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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Home Secretary not concerned that the debate is being increasingly conducted in a shrill atmosphere of dealing from the lowest card in the deck? We are going to the lowest common denominator in the debate. Will he reflect on the plight that many asylum seekers face in this country? They come from war-torn communities, having suffered personal and systematic abuse, often live in great poverty in this country because they are unrepresented through the asylum system, and are then threatened with removal to countries such as the Congo, which are extremely unstable. Will he not instead raise the debate to the level of serious concern about human rights for people all around the world, as we want for ourselves, rather than indulging in a debate with the Opposition about who can be toughest on immigration and toughest on asylum?

Mr. Clarke: I am very disappointed that my hon. Friend takes the view that that is what I have been doing. I do not consider that I have been shrill or that I have adopted a lowest common denominator approach. I have tried, in a way that has not always been part of the debate, first, to assert the absolute
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importance of migration to this country for work and study, for visitors and for our economic necessity, and not to confuse that with other aspects; and secondly, to assert our absolute determination to honour our membership of the Geneva convention on refuges, precisely to protect people in the position that my hon. Friend described. I consider that a positive way to look at the debate, and the document is a positive way to set it out. I do not know whether my hon. Friend agrees, but I think it is reasonable to debate these matters, rather than not. We should discuss them, and the document is a serious effort to provide a basis for doing that.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): With what remains of the Yarl's Wood detention centre being in my constituency, and the insurance claim against Bedfordshire police still unresolved nearly three years after the fire, the Home Secretary will appreciate the importance of his remarks to the people of North-East Bedfordshire. Will he accept the invitation offered by the leader of Bedfordshire county council, Angela Roberts, last week for him to come to Bedfordshire to explain why the Prison Service ombudsman held the failures of Home Office policy to be responsible for the Yarl's Wood fire incident, and at the same time explain to my constituents why they should have any more faith in the current five-year plan than those many thousands who suffered from the fiasco of the past five years should have in that?

Mr. Clarke: I am certainly ready to consider with the hon. Gentleman the best way to discuss with his colleagues on Bedfordshire county council how we can address these matters in a positive way for his constituents. The approach set out in the document will provide a firmer basis for doing that.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend recognises the concerns in the community about the pressure that people perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be placed on public services by the asylum system. How is he working with colleagues across Government to make sure that a similar approach applies across all Government services, so that fairness in public services is both the public perception and the reality?

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for that question. My hon. Friend is right. It is important that the approach should go right across Government. For example, we intend to work with our colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that the law is enforced strongly and coherently in relation to employing people who are in the country illegally. We intend to work with our colleagues in the Treasury and elsewhere on establishing a border regime that works extremely carefully. We intend to work with the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that we have a proper regime for the recruitment of people coming into the country. In relation to housing, it is particularly important that we have that dialogue with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. So we are working right across the range and will continue to do so.
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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): It would be churlish of us not to commend the Home Secretary for having the honesty to admit that the time has now come for him to clear up the mess made by his own Government. Could he perhaps tell the House why all the things that he now tells us need to be done were not done during the past eight years?

Mr. Clarke: Actually, what I tried to say—perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying attention—was that in each of the areas that we are talking about, and in particular in reducing the number of asylum applications that deal with embarkation at Calais, Sangatte or through the channel tunnel, we have made significant progress. The question is how we make further progress. It is obvious, I would have thought, that more progress needs to be made, and it is that to which I am committed.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I am pleased to welcome the Home Secretary's announcement and the measures to continue cutting out abuse in our asylum and immigration systems and improving security at our ports. Does my right hon. Friend recall his visit to my constituency last month? He met immigration officers and heard about the dramatic fall in applicants that has already taken place because of past measures on border controls, juxtaposition and other matters. Will he join me in paying tribute to those hard-working immigration and customs officers who put policy in place and are actually making a difference today?

Mr. Clarke: I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's raising those points. I recall my visit, and I am grateful to him for inviting me to Dover. I was extremely impressed by the commitment, energy and drive of the employees of the immigration and nationality directorate and Customs and Excise, and others working on such issues. Also—and this is a really important point in light of the preceding question—they all told me, when I met them at the beginning of January, that there had been major improvements in the previous six to nine months, during which things had moved forward. They felt—and it was they, not me or even my hon. Friend who said this—that there had been major progress. The question is how we build on that progress; we should consider that, rather than pretending that no progress of any kind has been made.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): During this Parliament, lawful net immigration to this country has averaged more than 150,000 a year. Does the Home Secretary think that that level of lawful immigration is too high, too low or about right?

Mr. Clarke: I do not really have a view on that—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] That is for a very good reason; I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why. I am not one of those who, like the right hon. Gentleman, takes the Stalinist view that the best way to proceed is for the Government to decide exactly how many people will work in each sector of the economy, how many students will come to the country and how many visitors we will have. That is a very silly way to proceed. What has to happen—perhaps, I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman, in a more free market way—is that
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companies and organisations in each sector of the economy, universities that recruit students from south-east Asia, or whatever it might be, should come to their views about what is the right thing to do. Our system would then facilitate that. I think that that is a good way to proceed.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): The Home Secretary rightly paid tribute to the role of migrants in recent decades—and, indeed, over the centuries. Does he accept that people from migrant and non-migrant families would agree with him that those who abuse our visa regimes and our refugee processes should be quickly removed from these shores? Does he also accept that one of the issues that he has to deal with in the Home Office is the slow rate of processing of those claims? That is imperative. Many people retain their long-term relationships with family and friends outside our shores. Does he join me in accepting that the need for family visits, and a proper, effective and fair system whereby people can visit these islands of ours, is imperative if we are to be seen to be taking the racism out of this debate? I know that that is what my right hon. Friend wants to do.

Mr. Clarke: I am very glad that my hon. Friend raised that point. The fact is that the time for processing an asylum application is now two months for an initial decision in 80 per cent. of cases, against an average of 22 months—11 times as long—in 1997, when the previous Government left office. That is a significant process of achievement, as I know that my hon. Friend will agree; but, yes, we have to do far more in that regard.

I particularly appreciated my hon. Friend's first point—that people who live in this country, whatever their origin and history, all agree that we need to address the issue of people who try to bypass the system, and to get it right. That is what we are trying to do. Anyone who suggests that the set of measures is for one community or against another is simply wrong. I assert that strongly and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to make that clear.

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