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Of course we hope that there will be an integrated and co-ordinated border force, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that, on two subjects, he is very wrong. He implies that we have done nothing up until now, but that is not the case. Under the previous three Labour Home Secretaries, we have doubled the number of removals of those not entitled to be here. We have reduced by 72 per cent. the number of asylum applicants, because we are no longer a magnet. We have reduced the time that it takes to deal with an asylum case from 22 months to eight weeks. We have now got a tipping point where we are deporting more false asylum claimants than arrive here. We have got border controls in northern France and Belgium. We have lorries being scanned. We have closed Sangatte. The channel tunnel is fenced off. Biometric finger scanning for visa applicants and airline liaison has been brought in. There are many other measures. The hon. Gentleman ought to commend us for being far more self-critical and constructive in renewing and building on the improvements that we have already made than either of the Opposition parties appear capable of being.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The House will know that there is a great deal of business to be completed today, in which a large number of hon. Members are hoping to take part. For the remainder of the statement, may I appeal for brief questions and perhaps brief answers from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary accept that this country is facing a level of legal immigration unknown in its entire history? Does he accept that, as we get the figures together for 2004, we can see that the level of legal immigration is approaching 1 million—half of that coming from the accession countries? Does he also accept that part of the problem was that only three of the established members of the European Union agreed that they should give free access to their labour markets? Can he—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is getting us off to a bad start. I have counted three questions. I think that that is sufficient.

John Reid: My right hon. Friend is right to say that we face a challenge of hitherto unimaginable proportions due to the level of international migration. I think that the implication of his questions is that we should accept that, if migration is to be managed to the benefit of this country, we ought to have the information with which to manage it, the powers and practical measures with which to control it, and independent advice on which to base those judgments. I agree with all three of those things and I think that he will find that they are in my statement.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Home Secretary’s statement has considerable resource implications for the immigration and nationality directorate. Has the Chancellor recently made additional resources available to him for those additional activities, or will the Home Secretary have to fund them from his existing departmental baseline?

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John Reid: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as ever, the Chancellor has been my flexible friend as I have approached the matter. A combination of the reprioritisation of my budget, the extension of charging to foreign nationals—not people in this country—and an efficiency drive in a number of areas has resulted in a package with which the Chancellor and I are equally satisfied.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that for a long time I have been one of the sternest critics of the extremists whom he wishes to remove from the country, but as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I draw his attention to the concerns that my Committee expressed about the intervention in the Ramzi case to overturn the Chahal judgment. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that our absolute obligations under the UN convention against torture, and under customary international law, will create problems for the removal of the people concerned? I put it this way: would he be prepared to send somebody back to face torture?

John Reid: I do not think that anyone is asking hon. Members to accept that premise. It is wildly wrong to suggest—if indeed my hon. Friend is suggesting it—that opposition to the Chahal judgment means support either for complicity or for sending people to be tortured; that is an outrageous suggestion. I have already explained to the House the problem with the Chahal judgment, which is that it appears on the face of it to deny us the ability to arrive at a balance between the protection and safety of one individual and the protection and safety of 60 million individuals—that is, everyone in this country. It is that imbalance that we, along with others in Europe, are attempting to challenge. We have said that we will consider the extent to which, commensurate with judgments made on any cases, we can have legislative recourse so that that balance can at least be approximated, even if it is not fully achieved. Surely that lack of balance between the rights and protections of one individual, and the rights and protections of groups of individuals, is at the heart of what we ought to do. Everybody has human rights, the most basic of which is the right to life—and if that applies to one individual, it applies to the rest of the people in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Those of us who represent Kent coastal constituencies regard ourselves as being on the front line of our porous borders. The Home Secretary needs to convince not just the people of Kent, but people working in the service that he will create something rather more substantial than a team of dockyard traffic wardens. The British Transport police have the ability to co-ordinate the effort—someone has to co-ordinate it—but will they be allowed to do it? Has he agreed that with the Secretary of State for Transport, and if the BTP will not co-ordinate the effort, who will?

John Reid: I regret the terminology that the hon. Gentleman chose to use in referring to those who are trying to carry out a difficult task. I hope that, on reflection, he will realise that what he said was a bit unfair on the people trying to do that job. In answer to his second question, when I make a statement in the House on behalf of the Government, it is on behalf of the whole Government.

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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The Secretary of State is still ambiguous about what the uniformed force will do. Unless and until there is a dedicated ports police for our sea ports, we will have porous borders, and no measures taken by him or his successors will be taken seriously, whether in the war against terrorism, the illegal trafficking of people, or combating the mafia-style crimes committed by people who go through our sea ports. What logic is there in having police in our airports, but not our sea ports? Get real on this!

John Reid: I know that my hon. Friend has been a forceful advocate on the subject for some time. The truth of the matter is that our operations are intelligence-led. I do not think that anyone in the House is suggesting that we fund a full force that is static and resident at 625 ports.

Andrew Mackinlay: A mobile force.

John Reid: An intelligence-led, mobile force that is better resourced and co-ordinated is precisely what we are trying to achieve. Even if my statement does not fully delight my hon. Friend—I am afraid that, in nine years of trying, I have almost never delighted him on anything—I hope that it is a move in that direction.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has dealt with the criminal liability that will be attached to employers who employ illegal immigrants. He is wholly right to say that the criminal sanctions should apply only to employers who act knowingly—that is, it should not be an absolute offence. May I suggest that the same rules be applied to the public sector as to the private sector, so that Ministers and permanent secretaries will be exposed to the same liabilities as members of a private-sector board?

John Reid: That is a perfectly reasonable point, and I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for accepting that we are trying to distinguish between those who commit an offence in error, and others. I would go slightly further and say that, if we ask others to do something, it is incumbent on the Government to make sure that our enforcement agencies are effective. If we have an ineffective enforcement agency, we can hardly ask those in the private sector to act in a fashion that we do not.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I welcome the doubling of the enforcement budget and the target of dealing with 90 per cent. of asylum cases within six months. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proposal will cover not only the initial decision and the appeal, but, if relevant, removal? Nothing is more unsettling, both for the public and asylum seekers, than not knowing when, or indeed whether, they will be removed.

John Reid: Absolutely, and that contributes to a double inefficiency, because the longer a family is in the country, the more legitimacy it has in claiming the protection of article 8 of the European convention on human rights and other legislation that protects family life. If a family has been here for two, three, five or six months, that is one thing, but if it has been here for five years as a result of our lack of administrative ability to deal with the case, it makes it harder to remove them. I hope that we will deal with that.

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The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) mentioned the figure of 450,000, but that is the number of electronic and paper records, not, as he suggested, the number of people. Nevertheless, we will try to prioritise the way in which we deal with them. I am happy to tell the House that I am prepared to bring in outside help to deal with that backlog, and I hope that we can do that within five years. We will start by eliminating duplication and errors, and then start on cases that may present a risk to the public. Of course, in many of the cases people may have been granted leave to remain, but we have not been able to contact the relevant people to tell them that. Some will have already left, and many may be members of the eight applicant members of the European Union, and so are now here legitimately. The idea that we have to go through an extraordinarily high number of people—some 100,000 a year—who have been refused leave to remain is another myth that has been encouraged by Conservative Members and published by some of the more right-wing papers.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I regret that the right hon. Gentleman has to learn in a very hard school that Northern Ireland is not such a bad place. He has come home to home troubles, and home troubles are harder to serve and sell. I want to ask him a plain question: is he satisfied that he has the accurate number for cases of asylum seekers? If he has the right number, how long will it take him to settle those cases, rather than address new applications? Lastly, how will he implement the suggestion in his statement that he will try to stop people leaving their country to get to this United Kingdom?

John Reid: On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, I believe that we have an accurate number of case files at between 400,000 and 450,000. Many of those will be duplicates and therefore those figures do not represent people. The only estimate we have of the number of people came from the National Audit Office last year—the only estimate that is in the public domain from any independent organisation. That is 283,000, plus dependants, plus those who were in the UK before 1994. I do not make estimates because, like the last Conservative Home Secretary, I am not prepared to put before the House estimates on whose accuracy I cannot rely. However, the figure that I mentioned from the NAO is in the public domain. I have put in the public domain the number of case files that we have, but some of them may be duplicates and many may be errors. We will deal with that over the next few years. With regard to people leaving the country, we do not intend to try to stop anyone leaving, but we intend to reintroduce the means of counting them as they leave the country. Finally, I look back with great affection to the days when the right hon. Gentleman and I could stroll in the sunshine through Ballymena. I can tell him that the delights there are surpassed only by the delights of the Home Office.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I very much welcome the plans to reform the immigration and nationality directorate, particularly the commitment to crack down on the most harmful people for removal first. However, what does my right hon. Friend intend to do about the present target structure, which many of us
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believe was the root cause of the law-abiding soft targets being removed from the country and convicts being allowed to disappear into society?

John Reid: One of the things that we hope will be achieved by giving the IND a degree of autonomy—first in shadow form from next April, and hopefully, if things go well, in agency status from the following April—will be a degree of permission to the management to sustain the objectives without the constant interference of people like me in setting the objectives. There will still be objectives and targets, but in the face of hugely changed circumstances over the past 10 years we have done immensely well to achieve the benefits that I mentioned earlier and the reduction in the time that it takes to process claims, the reduction in asylum numbers, the closure of some of the worst areas of illegal immigration and so on. It is time to step back a little and say, “Okay, we have managed to hold the fort and to make major advances, but we need to move from improvement to transformation.” Part of that transformation entails giving the management more control in managing the position and sustaining our long-term objectives.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Home Secretary said that he wanted to link criminality more clearly to deportation. Can he tell us, therefore, what level of offence would trigger a deportation order?

John Reid: We have said that where people have been given a custodial sentence over a given time, which we have not specified—at present it is one year for non-European economic area nationals and two years for EEA nationals—there should be a presumption of deportation. There will be cases where, in any civilised society, we will decide that we ought not to implement that because of certain circumstances, but when someone comes to this country, takes this country’s benefits and misuses the country’s hospitality to the extent that they get a prison sentence, the presumption should be that they go back to the country from which they came.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): In respect of the new shadow agency that the Home Secretary is creating, will he undertake to consult Parliament if it is to have a regional structure? Will he also undertake to ensure that should the regulator produce a report that is critical of the agency or of immigration policy, the Government will accept it?

John Reid: I can certainly give my right hon. Friend a guarantee on the first point. I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality to consult MPs and others about regional cities. I am not sure that I entirely understood the second point that my right hon. Friend was making. I may have misheard it. I envisage the migration advisory committee as an advisory body particularly on the skills that are necessary for the economy—there is a skills advisory body at present. We will consult on regulation, and perhaps during that consultation he can make the points that he just made.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I hope that the Home Secretary will agree that many illegal asylum seekers are in the country because of initial poor decision making. What assurances can he give us that in future the staff will be given the tools for more robust decision making?

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John Reid: We will try to make sure that that is the case. Earlier, I mentioned resources and enforcement. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that in my statement I said that, where necessary, we would also amend the regulations, the laws and the guidance to those working on cases to enable them to do their job more effectively and more speedily. Although the ills of the world and the problems that we face on immigration are often blamed on the Human Rights Act 1998, if we studied paragraph 364 of the immigration rules 1994, we would find that the burden of scrutiny placed on caseworkers is about three times as wide as it would need to be under the Human Rights Act. Those rules were passed under the last Conservative Government in 1994.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware that many people came legally to the UK on visitors visas, but failed to return home when those visas expired and became illegal overstayers, and that that happened under the previous Conservative Government as well as under the present Government, as many overstayers have been in the UK for more than 10 years. As there is no record of overstayers leaving the UK, how will the plan deal with such cases?

John Reid: We hope that that will be done both by increased enforcement capacity, capability, technology and resources, and also to some extent by the gradual introduction of embarkation controls, which will be linked to biometrics—fingerprinting or on the iris. We trust that a combination of all those will achieve the objective that my hon. Friend identifies. In addition, we will consider legislation.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does the Home Secretary accept that from the perspective of those of us who have huge daily contact with the IND, the three things that would make the biggest difference are speedy and effective co-ordination between the Home Office and the appeals services, management of the Home Office so that it did not so often lose files, passports and papers, and control of those people who purport to give advice, sometimes lawyers and sometimes others, who give bad advice, charge large sums of money and do a disservice to the individuals whom they purport to serve as well as to the country in which they are working?

John Reid: Yes, I think so, although our shortcomings sometimes assist such people to make money, sometimes under false pretences. The hon. Gentleman speaks with authority on these matters, as he is probably—depending on one’s point of view—the biggest correspondent or the biggest burden on the immigration and nationality directorate, but he is right to talk about the basics, the losing of files and so on. There is no doubt about that. In the document we made a very simple point, at which people may sneer: that we want to create excellence in the basics—that is, in the maintenance of files, systems, information and so on—because that is what gives rise to huge frustration, additional work, with MPs and others writing after months and years of delays, and then grounds for remaining in the country, even when the initial entry was illegitimate, because people have
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been here so long that to ask them to move would be to interrupt unduly the family life that had been established. The hon. Gentleman is right on all these points.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary confirm that when the shadow agency is created it will make absolutely no difference in terms of the rights and responsibilities of Members of Parliament, particularly those of us who have to represent the cases of many asylum seekers and immigrants in Parliament?

John Reid: That is certainly the case with regard to the shadow form of the agency, but I hope that we can have genuine and mature discussions with Members of Parliament about the degree of accountability and hon. Members’ level of intervention in every decision. I fully accept that we should retain that overall strategic direction, that there should be overall accountability to Parliament and that Members of Parliament must always be given the right in the last instance, in extremis or in cases of miscarriages of justice, to intervene, and I think that that is what my hon. Friend is referring to. However, I know that she will accept that sometimes the sheer level of intervention, where people may not always be as discriminating as she is about which cases to raise, and the sheer amount of work that is needed to reopen a case every time a Member of Parliament writes, is something that we should consider in fairness to the staff who have to deal with these matters.

Andrew Mackinlay: I disagree with that. That is rubbish.

John Reid: I do not think that anyone would disagree with looking at that, but that is certainly part of the burden of consultation that we hope would be carried out.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The 283,000 estimate to which the Home Secretary referred relates to asylum seekers whose claims have ultimately failed. Does the time scale of five years apply to those individuals, and what does “resolve” mean in their case? Does it mean that they will be removed from the country, or what else does it mean?

John Reid: It obviously means that in the last instance, having got rid of duplicates and errors, and those who have died or left, as far as can be ascertained, and having moved out of consideration those who are now here legitimately because they are from EU countries, although they may not have been in the first instance, we will come down to those who have been granted leave to remain and those for whom the final decision has been deportation. We will do everything possible to identify and to remove those people. It means exactly what it says. Does it mean that none of those people will face deportation to a country where it is illegal to deport them, or that they will not face the usual obstacles that we would face with anyone else? No, it does not mean that. We are living in the real world. But it does mean that each and every one of these cases will be attended to within a five-year period, rather than just sitting there, unattended, as has been the case up to now.

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