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Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure you that there will be no academic arguments from me—I leave those to my hon. Friends.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, this country has a proud tradition of taking people in from abroad. We benefit from foreign doctors, nurses, teachers and, of course, bankers, so there are many positive aspects to immigration. However, many of the advantages that immigration brings to this country are being obscured by a system that is still widely perceived to be failing. It is incumbent on all elected politicians in the Chamber to find a way forward that restores public confidence in our immigration and asylum system.

I am worried that if we fail to fix the system, many more constituencies throughout the country will be faced with the problems that we currently experience in Broxbourne with the British National party. As many hon. Members are aware, the BNP uses the problems surrounding this country's immigration system as an active campaigning tool to recruit people to its standard. Whether appealing to Conservative or Labour voters, the BNP message is the same: "The established parties don't care who comes to this country. They want to create a free-for-all at your expense." Thankfully, most people still have nothing to do with that nonsense. Their concerns about immigration are far outweighed by their dislike for the BNP and its hateful policies, but we cannot rely indefinitely on the good sense of the British public to keep the BNP at bay. We must also do our bit as their elected representatives.

The BNP already has a councillor in Broxbourne and at the last general election it managed to double its vote to 2,000. It came within a whisker of saving its deposit. Our one major success was that we stopped it doubling its representation on Broxbourne council by taking the second seat in Rosedale ward. However, the BNP remains a threat. In my constituency, it is well organised, works hard on the ground and has the capacity to draw in activists from across the region. Its campaigning techniques are aggressive and at times intimidating. As one constituent said to me, "It's hard to slam the door in their face when they've got their bodies in the way."

The BNP message is deeply depressing and makes no concession to the truth. Every black or Asian face in the community belongs to an illegal immigrant, with no
 
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distinction made. We worked hard to beat the BNP in Rosedale. We had an excellent local candidate, Dave Lewis—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should confine his remarks to the content of the Bill, interesting and important though his comments are.

Mr. Walker: My experiences of Broxbourne confirmed to me that the BNP must not and cannot be dismissed lightly. It has tapped into a seam of disquiet and will continue to mine it as long as we allow it to do so. Hon. Members can only imagine the collective cheer that went up from Nick Griffin and his mates when the Prime Minister was forced to admit that he had no real idea how many illegal immigrants currently reside in the UK. Statements like that are the stuff of BNP fantasies. They are the oxygen of its recruitment drives and provide a rich source of text for its leaflets. They allow Nick Griffin to say, "I was right. Your Government, your elected politicians are no longer in control. The things that matter to you don't matter to them."

If the House is genuinely committed to stemming the rise of the BNP, we must ensure that an immigration system is put in place that carries the confidence of the British people. It must be seen to be fair and transparent. The system must make room for genuine asylum seekers while rewarding those immigrants who follow our laws.

The next time there is a general election, I want to be able to look my constituents in the eye and reassure them that their Government, whoever it may be—but it will probably be this one—have taken control of this country's ports of entry, making it almost impossible for people to enter the UK illegally.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): You heard it here first.

Mr. Walker: I assume that this Government are not going to give up and go home before the next general election is called.

I want to be able to tell my constituents that the Government will only allow people into this country who are in genuine fear of their life or who have applied through the correct legal channels, and that the emphasis is on quality not quantity, so that the people coming to this country bring with them scarce skills that can be put to immediate use. I also want to be able to tell them that those people who have entered this country illegally are being identified and removed swiftly. If I can tell my constituents those things, the BNP in Broxbourne will have reached its high watermark on 5 May 2005. If we beat the BNP and erode its support base, we will have done something meaningful to improve the lives of those people who are seeking to start afresh on our shores. We will draw the poison of racism from our communities, ensuring that the British traits of tolerance and compassion continue to carry the day.

8.33 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I want to return to the content of the Bill, in particular the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on
 
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the removal of the right to appeal against the decisions of an entry clearance officer, as contained in clause 4. I also want to focus on international students, the subject of many interventions earlier in the debate.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said that 120 vice-chancellors wrote a letter that appeared in the Financial Times today, expressing their dismay at the content of clause 4 and many other aspects of policy, including the Government's recent decisions to tighten the entry clearance obligations faced by international students. I raised with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills the subject of visa fees as part of the system, including the unwelcome signal that the rise in fees sends to international students. The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality mouths, "Rubbish." I accept that the amount of the fee may not be an economic barrier in relation to the tuition fee that the student pays. None the less, it is indicative of the Government's approach that they are making it harder for international students to apply to study in this country. Although the fees themselves may not be an economic barrier, the removal of the right to appeal against an entry clearance officer's decision is a barrier to students coming to this country, and there is a danger that we will lose them to other countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, which are all competing for that key international business.

The hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Leicester, East referred to the huge powers that entry clearance officers have under our current immigration system. Their decisions can certainly be made on subjective grounds. The removal of the right of appeal against such decisions effectively makes an entry clearance officer infallible, and his decisions or the grounds on which it has been made cannot be challenged. I have only been the MP for Bristol, West for two months, so I cannot match the experience of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who has debated five immigration Bills and has undertaken years of constituency work. In those two short months, however, I have certainly learned something from the vast majority of people who come to my constituency surgery. More than three quarters of them come to see me about immigration cases, and I have learned that entry clearance officers often make ludicrous decisions. They are certainly not infallible.

My hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) referred to the evidence presented by the university of Sheffield, which found that 90 per cent. of initial refusals of permission to study in this country by entry clearance officers are overturned on appeal or, more likely, once the facts are clarified before an appeal is even heard. If there is no right of appeal, a process to examine the facts will not be initiated, so many cases will be closed at the outset and the individuals concerned will study elsewhere. This morning, the Minister conceded that 1,200 appeals—I think that I heard him correctly—by students under the existing legislation were upheld last year. If clause 4 eventually stands part of the Bill no appeals will be upheld, and gross injustices will be suffered by numerous individuals who might otherwise come to this country. Studying here would benefit them directly but it would also benefit us.
 
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There are 3,200 international students at the university of Bristol and the university of the west of England. They make a huge contribution not only to those universities but to Bristol's cultural life and economy. If the clause remains in the Bill, there is a serious risk that British universities' research base would be damaged irreparably, particularly in science and engineering, which are important for the aerospace industries in Bristol. I hope that in Committee the Government will reconsider clause 4 in the light of our proposals.

8.38 pm


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