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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP):
The hon. Gentleman is redressing the fact that this matter has not been debated thoroughly in this House.
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I think that he will recognise that there is a raging public debate in Scotland, particularly when the removal of asylum seekers' children is involved. He has talked about people who are involved in this public debate. Perhaps he recognises the words of the children's commissioner for Scotland, Dr. Marshall:
"I've become increasingly distressed by the inhumane methods of removal of children and families from Scotland. What can happen is immigration officers and police, big groups of them, 11 to 14, go to a family's house at seven o'clock in the morning . . . in bullet proof vests".
Mr. Joyce: I studied Dr. Marshall's remarks closely, and I think that she could have chosen her words better. I am not sure whether what she said is a fair reflection of the hard work of officials who deal with such very difficult removals. I am about to address one or two of the dilemmas that have to be faced but which are sometimes not being faced in the public debate in Scotland. That subject lies at the core of my speech.
I chose to discuss removals in this debate because in any discussion about asylum policy, that is the point at which reality bites. That is the hard edge, and the last optionbut most people would agree that if we are to have a system at all, removals sometimes have to be made. Although I have encountered few people who do not accept the need for an asylum and immigration policy, and therefore the need, as a last resort, for removals, some organisations oppose every removal as a matter of course.
I am not in a position to say whether any given removal is valid or not, and of course no system is infallible. Yet the adoption of a de facto organisational policy decision to oppose every removal as a matter of course, as sometimes happens, is incompatible with the acceptance of the requirement for an immigration policy. It is hard to have intelligent dialogue in such circumstances.
Some people in Scotland argue for a different immigration policy for Scotland. Leaving aside the implications for the UK as a constitutional entity, I still have to say that such arguments are rarely accompanied by an acceptance that that would require a means of controlling movement between what would then be two jurisdictionsin effect, a border mechanism. That argument is impracticable to the point of nonsense, yet it surfaces regularly in Scottish public debate.
Another contentious point in Scotlandas, of course, in the rest of the UK since 2002is that those awaiting a decision on asylum are unavailable for work. It is often argued that people should be able to work while awaiting a decision, bringing their skills to help the communities to which most have been dispersed. In Scotland, that means Glasgow. That is an interesting point of view, considering that the Government and the Scottish Executive fund programmes of work experience and tertiary education for those awaiting a final decision, and in some cases for people presently falling under section 4those who have had a final decision but are awaiting removal to a country that is not now deemed safe.
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Of course it is desirable that those who are successful in their application should be as well prepared for their new life as possible, but it seems to me dangerous to make a leap from there to factoring in skills to the asylum decision, as is often argued in Scotland. It must be frustrating in the extreme for people awaiting decisions who have valuable skills not to be able to use those skills, to all our benefit, in the meantimebut to argue that the Government should factor those skills in to the asylum decision would be anathema in human rights terms.The purpose of an asylum system is to ensure that someone fleeing for their life from a dangerous regime is protected and able to carry on their life safely in a new country. Any suggestion that applicants' skills should in any way be a factor in the decision would be wholly wrong. It is fundamental to the human rights principles that underpin the concept of asylum that all applicants should be assessed as equals, on the basis of the threat that they may face in their country of origin.
The meaning of the word "refugee", at least in terms of public policy in Scotland, is often misunderstood. For the purposes of asylum policy, a refugee is a successful asylum applicant. However, in my experience such people do not always want to be labelled in that way. Why should they? They want to get on with their new lives as full and equal members of their own local communities. That is not to say that support services should not exist for those who want themquite the opposite, in fact. However, the term refugee, I find, is usually used in public debate to mean something closer to the wider dictionary definition, and includes those moving from state to state for economic reasons. Of course, the UK Government, like all others, recognise the huge benefit that such economic movement bringsa recognition that is formalised in the form of an immigration policy. But obfuscation through misuse of the terms "asylum", "immigration" and "refugee" removes the clarity so important for intelligent public dialogue.
I conclude by asking the Minister to confirm that he has, over time, had effective dialogue with the Scottish Executive and other UK bodies representing more local populationsperhaps on a regional basis, or perhaps on a more specific basis. Is that helping to form his views and, ultimately, Government policy, on the whole process of dealing with those who seek asylum in this country?
The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Tony McNulty):
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) for his measured and well thought-through contribution, and also, in the traditional way, I congratulate him on securing the debate. From my perspective as Minister with responsibility for immigration, I agree with himI believe that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), too, concurred in thisthat we do not discuss such matters sufficiently, or with sufficient depth and maturity, in this Chamber. In part,
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that is because, until the very recent past, public policy has let the public down somewhat in terms of how these issues are debated. Such debates have always been accompanied by a degree of xenophobia and hysteria that prevent us from getting to the core of the complex issues that should be subject to serious public discourse. I therefore thank my hon. Friend for affording us the opportunity to have such a discussion today.
I also concur with many of the specific points that my hon. Friend made. In pursuing what I would term a robust and progressive asylum policy, our starting point is rightly the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, which, happily, is subscribed to by nearly all parties in this House. I am still not quite sure about the flip-flop official Opposition, but in time, they will probably restore the 1951 convention to their broad public policy offering, instead of adopting the position that they adopted during the last election.
If the 1951 convention is our starting point on human rights, which it should be, that implies two outcomes for all those who apply for asylum: security of refugee status, with all that that entails; and failure to meet the terms of the convention leading to an end-point of removal back to their country of origin. That must be the starting point of a robust asylum policy. My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that many in Scotland do not start from that perspective, as I have discovered when discussing these issues, directly and indirectly, with such people. Quite where they start from in terms of a developed asylum policy, I know not. In the context of the 1951 convention, it cannot be right, deliberately or otherwise, but in misguided fashion, to try to persuade those who are in the system and applying for asylumI certainly do not blame them for doing sothat they have an absolute right to stay here under whatever circumstances, regardless of the merits or otherwise of their case. That is the premise of the campaign to which my hon. Friend has alluded. It is irresponsible and does a disservice to the very applicants whom such people and groups purport to serve.
If the 1951 convention is our starting point, once someone secures refugee status, collectivelyUK Government, local government, the Scottish Executive and otherswe should do all that we can to ensure that they are fully integrated into our community on their own terms. We then need to ask whether, in a UK and a regional contextin this case, the regional context is the Scottish Executive and local authoritiesthere are things that we are doing that we could do far better. My hon. Friend was entirely right in pointing out that I have had some contactmy officials have had far morewith not just Scottish Executive officials, but with local authorities and other organisations and groups in Scotland.
I start from a twofold premise. First, this is not a devolved matter, so our robust and progressive asylum policy will be implemented UK-wide. Secondly, and as my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, given the devolution settlement, there are a range of public policy interactions between the UK, the Scottish Executive and local authorities. As a consequence, we should talk with and engage with each other far more readily than we do. Given Scotland's separate legislative and legal framework, I undertook when I was in Glasgow and in
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Edinburghand before thento explore in detail ways in which we might tweak and bend what is a broad UK policy to take account of that Scottish context.
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