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6.37 pm

Mr. Malins: With the leave of the House, and in the continued absence through illness of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), I shall say a few words to conclude the debate on behalf of the Opposition.

The Government are short of friends on their own Benches. I have listened throughout the afternoon to speech after speech from Labour Members criticising the Bill, much of that criticism coming from those who have experience of the asylum system, such as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). They and others who know a little about asylum find the Bill illiberal and in many ways unfair. We have heard words such as "insidious" and "repugnant", and the Home Secretary will go away from the debate in the knowledge that he has little support on his own Benches for the measures that he is trying to put through the House tonight.

It is such a pity. If the Government had consulted at greater length and spoken to those who know something about the system and about how asylum works, it is entirely possible that a better Bill could have been brought to us. I shall confine my remarks to observations on comments made by hon. Friends, but I shall not let the occasion pass without thanking the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who is not in his place, not only for producing a report so quickly, but for expressing in it some of the concerns that we all understand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) spoke of the many people who have no confidence in the Government's asylum policy. He was rightly critical of the Government's conflicting signals on the issue of taking asylum seekers' children into care and, reflecting the enormous amount of work that he has done in his constituency on these matters in the past couple of years, he reinforced the view that there is next to no support in his constituency for the siting of an accommodation centre in a rural area. He has certainly fought well on behalf of those whom he represents.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) spoke with knowledge and experience of schools and universities on the vexed question of clause 20, rightly referring to the lack of consultation with educational establishments and other interested parties. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) who referred to top-up fees or charges, and we shall have to consider that issue very carefully in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), in a powerful speech, made the very true point that we should, in this House and elsewhere, be entitled to debate levels of immigration in a rational way, without being tagged as racist for so doing. Not unnaturally, given his constituency, he referred to the need for much more effective coastal controls.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who has some experience of these matters through his constituency interest, made the point that asylum seekers must not be demonised. He was one of many speakers throughout the House today who rightly expressed concern at the potential cut in appeal rights to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.

The debate has been interesting, and I look forward to serving on the Committee. If I may say so to the Government Whips, I am sure that they will select to serve on the Committee many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, in order to obtain a balanced Committee and to ensure that the improvements to the Bill that we all want to see are made.

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

Mr. Malins: Only for a second, but I will.

Mr. Heath: I will take only a second; I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Having heard his words in opening and in summing up the debate, and the words of his colleagues during the debate, I would find it impossible to reconcile the views expressed with a decision on the part of the Conservative Opposition to do anything other than to oppose the Bill tonight. That would not be the act of a rational Opposition.

Mr. Malins: I have served with the hon. Gentleman on Committees before and he knows that in Committee we will table amendments to improve the contentious parts of the Bill, and we will be speak to them and vote on them. I say now to the Home Secretary that clause 2, which will criminalise many innocent people, clause 7, which deals with the withdrawal of support, and clause 10, which is perhaps the most contentious and which cuts down so much on the appeals that can be made, will all be looked at carefully by us in Committee and very carefully in another place.

The Bill must be improved in Committee. It sets out to achieve a better and more streamlined system, but in its present form it will not do that properly. It could achieve that if it is properly amended in Committee. If we can make progress in Committee on those contentious issues and others, the Home Secretary will have our support. If not, and judging by the mood of the House and of many outside, when the Bill comes back on Report and Third Reading, he will not have it.

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6.43 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): We have had an energetic and considered debate, and I am grateful for the contributions from Members of the House on what is always—rightly always—a difficult, complex and emotive set of issues.

The Bill sets out our third planned phase of reforms to the asylum and immigration system and builds deliberately on the action that we took in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Though I say it myself, the Government have made dramatic progress in reducing claims by half, reducing the backlog to an all-time 10-year low, removing record numbers of failed asylum seekers and processing 80 per cent. of more recent claims in two months. I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) for recognising that. The Bill represents the next essential stage in completely transforming and reconstructing the asylum system. I agree with Members on both sides of the House who said that operational efficiency, accuracy and consistency are vital—that is why we have given the Bill such a high priority and will continue to do so.

Inevitably, the debate has focused on asylum, but it is important, not least for some Labour Members, to put our asylum reforms in the context of our wider policy on migration. There is a clear dividing line here. Conservative Members—we heard a little of this refrain in the contribution of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)—want to stem all immigration into this country. By contrast, this Government's progressive policy is to welcome migrants where that helps our economy and to give opportunities to people from less developed countries. We are committed to finding better ways of integrating refugees here and helping genuine refugees worldwide. That includes our work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify refugees abroad and to bring them directly into settlement in the UK. Those are the forgotten people—the refugees who can never make it to the west in the back of a lorry because they cannot afford the traffickers who fuel that movement, and who languish instead in camps in poor countries across the world. Our commitment lies in managed legal migration and in more help for refugees.

We cannot, however, expect to make the case for managed legal migration and more help for refugees unless we deal with the misuse of the asylum system and return it to the purpose for which it was intended—the protection of people fleeing persecution, not the provision of a route into settlement for those seeking a better life—understandable though that is. I never speak negatively about asylum seekers, and neither do my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or my colleagues, but that is not the purpose of the asylum system. If we are to have a system that makes fair decisions, regulates the process and returns asylum to its proper purpose, we must enforce the outcomes of those decisions fairly and properly.

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Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that a good deal of illegal entry into this country and abuse of the system has been carried out by traffickers who have deliberately brought people into the country for benefits scams, servitude and other purposes, and that the Bill will help to clamp down on that abuse?

Beverley Hughes: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We have added to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which penalises trafficking for sexual exploitation, by including in the Bill a measure that criminalises trafficking for non-sexual exploitation, domestic slavery, organ harvesting and labour exploitation. I am very much committed to that.

I have to say that I occasionally wondered in the course of the debate in whose interests some Members were primarily speaking, and where the views of their constituents came into play. It is vital that the public, who are our constituents, have confidence in the asylum and immigration system. We are introducing these measures because it is important to build that confidence. It is an ongoing process, however—we have to respond quickly and robustly to global migration trends and to the way in which organised criminals constantly try to find ways around the controls that we put in place. People have a right to know that the Government and Parliament are addressing their genuine concerns about the misuse of the process—otherwise, they will look beyond the established parties in this Chamber to the extremist policies offered by the British National party and others. That has already happened in Europe, and we cannot and will not allow it to happen here.

Public confidence in the system is crucial for the successful integration of refugees and to maintain cohesion in our communities in towns and cities throughout the country. We have a proud tradition of welcoming people; we are proud of modern Britain's ethnically rich and diverse society. We must not allow that to be soured by traffickers or people who misuse the system, for whatever understandable reasons.

We have made radical improvements to the controls, but no one can seriously say that nothing more can be done. The Bill shows that we are determined to take action further to improve our border controls, ensure that the systems continue to fulfil the purposes of enabling legal movement, encouraging legal migration and honouring our international obligations to offer protection to those in genuine need.

I shall try to respond to some of the specific points that hon. Members made. I welcome the response of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) made it clear that the Committee has not asked for any of the provisions to be withdrawn. He especially mentioned the figure of 16,000. He knows from his experience as a Minister that when a Committee Chairman asks Ministers for information, we have to provide it. That specific information was already in the public domain because we made it clear when we announced the ILR—indefinite leave to remain— exercise. Would that we could control some newspaper headlines, but I fear that we cannot.

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The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned charging. We are about to embark on a full consultation on the first months of implementation of the current charging mechanism. All the issues that he raised will be open for people to comment on further. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear, the provision on charging is only an enabling power. Any proposals will be made through the secondary process and be subject to full consultation.

Hon. Members talked mainly about clauses 7 and 10. Clause 10 covers the proposals to create a single tier for appeals. Again, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar that it is vital to have a proper, fair judicial system that is independent of the Home Office and the initial decision that takes place there. However, I disagree with her view and that of most of my hon. Friends who spoke on the matter that the Bill will not achieve that. It is important, for all the reasons that hon. Members mentioned—for example, the need to return people quickly when their claims fail—that we do not allow appeal after appeal. That is why we propose a single tier and a single body. We shall outline the proposal's operation in greater detail in Committee, and I hope that we can reassure hon. Members about some of their concerns.

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