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Standing Committee Debates
Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 8 January 2004

(Morning)

[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

9.10 am

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill the Standing Committee shall meet when the House is sitting on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9.10 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.;

    (2) 12 sittings shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill by the Committee;

    (3) the proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the Table below and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column of the Table.

    TABLE

ProceedingsTime for conclusion of proceeding
Clauses 1 to 6.11.25 a.m. on Tuesday 13th January.
Clauses 7 to 10; Schedules 1 and 2;6.55 p.m. on Tuesday 20th January.
Clauses 11 and 12; Schedule 3; Clauses 13 and 14.
Clauses 15 to 25; Schedule 4; Clauses 26 to 28; remaining proceedings on the Bill.6.55 p.m. on Tuesday 27th January.

May I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Roe? I understand that Mr. Taylor will be sharing the orchestration of our proceedings with you.

The matter has been fully discussed between the parties. The Programming Sub-Committee met yesterday, and there was no dissent. The Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), made it clear that he is perfectly prepared to revisit the motion if hon. Members wish it.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. I also welcome both Ministers; this is not the first asylum Bill that we have dealt with together.

I am slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of hon. Members on the Government Benches, but I am glad to welcome to the Opposition Benches my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). Although I welcome those on the Government Benches, I am surprised at the make-up of the Committee. I well recall that on Second Reading just before Christmas, many Members spoke whom one would naturally expect to have been members of the Committee, because they

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showed an interest in the subject. I wonder whether the Government have provided Committee members whom they think will make no objection to their plans.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): I am sorry to intervene so early, but I take exception to that slight. The hon. Gentleman suggests that I and other Labour Members do not have a genuine interest in or a knowledge of the subject. I hope that he will make it clear that that is not the case.

Mr. Malins: Yes, I do so willingly. For instance, the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) clearly takes an interest in the subject, and I know that others have a close interest in the Bill and in the subject generally. However, it seems somewhat strange that the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who all spoke dramatically against the Bill on Second Reading, are not members of the Committee.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): To save us from having a long discussion on the subject, I must make it clear that any hon. Member who asked to be on this Bill was put on the Committee. No one who asked was refused.

Mr. Malins: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. That gives me the opportunity to welcome to the Committee the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). He has sat many times on Committees dealing with asylum matters, and his expertise is extremely well known. On the Second Reading of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill in 2002, he said:

    ''it almost does not matter what we do in terms of legislation, if the Home Office does not get its act together to make decisions within a reasonable time scale.''—[Official Report, 24 April 2002; Vol. 384, c. 387.]

Like my hon. Friends, he seems to wonder why the Government legislate so often on asylum matters. He said that he had difficulty with every clause of the 2002 Bill. He thought that clause 7 was particularly harsh and described clause 10 as the worst. We look forward very much to the supporting comments—and the votes; we need them—of Government Members, and in particular those of the hon. Member for Walthamstow.

I shall ask my hon. Friends to vote against the motion, because yet again we are moving with indecent haste on asylum matters. The ink is barely dry on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. That legislation was in Committee only a year ago, and something in the order of 342 amendments and 25 new clauses were tabled by the Government between Second Reading and its final stages. That was an example of poor government, and it is much to be hoped that on this occasion the Government will not come up with a raft of new amendments and clauses as the Bill proceeds.

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We have not had the opportunity to consult widely about the many important issues raised in the Bill. The Home Affairs Committee was given a woefully short time to prepare its brief report. The consultation period for outside parties was a mere 15 working days, and the Bill was published only nine days after the closing time for responses. That suggests that the Bill had probably been drafted and was at the printers during the consultation period.

The Bill is important, and contains issues that need to be discussed at some length. Those include clause 2, which concerns document offences, clause 6, on credibility, clause 7, on the withdrawal of support—an issue that has raised great anxieties—clause 10, on the cutting down of the appeal system, and clause 20, on Government charging for fees. There should have been wider consultation on all those important matters, not only with the non-governmental organisations but more broadly within the House of Commons, before this rushed Bill was brought before us.

I want to point out the real problems in the asylum system, none of which has been dealt with in the Bill. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow has constantly pointed out, the question of the quality and speed of initial decisions is not addressed in the Bill at all. I pointed out on Second Reading that those who make the initial decisions in asylum cases are, generally speaking, Home Office officials of a junior grade. Their starting salary is only £15,500, and they have only 27 days' training. They are people who make life and death decisions. The average time for making initial decisions—not addressed in the Bill—has not significantly improved in the past two or three years.

The current Minister for Trade and Investment, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) observed:

    ''On average, the initial decision on asylum will be dealt with within two months and appeals within a further four months. We aim to reach that ambitious target by April 2001''. —[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 30 March 1999; c. 495.]

Did the Government reach that target? They most certainly did not. I received a parliamentary answer on 12 July 2002, 15 months later, which stated that the average time from date of application to initial decision in March 2002 was seven months. I give the Government credit for bringing the figure down since, but the target was not met.

Beverley Hughes: This is a hotly contested area of policy, and rightly so, because it raises important issues. However, it is important that from the outset we try to debate this on the basis of facts and what is actually happening. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, for all of the last year, at least 75 per cent., and more recently 80 per cent., of new claims have been decided within two months? That is a very different record from that of his party when in government, when the average time was nearly two years.

Mr. Malins: There have been improvements in the initial decision-making process. However, I have to point out that the Minister for Trade and Investment said that he hoped to meet his target by 2001, and that was never achieved. I also have to point out that, even

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in November 2002, the Government were forced to admit that the number of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision for more than six months—how can people wait for more than six months?—was estimated to be 19,600. Of those applications, after five years of the Labour party being in power, 15,800 cases were outstanding after more than 12 months. That simply will not do, and that is the first mischief in the asylum system that is not touched on in the Bill.

The second mischief, which is not touched on in any way in the Bill, is the complete absence nowadays of Home Office presenting officers at hearings before adjudicators. Government Members who speak regularly to part-time and full-time adjudicators will know, I am sure, that the situation with regard to Home Office representation at hearings before adjudicators is becoming more deplorable by the month. Rarely, if ever, is the Home Office represented at those hearings.

The third mischief is the Government's utter failure to enforce a removals policy. It cannot be right that the Government set themselves a target of 30,000 removals per year two years ago, that they abjectly failed to meet that target and then scrapped it altogether, and that they still have removed this year only about one in four failed asylum seekers. Nowhere in the Bill is that addressed, but it is one of the great scandals of the asylum system and it must be addressed. The Government have presided over an increase in asylum applications that is unprecedented in western Europe, reaching 110,000 in the last year for which figures are available. It is no wonder, with their inability to remove, that the Government had to grant amnesties just a few weeks ago, at the end of last year, to a further 50,000 failed asylum seekers. It brings shame on the system, a point echoed by all the NGOs, if it cannot work efficiently. That returns me to my basic premise: it is all very well for us to be here day after day, examining a Bill and thinking that legislating is going to cure problems, but in fact the problems are immense and untouched.

I shall give one little example, if I may. A dominant theme in the 2002 Act, which has come to absolutely nothing, was that the much vaunted accommodation centres were going to solve the whole problem. The Government said that they would set up accommodation centres and put the asylum seekers in them, but they never took advice on whether those should be in rural or urban areas, or be large or small. Indeed, they ignored the advice given and decided to put the accommodation centres in rural areas with 750 asylum seekers in each.

 
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Prepared 8 January 2004