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David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): No one disputes the amount of criminality involved, and we remember the Chinese who suffocated to death and who were undoubtedly the victims of criminal gangs, but does my right hon. Friend accept that much of the controversy over the proposals could be avoided if more attention were paid to the quality of decision making? The Home Affairs Committee report, to which I was a party, makes the point, which I am sure my right hon. Friend has noted, that, whereas one in 25 appeals was successful in 1994, the figure has risen to one in five. The quality of decision making by Home Office officials is so important, and some of the controversy about the taking away of children as a last resort could be avoided if that quality were improved.

Mr. Blunkett: I am terribly sorry but the last point is completely irrelevant. It has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of initial decisions, or the subsequent appeals that take place. Clause 7, which we will come to in a moment, deals with those who have been through multiple appeals systems and have not had the initial decision to refuse overturned. My hon. Friend does his case no good at all by mixing the very real issue of improvements in decision making with the issue of clause 7. If hon. Members take every opportunity to use anything, no matter how extraneous or irrelevant, to deal with clause 7, we will not have a sensible debate this afternoon. I say that in all sincerity, because clause 7 relates to people who have failed to establish their right to be in the country.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way in a moment, but first I shall address the sensible and rational issue that my hon. Friend raised—the quality of decision making. The massive increase in volume, especially over the past three years, which can be tracked in terms of the numbers coming in, has undoubtedly put enormous pressure on the system. We accept, as Ministers, that we need to take steps to improve decision making, and we have already done so. That has certainly been true of the recent steps that we have taken, including a fast-track system, building on the experience of Oakington and Harmondsworth, and ensuring that the non-suspensive appeals process is robust.

We accept that further steps are required. My hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is announcing today that we will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, accept UNHCR's offer to work with our training programme to improve decision making, and undertake integrated work with the adjudication system, so that we can learn the lessons and get it right. I am happy to respond to such approaches and to the justifiable concerns expressed by hon. Members in all parts of the House to make sure that the system is administratively competent, that there are no delays and above all that we do not have to overturn on appeal.

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There is one other element. None of that discourages people from seeking the asylum route when they would be more justified in seeking legal economic migration. The steps that we have taken to secure our border controls with France are the most significant thing we can do, together with the signals to organised traffickers, to prevent people from seeking asylum when it is not asylum that they want, but a better life, offered through the massive expansion of the work permit system.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in response to the strategy that he is setting out on how to deal with asylum seekers who have failed to show that they have a right to asylum in this country, he is opposed by a fantasy island strategy and a Nelsonian blind eye strategy that pretends the problem does not exist?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes. I am trying to match the two together—Nelson in search of a fantasy island that does not exist and that has apparently been wiped off the map by the Leader of the Opposition, who decided last week, I think, that the Opposition could not find such an island, despite the help of ITV, and that they might seek a peninsula somewhere far away instead.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend has taken to improve what is happening at the immigration and nationality directorate, but one of the problems is that Home Office presentation officers do not attend court. A large number of cases are adjourned because the officers do not attend. Will he take steps, with the tribunal service, to make sure that they turn up to present their case, so that cases will not be adjourned?

Mr. Blunkett: We have taken urgent steps, and carried out further recruitment and improved training, and there will be a new tranche of presenting officers in January, to avoid such delays and circumstances in which officers are not available, with the consequent cancellation of the hearings to which my hon. Friend refers. That is not acceptable. We understand that that aspect, like much else that we have been dealing with, needs to be improved, and we give a guarantee that it will improve in the new year. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is taking the issue on board, as it is extremely important.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Many parts of the Bill touch on day-to-day immigration matters, not the controversial issues of asylum. Overseas students, whether they go to public sector institutions such as universities or further education colleges, or private language colleges, make a valuable contribution to the UK economy through their fees, and when they return to their own country, they usually leave well disposed towards the UK. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he does not intend to use clause 20 to charge that group of applicants more than the actual cost to the Government of processing their visa applications and visa extensions? If he were to do so, it would, in effect, be a tax on an important export industry for the UK.

Mr. Blunkett: We all accept, as I did when I was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, that

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we wish to maintain the high levels of application and entry to this country for qualifications. That has the advantages that my hon. Friend outlined. Clause 20 is an enabling clause. I guarantee that we will consult before laying an order. The factors that my hon. Friend mentioned will be a substantial part of our consideration, in conjunction with the Department for Education and Skills. I want to put it on record, because it is not often said, that considerable benefits arise from the availability of the education process in this country and from all the ancillary support and health facilities that go with it, which are not available in other parts of the world. That is one of the attractions for people coming, including—this is not the same thing as asylum seekers—those who bring their families and receive education for their children and access to health care. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): In light of what the Home Secretary fairly said—that decision making is, by and large, of poor quality and needs to be improved—is it not extremely unwise and possibly unjust to remove judicial oversight of the process at this stage?

Mr. Blunkett: First, I did not use those words. I said that, given the number of appeals that were overturned, we accepted that there was room for improvement. Secondly, we are not overturning the right of appeal and it is that to which the 20 per cent. is relevant. That particular appeal is not affected by the proposition that we are putting before the House this afternoon.

I do not simply blame the media—that is a fairly fruitless task anyway, especially at Christmas—but it is important that people do not automatically believe what they read but study what we are putting forward. That is why the provisions in the Bill streamlining the appeals and removal process, preventing the exploitation of legal services and allowing generous legal aid and advice are crucial.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): My right hon. Friend just referred to what one reads in the newspapers, but did he see the claim in a newspaper a couple of days ago that an asylum seeker in Britain receives on average about £16,000 a year in benefits? I find that hard to believe, but that is true of most of what I read in the newspapers about the asylum system. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Blunkett: There are two separate issues here. One is the total cost of processing and supporting applicants. The other is what they receive, and it is important to distinguish between the two. A family would receive less than £7,000 a year in direct support, but what was presented to the Home Affairs Committee by the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration was the total cost. We have been transparent about that and it is one of the issues with which we seek to deal, in terms of the totality of the draw-down on the public purse.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the fast-track

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procedure at Harmondsworth has been extremely successful, but does he also agree that, this being the fifth immigration and asylum Bill to come before the House, the real problem, apart from entry, is removals, and if we can get that right, we can crack the system? The level of removals is still very low. Will my right hon. Friend give us a guarantee that this time we will crack that issue and that we will not be back here in a year's time with another Bill?

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