Tony Baldry (Banbury)
(Con): There is no confidence in the Government's asylum policy. Organisations concerned with the welfare of asylum seekers do not have confidence in the Government's policy. Professional organisations, such as the Law Society and
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the British Medical Association, do not have confidence in the Government's policy. People generally do not have confidence in it. That is in no small part because the Government appear not to know from one day to the next what their asylum policy is.
I shall take one simple and straightforward example. Clause 7 adds a new paragraph to schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Incidentally, we appear to have annual asylum Bills. Doubtless the Queen's Speech in 2004 will contain another such Bill.
The purpose of clause 7 is to make it clear that failed asylum seekers with families will cease to be eligible for public support. The Government are clearly having considerable difficulty in working out what the new clause means. The Bill, in whatever form, is clearly bad news. The General Council of the Bar has said that
"if passed into law, not only will . . . this Bill severely curtail the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants, but it will set a very dangerous precedent, and send a most unfortunate message around the world."
The United Nations has said that
"the UK Government has been the subject of severe criticism from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Joint Committee on Human Rights about its treatment of children. It will be impossible to ensure that legislation operates within the framework of the Children Act 1989."
Before the Bill was published, Home Office officials briefed journalists heavily, saying that one of the consequences of the provision was that children of failed asylum seekers could and would be taken into local authority care. Consider the Prime Minister's comments, as reported by the Press Association on Thursday 4 December:
"If someone makes an asylum claim and their claim fails, and they exhaust all their appeals, and we say to them 'we will pay your fare back to your country of origin'; if they refuse we are saying we are going to withdraw social security benefits from those people. In those circumstances, asylum seekers' children are being treated no different than anybody else's".
The Prime Minister could not have made the position clearer. He had obviously been briefed by Home Office Ministers on the same basis as the media. There was a public outcry, and almost immediately Ministers changed their tune. The Home Secretary went on the BBC programme "Any Questions?" the next day to deny any such suggestions. On the Thursday, the Prime Minister said one thing, but on the Friday the Home Secretary said something completely different. In the transcript of the exchange between the Home Secretary and Jonathan Dimbleby, the Home Secretary says:
"It would be a choice of the parents not of us."
Mr. Dimbleby asks:
"But if they aren't encouraged then presumably if the children, in your view, face destitution then there will be a requirement on the appropriate officials to go into people's houses where the parents are with their children and forcibly remove the children from the parents.
The Home Secretary replies:
"The encouragement is not about taking their children away, the encouragement is to say we cannot have a system where you fail but we carry on paying you and housing you because if we do who the hell will leave voluntarily, it means with each and every familyeach and every family have got to be pulled out."
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That is markedly different in tone from the Prime Minister's comments. The Home Secretary's comments also differ from those of his colleague, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. I tabled a straightforward parliamentary question in which I asked the Secretary of State
"how many children of asylum seekers he estimates will be taken into local authority care each year following the Government's recent announcement."
The Minister replied on 8 December:
"It is not the Government's intention that any children will be taken into care as a result of this proposal."[Official Report, 8 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 235W.]
That answer is unambiguousno children of asylum seekers should be taken into care as a consequence of the Bill.
Explanatory notes to the Bill were published on 27 November, the same day as the Bill itself, but before the Minister answered my parliamentary question. The notes clearly refer to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Bill, and paragraph 25 states:
"Failed asylum seekers with dependent children receive asylum support until such time as they leave the United Kingdom or fail to comply with a removal direction . . . if the Secretary of State certifies that, in his opinion, such a person has failed without reasonable excuse to take reasonable steps to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily or place himself in a position in which he is able to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily . . . then asylum support for the family will cease. The family is also rendered ineligible for various other types of support or assistance, although the children in the family may still be supported by, for example, the local authority."
In other words, failed asylum seekers will be told to leave the country, and if they do not their children will be taken into care. What is in the Bill is therefore completely different from what Ministers are telling Members of Parliament, non-governmental organisations and the public generally.
If one had any doubts about the meaning and import of that explanatory note, the interpretation is confirmed by paragraph 121:
"A possible consequence of creating a . . . class of person (failed asylum seeker family) who will cease to be eligible for support . . . is that some children might have to be accommodated by local authorities. The costs to local authorities of children being accommodated under these circumstances will be met by Central Government. The savings made by this measure should cover any such costs."
On 8 December, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration told me that no children would be taken into care, yet the explanatory notes that the Government have provided make it clear that they do expect children to be taken into care. How can there be any confidence in a Government policy on which the media is briefed one day, confirmed by the Prime Minister the next, denied by the Home Secretary just one day later, denied by a Minister of State in an answer to a written parliamentary question a few days later, yet confirmed in black and white in the explanatory notes to the Bill that the Government are introducing? How can
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there be any confidence in a Government who appear not to knowor, if they do know, appear unwilling to admitthe Bill's purposes and intentions?
The matter is relevant and important to the residents of north Oxfordshire. The House will know that the Government intend to build an accommodation centre for up to 750 asylum seekers on the outskirts of Bicester. The origins of the policy are the Government's knee-jerk "we have to be seen to be doing something about it" mode of response. For a while, they were deeply embarrassed by nightly television reports of asylum seekers coming through the channel tunnel from the Sangatte refugee camp. Something had to be done. They wanted an initiativeany initiativeto give the impression that they had a grip on the problem.
The Home Secretary proposed accommodation centres for asylum seekers where they would be processed and dealt with on one site. The only difficulty was that he had used up all his good will with the Treasury, which was understandably exasperated by the ever-spiralling cost of the Government's asylum policy. The Treasury told the Home Secretary that he could go ahead with his trial for accommodation centres, but the funds would be limitedso limited that the only place they could be built was on land already owned by the Governmentand as a consequence, they would have to be big accommodation centres. Hence the proposal for 750 asylum seekers to be accommodated on former Ministry of Defence land at Bicester.
That is an utterly friendless policy. There is not a single organisation that supports the proposal. Originally, the Government intended to use their emergency powers to push through the proposal, without even the most cursory scrutiny by the planning system. Having appreciated that that course of action might result in judicial review, the Government eventually submitted the proposal for planning approval, which in due course led to a public planning inquiry.
Again, people thought that they knew what Ministers were saying. On 5 November 2002, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said at the Dispatch Box:
"The Government have made it clear that we will abide by the planning process, and by the outcome of any public inquiry. That is both fair and democratic".[Official Report, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 152.]
I was a planning Minister for four years, and believe that almost everyone would consider the outcome of a planning inquiry to be the decisions and recommendations of the planning inspectoralmost everyone except the Deputy Prime Minister. Having considered thousands of pages of written evidence, including that of Home Office lawyers, and having heard 48 witnesses in person over a period of two weeks between December 2002 and March this year, the planning inspector concluded that the
"first Secretary of State should not give approval for proposed development".
The outcome of the planning inquiry was clear and unambiguous. The planning inspector adjudged that the centre should not be built. He concluded that such an accommodation centre contradicted the Government's own planning guidance and would put an additional burden on already overstretched local public services,
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and that such a location for an accommodation centre raised safety concerns for local residents and asylum seekers alike. The planning inspector comprehensively rejected the Government's proposals.
The Deputy Prime Minister ignored the planning inspector's conclusions and put two fingers up to the inquiry. He behaved as though the public inquiry had never taken place, and decreed that as the Government wanted the accommodation centre, and notwithstanding the planning inspector's recommendations, the accommodation centre for asylum seekers would go ahead. Ministers have decided to try to press on with proposals to build the centre, notwithstanding the concerns of local people, the objections of Cherwell district council, the conclusions of the planning inquiry, and the fact that not a single organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees supports the Government's plans.
That is neither fair nor democratic. The proposal is fundamentally flawed on policy and planning grounds and would probably cost taxpayers millions of pounds if it went ahead. It is almost certainly doomed to failure. Is it any wonder that there is no confidence in the Government's asylum policy? The decision is subject to possible judicial review so, under the rules of the House, I shall say no more about it.
Under the Government's proposal for the accommodation centre at Bicester, 750 people will be processed every six monthsthat is, 1,500 people a year. Many of those will be single young men, but a not inconsiderable number will be families with children. At present, on average, eight out of every 10 asylum applications fail. There is no reason to believe that the failure rate at Bicester will be any different, which will mean that a not inconsiderable number of families with children will be refused asylum. In the words of the explanatory notes, children will have to be
"supported by . . . the local authority"
taken into care.
Children taken into care are potentially the responsibility of the local authority until they reach the age of 18. There could be a substantial and accumulating number of children, which will be a substantial new responsibility and burden for Oxfordshire county council. The children taken into care will have to be educated; they will require schooling. I understand from the Department of Health's figures that that would cost at least £16,900 per child, and for some special needs children Oxfordshire is paying as much as £91,624 per child in care.
When Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister cannot agree from day to day on the basics of their asylum policy, it is not surprising that there is no confidence in their having thought through the ramifications or the details of the consequences of their policies. When Ministers ignore the totality of evidence presented at a planning inquiry as if it had never happened, it is not surprising that there is little confidence that they are approaching the issues in a sensible, proportionate and balanced way.
The Bill, which meanders from forgery to fingerprints to electronic monitoring, will doubtless find its way on to the statute book, but undoubtedly it will not reassure
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north Oxfordshire residents that the Government have a grip on asylum policy; indeed, quite the contrary. The Government feel