad about our own society that we have so many women in unsuitable prison settings, often miles from their homes and families. Equally, although we have made progress in reducing the number of children in prison, we still have 2,000 children in adult prison settings, which is completely against the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We must think about a whole package of measures in relation to children when we consider all the Bills in the Queen's Speech.

Community sentences will become much more frequently used when the proposals in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 come on stream fully, but community sentences can play a greater role now and more should be done with them. The public do not seem to have confidence in community sentences. They see them as a soft option, but why should they be a soft option? Surely, if people can see something being put back into the community and offenders can be supported with education and drug treatment programmes and other forms of support, we will have a cheaper, more effective sentence that will, I hope, cut reoffending and certainly be far less disruptive to the social make-up of our society. It would be good to see Ministers visiting good community sentence programmes and showing people that such sentences work and that we can stop simply putting people into prison for more minor offences and genuinely address crime in this country.


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