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Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement. While there are many issues on which we disagree in this debate, we welcome at least his attempts to highlight the positive economic case for immigration. Included in the proposals that the Home Secretary has announced today is the suggestion for an independent economic review to assess how many jobs are needed. We have argued for that proposition since last summer, but will he consider our further suggestion that he should use the findings of the review to set an annual economic quota so that the public can see that it is being done independently rather than by politicians?

Will the Home Secretary also confirm that he has no plans to end the right to settlement after four years? Does he accept that workers who have been in this country with their families for four years have put down roots in the community, making it wholly wrong for
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them to lose that right? Furthermore, will he confirm that his proposals will apply to all immigrants, including those from America, Canada and Australia?

On asylum, I am glad that the Home Secretary rejected the totally unacceptable proposals for a quota that the Conservatives are advocating, but will he give a firm guarantee that the Government have no targets in mind for the number of asylum seekers coming into this country? Will he confirm that, in the next five years, there will be no further plans to change the rights of asylum seekers on appeal, and what is he going to do to try to get the initial decisions right on more occasions, because far too many of them are wrong at the moment? We welcome the plans further to speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers. In the past, the Government have set targets, but failed. Are there any targets in place now for the number that they intend to remove?

Finally, does the Home Secretary share my frustration that there is now a bidding war taking place on immigration and asylum between the Government and the official Opposition? Is it not important to speak up for the positive role that migrants play and to defend at all costs the principle that, in this country, we welcome refugees?

Mr. Clarke: Let me begin with the hon. Gentleman's final point. I do not believe that there is a bidding war of any sort whatever and it is quite wrong of him to say that there is. What is critical is to ensure that our migration regime allows our businesses, public services and universities to flourish while maintaining our responsibility to ensure that everyone who has the right to claim asylum is able to do so and encouraging visitors to this country for a variety of purposes. I believe that it is ludicrous to impose some sort of economic quota in that context. It will be factors in different areas of the marketplace that determine the position—and quite rightly so. The position is simple. The hon. Gentleman is right to welcome the advisory body, which will ensure that we properly—and, independently, by the way—understand exactly where the pressures in the system are, how to carry the necessary measures through and how to build on our sector skills council approach. That is a sound approach to the problem.

We are not setting specific targets on the number of applications, removals or other particular aspects. We do believe that we can move forward in the directions that we suggested, including establishing settlement at five years, rather than four years. To answer another of the hon. Gentleman's questions, we believe that the proposals should apply to everyone, rather than to any particular groups. We will try to make the initial decisions more effective, and we believe that the accelerated asylum system will mean that better decisions can be taken more rapidly than in the past. My final appeal to the Liberal Democrats would be not to play a game of party politics, but properly to consider the merit of the proposals and decide accordingly.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Anybody with half an ounce of grey matter between their ears knows that economic migrants are a good and necessary thing for this country. The real problem is the amount of people who try to cheat the asylum system. My
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constituents want the Home Secretary to concentrate on that issue, not get drawn in to a "mine's bigger than yours" contest with the Conservatives.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is correct and I shall be unequivocal in my response. We welcome migration for economic and educational reasons and we understand and meet our international obligations. However, the determination at the core of the document is to reduce and minimise the number of people who evade the system through duplicity, organised crime or collusion between various forces. My hon. Friend's constituents, like many other people, are impatient when they see the system bypassed in that way. That is why, once we have clarified exactly what the basis for entry is, it is necessary to ensure that the system is rigorously policed, enforced and tightened up. I am glad that my hon. Friend has focused on that aspect of the proposals.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): The House has been unduly harsh on the Home Secretary and he should be congratulated on delivering his statement with a straight face. However, he should recognise that no one believes him on this issue. They do not believe his figures or his statement. When he talks about enforcing rules vigorously and strengthening our borders, very few constituents will believe those words for a moment. If he does know what the figures are, will he undertake to put them in the Library so that the allegations that he made in his statement can be sustained by the actual facts?

Mr. Clarke: The reason I try to make my statement and give my responses with a straight face is that this is a serious issue which needs to be seriously addressed. It is true that there is room for party political badinage, but the people of this country are fed up with that aspect and seriously concerned about what needs to be done in practice. My challenge for the other parties is to put forward serious, considered and practical proposals, as we have sought to do, based on the facts of the situation as they are properly understood. That is what the document seeks to do, and I invite the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to do that also. That is the basis on which we should have the national debate.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary accepts that if someone is given refugee status, which is not very easy to get, it implies that we accept that they would be in real danger if they returned. Can he confirm whether people who are given refugee status in the future will retain the right to family reunion while they have the temporary status that he proposes? If so, we will be leaving people in limbo for up to five years while their families start to put down roots. What will happen at the end of the five years if we then attempt to send those people back? We will certainly see those people in our surgeries if that happens.

Mr. Clarke: I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend on this issue over a period of time. The important point to acknowledge—as many other European countries do—is that refugee status becoming settlement is a privilege, rather than a right. We need to acknowledge that some applications for refugee status
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are temporary in character. The most recent example is Kosovo, but there are others. In such cases, one may reasonably anticipate that by seeking to end conflict in various parts of the world, we can address some of the genuine issues that give rise to applications for refugee status in the first place. That is why we say that it is necessary to keep the situation under review. If the cause has not changed after five years—and in many cases it will not have done so—we will, as now, grant indefinite leave to remain as a permanent status. However, it is reasonable that after refugee status is granted, it should be kept under review in the light of changing circumstances for each individual.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): In August 1997, I—and, to be fair, the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser)—informed the Home Office, on the basis of information provided by Kent police, of a likely influx of illegal immigrants. In the autumn of that year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and I called on the then Minister of State to reinforce personally our concerns. No action was taken by the Home Office and the floodgates opened. In 1996, approximately 50 applications for asylum were made in Kent. Can the Home Secretary say how many asylum seekers are currently resident in Kent and what in his statement today will prevent the many asylum seekers who are now illegally on the electoral register from voting in the election?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot give the figures for Kent, but I can draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to figure 5 on page 17 of the document that we published today, which clearly shows that, according to the latest estimate, the number of asylum applications in 2004—the most recent year—was about the same as it was in 1996–97. I can also say that when Labour entered office in 1997, we found no serious preparation by the Government then leaving office to deal with the terrible crime of people trafficking, which was the core of the system. The Labour Government have put that at the top of the agenda and established approaches to deal with it. That is to the credit of our Government and to the discredit of the Government whom he supported.

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