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

Mr. Malins: No, I have no time: I must move on. I have given way on many occasions.

The third serious allegation comes from the British consul in Bucharest, who said:

He goes on to say that there has been excessive pressure to grant applications that in effect have no merit whatsoever. The truth of the matter is that there are countless examples of cases that those people had to grant when they should never have done so. One example is that of Mr. C, who applied for a visa under the ECAA—European Community association agreement—scheme in August 2003. The visa assistant at the British embassy said:

However, the Home Office lost the letter—surprise, surprise—which suggests that the claim was bogus, and Mr. C was granted a visa allowing him into Britain.

One example of bad practice would be one thing, and a second example might be thought to be coincidence, but in the past three months we have had three clear examples of a practice adopted across the Home Office that brings the integrity of the whole system into question. It is time that the Government considered a full and independent inquiry, probably by a High Court judge, into exactly what has been going on.

The Home Secretary acknowledges that the position is serious, but where does responsibility for it lie? Does he believe that it lies with junior officials? Does he think that it lies with middle-ranking officials? Or does he believe that it lies with senior officials? He would probably reply, yes, yes, yes. It may be slightly old-fashioned to say so, but Conservative Members believe that the responsibility lies with Ministers and that the buck stops there.

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3.45 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): First, I thank all my hon. Friends who have intervened and contributed to the debate for their support and speeches. I also thank the hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for North Down (Lady Hermon), who were the only two people on the Opposition Benches to conduct any research or have well-informed views about the issues that we have discussed during the past few weeks.

Mr. Lilley : Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: I shall give way in a moment.

I genuinely regret the way in which Conservative Members have approached the issue. They have shown that they do not care about the substance of the matter. It is simply another bandwagon to jump on for their purposes.

Mr. Lilley: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: I want to make some progress first. I shall inform the right hon. Gentleman when I am ready to give way.

I genuinely regret Conservative Members' approach because they know, as we do, that migration is important for this country. That has always been the case because we are an island nation. Immigration is important now and will increasingly be so as our population changes. Immigrants have helped us to create wealth, compete in world markets and build strong relationships with other countries. However, the Tories and their newspapers promote a barrage of scare stories, which demonise all immigrants—we heard an example of that today from the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—as scroungers, criminals or worse, claim that everything is out of control, undermine the staff who have achieved genuine reforms and stoke up fear and insecurity instead of encouraging the rational and open debate that we need. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and others who said that we need that debate to face up to some genuine issues and decisions.

Mr. Lilley: The Minister must have misheard. I said that all immigrants are hard working, industrious people who want to improve their lot and that of their families. Will she therefore withdraw her remarks? Earlier, she castigated Opposition Members for not conducting research. I tabled questions on the day of her previous statement. They asked, among other things, what targets she had set for processing claims. She has not replied. Is that because she does not know the answer or is she withholding the information until after the debate?

Beverley Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman might have said that migrants were hard working but he also said that he did not want any in the country, period.

Mr. Lilley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister, having once said something untrue about one, to go on to say something else untrue about one?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We are considering very serious matters. I say to the Minister and the House that everybody involved in the debate should choose their words carefully.

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Beverley Hughes: That is exactly right. The Conservatives do not like hearing about their record in Government, but it is important to recognise the absolute shambles in which they left the immigration department, with no proper systems or management and more than 1,000 caseworkers dismissed on the basis of a computer system that never arrived. I remind the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) that the Home Office was totally unprepared to respond to the Kosovan crisis—an enormous crisis that led to an influx of people here.

It has taken a systematic and radical reform, step by step—it is not complete yet—to put that right.

The Opposition have criticised us for not being able to say how many people are here. I remind them that the Conservative party in government removed embarkation controls, so we have no way of articulating that. The asylum system had in it, as we have heard, delay after delay, with cases going on for years and years. Secret decisions were taken quietly to grant asylum seekers leave to remain, of which we became aware only later when the figures were published, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) pointed out.

Mr. Cameron: We have heard from the Home Secretary that our consul in Bucharest met with an official in her Department on 1 March to make his concerns clear. Were minutes taken of that meeting, were they passed to the Minister, and who saw them in the Home Office? If she did not see them, why did she not?

Beverley Hughes: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said today that a senior immigration and nationality directorate official visited Bucharest for talks on strengthening measures on illegal immigration and other matters, including the ECAA route. A report of that meeting was given to Ministers, or a record—

Mr. Cameron: This is vital to the issue that we are debating. If a report was given to Ministers about concerns in relation to immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, why was that information not included in the Sutton inquiry when it was set up? Why do Ministers have to have the truth dragged from them bit by bit? Why do they not want to get to the truth?

Beverley Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman recalls, the shadow Home Secretary did not reveal the memo that would have been germane to the Sutton inquiry. I also remind Opposition Members that the subject of the allegations leading up to my statement on 8 March was specifically the eight accession countries and the allegation that Ministers had fast-tracked nationals from those countries in order to beat the deadline of 1 May. The focus was on the accession countries at that time.

As for the record of the Conservative party—

Mr. Clappison: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: No, I want to make some progress.

I remind Conservative Members of the record of their party in government: no action on border controls, no review of immigration control, no action on people

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trafficking, and no action at all on the organised immigration crime that fuels much illegal entry. Since moving into opposition, its record has been characterised by hypocrisy. First, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), on becoming leader, paraded his migrant history. When he was Home Secretary, he and his party argued strongly in favour of EU enlargement, but he has since reversed his position on that. Secondly, he created a storm about our proposals to remove support for failed asylum-seeking families, when he had clearly forgotten that he took away support from all asylum seekers the moment that they claimed, which was overturned by the courts.

Mr. Gerrard: My right hon. Friend is talking about the record pre-1997. She may recall that in 1997, I and some other Labour Members used the word "amnesty", and I think that we were told by the then Home Secretary to wash our mouths out with soap and water. The Government then rightly embarked on a backlog clearance exercise, which was made public and which everyone knew about. Can she remind us how many backlog clearance exercises took place in the 1990s, which only came to light when the figures were published two or three years later?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend. As he knows, the Home Secretary yesterday put in the Library details of all those exercises that have taken place from 1988 onwards. Apart from the secret one, which was not disclosed at all—in marked contrast to the exercise that we announced in October—the other exercises were by and large what any sensible Government or Department would have to do. Backlogs are completely anathema to immigration control. If we have large backlogs, we are not managing the system properly. With proportionate and sensible measures, it makes sense to reduce backlogs as much as we can.

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