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29 Nov 2007 : Column 508

Michael Connarty: I think that that is the first time that the word “racist” has been used; it has not been used until now by any Member in this debate. I hope that my remarks will read as I intended in the Hansard report. What I said is that the right hon. Gentleman proposes—he proposes it regularly, and makes a good case for it in his own eyes—that we should withdraw from what we have already signed up to. He proposes that we opt out. That is the aim he expressed earlier, and it involves retreating behind the barriers and giving away what we have now got by doing things in co-operation. That is the point I was making. I hope that no inferences were taken by him, or by anyone else who heard what I said, that he is a xenophobe. I know that he is not one, but I do think that he is a little Englander in this matter. He wants to retreat behind the barriers and give up the benefits we have gained, and I am sorry that I cannot agree with him on that and never will.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory rose—

Michael Connarty: I will leave this exchange now, if I may, as I have a speech to finish.

The UK has a long and proud record of accepting people. If each country were to try to deal with this matter alone, we would not make progress. The EU is now a common space. If people seeking asylum in one EU country are granted the right to stay, they will eventually be able to travel throughout the EU. The scale of migration across national borders has grown enormously, and we can only deal with that on an EU basis. We cannot deal with it country by country, because if that were the case people would flee from one country to another country. If we had not managed to have the Dublin agreement, for example, we would not be able to stop people asylum-shopping and they would be able to move from country to country.

The EU shares best practice and has made great progress in the first phase of the Tampere agreement, and we are now in the right position to see whether the agreements—the four directives and the three accompanying pieces of legislation—will work and whether we need to move forward. That is what the Government are saying. It is time to take stock. We cannot conclude that when phase 2 starts, a common asylum policy could not make progress through other legislation. We are not taking a view on that at the moment. We are saying, give the policy time to settle in and let us see what happens.

We may want to go beyond minimum standards to higher standards, but we may never wish to have mandatory standards. There is a long way between where we are now and where mandatory standards would take us. It may be that we eventually agree that we want mandatory standards, because other countries may not provide proper processes or integration for people in their countries. That would drive people out of those countries and over to this country, so we may need to raise the standard in other countries for our benefit.

This is an important debate, and it should focus on asylum, not on other things that may be wrong with the immigration system. Although the issues are the responsibility of one Department, they are dealt with differently. We need to treat asylum seekers with respect, because they may genuinely be fleeing in terror of their lives and need our succour and support. We
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need a system that reveals whether their claims are false and, if they are, to return them to their country of origin. That is eminently sensible, and the Committee did not oppose the Government’s position. Indeed, we thought that it should be brought to the attention of the House and commended. The amendment is unnecessary. It would be better to accept the Government motion and not press the amendment to the vote, but I know that the Conservatives intend to do so, for their own reasons.

3.51 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): As we have already heard, the common European asylum system seeks, most notably, to prevent asylum shopping across Europe. For example, under an effective common asylum system, people seeking asylum in Germany would not be able to present themselves for a second time in another EU country such as the UK.

The structure created by the common asylum system demonstrates that the EU can be a serious force for good in reducing the number of asylum claims to the UK. That must cause significant mental discomfort to those Members for whom the words “Europe” and “asylum” are triggers to start snarling and frothing at the mouth. It must be hard for them to discover that one is the best mechanism to deal with the other. In any case, it is not my job to provide psychological support to the Conservative party.

The Green Paper introduces stage 2 of the common European asylum system. To an extent, the Liberal Democrats agree that it is too soon to move ahead with stage 2 before we have judged the success of stage 1. We cannot yet judge whether what was agreed is what has been implemented.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister the extent to which she thinks that Dublin II—a regulation that enables the sharing of information to prevent asylum shopping around the EU—is working in practice. There are doubts that it is working well, and those add further weight to the argument that we should concentrate on getting stage 1 right before proceeding to stage 2.

Nevertheless, the Green Paper deserves proper scrutiny, as it raises issues that are relevant to the Hague programme as it moves forward. Although the Government are right to say that we should not rush to judgment, they should not use that as an excuse to ignore the Green Paper and the serious issues that it raises. For example, it gives us the opportunity to consider again whether we should allow asylum seekers to work. The Liberal Democrats take the view that asylum seekers should be permitted to work if their claim has not been decided within two months. It is not only inhuman to prevent asylum seekers from working, but a drain on the benefits system and causes serious social problems.

I do not mean to stereotype, but asylum seekers are often among the most enterprising and talented people. Of the asylum claims I have dealt with—my constituency is in the lake district, so I have not dealt with as many as some hon. Members—most have come from professional people, including doctors, nurses, teachers, and other people who have the skills for which we are crying out, and the desire and the work ethic to
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go out and earn a living rather than sit and wait for a decision, living on benefits. Many of the more right-wing newspapers to which the Government are often keen to pander are apoplectic at the thought of asylum seekers claiming benefit, so why not silence them by allowing asylum seekers to earn a living?

Mr. Gummer: That is another, and very proper, criticism of the Government’s policy towards asylum seekers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that the Government take so long to process the arrangements of perfectly decent people, especially if in the end they exclude them, is a crying scandal? That is a question not about the motion, but about the confidence of the House in a Government who let down every asylum seeker, whether genuine or not.

Tim Farron: The right hon. Gentleman makes yet another good point. We want an effective asylum system in the UK and throughout Europe, and a European system that works effectively is bound to be better than even the most effective system operated in isolation.

When talented people are refused the right to work and forced to exist on benefits and charity, it can often cause serious problems, including resentment and even social disorder. As well as being inhumane, forcing people to be idle is just plain witless—and counter-productive.

The Green Paper gives us the chance to look at uniform status across the EU for intermediate categories of residency, such as temporary leave to remain and its equivalents. The asylum system is labyrinthine and complicated, and consequently expensive. Uniform status could allow us to simplify the system, to the benefit of the UK and its citizens.

I urge the Government not to give in to their reflex fear of being seen to be too EU-friendly. I shall not wax lyrical to quite the incendiary levels of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), but I note the somewhat predictable amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). No matter how much money and effort the Conservative party spends on trying to modernise its image, all it takes is a mention of asylum or Europe, or in this case both, to make its members return to type—unreconstructed, insular and with their heads in the sand. Sangatte was the result of countries acting in isolation over asylum. Uncontrolled asylum shopping around the EU is a consequence of isolated asylum systems. The price of insular asylum systems is unnecessary expense, human misery and failure to remove unsuccessful asylum seekers. If that is what the Conservative party wants, so be it, but we shall have no part in it.

The proposed system is a tremendous opportunity to sell the European Union to our constituents and to the media. It is the sort of issue that reminds knee-jerk little Englanders that although the EU is far from perfect, its existence and our membership of it are essential. There are two forms of leadership, are there not? In the first, someone checks which direction the crowd is taking and runs round to the front, to pretend that was the way they had always intended to go. In the second form, they take a stand and try to persuade the crowd to change direction and follow them. Of course the first is not leadership at all, and my fear is that on
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Europe and on asylum the Government have too often chosen the spineless option and followed the crowd. However, on this issue, they could demonstrate to the crowd that there is sound reason for changing direction in terms of popular attitudes towards Europe, so I urge them to take that opportunity.

Many of those points would be close to irrelevant if the UK had an asylum system that actually worked. Unfortunately, we have a system in which the number of deportations is down and where, in relation to some countries, the number of decisions overturned on appeal is up to 40 per cent. The Government are so desperate to deal with their pitiful record on deportations that they are, in effect, starving out unsuccessful asylum seekers, making them destitute, to lever them out of the country. That is an outrage against humanity, and the Minister should be ashamed that it is taking place on her watch.

The European Scrutiny Committee report is not the most riveting of documents, but it is worth reading to the end, not least because in the penultimate paragraph, on page 50, there is some light humour:

presumably with our EU partners. However, I am not convinced that they will be particularly keen to follow our example of failure in deportations and an appeal rate against bad decisions of 40 per cent.

I mentioned psychology earlier. I have a friend who is a psychology teacher. She informs me that there are four stages of learning: unconscious incompetence, where one does not know what one is doing but one thinks one does; conscious incompetence, where one does not know what one is doing, but has realised that fact; conscious competence; and then unconscious competence. I am sure that most people, including those of us present today, do not get to number four, or even number three, that often. The key job is to remain consciously incompetent—in other words, to be aware of the fact that other people have something to teach one, and not be overblown about one’s own ability. The Government’s statement that they feel that they have lots to share with the rest of the European Union demonstrates that they are well and truly unconsciously incompetent on the issue of asylum.

In the light of the failings in the operation of the UK asylum system, will the Minister accept that it is time for us to have an independent asylum agency, which would remove from Governments the temptation to play politics with this sensitive issue and remove the issue from the Government’s reverse Midas touch? There are excellent examples of that approach working in other countries—notably Canada, which has a much better record of ensuring that unsuccessful applicants leave quickly and humanely, and which can boast that, far from having up to 40 per cent. of decisions reversed on appeal, only 1 per cent. of decisions are reversed.

Having an effective, humane and operational system for dealing with asylum applications is a necessary prerequisite for ensuring that the common European asylum system is effective. That does not alter our view that the system is desirable and that although it is right to ensure that we evaluate stage 1 properly before rushing into stage 2, the Government should nevertheless take seriously the issues raised in the Green Paper.

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4.1 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I will speak briefly on this matter, because most of the arguments have already been rehearsed. I am happy to support the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I find myself in agreement with a lot of what he has said this afternoon. I pay tribute to the Minister for the sensible and measured way in which she introduced the debate on immigration, as she did only a fortnight ago. The document will be discussed properly and consulted upon by Parliament, by the Government, and, I am sure, by the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), which has a diverse cast of characters, some of whom are in favour of the European Union and some of whom are not quite so sure. Giving Parliament the chance to scrutinise such important documents is an important way to approach the European Union.

I was present as a junior Justice Minister at the Tampere European summit in 1999, when Finland had the presidency of the Union and when the whole justice and home affairs agenda was launched. It is good and proper that, eight years later, we are working closely with our European partners on asylum. Tampere became The Hague programme, and following The Hague we had the four directives on asylum, with which the House is familiar. It is right and proper that the Government should stop and evaluate what has been achieved so far in their desire further to improve co-operation between our country and our European partners.

I agreed with the first comments made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I have a lot in common with him. We celebrated our birthdays on Monday, along with Tina Turner—separately of course, not together. He was right to say that this is an ideal opportunity and an ideal function for the European Union. With external borders that need policing and scrutinising, it is vital that we work together with the other members of the EU to have a common policy. I would probably go slightly further than the Government. I understand why they are concerned and reticent about moving forward on the issue, but we cannot achieve a solution to the asylum problem unless we work closely with our partners.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Can the right hon. Gentleman not accept the distinction between co-operating with other countries, which we all believe in, and irreversibly handing over powers to another organisation on something as important as immigration? That is an important democratic distinction that we make, which I think he fails to make.

Keith Vaz: I understand that distinction, and I do not think that we have handed over the powers; we are very careful. In all debates with a European tinge, I make the point that British Ministers—whether Conservative or Labour—go to summit meetings, as the right hon. Gentleman did when he was a Minister, to protect British interests, not to give things away. He is quite wrong: the Government are protecting and defending our position.

It is right for us to determine whether we can improve co-operation. I hope that we will give sympathetic consideration to the creation of a European support
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office. I know that the proposal is at an early stage and I realise that it has come about only as a result of what was decided at The Hague, but we need to look at it.

If we examine such co-operation and support among EU colleagues, we must be concerned about the database. We will need to ensure that data held not only by ourselves but by other EU countries are protected, especially in view of the current climate. We must also ensure that our computer system is compatible with those in other countries. There is no point having fingerprints and data on a computer in France if that information cannot be read in the UK, and if the two computer systems cannot speak to each other, because there would thus be no prospect of achieving the laudable aims that the Government propose.

My second point relates to a matter raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and to some extent by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. It is right to lament the delays in the asylum process. I do so every week, and I will tomorrow, when a lot of constituents will visit me—more than 100 come every Friday—all of whom will have immigration problems and complaints about delays in the Home Office. The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Conservative Government, so I must point out to him that the delays that we are experiencing now are nothing compared with those pre-1997. I went to the immigration and nationality directorate then and saw hundreds of unopened letters and immigration cases that had not been dealt with.

My hon. Friend the Minister reminded us that she was only five months into the job. She needs to give resources and ministerial time to replying quickly to Members of Parliament about asylum cases. Cases must be dealt with quickly so that people who apply and are not successful are told to go as soon as possible. In the long run, that will save her a lot of headaches. It will also save the Home Office a lot of stamps, which it would otherwise have to use to reply to right hon. and hon. Members. Such a process is right and fair for those making applications. If people’s applications are genuine, tell them quickly, and if their applications are not genuine and do not succeed, tell those people quickly, so that they can leave the country. That is the cardinal principle that Minister should set out to Lin Homer every Monday morning when she gets her asylum and immigration statistics, because it is of paramount importance.

The Minister must examine the question of asylum seekers who are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed. If the Government want to prevent those people from working, they should process the claims quickly. However, there is constant delay. I am sure that I shall hear tomorrow, as I did last Friday, about cases that have lasted for four or five years without a decision. The people affected who are claiming asylum cannot work, and in fact, they are not on benefits either. They are in a dire situation as a result of the Government’s handling of the process. The Minister should look at what is happening and, perhaps in a limited number of cases, ensure that progress is made.

Will the Government please continue to do what they are doing regarding co-operation on asylum? We cannot solve the issue on our own. We must consider the number of people who are allowed to come to this country from France. I understand that 17,000 people—perhaps the Minister will tell me whether that
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figure is correct—have been moved from country to country to ensure that their asylum claims are processed properly. That is far too many people. We must ensure that once an asylum claim is made in one EU country, it is dealt with, rather than having a situation in which people are moved from country to country, eventually ending up in the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will give us the figures and ensure that she raises that point next time she has a ministerial meeting in which she discusses justice and home affairs.

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