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Voter Registration

19. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): How many servicemen and women are serving overseas; and what steps he will take to ensure that each one has the opportunity to register to vote. [214100]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): As at October last year, when data were last collated centrally, the number of servicemen and women overseas on postings and operations was 42,000. As I told the House earlier, we are working closely with the Electoral Commission to raise awareness of the options for service personnel to register to vote. I have made it absolutely clear that my personal preference for those serving overseas is for them to have a proxy vote to ensure that their vote is cast at any election.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for not being here for the earlier exchanges, but I was at a rather important constituency meeting. However, I have been fully informed of the exchanges that have taken place. May I just put to the Minister, for whom I have a very high regard, that the central point is that, until 2000, members of the armed forces were automatically registered in their name because if they were abroad it was virtually impossible to do that themselves? That surely is the key point. Could the Minister look at the
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matter again to see whether we can return to the old regime, especially as the number registering has catastrophically fallen?

Mr. Caplin: I am not sure how fully informed the hon. Gentleman is of the debate that we have already had on previous questions, but we are engaged with the Electoral Commission. We take the matter seriously and we have taken it very seriously. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) raised it in an Adjournment debate in December, and since then we have taken on board the points that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have made. We are determined that those able to vote and wishing to vote can do so.

Gulf War Syndrome

21. Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): What his latest estimate is of the number of former service personnel suffering from Gulf war-related illnesses. [214102]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): The Ministry of Defence is unable to estimate how many personnel may be suffering from Gulf-related illnesses as it does not hold the primary health care records for the 53,000 veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict. This information is held by the individuals' doctors and is not accessible for reasons of patient confidentiality.

Ms Walley: I noted what my hon. Friend said earlier about the importance of further medical research and the possibility even of a public inquiry, but my constituents, who believe that they are suffering from this syndrome, want to know exactly what further health care they can have, and that the research is taking place. Will he give an assurance that he will keep in close contact with the National Gulf Veterans and Families Benevolent Association, because 13 years after the Gulf war we owe those ex-servicemen the very best in health care?

Mr. Caplin: We take the illnesses that some Gulf veterans have very seriously indeed. The Gulf medical assessment programme is based at St. Thomas' hospital and if any Gulf veteran from the first Gulf war or from Operation Telic has any concerns about their health, they should immediately contact St. Thomas' hospital.

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Five-year Asylum Strategy

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the five-year strategy that I am publishing today to take forward our reforms to the immigration and asylum system.

The Government's approach to this important subject begins with the recognition that migration is vital for our economy and society. Visitors sustain a tourist industry that is worth £38 billion a year and employs more than 2 million people. Migrant workers, skilled and unskilled, do key jobs that cannot be filled from our domestic labour force. Overseas students make a major contribution, economic and intellectual, to our education institutions, and many as a result develop lifelong ties with this country. The positive effect of migrants is true throughout the United Kingdom. For example, in Scotland the declining population presents a particular challenge that Scottish Ministers are addressing through their fresh talent policy to attract and integrate bright, talented people. We will continue to support measures of this kind.

Moreover this country has always been among those first in the world to recognise our moral and legal duty to offer protection to those genuinely fleeing death or persecution at home. It is a fact that those who have migrated to this country over centuries have made, and continue to make, a major contribution to all aspects of our national life. But I think that the House will agree that it is essential to enforce our rules rigorously and fairly to ensure that we admit only those who bring this country the benefits or meet the moral obligations that I have described.

The proposals that I am publishing today are intended to build upon the major progress that we have made in recent years. We have strengthened our borders by operating our own controls in northern France and Belgium, supported by sophisticated new technology to detect illegal immigrants in freight vehicles. This has substantially cut illegal entry through the Channel tunnel and Calais and other ports. We have tightened the asylum system against abuse, reducing applications by 67 per cent. from their peak. Since 1997, we have doubled the number of removals of those not entitled to be here. We have made our legal routes for migration much more robust against abuse.

We must do more, however, to clarify the basis on which we admit people to the UK, whether temporarily or permanently, and we must do more to ensure that we operate an effective control to prevent those who do not meet our criteria from getting here, and to ensure that they leave when they are no longer entitled to be in the UK.

Lack of confidence in our systems of control can foster bigotry of whatever kind, and it is our responsibility—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Members often ask me to bring Ministers before the House to make a statement. The Secretary of State is making a statement and it should be treated with courtesy. Many Members, including me,
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have asylum seekers in their community, and we want to hear what the Secretary of State has to say on this matter.

Mr. Clarke: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The strategy that I am setting out today comprises a major programme of measures to build confidence. We will continue to welcome genuine economic migration within strict criteria. The current system works well but is complex and difficult to understand. Therefore, we will bring all our current schemes for work and student migrants into one simple points-based system. That will ensure that we only take migrants for jobs that cannot be filled from our own work force and that we focus on the skilled workers that we need most. We believe that the labour available from European Union member states—old and new—should over time meet our national needs for low-skilled work. Therefore, in consultation with the industries and over time, we intend to phase out the current low-skilled quota schemes. We will of course review with the sectors how to fill any gaps that still remain, but any new schemes will be, as now, quota-based, temporary and tightly managed to ensure that people return home at the end of their stay. They will only be open to nationals of countries who agree to take back their citizens when they are no longer entitled to remain in the UK.

That points system will be supported by new measures to ensure that it is not abused. Workers and students will be required to have sponsors such as employers or educational institutions who will share the responsibility of ensuring that they leave at the end of their time in the UK. The cost of running the visa system will be recovered from those who benefit—I am answering a written statement on that today. Where there has been clear evidence of abuse, we are ready to introduce financial bonds to guarantee that migrants return home when they should.

We will set up an independent skills advisory body to advise us on labour market needs and skills shortages. The Government believe that a modern market-based economy such as ours requires a system that is flexible and employer-led, rather than some kind of centrally determined, rigid and arbitrary quota.

We will continue to welcome genuine refugees. Like all other developed countries and the rest of the 145 nations that are now signatories, we will honour our obligations under the 1951 Geneva convention. It is part of the international legal and ethical framework that enshrines basic principles of human decency. The Government reject the idea of a fixed and arbitrary quota of refugees and withdrawal from the convention as unworkable, unjust, counter-productive and immoral. Withdrawal would deny to us the international co-operation that we need to deal with the real problems that cause asylum such as resolving conflict, combating immigration crime and returning failed asylum seekers to their own countries.

We will continue to root out abuse by implementing rigorously the measures that we have taken to identify genuine refugees, by further strengthening our borders and by removing those whose claims fail. We will rationalise the appeals system to improve access to justice. From April, we will implement the new streamlined single tier of appeal. We will abolish the
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right of appeal against refusal of leave to enter the UK for work or study, and we will tighten up the operation of family visit appeals. We will continue to allow permanent settlement in this country where there is clear economic benefit and where migrants wish to integrate socially. We will tighten our conditions of settlement to reflect that by requiring those who want to settle to pass tests on English language and knowledge of the UK, by restricting settlement for economic migrants to skilled workers only, and by extending the period for which they need to have been here to five years before they get settlement.

We will in future grant genuine refugees temporary status once their asylum claim has been granted, as happens in many comparable European countries. We will encourage them to work and participate in local communities, we will keep the situation in their home country under review and, if there has been significant improvement, we will expect them to return. If there has been no improvement after five years, they will be permitted to settle in the UK.

Over the next five years, we will transform our immigration control. Using new technology, we will develop an integrated system dealing with people before they enter the UK, at our borders and while they are in the country. We will fingerprint everyone when they apply for a visa. Those fingerprints and other personal travel information will be checked against our own watch lists of those who present an immigration or security threat. Airlines will not have the authority to carry people until that check has been made.

Identity cards will provide a simple and secure way of verifying identity, helping us to tackle illegal working, organised crime, terrorist activity, identity theft and fraudulent access to public services. The new borders technology will record people's departure from the country, which will help us to target our immigration checks, and we will back that up with fines for employers who take on illegal labour.

We will continue to crack down hard on organised immigration crime, which targets the most vulnerable, the poorest and the young. We have introduced tough new penalties, gone after criminal assets and established the multi-agency Reflex task force to co-ordinate law enforcement and intelligence activity. That will be a major priority for the new Serious Organised Crime Agency.

Swift removal of those not entitled to be in this country is central to the credibility of the whole system. Although we have removed many more failed asylum seekers and other immigration offenders than ever before, we intend substantially to increase the number in future. We will introduce a new and faster process for asylum applications, detain more people and use other means of contact like tagging to prevent people from absconding when they are ready to be removed.

We will take new measures to prevent people from concealing their identity by destroying their documents and thus making it much harder to get their own countries to take them back. We have already made it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK undocumented without good reason, and we are asking airlines to copy travel documents on certain routes.
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It will be most important to secure more effective returns arrangements with the countries from which most of our failed asylum seekers come. We will place migration at the centre of our relationship with those countries. We will give support to help with the reintegration of failed asylum seekers, if they need it, but we will also make it clear to the relevant countries that failure to agree such a joint approach will have implications for our wider relationship, including access to some migration schemes.

Migration is a consequence of the increasingly global world economy, and asylum is an international issue. We will best address and make progress on those issues through effective international co-operation, not through some kind of fortress Britain splendid isolation. The fact is that partnerships with other countries, the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are essential to delivering our objectives.

Taken together, this is a major programme to build on the foundations that we have laid by creating a system which will be, and which will be seen to be, transparent and fair to all. It is a practical and systematic response to the real problems of asylum and immigration. It will provide a simple and robust system for economic migration. It will tighten our rules for permanent settlement to ensure that those who stay bring benefit to the UK. It represents real determination to eliminate illegal entry, illegal working, asylum abuse and people-trafficking gangs, who, through their heinous crimes, gain most from the failures of our system. I commend the strategy to the House.

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