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13 Dec 2007 : Column 157WH—continued

3.23 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Gerrard: Although the Government say that there is not a policy of enforced destitution, destitution is the result of what has been happening. That is not new. Over a long period, under successive Governments, the view has been taken that making things tough will deter people from coming here and making false asylum claims.

I recall the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, when the Tory Government put forward their proposals to remove all financial support from anyone who claimed asylum inside the country, as opposed to the port of entry. That was clearly intended to deter people from coming to make claims. An unexpected consequence was that, following court cases, local authorities had to start supporting asylum seekers. Each successive Act since then—the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004—has contained sections clearly intended to deter people from making claims, or from remaining in the country after refusal of a claim, by removing financial support. In the late ’90s the policy of voucher support in place of any cash at all for all asylum seekers was introduced. I remember the arguments. Lord Morris of Handsworth, who is now a member of the Joint Committee, was centrally involved in getting that scheme scrapped.

The rationale behind all those provisions—section 4 of the 1999 Act, section 9 of the 2004 Act, section 55 of the 2002 Act, and voucher support in place of cash—is that it will deter people from making false claims. It will keep the application numbers down. I do not believe that there is evidence to support that view.

Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he uses the term “false claims.” Part of the problem, of course, is that that term can cover unsuccessful claims made in good faith, as well as those made in bad faith that turn out to be unfounded. Neither type of claimant seems likely to be deterred, because someone making a claim in good faith does not know that it will be considered unfounded, and false claims are often made on behalf of the people concerned. It cannot be right to punish children for claims made on their behalf by those with responsibility for them.

Mr. Gerrard: That is absolutely right. If we consider the matter just in terms of numbers of applications, which has been the tendency, a graph of those numbers going back several years makes it easy to say, “Ah yes. That year was Bosnia, and that one was Kosovo.” That is what really affects the number of applications. The
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argument that being tough and removing financial support will deter someone from coming here does not work.

The same applies to the argument, which is dealt with in the report, about permission to work—the suggestion that if we were to give permission to work, particularly to people whose asylum claims have failed but who have been here, and are likely to be here, for a considerable time, it would act as a pull factor. We used, of course, to give people permission to work when their asylum cases had not been decided after six months. The period is now a year. Given that the vast majority of asylum claims are now dealt with in less time, and we have speeded up the decision-making process considerably compared with 10, 12 or 15 years ago when people waited years for a decision, the number of people affected, who are making claims, will be fairly small. However, there are real concerns about the people whose asylum claims have failed and who remain here.

There are several thousand people on section 4 support, and many of them will be people whom the Home Office and the Government accept cannot safely be returned, at the moment, to their country of origin. That is why they are given section 4 support—it has generally been accepted that they cannot, for the time being, be safely removed. Of course, to get section 4 support, people must sign a paper indicating that they are willing to return when it becomes possible. The vast majority of failed asylum seekers are not on section 4 support, and they get nothing. Those are often the people who end up destitute.

When we know that someone is likely to be here for a considerable time, because there is no obvious prospect of returning them to their country of origin, why on earth do we not give them temporary permission to work, as the Committee suggested? That would give them something useful to do with their lives, and even if they are going to return at some point, acquiring skills and work experience while they are here could be of significant benefit to them when they return to their country of origin. In the queue of what the Home Office now describes as “legacy cases” there are many failed asylum seekers, and it is estimated that it will take five years to work through that queue. Are we simply going to leave these people in limbo for five years?

The answer is not to say that people can work voluntarily. How do they get to the place where they are supposed to be volunteering if they do not have any cash—if they are on section 4 and on vouchers or if they are not on section 4 and have absolutely nothing? It is a matter of treating people with dignity while they are here, even if they are going to be removed. I lose count of the number of people I see in constituency surgeries who have reached the point of having their claim rejected and losing their appeal, by which time they may have been here for months and years, although nothing has been done about removing them back to their country of origin and they are relying on family, friends and relatives for support.

On health care, which my hon. Friend mentioned, there is a review of access to the NHS. That joint review by the Home Office and the Department of Health was supposed to be published in October, but we are still waiting for it. He referred to the effects of
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the current restrictions and said that it is not just the people who should be subject to those restrictions who are affected by them, but that sometimes people who should not have restricted access to health care are also being denied it. That is not really surprising. It is pretty obvious that a health care worker, particularly someone sitting on the front desk, will not know the immigration rules in sufficient detail to be able to identify whether a person’s immigration status should prevent them from accessing certain treatments, and wrong decisions will be made.

I understand perfectly well that we cannot act as the national health service for the world. We cannot operate the NHS on the basis that anybody can come here at any time they like and obtain free treatment. However, the evidence that people come here to claim asylum for health tourism reasons is virtually non-existent. I have never seen any evidence that supports that case. There has not been a great deal of work done on that, but one piece of work I am familiar with is a survey of patients by the Terrence Higgins Trust, which looked at people who had come here from overseas and had been diagnosed with HIV after they had arrived. The survey showed that, in virtually all cases, people diagnosed with HIV had been here for a considerable time before being tested and diagnosed. They went for testing when they became ill. The logic of someone being a health tourist is that they would ask for an HIV test within a fairly short time of being in the country, but that is not what happens.

We have reached the point at which we are saying that someone infected with HIV who is a failed asylum seeker or is here without proper immigration status will be denied treatment. That raises serious questions, including serious ethical questions for clinicians, who do not want to be in the position of denying treatment to someone who is ill. We know from work that has been done—from what clinicians tell us—that that leads to people not coming forward for testing and giving up on treatment because they think that they will be charged. That leads to their getting much more seriously ill and then going to an accident and emergency department, by which time they are far more expensive to treat than they would have been in the first place. There are pragmatic cost-benefit reasons for not denying people treatment in those circumstances.

There are also some clear public health arguments. On HIV, for example, which I am quite familiar with and on which I do a lot of work, we know that if somebody is infected and is undiagnosed they are much more likely to pass on that infection to someone else. That someone else is not necessarily a failed asylum seeker; it could be anybody. When looking at the cost of treatment, it is nonsense, on public health grounds, to leave people with serious medical problems undiagnosed and untreated. Although the report is about asylum seekers, it is not just about failed asylum seekers, but about other people who have not got legal immigration status. If, as is intended, the new systems of immigration control come in, there will be much tighter crackdowns on illegal employment and more and more people in such a situation will be thrown up.

I echo what my hon. Friend said: it would be a disaster to extend this measure to primary care,
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because it would compound the problems for the individuals and for public health and would put a lot more pressure on accident and emergency departments, because that is where people will eventually turn up when they have become seriously ill and much more expensive to treat.

Finally, I should like to say something about children. I know that you are familiar with the detention of children, Mr. Bercow. A report was produced by the all-party groups on children and on refugees that suggested to the Home Office and the Government that they ought to be looking for alternatives. That report made some practical suggestions about alternatives to detention that could be considered, and it mentioned the sort of systems that have been used in other countries, which appear to work successfully, particularly in keeping families who may be subject to removal, in touch with the Home Office and immigration officers. A pilot, which has been started in Kent, is looking at some alternatives. I hope that the Government will pursue that and consider expanding it because, as my hon. Friend said, the numbers of children in detention and the length of time that they are kept there is unacceptable.

We all understand that it can be difficult to remove a family with children. I accept that there may be circumstances in which some pretty tough, nasty decisions have to be made by Ministers. However, we do not need to keep children in detention for long periods. On 30 June, 35 children were in detention—mainly in Yarl’s Wood—10 of whom had been in detention for more than a month. Save the Children came up with cases of families with children that have been in detention for more than six months. I do not think that any of us should find that acceptable.

This valuable report has looked in some depth at difficult areas and has produced recommendations. However, I am disappointed in the Government response because, having read it, it is difficult to find any of the recommendations that have been fully accepted and will be implemented. I hope that Ministers will think again about some of their views on the report’s recommendations.

3.39 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), whose passion and sincerity will be sorely missed when he retires at the next election.

A report produced in June by the Peterborough and Whittlesey Amnesty International group contains a foreword by Cardinal Basil Hume, who said:

I think that that is certainly the case. With the indulgence of the Chamber, I shall focus on my experiences with constituents of mine to whom I alluded earlier—Ahmed Kamal and Adam Jamal Eedeem—who are Darfuri asylum seekers. Many of the points made by hon. Members resonate with my experiences in dealing with those constituents’ issues. Tragically, they were subjected to one of the most appalling acts of genocide that the world has ever seen—in Darfur. You will be familiar with that, Mr. Bercow. It was one of the worst events in
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Africa’s history. They have been in the United Kingdom for four years, having been dispersed to my constituency of Peterborough.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to those who have assisted my constituents so ably over the years, such Andy Hewett of Peterborough Red Cross group, Jo Erskine, a constituent of mine and a member of an Amnesty International group, the Aegis Trust, with which hon. Members will be familiar, the Red Cross nationally and New Link. Members might know that in 2000, Peterborough was designated an asylum seeker dispersal centre. The New Link centre was set up in 2003, for which I give the Government credit, in order to bring together nine discrete projects concentrating on asylum seekers and refugees. We have had funding difficulties, but those involved have focused on asylum and tried their best to deal with legal representation, assimilation, language skills and other such issues. I am pleased to report to the Chamber that funding for that organisation will continue over the next year or so, under the leadership of Leonie McCarthy, who is a member of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

I agree with much of the report. I am pleased that we are not getting into a debate on global immigration and asylum matters—about the numbers and about who is right and wrong. Those are different issues, on which I have robust views. I would not describe myself as an archetypal lily-livered liberal on this issue. However, this debate is about competence and efficiency. It seems to be a strange system whereby Amazon can deliver books more efficiently than we can deliver, look after and administer sentient human beings from all over the world. Whatever party is governing this country, we must get that right. I do not believe—I take issue with the Committee Chairman on this—that there is a systematic and deliberate policy to cause destitution under section 4. I do not think that any Government could be responsible for such a thing. The Government have tried to do their best in difficult circumstances, although I think that their response to our report was insufficient.

I shall focus on the cases of the two gentlemen whom I mentioned earlier. It cannot be a sensible system that throws people on the mercy of sometimes second-rate legal representation. People are trundled around the country and often receive very poor representation. They are not in a position as stakeholders to have any real influence with many legal firms, and are put to the bottom of the pile. That means huge delays and inadequate representation, which cannot be good for the public purse and certainly is not good for expediting their cases with alacrity. The Government need to look very carefully at such legal representation, particularly in the cases of my constituents, who are of Sudanese extraction.

On the collation of medical evidence, it should not just be about someone’s ability to travel to London to be assessed by, in the case of my constituents, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. There must be a more systematic way in which to provide adequate medical checks and collate the medical evidence, which is an intrinsic part of asylum claims for refugee status.

Housing is another issue. The Amnesty International group’s report, “Asylum Seekers in Peterborough” states:

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That is really important, as is the problem of people having to move houses constantly. It cannot be good for the provision of social housing for local authorities constantly to have to move people at the behest of the appropriate Government Department.

I shall touch on English as a second language, which is a key issue. If we want to receive people who are legally entitled to refugee status, and who wish to make a proper contribution to the Exchequer and to be good, decent, hard-working citizens of this country, it does not seem sensible to handicap them by not offering them any assistance in learning English as a second language. I know that that is a bigger issue. No doubt the Minister will say that his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are looking into it. However, this seems to be an example where joined-up government does not exist.

I shall touch on an Appeal Court decision in April of this year. I received a comprehensive and well-argued—one might say—letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on the case in question, which dealt with whether it is appropriate for Darfuri asylum seekers to be repatriated internally to Khartoum and whether that would protect their human rights under the 1951 convention. I contend that the Government have interpreted that decision very narrowly when considering what those people were doing when they applied for asylum—that they were farmers, but they could have gone to a city such as Khartoum internally. That seems fundamentally to disregard the main issue, which is that they were the subjects of torture, surveillance and other manifest human rights abuses. I believe that the over-interpretation of that legal ruling needs to be reconsidered, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.

We need to look at this important issue and the everyday experiences of my constituents. They remain in this country and have not been arbitrarily deported, but they are suffering a miserable existence. It is incumbent upon a compassionate and—dare I say it? Perhaps the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) should cover his ears— Christian country to focus on people’s human rights and to treat them decently. I hope that the Government will look specifically at my constituents’ cases. The Minister has been helpful in the past and written to me on a number of occasions. I might trouble him for a meeting in the near future.

3.48 pm

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): I am pleased to follow what I thought was a thoughtful and nuanced approach by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). More specifically, I am pleased also to follow the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who covered most of the issues that I wanted to cover, and from a position of professional rigor and deep understanding. I confess
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my amateur status on some of these things, but as a confessed generalist, I shall make a couple of points from my perspective as a constituency MP—a localised perspective on suffering experienced by some people. I will suggest that there is a demand for an alternative public policy response to remedy the profound difficulties experienced by some people.

Two points in particular struck me about the report. There is the acknowledgement, which has been mentioned by some colleagues, that the threat and use of destitution is a tool of Government policy. Paragraph 120 of the report states:

I also want to focus on recommendation 15, which has been alluded to in previous contributions. It states that

I stand here as a supporter of the Still Human Still Here campaign, which wants to end the process of destitution of failed asylum seekers. The organisation includes a group of refugee, migration and human rights organisations, faith groups, anti-poverty campaigners, charities and many individuals. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and I were very fortunate last week to be involved in a debate following the parliamentary screening of a new film, which can be viewed on the Amnesty International website. The film focuses brilliantly on the plight of failed asylum seekers in this country. Referring to both personal testimonies and stories, it is a way-in to analysing a group that is quantified to be in the order of 283,000 cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon emphasised the preponderance of failed asylum seekers in London, which is where I come from. My involvement in the campaign is a direct product of my own experiences as a local MP. Since I was elected in 2001, there has been an extraordinary growth in the casework that surrounds failed asylum seekers. I see a whole series of different elements. I have had many cases in which people have come to me with accounts of extraordinary abuses at the hands of unscrupulous employers. Destitution forces them into the hands of such people. I have also heard of extraordinary cases of appalling landlordism, which I thought we had removed from this country. Thanks to issues of demography, migration and the plight of failed asylum seekers, we are witnessing forms of landlordism that I thought we would not see in London in 2007.

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