Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)


4 JULY 2006

  Q400  Mr Maclean: We had fewer asylum seekers than we have now, Prime Minister.

  Mr Blair: No, excuse me, you did not. The figure, if you include the dependents, for the last year of your administration was 40,000. It is 30,000 this year. It is actually lower and we had a 60,000 backlog that we have taken down to 6,000 and we get 80% of the cases done within two months.

  Q401  Mr Maclean: Prime Minister, we did not have an official report from the Home Office saying we had half a million illegal asylum seekers in this country who have not been deported.

  Mr Blair: No, and I will tell you why you did not; because your Home Secretary at the time said that he could not calculate the numbers. David, there is no point us being daft about this. The fact is you were trying to deal with this problem; we are trying to deal with it; every country round the world is trying to deal with it. There is no point suggesting it is just because people are being feckless and silly.

  Mr Maclean: No-one is suggesting that, Prime Minister.

  Q402  Mrs Dunwoody: Can we just have one at a time. I am happy to let you fight, children, but let us try and get some order!

  Mr Blair: Thank you, Gwyneth.

  Q403  Mr Maclean: Can I say that Jack Straw, an honourable and decent and straight man, as Home Secretary never made the point when he took over the Home Office that somehow it was a shambles. He wanted more legislation, quite rightly, he wanted to implement his programme. One never heard the same comment from David Blunkett or Charles Clarke. Why is it that your new Home Secretary has decided that after nine years the Home Office is now dysfunctional and a shambles? You cannot blame that on an administration nine years ago, when none of your other Home Secretaries has made the comment.

  Mr Blair: First of all, I will send to you a series of comments that David Blunkett made and I think Charles himself made, which suggested because of the scale of the changes that are taking place and the challenges, the Home Office needed fundamental change and reform. The point that I am making to you is it is not as if—and I know this is a very common way of putting it and it is what people always say, "We have had nine years and nothing has happened." Lots of things have happened. The asylum system is in a completely different shape from what we inherited in 1997, but the fact is—and as I say this is why every single country is facing the same issues—the system is very, very difficult. I do not go back and say that everything you guys did when you were in the Home office was wrong. Some of the problems that Michael Howard was trying to deal with, some of the legislation actually he introduced before we came into office was exactly trying to deal with the same problems. This is a feature of the modern world.

  Q404  Mr Maclean: And you scrubbed the black list of countries and the white list and then created the problem.

  Mr Blair: No, we did not actually, David. The problem with the way that your list worked was that there were certain countries that you said literally, "We are not returning people to," and in the end this is why we introduced the non-suspensive appeal system because you need to get a far faster way of dealing with these people who are coming through and claiming asylum. Let us be absolutely clear about this, this is part of the problem. For the majority of people who claim asylum it turns out their claims are unfounded. Let us be clear about this before we stigmatise these people. It is not because they are terrible people. They are people who, for perfectly understandable reasons, are in search of a better life. They come from very poor countries, they go abroad because they want to work hard for their families and raise their families in some sort of decency. They are basically decent people but the trouble is they come in claiming asylum when actually they are economic migrants.

  Q405  Mrs Dunwoody: I just want to move on Prime Minister. Dr Wright?

  Mr Blair: We were beginning to enjoy ourselves there, but anyway—

  Q406  Mrs Dunwoody: I rather thought you were doing that. That is why we are moving on!

  Mr Blair: That is a very indicative comment.

  Mrs Dunwoody: You looked to me like you were moving into automatic mode so I thought the moment had come to intervene. Dr Wright?

  Q407  Dr Wright: Could I ask you, Prime Minister, does the Government have a population policy?

  Mr Blair: A population policy? No, but we do have a migration policy obviously.

  Q408  Dr Wright: You know this is political dynamite, do you not?

  Mr Blair: I think that is pretty obvious, yes. I do not know where that is going to lead the news tomorrow as a comment.

  Q409  Dr Wright: You have been asking us to have a debate about all kinds of things as we have gone along. Why do we not have a proper debate about population and migration rather than just letting it explode all over us every time we have an election or a crisis? The population has gone past 60 million in the last year. It is going to rise by 12% in the next generation. Every year we are inventing a new Oxford, a new Middlesbrough, or a new Ipswich. This may be a good thing, it may be a bad thing, it may mean that it is easier to get a waiter and it is harder to get a parking place, but what the country desperately needs is some serious debate about this, does it not, and we are not getting it, are we?

  Mr Blair: The remedy lies in our own hands. We should have that debate. I am perfectly happy to participate in it and give my views on it. Look, the most difficult thing, as you well know Tony, is to have a debate on this topic devoid of hysteria and over-emotion. The most important thing is to have a rational and sensible debate. I think that is a very, very sensible thing to do.

  Q410  Dr Wright: Why do we not therefore have a proper cost-benefit analysis of the costs and benefits of different levels of population, most of it being fuelled by migration, and perhaps have an independent commission that looks at these issues that can inform public debate about them, because if we do not do these things, I think we all know that the potential for nasty Right-wing extremists doing things about them is there all the time and is going to get worse.

  Mr Blair: Yes, but the difficulty when you try to examine what is the cost and benefit is that you can look and analyse this at a number of different levels. Even on what you were talking about with population growth, I do not have the exact figures in my head but I am not sure that the driver is simply migration or even mainly.

  Q411  Dr Wright: It is the main driver.

  Mr Blair: You have also got population—

  Dr Starkey: Longevity.

  Q412  Dr Wright: The main driver is migration and the effects of migration on the birth rate.

  Mr Blair: I was about to say that the birth rate is different amongst different communities but not all of those communities are necessarily people who have not been here for some significant period of time, and indeed perfectly lawfully. I am not sure that it is the facts in an objective sense that you need to debate. I am very happy to look at that, but I think the facts are very difficult to be objective about in terms of what is the benefit or disbenefit of migration. My own view of this is that migration, on the whole, is positive and of benefit to countries but it needs to be controlled and there need to be rules. The question is how do you impose rules in the modern world where there is this mass migration, mass travel and mass communication? It is very, very difficult to do. I think most people in the country, in fact, are not racist about this at all actually; they just want to think that there is some order and some rules that can be brought to this situation. The trouble is from a policy-making point of view those rules are very, very difficult because, as I say, the moment you realise that literally 11 to 12 million people come into this country every year, you understand the scale of the problem because, as I say, the vast, vast bulk of those people are perfectly lawful and absolutely necessary for our economy. I think it is the rules that are the problem here.

  Q413  Mrs Dunwoody: I hope you are not telling us, Prime Minister, that you are taking decisions on facts that you are not sure about. I am sure you would never do a thing like that.

  Mr Blair: The facts on cost-benefit are not necessarily facts. When you actually analyse them sometimes they are opinions.

  Q414  Mrs Dunwoody: I see, facts when you agree with them are facts—

  Mr Blair: No, I am not saying that. All I am saying is I do not think you will get a factual statement as to whether migration is a good thing or a bad thing.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Finally, Mr Sheerman wants to ask you a brief question about education.

  Q415  Mr Sheerman: Prime Minister, people in this country are very fair-minded, as you have said, and we have a very tolerant society on the whole but they do want to see migration and the migrants that come here to have skills ands job and to become, in some way, real members of our community. There seems to be confusion amongst yourselves, particularly amongst your ministers, about what we are trying to do about British citizenship. We have ministers shooting off saying we must have a test of "Britishness". We have the more thoughtful work from Professor Crick in terms of how we indoctrinate people into being good citizens. What is your feeling about what makes a good citizen now?

  Mr Blair: I think the most important thing is that everybody who comes into this country shares the basic values of the country, values about democracy, the rule of law, and tolerance and respect for people of other faiths and races and creeds. I think that is the most important thing. What binds us together and makes us British are the common values we have.

  Q416  Mr Sheerman: Would you say the English language is central to that?

  Mr Blair: I think it goes back to what we were saying before about integration. I think it stands to reason that the more that people, whilst retaining their own identity in terms of religion or race, integrate the better, and therefore that is why I think English language is important, yes.

  Mr Sheerman: Evidence given to my Committee suggests that there was a deficiency in terms of the ability of people to get English language. Peter Hyman who used to work in Number 10 as an adviser and now works in an Islington school, said if only there was a capacity for intensive English language training when migrants come here, whether it is from Pakistan or Poland—

  Mrs Dunwoody: I think the Prime Minister has got it.

  Q417  Mr Sheerman: Why is there not enough money and resources for English language?

  Mr Blair: I think we do put a lot in. I have not got the exact figures in front of me but I think we do put a lot in.[5] Yes, there is more that we can do. The thing that really worries me is if people have been here for maybe ten, 15 or 20 years and cannot speak the English language. That is a worry.

  Q418 Mr Sheerman: Do you look at programmes in order to help those people?

  Mr Blair: Yes, and I think also it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, you also need the community itself where these people are living to be engaged in that as well.

  Mrs Dunwoody: On that note of co-operation, Mr Williams.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Gwyneth. We move now, Prime Minister, away from domestic affairs into what is likely to become a regular subject area which is across the international field and the international update. Sir George Young?

  Sir George Young: Prime Minister, in this last session we want to try and cover a lot of territory. We plan to ask short, focused questions in the hope that these will elicit short, focused answers. Can we start with Iraq and Mike Gapes.

  Q419  Mike Gapes: Prime Minister, how long do you expect British troops to be in Iraq?

  Mr Blair: As long as the Government there wishes them to be there. I suspect over the next 18 months there will obviously be opportunities to draw down significant numbers of British troops because the capacity of the Iraqi forces will build up.

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