Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Malins: The clause reads as follows:

That is the offence. The broad nature of that allegation means that we might send tens of thousands of innocent people to prison, so the clause will need to be carefully examined in Committee.

Clause 7 deals with withdrawal of support. Until now, asylum seekers with dependent children have received support until they fail to comply with a removal direction. The issuing of a removal direction is an administrative act signifying the Government's immediate readiness to remove the failed asylum seeker—it comes right at the end of the process. Now, it is proposed to stop benefits much earlier. That may encourage more failed asylum seekers to take advantage of an opportunity to leave the UK; it may send a signal that those who attempt to play the system cannot expect

17 Dec 2003 : Column 1615

to succeed; but it may also drive failed asylum seekers underground and split up families, as well as make removal more difficult.

The measure may hit many people who have nowhere to go—people on whom the Government would hesitate to serve a removal direction because of the hardship involved in removing them to their country of origin. Zimbabwe is a case in point—a prime example. Removals to Zimbabwe have been suspended for a long time, so what happens to the failed asylum seeker whom the Government cannot and will not remove to Zimbabwe? Does such a person receive the notice stopping all their benefits or not? There are many people whom the Government would hesitate to remove because of the practical difficulties in getting the country of origin to receive them back—countries such as China, Moldova, Zimbabwe and the Congo all have their own particular difficulties. What would the Government do about failed asylum seekers whom, in the normal course of events, they would not remove to those countries? Will the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration set out precisely what is to happen to such people? As the Bill stands, they could be refused any support, which might be grossly unfair.

There is one aspect of the changes that the Conservative party will never tolerate. Last month, the Government briefed the press that the children of asylum seekers would be taken away from them to make them leave Britain. It was a despicable and disgraceful idea, and the British people have already expressed their disgust, yet despite the opportunities given to him on many occasions in the House by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Prime Minister has refused to rebut his officials' briefings. The Home Secretary has distanced himself from the threat and there is no mention of it in the Bill. If the Home Secretary can guarantee that the removal of children into care will not be used as an explicit threat to asylum seekers, he will have our support; but if any amendment is made to the Bill to the effect that asylum seekers' children will be taken into care simply to persuade their parents to go home, we will have none of it and we will oppose it in the strongest possible terms.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): The hon. Gentleman discredits himself with that accusation, which the Home Secretary has refuted on many occasions, including by writing to the newspaper concerned. The newspaper repeated that story, even after we had disavowed its version of clause 7. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that that story was in no way the result of briefing by either Ministers or officials?

Mr. Malins: I have to say to the Minister that the briefing began somewhere—the press were briefed to that effect by someone in the Government. All I ask the Minister to do is to give us the undertaking I described.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Malins: I want to make a little progress before giving way again. I have given way almost every time I have been asked.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 1616

We have always said that a streamlined, fast and efficient appeals system is important. Like the Home Secretary, we deplore attempts by those who seek asylum to play the system for all it is worth and to mount a succession of unmeritorious appeals, so in principle we understand and accept the desire to unify the appeals system. However, I greatly regret the proposal in the Bill to abolish all existing rights of appeal and review to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. One of the strengths of the present system is that the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords have decided a large number of asylum cases and given clear and binding precedents on a number of vital matters. I would be more than sorry to see that go.

It is a fact that the stakes are often highest for the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. A mistake could send asylum seekers back to a country where torture and execution await them, and we must be absolutely sure of ourselves before introducing the measure. As the Bill stands, the obvious question to ask is how an erroneous decision by the new tribunal can be corrected if there is no right to apply to the Court of Appeal for a binding decision. The Bill offers only one possibility: for the tribunal to review its own decision on the basis of written representations. That provision is surely too restrictive, in effect, making the tribunal a judge of its own cause. Remember also that under the Bill as it stands, there is no judicial scrutiny of a decision by an immigration officer to remove someone. I share the concerns expressed by many hon. Members, not only Conservatives but Labour Members, most eloquently the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews).

Mr. Coleman: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's most recent observations, but may I take him back to his comments about destitute children and the leader of the Conservative party? I advise the hon. Gentleman that the policy of a large number of Conservative-controlled local authorities in the event of a family being found to be intentionally homeless—perhaps because they have got into rent arrears or refused an offer of accommodation— is to take away the children of that family and put them into care against their parents' will? Does he regard that as despicable and barbaric, and if not, why not?

Mr. Malins: As the hon. Gentleman was speaking, an hon. Friend was whispering something into my ear, so although I picked up most of what he said and will give the best answer I can, if I do not completely answer his point, let us talk about it afterwards. In principle, I am not generally in favour of taking children into care. I believe that the splitting up of families with the children being taken into care is potentially extremely damaging to the children, to the family unit and to the long-term prospects of those young people.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Malins: Let me make some progress.

Can we not agree that the highest courts in this land should, when appropriate, be available to all our people, regardless of background? We will have to examine the clause closely in Committee. We will also look closely at the provision for charging immigration applicants more

17 Dec 2003 : Column 1617

than the cost of processing their applications. That has caused much concern in educational establishments, and needs to be considered with care.

We can therefore give the Bill qualified support, subject to proper scrutiny and amendment in Committee and the other place. It is greatly to be hoped that it will do much to remove the incentive to remain in Britain after an application has been refused on appeal, and that it will end the dire situation whereby some failed asylum seekers can cynically play the appeals system. However, it troubles me that the Government are seeking to exclude the judges.

It is something of an irony that the Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, championed the right of individuals to have access to the highest courts in the land, yet now talks to his party conference about the problems that the Government face from what he describes as "judicial interference". When the Government accuse the judiciary of interfering, it is time to be very concerned about our ancient liberties.

I end with this advice to the Government: in future, legislate less, and give much more thought to legislative proposals; consult more widely; move more slowly; and remember that legislation has never created, and will never create, operational efficiency. That is what is wrong with our current system.

Finally, in view of what so many of us feel about some of the Bill's illiberal aspects, the Government should never lose sight of the principle that although our system must work, it almost certainly must remain a beacon of humanity and decency to the rest of the civilised world.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench Members' speeches.

3.30 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I beg to move,

I am extraordinarily grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this reasoned amendment. I have spent most of the morning being warned by vastly more experienced colleagues that that would not happen. That it has is a mark of Mr. Speaker's commitment to the rights of Back-Bench Members. It is also, I hope, an indication of the seriousness of this subject. I regard it as a matter of fundamental principle and conscience. Other hon. Members will deal with the merits or demerits of many more of the Bill's 28 clauses than I shall. I intend to concentrate solely on clause 7.

Clause 7 is so wrong in what it intends to do that it should be opposed by every hon. Member from every party in this House. The presence of the clause in the Bill demeans all of us here.

It is an indication of the seriousness of this matter that all hon. Members will have received a briefing from the British Association of Social Workers. I spent 25 years as a social worker, but I never joined the

17 Dec 2003 : Column 1618

association as I did not think that it reflected the profession's radicalism. It is extraordinary, and entirely to be commended, that the association should say that it cannot overstate its opposition to receiving children into care on the ground of parental poverty, which it regards as a breach of professional ethics. The association briefing states:

It is a matter of enormous regret that the Bill has been produced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and that it has the support of my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. Both are exceptionally fine people, whom I hold in the highest respect and regard. They have an enormously difficult task, and I support them in many aspects of the job that they try to do. However, they are wrong in what they propose this afternoon. They are taking us a step far too far.

It seems extraordinary that I have to say this to a Labour Government, but in no circumstances whatever should the basic means of sustenance be removed from children. That is true whatever their parents have done, whoever they are, wherever they come from, and regardless of the merits of the case presented by any adults involved. All hon. Members should reflect that, if they vote for a Bill that contains clause 7, they will be voting for a measure that will mean that children in this country will go hungry. That will be their individual responsibility, not the responsibility of Whips. They will be taking direct responsibility for children becoming homeless. They will be taking direct responsibility for children being at risk of physical and sexual abuse, and they will be taking direct responsibility for children needing to be looked after by their local authorities and separated from their parents simply because those parents are destitute.

Next Section

IndexHome Page