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Pete Wishart: I am pleased that the Minister recognises that the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament have a role in immigration, but does he accept that the different UK nations have different immigration requirements? The population in Scotland is falling, whereas the population in London and the south-east is growing. Is there anything that the UK Government can do to put that right? What about children who have become ingrained in communities thanks to the length of the asylum process, but who then are thrust out of the only social context that they have ever known?
Mr. McNulty: I accept much of that, but my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk was right to say that the asylum and immigration systems are separate. They have common features, but the 1951 convention does not mean that the asylum system is somehow a disguised form of economic migration. A separate system deals with immigration.
Although the latest figures show that there has been an upward blip in the population of Scotland, the trend is broadly down. We are working with the Scottish Executive to ameliorate the problem, and all Scottish Members will be aware of the fresh talent initiative and other projects that are designed with that in mind. We are working with the Executive to see how we can address the problem in the context of the devolution settlement.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that only one or two of Scotland's 32 local authorities have the necessary wherewithal and support networks to look after asylum seekers and those seeking to immigrate? In the rural and semi-rural areas, local MPs and politicians have to deal with a problem that is so big that errors inevitably occur. Much of the support network is good, but there is not much help available in Scotland apart from that offered by local authorities and MPs.
In addition, there are problems of communication. A constituent of mine in Penicuik in Midlothian has applied to stay in the UK, but a letter sent to the immigration authorities in 2001 did not get a reply until 2005. That does not help matters.
In implementing a UK asylum system, it is right and proper that we should engage with local agencies and people at a local level, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk suggests. That is exactly what we do.
I went up to Scotland for a couple of days before Christmas, and I made a promise to return once we have looked at some of the very matters raised in this debate. As I have indicated already, they include factors such as the different legal framework in Scotland, which means
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that some legislationand especially that which relates to childrenis different. We must make sure that we overcome such legislative problems.
Initiatives and discussions undertaken by the First Minister and his colleagues in the Scottish Executive have prompted us to look at everything that we do in terms of removals. As I said earlier, removals are a quintessential part of a progressive asylum policy, but media coverage that misinforms the public about what is going on is not helpful. I certainly acquit the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) in that regard, but I am fed up with hearing about "dawn raids" when 20 police and immigration officers kick down a door at 3 o'clock in the morning and drag children out of their beds. If any hon. Member, or anyone else who hears or reads this debate, can prove to me definitively that any such event took place, I should be very grateful.
No removal happens before half-past 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning. Why so early? Well, because it is a guarantee that the family unit to be removed will be together. Nothing happens at 3 o'clock in the morning and children are not dragged from their beds.
At worst, we have heard stories about riot gear, teargas and other fantasies that do not do the debate much good, do not do the people making that argument much credit and, crucially, do not do much for the applicants and their cases. Things are getting better, but I shall keep my promise to return to Scotland and inform the Scottish Executive and MPs how the interface between local agencies, from local authorities up to the Scottish Executive, is working, especially with regard to children in the specific context of Scotland. Through the Scottish initiative, we need to see how we can improve matters in the broader UK context and that is why this debate is welcome.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk is right that there are many unsung heroes among local authorities and local organisations, such as the ones that he mentioned, that are doing an enormous amount of work with new refugee communities and those who are still at the tail-end of the process and awaiting decisions or final removal.
I have also had the good fortune to talk with the Scottish Refugee Council. I have yet to arrangewe have tried once, but it has not happeneda separate meeting with the Scottish children's commissioner, although I have met her. I am trying to arrange a meeting with all the children's commissioners to get their perspective on all these matters.
I have no problem, other than those I have mentioned of sloppy linguistics and fatuous intellectual arguments, about where we are at with this debate and how it fits in with the wider public policy context that has been part of the media coverage in Scotland. I have no problem with people protesting and hurling abuse at mein fact, they woke me upas I go to BBC Scotland at about half-past 6 in the morning. However, I do object to people haranguing and harassing, in the guise of public protest, immigration and nationality directorate and immigration service staff at Festival court, day in and day out. Whatever people's objections to the public policy dimensionand it may be their view that if someone comes to this country, on whatever terms and in whatever context, they should be allowed to remainI do not
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think that our rich history of public protest justifies the constant abuse and harassment, or at least the perception of it, of public servants who are just doing their job. I have said that in terms to the staff at Festival court.
I do not think that it is very bright or grown-up of people to lock themselves in or sit in at Festival court, or to superglue the gates or generally disrupt genuine and legitimate business carried out by public servants and the public. I deprecate those who are involved in such activities. I deprecate those who say, perversely, that Strathclyde police should arrest UK immigration officers as they go about their business. We have heard such flights of fancy from particular individuals, but they do not help the debate. As my hon. Friend says, we want to encourage that debate. I want a debate about how we can all do what we want to in order to manage migration and asylum policy. I am not running away from such a debate. That might be unusual for an immigration Minister, but the time is right for such a debate, not least for the population reasons that have been given. I think that both the Executive and others in Scotland are ready for that debate, too. All the rather immature comment about removals is hampering serious debate. None the less, as my hon. Friend suggests, we are looking at the processes in the broader sense, particularly where families with children are involved, in terms of the new asylum model and other general changes in our practice.
I have said repeatedly in the Scottish media and elsewhere that it cannot be right that people, especially those with children, are in the system for three, four or five years for whatever reason, given the roots that they put down, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire suggests. That is especially the case where children have come in at the age of two or three and are five, six, seven or eight by the time that their cases are determined. That cannot be right and we need to change the process and ensure that people get their decisions faster. That is not a reason to stop removals; neither does it challenge their legitimacy as part of a robust asylum policy. Yes, removals must be done very sensitively. Yes, we must work with the other agencies to secure them, as my hon. Friend suggests.
Again, I have said in the Scottish media that I would like to be the immigration Minister who finally sees an end to enforced removals. I am not apportioning blame or lapsing into using a Daily Mail lexicon in any way, shape or form, but at least part of the delays in the system until now involve the choices made by the individuals in the process. I can understand that if their endgame is that they would rather stay here than leave. Of course, there are sensitivities. Of course, enforced removals are always fraught with difficulties and stress, not least when children are involved. We are looking very seriously at that issue. If we need to change things because of the Scottish dimension, that would be more than appropriate. Part of my task is to ensure that, during my tenure and given what we are doing with managed migration and the new asylum model, we are not simply building up the next wave of cases of people with young children who remain in the system for three, four or five years.
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