Mark Fisher: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is a problem, but I do not see anything in the Government's policy that encourages such thingsfar from it. He cannot seriously say that Ministers are sympathetic to or encourage that sort of behaviour. Indeed, the Government have taken good steps in many respects to crack down on that problem, although he has a fair point when he says that we still do not have proper 24-hour controls at even the major ports of entry, and the Government ought to look much more rigorously at that issue.
The expression "illegal asylum seeker" is meaningless. No asylum seeker is illegal, but it is difficult to distinguish the misleading and erroneous asylum seeker, who should be properly described as an economic migranta perfectly respectable thing to be, but distinct from an asylum seekerfrom those who are genuinely in fear of their lives. It is not easy to distinguish between the two. The only way that we can do so is by using the tribunal and adjudication system and, again, the Bills that we have introduced over the past four yearsand, indeed, this Billturn the ratchet on that system, particularly on the appeals mechanism, and make it more likely that we will err on the side of scepticism. Thus people with good claims and good reason to be in fear of their lives and their liberty in their country of origin are being turned away. I do not think that that is what the Government intend, but that is the effect of
5 Jul 2005 : Column 211
those four Bills, and this Bill may inadvertently add to that because the context in which the adjudicators work is hostile to asylum seekers.
Let us consider the context in which we are debating the Bill and the financial support that we give to asylum seekers. We recognise that, until we have adjudicated on their cases, they are serious and genuinely in fear of their lives. Can we honestly say that providing £37 a week is the right way to treat a human being? Is that dignified? Is it right to ask them to live on that amount while we make up our minds?
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Let me share with the House a case from my constituency. One of my constituents is married to a British woman while still claiming asylum. She runs a takeaway business, which is, of course, their livelihood. They choose to claim nothing in benefits. Yet, under the current system, if he steps into that takeaway, which is owned by his wife, he can be deported. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is a fair and just way to treat refugees in this country; or does he think it is time the Government changed the legislation and addressed the biggest gap in the Bill, which is that asylum seekers are not allowed to have the dignity of working in this country?
Mark Fisher: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The attitude towards employment is wholly unsatisfactory and makes the system much more expensive. Many people seeking asylum have skills and would like to work temporarily. That would reduce the cost to the Government and, perversely, it would mean that the Government could track those people more easily. Nothing is more conducive to losing an asylum seeker in the system than forcing them into illegal work by proposing the ludicrous payment of £37 a week. No Member of the House could support themselves on £37 a week.
Additionally, we must consider the quality of housing supplied by the National Asylum Support Service. If the Home Secretary is serious about his responsibilities, he should get NASS to look again at the landlords used and the quality of housing provided. Yet again this winter we will see NASS houses that are damp, cold and frankly a disgrace. We turn our eyes from that because of the larger issue of the number of asylum seekers, but we should be ashamed of the way in which we treat people while we make up our minds. They have not been found guiltythey are not guilty of anything, anyway. They have come to ask for our protection and to seek asylum here, but the way in which we treat them is not good.
The Home Secretary needs to lean heavily on NASS and ensure that the system improves considerably. Work is one aspect of the problem, so we should seriously examine the practice of countries that allow asylum seekers to work temporarily while their claims are considered. The Government might well find that there are advantages all roundand few disadvantagesto allowing that. Young men from Kurdish Iraq in particular are skilled, hard-working and determined and they have great resources, but they are sitting idle and frustrated while trying to survive on £37 a week. This daft policy does nothing for them or for us and actually encourages them to work illegally or
5 Jul 2005 : Column 212
disappear from the system. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) is quite right to say that the Government should look at the situation again.
The other aspect of the Bill about which I am concerned is the question of the adjudication and the tribunal system because the Bill marginally turns the ratchet on that once again. The present system is hugely unsatisfactory. Those who act as adjudicators are, to my knowledge, decent and hard-working people doing a difficult job. However, they are being asked to make judgments about the credibility of the evidence put before them on matters about which they have absolutely no experience. They are asked to decide, on the basis of language, whether a person genuinely comes from a specific part of Somalia. I suspect that all hon. Members have read adjudicators' reports on applicants. The adjudicators simply make arbitrary decisions in many cases by saying, "I don't believe this person comes from this particular Somali tribe." Although the adjudicators have no basis on which to make such an assumption, the decision is a matter of life and death for the applicants.
The appeal system is now such a high hurdle to get over that it is inevitable that we are turning away people with genuine cause to fear for their lives. We need to look again at the advice available to adjudicators and the quality and specificity of Foreign Office reports because they are often general about the theatres from which refugees come. The judgments are made difficult because there are distinctions between different cities in different regionsand indeed, different parts of citiesand because of the divisions and tensions inside those cities. The way the system works at present is not fair to adjudicators and certainly not fair to refugees. Of course, adjudicators work under pressure from the media and, regrettably, the Government, but all the pressure is towards cutting the figures. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden played a part in setting the general mood of being appalled by the size of the figures. That has put such a pressure on the adjudicators and the system that there is a desire and tendency to keep the figures down.
David Davis: I have a single point to make in response to the hon. Gentleman's suggestionI shall not call it an accusation. Last year, his Government tried to remove appeal rights altogetherthe so-called ouster clause. My party, in conjunction with the Liberal party, blocked that in the Lords and said that we had to have an appeal process, not just because of the importance of the process in its own right, but because it maintained pressure on the rest of the system to get it right. The fact that there can be an appeal ensures that the adjudicators are, as it were, kept honest. That was not playing to any gallery or to the 250,000 failed asylum seekers who are still here. It was playing to the point of simple justice and simple proper treatment in a proper process.
Although I am getting comments from my hon. Friends, I accept that point. These are not easy matters and we do not help the quality of debate by flipping accusations across the Chamber. We are more likely to come to decisions that will benefit our country and, in particular, those seeking asylum if we do not throw about accusations relating to good faith or
5 Jul 2005 : Column 213
otherwise, either inside our parties or across the Floor of the House. A debate such as this does not respond well to party political point scoring.
The other mess relating to the tribunal and appeal system becomes apparent when people are finally refuseda point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) alluded. When people are refused after appealas I said, the system is sometimes deeply flawedthey get a letter withdrawing their access to NASS and telling them that they will be evicted from their house the following week. They have no visible means of support. Clearly, the purpose behind that is to put pressure on them to deport themselves voluntarily. That is a disingenuous policy. The Government know full well that they are not going to deport themor at least they are certainly not in a hurry to do sobecause the countries from which they have come are not safe and they cannot send them back, yet they cut off their means of survival. That is an act of great cynicism. Those people are left dangling. It suits the Government because they can say, "We've rejected them. They ought to go," but they know full well that they have nowhere to go to.
My hon. Friend rightly referred to the problem of turning to vouchers and the unsatisfactory nature of that, but there is also, of course, the totally unsatisfactory nature of a situation in which those people no longer have any housing. All hon. Members who have asylum centres in their constituencies know that those people are too frightened to return to their own countries and, as they are not being deported by the Government, live in a terrible form of limbo. They have to rely on the charity and good will of their fellow asylum seekers, which means that they sleep three, four or five on the floor of a pretty rotten piece of NASS accommodation that is designed for one, and carve up that £37 a week into ever smaller bundles. That cannot be acceptable.