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I conclude by pondering why we have reached a situation in which reports such as this are produced that are devastating in their criticism of the Government. The underlying problem seems to be that, because the wider immigration system has been out of control for so long, the Government, in an attempt to pull back the situation, for whatever motives—the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) ascribed fairly cynical motives to them—have decided that they have to be seen to be ultra tough in absolutely every area, including asylum and, in particular, asylum-seeking families and children. I think that it is that kind of instinctive move towards ultra-tough policies, or at least ultra-tough rhetoric, that has excited the Committee to that criticism.

Mr. Gerrard: The hon. Gentleman said that he was coming to a conclusion. It would be very interesting if, before he does that, he could tell us whether he and his party would specifically accept some of the recommendations that have been made, such as repealing section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 and section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and allowing failed asylum seekers to work.

Damian Green: It no doubt would be very interesting for the hon. Gentleman if I announced Conservative asylum policy for the next election in this debate, but I will not do so, for the perfectly sensible reason that this is a fast-moving situation and an asylum policy that might have been appropriate five years ago would not be appropriate now. The Minister will recognise that he is changing his own policy as the years go on. What a Conservative Government would do in every detail will obviously be decided and announced before the next general election, but given that it now appears that that election is some time away, it is simply impossible to predict what the conditions will be and what changes we will want to make. I can, however, guarantee to the hon. Member for Walthamstow that we will want to make changes, because I do not suppose that there will be a solution to what the report describes as the absolutely appalling and inhumane situation that we currently face.

Dr. Evan Harris: I can assure the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that my party supports his suggestions, but I want to give the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is speaking very moderately, of which I approve entirely, the opportunity to reject something that he was quoted as saying in respect of health care. He may be aware that just the other day an article in the Daily Express,under the headline “Illegal Immigrants’ GP ban”, stated:

The Daily Mirror quoted him as saying:

I think that he has accepted that the situation is far more complex than that, and I give him this opportunity to say on the record that that is not his position.

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Damian Green: It is my position that people who have no right to be here should not be here. That is not just my position but, I imagine, the Minister’s and that of all sensible people. That is what I mean about balance. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon thinks that I am embarrassed to be quoted as saying that people who have no right to be here should not be here, he is wrong, and he is lowering the tone of the debate by assuming that I would be.

Dr. Harris: I do not disagree. I was making the point that the hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying:

that is, to the problems in the NHS—

One can separate the question of whether it is appropriate to remove people who do not have the right to be in this country from the question of whether they are to blame for pressures on the NHS. I was seeking to help him by making a reasonable and civilised point that I thought he made earlier.

Damian Green: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am making a reasonable and civilised point. I shall continue to make it. People who have no right to be here should not be in this country.

The root of the problem is the wider failure of immigration policy. That is a melancholy conclusion, because it means that unless and until the Government get to grips with wider immigration policy, we can expect further stresses and strains in matters relating to the treatment of asylum seekers. Sadly, I suspect that this will not be the last time that the Committee must consider the issue or come to similar conclusions.

As others have observed, it is a policy issue that should not excite huge partisan difference. We ought to be able to agree, broadly speaking, about how those seeking asylum should be treated. One can honourably hold different views about levels and systems, but the treatment of individuals should not be a matter of division between us. It is a matter of genuine regret to me that such an influential and well-researched report should come to such a damning conclusion about the effects of current policy.

5.2 pm

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): I have not spoken in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so this afternoon. I realise that that shows I need to get out more; I shall certainly seek to do so with hon. Members’ help.

I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) at the beginning of his very effective speech. In particular, he underlined this country’s proud tradition of providing humanitarian protection to those in need of it. I very much associate myself with those sentiments. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) say that this is a policy area on which we should be seeking consensus among all parties in the House. He in particular has done a great deal to move debate in his party on from the manifesto commitment of 2005 proposing a cap on the number of refugees entering this country. That would have required a withdrawal from
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the 1951 refugee convention, if not a renegotiation of it. I am pleased to see that he and his colleagues have decided to put that policy in the bin.

There is much in the report that I found welcome. I found parts of the analysis to be deeply dispiriting and lacking any attempt at balance; I shall describe my criticisms of them in more detail in a few moments. I said in my evidence to the Select Committee that I particularly welcomed something that it was doing extremely effectively—providing a number of case studies and examples and interrogating the evidence where it felt that policy was not being translated into practice. In a complex system such as immigration, that is a risk we always run. It is enormously important that the Committee did such a thorough job in seeking to reveal those areas, and I hope that it will return to the subject.

My analysis of the Border and Immigration Agency when I first took on this job was that it had suffered from being opaque. It was not sufficiently open, and it needed to benefit from much greater and more effective scrutiny. For that reason, I drafted amendments regarding a smaller number of inspectors holding the agency to account in future. Today, the BIA has 11 different inspectorates. There are too many, they are too small, they do not punch enough weight and they cannot in themselves hold the BIA to account. That is why we changed the law. The advert is out for the job of chief inspector. It is a good job, it is well paid and if hon. Members know good candidates, they should encourage them to apply.

I have listened to what the Committee and hon. Members in this debate have said about the Committee’s disappointment in the Government response. That partly reflects my own disappointment in some of the Committee’s analyses, which I shall explain, as I said, in more detail in a moment. Committee members should not err in underselling their contribution to the reform of Government policy in at least three areas. The Committee can be proud that it has influenced, if not inspired, the direction of Government reform in some important ways.

What has been said in this debate and in the report will be enormously important to the proposed review of how health care is provided for foreign nationals. There have been enormous changes to Government policy and legislation on how the BIA detains and removes children who we do not think have a right to be here, and the Committee’s work has contributed to that in no small part. The Committee will also be able to consider the new regulations changing how section 4 is administered when they are published in the new year, and I think that it will be quite pleased with the changes. I hope that it will take some pride in the fact that it helped to inspire and influence the changes that I asked for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon started in the right place by explaining that this debate takes place in quite a different context than did our debates in this country 10 years ago about asylum and immigration. The number of people seeking asylum in the UK fell again in 2006, by 2,000; it is now at its lowest level since not 1997 but 1993. He was also right to say that many patterns of change in the asylum system reflect what is going on in the real world. Four countries—Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Somalia—accounted in the last quarter for about 30 per cent. of applications in the countries of the EU, and 33 per
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cent. in the UK. Those changes reflect what is going on in the world, and there is no doubt that the different border security structure that the UK is implementing—some of the changes are already in place—has accounted in part for the reduction in the number of asylum seekers coming to this country.

However, that creates new obligations, too—for example, extending programmes such as the gateway programme, through which British Crown civil servants go to some of the most desperate refugee camps in the world to find those who would benefit from protection and a new life in the UK. It is enormously expensive to administer, but it is an enormously important part of the reforms that we are seeking to make.

This is a dramatically different situation from that of the late 1990s, by which time something like 374,000 people had claimed asylum in the UK—an enormous number. Asylum applications snowballed from about 25,000 a year in 1992 to some 70,000 a year seven years later. Unfortunately, by 1998 there was a backlog of about 50,000 applications; and, as many hon. Members will know, it could take a year just to hear an appeal.

One of the most important changes that we have made in the last 18 months, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon pointed out, is completely to reorganise the way in which we administer the asylum system. We now have fast-track asylum teams in every part of the country. Crucially, every case now has an individual owner, who deals with cases from beginning to end. The previous administration system—it involved one team making one part of a decision, which passed the file to another team, which then passed it to someone else, perhaps losing it a couple of times on the way—has been swept away.

It has been a dramatic programme of change. We now have 25 asylum teams around the country and about 300 case-owners are now involved. Many have been brought into the civil service directly from university, and they are already beginning to make quite an impact in the work of the Border and Immigration Agency—indeed, even in my private office. Some four in 10 cases are now resolved from the beginning to the very end—to the individual being granted humanitarian protection or being removed from the UK.

Forty per cent. of cases are now dealt with within six months from beginning to end, but that is not an ambitious enough target. My goal is that by this time next year, six out of 10 cases should be processed within six months, and my aspiration is that 90 per cent. of cases should be processed within six months by 2011. That is a considerable difference from the world of 1997, when getting an initial decision on some of the older cases could take two years. Although change has been a little time in coming, it has speeded up in the past year or so. These are dramatic changes.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said about the administration of benefits was important. Ensuring that the teams who look after single individuals also administer and process applications for benefits has been an enormous help in ensuring that the system is much slicker. Because the system is that much faster, the BIA can begin dealing with many of the problems of the past.

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We have created a new department in the agency; it has about 900 staff, who have just completed training. In five days’ time, all 400,000 case files will be allocated to individual case-owners. Lin Homer will write before Christmas to the Home Affairs Committee providing news about the number of cases already processed from that backlog, but I can tell the House that the number of resolutions is already in the tens of thousands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made an important point about the administration of justice. I do not want to dwell on it, other than to say that the tests are set out by the Legal Services Commission in the funding code, which I believe is approved by both Houses of Parliament. It was last updated in October 2007.

Like many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), much of my experience in this debate comes from the enormous number of immigration cases that I deal with in my constituency. Constituents are often badly let down by their representatives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, they will often have been stung for thousands of pounds, yet they are some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies. They have simply been fleeced. It is important that we continue the debate and if there is an opportunity to revise the funding code, hon. Members should not hesitate in bringing forward their ideas.

Jeremy Corbyn: I acknowledge what the Minister says. There is a serious problem, and it is caused partly by the lack of legal aid for representation. Having no representation means that people are either unrepresented or forced to go to fly-by-night organisations. I do not suggest that we curtail the right to representation in appeal tribunals—far from it—but I ask the Minister to reflect a little more on whether we can do something to ensure a degree of equity and justice. Like him, I know of many strong asylum and immigration cases that were lost at the first hurdle because of some complete nonsense written by an inadequate legal representative.

Mr. Byrne: I share many such experiences. We are now testing whether the process can be made easier by having more substantial legal representation at the beginning. A pilot is up and running at the Solihull centre for the BIA, and I may find an opportunity to update the House on it in the new year. BIA needs to undertake further work, particularly in its detention and removal centres, to ensure that adequate legal representation is available.

Much of the debate turned on section 9(2) of the 2004 Act, but I slightly disagree with the Committee’s recommendations. It was right for the Home Office to be open and candid about what we saw as shortcomings in the pilot scheme. However, I am less confident about my own omniscience, in that I believe that it would be difficult for me to rule out situations in which it might be necessary to use the provisions in section 9. As I said in the written ministerial statement published with the pilot report, the policy should not be used in an indiscriminate and blanket way, but at this stage I do not want to remove it. My view of epistemology may differ from that of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), but I recognise that there may be cases when it is required.

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Mr. Dismore: We obviously disagree on the fundamental point, but would my hon. Friend go at least this far and say that the provisions should not be used in cases where children are involved and may end up in care, as in the four cases to which I referred earlier?

Mr. Byrne: If the result is that a child has to go into care, or if families are separated and the costs are moved on to local authorities, it would be extremely unfortunate. The situation would indeed need to be avoided.

What was said about section 4 of the 1999 Act, too, is important. About 9,500 people are in receipt of section 4 support. New regulations are required, and they will be submitted to me next week. I listened hard to what was said about the need to provide different kinds of support for pregnant women and children, and to enable people to communicate with each other and, indeed, with the BIA. I hope to finalise those regulations next week, before their publication in the new year.

What was said about health care was important. Again, I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon with the brevity of my response to a number of recommendations; I hope that he will be satisfied with what I have to say now. We thought that what the Committee said was important enough for us to commission an entire review of Government policy in that area, and future recommendations will be subject to consultation. The brevity of my response may have disappointed the Committee, but I hope that the promise of a bigger debate is satisfactory. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell me now.

Dr. Evan Harris: I want not to respond to that point but to take the Minister back briefly to section 9 and section 4. First, can he explain why there was such a significant delay between the completion of the evaluation of section 9 and the publication of what was quite a brief summary report of that evaluation? Secondly, has there been a slippage—I think that there has—in the publication of the draft regulations improving the section 4 issues that I mentioned? The Minister told us that they would be out before the recess, but I think that he is saying that they are still in the process of coming out. Is that because they have been revised in the light of our report, or was there another reason?

Mr. Byrne: No. A second consultation was undertaken on draft regulations, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman giving a bit more detail on the process if that would be helpful.

I do not plan to detain the debate with a long discussion about health care—

Mr. Dismore rose—

Mr. Frank Field: Before my hon. Friend the Minister leaves the question of introducing new regulations, will those regulations cover women seeking the protection of refuges, so that their and their children’s costs are covered in those circumstances? If he cannot reply now, might we get a reply on that point later?

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