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Keith Vaz : As the hon. Gentleman will know, the present Government inherited a large backlog from the previous Government. He was involved in that Government as Parliamentary Private Secretary to, I think, a Home Office Minister. Does he not agree that his party shares some of the responsibility for not ensuring that the system was more efficient when the present Government took office?

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman should never forget that under the present Government, the number of asylum applicants has trebled. He should never forget that this Government have been in power for nearly seven years. He should never forget that under the previous Conservative Government we had a treaty with France under which those who turned up illegally on our shores were returned to France, and that the treaty lapsed and was never renegotiated. I will never forget that I was not here during that Parliament: the electors of Croydon, North-West had said goodbye to me in 1992.

I was saying that our current asylum system had begun to lack not just humanity but efficiency. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that it has reached a state of

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almost total collapse. For a start, many of us would agree that the wrong people are claiming asylum. It is claimed almost entirely by those who reach the United Kingdom illegally, or those who, having come here legally, try to overstay. Unlawful entry normally requires the paid services of people-smugglers—the criminal gangs who take vast sums from their victims by extortion and threats. Many of those who claim asylum have the economic resources to get here; they are not destitute, or the most deserving of help.

Furthermore, our system has been characterised by delay and inefficiency for many years. I believe that in recent times the Home Office has been overwhelmed by the number of applications.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says that those with money, who can pay the people-traffickers, are less deserving of asylum, while the more "destitute" deserve it. Is he not making a case for economic migrants to use the asylum system to come here on false pretences?

Mr. Malins: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I am merely saying that there are those with the money to cross the continent to get here, and that the most persecuted are often the poorest. They simply have not the resources to travel any distance from their own countries.

As I have said, the number of asylum applications has almost overwhelmed the Government. Last year the number of people seeking to come to Britain for asylum topped 110,000. That figure is the highest in Europe, and it is three times as high as the number claiming asylum in the last year of the Conservative Government. I do not believe that the Home Office has been able to cope with the volume of applications, and there is a growing feeling that the Government are beginning to lose control of our borders. Here is the rub: the Government believe that by legislating they can cure inefficiency and a discredited system. Legislation, however, is not the answer. The answer is to have practical operations working properly.

Let me say gently to the Home Secretary—who could probably say the same to me of my party—that we legislate too often and too hastily. Today we are discussing the second major piece of legislation introduced by the Home Secretary in two years: the ink is hardly dry on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. As the House will recall, the flagship policy of that Bill was the establishment of accommodation centres where asylum seekers would live. The Government, of course, got it wrong then, ignoring advice from all the experts and proposing centres that were far too large and in the wrong places.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is absolutely nothing humane in placing large numbers of asylum seekers in huge accommodation centres in the middle of the countryside? Will he confirm that an incoming Conservative Government would abandon such a policy?

Mr. Malins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I pay tribute to the work that he has

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done on his constituents' behalf in respect of the proposed accommodation centre in his constituency. He has worked tirelessly on their behalf. No, we are not in favour of large accommodation centres being established in the wrong places, and we were backed up in that—[Interruption.] An hon. Member says from a sedentary position, "In Banbury", but, as we know, all the experts outside this House say, "Keep the accommodation centres small, and keep them near urban areas, rather than rural ones."

Mr. Singh : I have served with the hon. Gentleman on the Home Affairs Committee, where we discussed these and other issues. Does he accept that it is something of an exaggeration to say that the system is collapsing? It has got better under the legislation that we have passed, and it will get better still under this Bill. Does he accept, however, that it was near to collapse when the previous Government introduced a hopeless IT system and sacked 1,200 experienced immigration officers?

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record on the Home Affairs Committee, so I had anticipated an extremely friendly intervention; I am only mildly disappointed. The previous Conservative Government did many very good things in the asylum field, one of which I have already mentioned. We had a treaty with France, whereby people were returned there forthwith when they arrived here illegally. The treaty lapsed and has never been renewed by this Government, despite my pressing them on many occasions to do so.

Mr. Prosser rose—

Mr. Malins: I give way to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), with whom, I should point out in advance of his intervention, I shared very happy times on the Home Affairs Committee.

Mr. Prosser: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I am afraid that he will get an equally unfriendly intervention from me. Does he not remember that it was the current Leader of the Opposition who signed up to a Dublin convention that was designed never to work, and that on the day that he did so, the original arrangements collapsed? That is the real reason why we were no longer able to send people back to France.

Mr. Malins: With respect, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The agreement lapsed, but there was nothing to prevent this Government from working tooth and nail to renegotiate it.

I was referring to accommodation centres, the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and the Government's flawed policy. The House will not be surprised to hear that, some 18 months after the introduction of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, not one single accommodation centre is yet up and running. That shows that although we can discuss legislation for weeks and months and ram it through this House at great pace, it does not equate with efficiency. We legislate too quickly: after Second Reading of the 2002 Act, the Government added 342 of their own amendments and 25 new clauses.

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What about this Bill and the consultation period? Frankly, that period has been disgracefully short—a view shared by many on the Government Benches.

Mr. Blizzard: The hon. Gentleman may remember that in the Queen's Speech debate I intervened on the Leader of the Opposition to ask him whether they were going to oppose this Bill, at which point he launched into a tirade against it. Are they going to oppose it, or do they intend to allow failed asylum seekers to continue to receive benefit for long periods? Was the performance of the Leader of the Opposition just for show?

Mr. Malins: My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition was particularly opposed to a matter relating to children, to which I shall turn in a moment. I am afraid that I missed the hon. Gentleman's intervention during the Queen's Speech debate, although that had nothing to do with the fact that there was a one-line Whip. I should point out to him that I have a long track record in the world of asylum and immigration. There are some things in the Bill to which I can give qualified support; in other respects, I want to tidy it up and improve it in Committee. We do not even know whether there will be a vote on it later today—at least, I do not. However, I should point out that there is much in it with which I do not agree, and which must be improved in Committee or in the other House. That view is shared not just by my Conservative colleagues, but by the vast majority of Labour Back Benchers.

Mr. Dawson : Is the hon. Gentleman really trying to tell us in his gentlemanly way that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was shedding crocodile tears when he made that vehement statement about children in care?

Mr. Malins: Quite the contrary. My right hon. and learned Friend—incidentally, he himself has a refugee background—was expressing justified concern, which has also been expressed across the nation, about the possible treatment of children under one of the Bill's clauses. I shall return to that point and make my feelings quite clear.

The Government wrote to interested parties with their proposals on 27 October. They set the wholly unrealistic deadline for responses of 15 working days, completely contrary to Cabinet Office guidelines. The Bill itself was published only nine working days after the deadline for responses. My guess is that it was printed before the consultation period even began, and I should not be surprised if the Government flood this House and the Committee with amendments.

The Home Secretary will point to improvements that have taken place in the past few months, such as a drop in the number of asylum applicants. It is possible that the Government deserve some credit for that, and I pay tribute to him if it is true that any of his measures have indeed improved the system, but before he becomes too smug—he has never been so in the past—let us ponder the following facts. The number of asylum seekers is still much higher than under the previous Conservative Government. Secondly, there has been a policy U-turn, involving the reintroduction of Conservative proposals

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that the Labour Government condemned and scrapped; indeed, that may be a factor. Thirdly, the recent drop in asylum claims may in part have been achieved by letting greater numbers into Britain by other means. Legal immigration is up dramatically. Hundreds of extra Home Office staff are granting thousands more work permits. Because we do not count people out, and because our borders are not secure, nobody knows how many illegal immigrants are in this country. Indeed, the Home Secretary confessed recently that he did not have a clue how many illegal immigrants there were. He could have added that, after nearly seven years, the Government still do not have a clue about how to manage an efficient system.

Let me focus on one or two of the Government's failures, which I hope the Home Secretary is prepared to accept. First, they have abjectly failed in their policy for removing failed asylum seekers. That failure strikes at the credibility of the whole system; indeed, the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) referred to it. That credibility was further damaged when the Home Secretary announced a series of amnesties for failed asylum seekers. Many in the country were dismayed at his recent announcement of an amnesty for up to 50,000 people whose asylum claims had failed. Surely a key ingredient in the integrity of any asylum process is the Government's ability to remove those found not to be in need of protection. The story so far has been one of Government failure—a fact confirmed by the Government's own Back Benchers in a series of Home Affairs Committee reports.

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