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Lynne Jones : Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Government that the reforms are urgent and that the Government were therefore justified in not carrying out due process in relation to consultation or making the appropriate details available to his Committee and other Members?

Mr. Denham: I believe that there is a powerful case for the Government introducing this legislation in this Session of Parliament. It is unfortunate, however, that Parliament—and, more particularly, the informed organisations outside—did not have more time to comment on the details. I think that there will be problems as the Bill goes through that could have been avoided if we had had a longer consultation period, and that is a shame.

To return to the problem of undocumented passengers, the Committee believes that not all the burden should be placed on the individual asylum seeker. We were given useful information about the use of covert surveillance and other methods of ensuring that the authorities knew which flights people had arrived on. There is scope for far more action of that kind at airports—for example, having immigration officials meeting selected flights, and so on. These cases depend heavily on the individual asylum seeker at the moment, and more could be done about the way in which the immigration and nationality directorate operates.

We have to be realistic about the appeal system. There is undoubtedly a significant incentive in the system at the moment, in that the lengthy and cumbersome appeals procedures with their multi-layered approach enable those supporting people coming to this country to tell them that they will be able to stay for a very long time before their cases are resolved. In terms of pull factors,

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that is a significant issue. The Select Committee took the view that, in principle, simplifying the appeals procedure so that the process did not last as long as many hon. Member know it does now was the right thing to do. Those who say that there is nothing wrong with the current system are simply turning a blind eye to the fact that that long-drawn-out procedure is a significant pull factor.

The Committee therefore supports, in principle, a simplified system with a single level of appeal. But—and it is a very big "but"—the problem currently lies in the quality of the initial decisions. To switch to a simplified system when so many of those decisions are wrong and when there is so much reliance on further stages of appeal will be very difficult. The statistics are not satisfactory, because the Home Office does not keep track of what happens to particular cohorts of asylum seekers, but one in five decisions are overturned at the initial decision stage, and it would appear that well over half the cases that reach the immigration appeal tribunal are overturned in one way or another—cases are either held up or referred back to an adjudicator.

The Government must recognise that there needs to be confidence in the system. I understand that rights for asylum seekers are not a popular concept, and that tough action is. However, tough measures must be founded on sound principles and procedures. The Committee therefore concluded that initial decision making must be improved, as demonstrated by a fall in successful appeals, before the system is simplified. We are saying not that this part of the Bill should be removed, but that there should be a clear commitment about when it will be brought into effect. I regret the fact that the Government rejected this recommendation from the Committee within hours, if not minutes, of our report being published on Monday. I hope that they will listen to the tone of today's debate and look again at the issue—given that it will take time to put in place a different system of tribunals anyway—and set themselves a target to improve their record on initial decision making before the changes are made.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I do not disagree with the principle of simplifying the adjudicator and immigration appeal tribunal process. That is where the principal delays are occurring. Many people will agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has just said, including those who criticise clause 10. He will get an extra two minutes as a result of this intervention, so will he briefly address the question of the proscription of any judicial overview of this process? That is absolutely unique in our system, and, as I have said, has not existed since the Star Chamber.

Mr. Denham: The Select Committee did not consider that issue. We were unable to do so, as the Bill had not been published when we were preparing our report. My own view is that we must avoid a situation in which such a recourse becomes as regular a part of the procedure as the IAT or judicial review. I shall go no further than to say that it is worth exploring whether that protection can be provided but in a limited set of circumstances, so that the rights to which my hon. and learned Friend referred can be protected.

The restriction of family support is the most controversial element of the Bill. It is deeply unsatisfactory that we do not have any estimate of the

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number of asylum-seeking families currently in the system to whom this measure could potentially be applied. We are having a major debate with no idea whether we are talking about tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds or tens of families. It is a problem with the Home Office statistics rather than with the Minister, but none the less the Standing Committee must be given better information.

The Select Committee came to the view, which I support, that the principle is right. It is difficult to say to our constituents that a family who have no right to be here should expect taxpayers' support ad infinitum. To go against that principle would be to make a mockery of the asylum system for families—we might as well say that once they have set foot in this country they should be allowed to stay. We are not suggesting that clause 7 be removed from the Bill. However, the House must scrutinise carefully how the Government intend to implement it.

We accept that the aim is to achieve more voluntary returns, and we must examine how that will be done. Our Committee has said in the past that much needs to be done to improve the return and removal system—not necessarily with more snatch squads or dawn raids. We should ensure that the whole system is reformed, so that it is understood by all parties that a failed claim will lead to swift action to effect removal. I hope that the Committee will say more about that in the new year. My view is that everyone should be prepared before they receive the decision, so that it is perfectly clear that if it is yes, this is what will happen to them, and if it is no, that is what will happen to them. I worry that we are still starting the process when the appeal letter arrives, which is too late to involve people in informed decision making.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: No, I will not give way as I have very little time left.

In the Standing Committee, the Minister must set out exactly how the procedure will work. If the House can be persuaded that it will produce more voluntary returns, the Government should implement it. But we need to be sure that it will not lead to the worst possible outcome, which is children being taken into care and parents working illegally.

Mr. Dawson: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: No, I am running out of time, I am afraid.

It is critical that we know which countries the Government believe are safe to return people to, and which have a return and resettlement programme. This issue already arises with single people, but now that it will be linked to the removal of benefits from families, we need to know which countries those are, and that must be open to scrutiny. Our Committee considered whether that should be a statutory process, and decided against it for obvious reasons. The Government must in every case make it perfectly clear which countries they believe it is safe to return families to.

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Those are the Committee's major conclusions, and I hope that they are helpful to the House in the weeks to come.

4.23 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I agree with the analysis made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). He is right not to reject the Bill wholesale, but to say that there is a great deal of important work to be done in Committee. I fear that this could be a law of unintended consequences, in one respect at least.

Last week, I was e-mailed by Mr. Michael Wills, the principal of the Salisbury School of English, who made representations about the impact of the Bill on language schools in this country. I spent Friday with the chemistry department of the university of Southampton and with my Royal Society pair, Dr. Andrew Hector. I heard from students and the vice-chancellor of the university that the Bill would have an unintended consequence for overseas students and universities up and down the country. They expressed great concern about clause 20, which also concerns me.

In clause 20, power is given to the Secretary of State to impose fees that exceed the administrative costs of determining an application for a visa. It also gives the Secretary of State power to reflect benefits that the Secretary of State thinks are likely to accrue to the person who makes the application. In other words, the Secretary of State can say, "If someone attends a language school in Salisbury, they are likely to have a higher earning potential when they get home, so I'll screw them".

According to the explanatory notes on the Bill, charges will be set at some stage by statutory instrument—although we do not know what the statutory instrument will say—and a further regulatory impact assessment will be completed. Today—indeed, for a week and more—it has been very difficult to get hold of the regulatory impact assessments. But it was always clear, since the press release issued by the Home Office on 27 November, that the Government intended the Bill to catch students. It states:

I was relieved to hear the Home Secretary say that he would guarantee that the Home Office would consult people who would be affected in that way. What a pity that it did not do so before.

In annexe B to a letter dated 27 October and signed by the Minister of State, a list of consultees stretching to scores of organisations makes no reference to any university or to the language school sector, or even to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has a role in sponsoring language schools. That is astonishing,

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has said that his Committee's report—and a very good report it was—was written before the Bill was published. The Committee therefore had no opportunity to scrutinise this aspect of the Bill, and to consider who might be affected and what it might cost.

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Paragraph 24 of the regulatory impact assessment states

In the excellent House of Commons Library briefing for the Bill, the excellent researcher points out that in saying that, the assessment identifies the risks of introducing above-cost charging, and the entry fee is pitched at a level that encourages people to consider illegal entry, overstaying and working. In other words, the consequence of, say, a £500 surcharge on a student coming to a language school might cause him or her to try to enter the country illegally in order to avoid it. That is absurd.

I was approached by Pat Marchiori-White from the Southwold School of English, on behalf of the Recognised English Language Schools Association, who pointed out that at present a visa for a fortnight's course in the UK costs a student £95. If the student wants to extend the visa by a week, however, it will cost £155 to do so by post and £250 to go to London in person to do so.

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