Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.15 pm

Claire Ward (Watford): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the Queen's Speech. I apologise now for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the winding-up speeches, as I am due back in my constituency for an important meeting regarding potential school closures.

I welcome many of the measures introduced by the Government in the Queen's Speech, in particular those relating to asylum and immigration. I regularly see constituency cases involving people claiming asylum. Some are in a position to obtain the right to remain in this country, while others, their first application having been refused, apply under the appeal procedures, and are refused again. They then continue to follow the appeal process, right through to the stage of judicial review, which may take many years.

The difficulty in those circumstances is that we are not providing a system that is efficient and fair to all those who apply for asylum and who wish to remain in this country. Our system is not fair to those individuals who find that their lives are on hold for a number of years while their case is determined. Many will want to work and to build relationships, and some will have children while they are here, so as the years go by it becomes even more difficult to enforce the refusal notice that was originally applied to them. I therefore welcome the Government's attempt to make sure that we have a fast, efficient system for dealing with asylum applications.

Britain has a long history of being a safe haven for people who are fleeing from persecution in their country, and rightly so. I certainly wish that to continue, but if our system is to have integrity and to be fair to all those who apply, and if we are to be able to secure our borders as necessary, people need to feel confident that when they apply for asylum, their case will be considered

2 Dec 2003 : Column 450

and they will be given opportunities to appeal, if necessary. However, those appeals should not go on for years, as they do in many cases. I therefore agree with the Government's proposals to restrict some appeals and speed up the process.

It has been very interesting over the past few days to watch the media coverage of the Government's policy on the children of asylum seekers. I think, with great disappointment, of the coverage that has completely misinterpreted the Government's view on the issue—deliberate misinterpretation, in some cases, by those who want to make political mischief. I say to those who oppose the Government's policy, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, that they should take their opposition to its logical conclusion.

If we have asylum seekers whose applications have been assessed and refused, what do we then do? Do we continue to pay them benefits and completely undermine the whole of the asylum system, or do we remove the benefits? In my view, we should remove state support if the whole application and appeal process has been completed and the applicant has not been permitted to remain. Having removed benefits, should the Government then leave the children of asylum seekers to become destitute when their parents have refused the opportunity of a flight home and money for resettlement? That would not be in the interests of the families and their children.

Mr. Evans: I am following the argument that the hon. Lady is advancing. Surely if all the benefits are stopped and the parents are not allowed to work, that means that they get no money and they are destitute. How does she think that they will survive?

Claire Ward: Adults make a choice. Parents make a choice and they accept the consequences. If they have had their application refused and they refuse the opportunity to be returned to their country of origin, and a resettlement grant, they must take the consequences of the laws of this land, as we would expect them to be implemented. Their children do not have the same opportunities to express themselves. While parents can make such decisions and accept the consequences, children cannot. If parents are not in a position to look after their children, it is right that the Government, in these circumstances, should take the children into care. I regret that the Conservative party, in particular, has sought to make mischief on this issue and to call it an unacceptable policy given the history of its own policies on asylum.

We need first to improve the quality of initial decisions. It is clear from the many appeals that are won by applicants that initial decisions are not yet of an acceptable quality.

It is to be welcomed that the Government will look to impose a criminal offence upon those who destroy their documents on entering the country. Like many other colleagues who deal with asylum cases, we come across those who apply for asylum, only to find it difficult to be certain from which country they come. That makes it difficult to ascertain whether they are entitled to asylum. In those circumstances, where they have arrived in the United Kingdom on international flights, I think that it is right that the Government should consider imposing a penalty on those who have deliberately destroyed their documents.

2 Dec 2003 : Column 451

We should do that in dealing with asylum applications in those circumstances, and to protect those who are exploited by traffickers of asylum seekers because in many instances we see the consequences for those who are the result of illegal trade in humans.

I welcome also the proposals that relate to domestic violence and the need to address the problems that we face when one in four women over their lifetimes will be subject to domestic violence, with two women dying every week as a result of it. The proposals will be greatly welcomed by women in my constituency and throughout the country, and also by men who are subject to domestic violence. We must ensure that such men are included in our considerations.

I am pleased that we are seeking to protect victims of crime and ensuring that their rights and views are part of that process. I recently met the victim support organisation that is based in Watford. I listened carefully to those who expressed the concern that often they believe that victims do not get consideration during court cases. I am pleased that we shall have an opportunity to address that in legislation.

Many Members have referred to children's rights in terms of adults who may have been convicted or where there is evidence of domestic violence within a relationship and the question of access arises. I agree with that approach, but this is an opportunity for the Government carefully to examine the issue when a parent wishes to have access to their child and the other parent, who has custody, is continually taken back to court to try to enforce rights of access. It is a scandal where unfortunately, in many instances, mothers who have custody of children do not allow fathers who have rights of access to see their children. Those fathers have continually to take mothers back to court, at great expense, but the court orders are not enforced by the court. I hope that the Government will look at that carefully and, as a result, perhaps fewer people will have to climb cranes to make the issue a priority.

The Government have introduced a number of very good measures in the Queen's Speech, some of which are controversial, such as the measure on tuition fees. I support the principle that students should pay for their education once they have graduated, but I accept the concerns of people who are worried about the impact of variable fees. However, I hope that the Government will not only address the need for more young people to go into higher education, and provide funding for that, but will provide opportunities for people who want to develop vocational skills to do so. Such people should not find themselves in a position in which they not only have to pay for their course but, by paying taxes when working, have to pay for students pursuing academic studies.

Overall, this is an excellent legislative programme for the year ahead, introducing lots of good and interesting measures that will significantly help my constituents in Watford.

5.26 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): Out of courtesy, may I tell you that I will be present for the winding-up speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and very much look forward to them?

2 Dec 2003 : Column 452

I disagree with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) that the public are not in the mood for another debate on asylum. I represent a Glasgow seat, and Glasgow city council is the only local authority in Scotland to participate in the Home Office asylum seekers' dispersal scheme. About 75 per cent. of my constituency case load concerns asylum seekers, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that people in Glasgow and, I believe, all other constituencies want a serious debate on asylum. The Government have helped to achieve that by introducing the Bill, which I welcome.

Asylum as such is not a controversial issue. I do not believe that there is a single hon. Member who would argue against the principle that anyone who genuinely faces persecution on the grounds of race, religion or politics in their own country should be given sanctuary in the UK. However, asylum has become a controversial issue or a political hot potato because the Government, like their predecessors, have recognised the fact that there is a large number of economic migrants among those who come to this country claiming political asylum, and have decided that they have to do something about that. They have decided to interview people and separate genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants. We must accept that has consequences, but that is the source of the controversy, not the fact of asylum itself.

I welcome strongly a number of aspects of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. They have already been mentioned, but I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I briefly go over them again. It is unacceptable for people arriving in this country, largely by air, to tell immigration officials at the airport that they have misplaced or destroyed their identity papers. I very much welcomed the Home Office announcement that proposals to tackle that would be included in legislation introduced this Session. I do not understand why we have not previously introduced a measure to clamp down on such behaviour, but the Bill is nevertheless extremely welcome.

Next Section

IndexHome Page