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13 Dec 2007 : Column 181WH—continued

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Mr. Byrne: The regulations will come to me next week, so I will be in a position to write to my right hon. Friend then with a fuller answer to his question.

I will not detain this debate with a long, drawn-out discussion about health care, because I do not want to pre-empt the review’s conclusions. However, I undertake to ensure that the comments and contributions that have been made this afternoon will be reflected on. That will be slightly disappointing for Members. The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) are rooted in an enormous amount of thought and experience, so I will genuinely make sure that the review, when it is published, addresses them—particularly those about public health and HIV, which have been uppermost in the minds of Department of Health Ministers when asking their officials to consider this question.

Mr. Dismore: Obviously, we are disappointed not to have a little more of a lead today on what is going on. However, perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister could say what the timetable is for the review and when we may expect to see its report published.

Mr. Byrne: My goal, together with the Department of Health, is to publish it in January.

Dr. Evan Harris: First, I should still like the Minister to respond—perhaps he has received a note now—about why there was such a delay between receiving the report completing the evaluation of section 9, and its publication more than a year later. Secondly, if the review is the one mentioned in the response, that was a review instigated—it was welcomed—on 7 March, before the Committee reported. So the Government response cannot be a response to our report. Thirdly, we were told by the Government in their response that the joint Home Office and Department of Health review of access to the NHS by foreign nationals was to be completed by October—if we are talking about the same review—so on that basis, it is not unreasonable for us to be a little disappointed that a review that was already planned, and which is not a response to our report, is overdue.

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman is talking about three things. First, the section 9 pilot review was delayed because I was not satisfied with the initial report and wanted it rewritten. Indeed, I ended up rewriting big chunks of it personally. Secondly, the review that we are undertaking jointly with the Department of Health is complicated for many of the reasons that Members have discussed this afternoon. I do not want to rush out a report that is premature or ill-considered, so I make no apology for what may appear to the hon. Gentleman to be a slight delay in our seeking to publish it in January. Thirdly, I am happy to send him a copy of the letter that I sent to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on the revision of regulations in respect of section 4.

I want to make some points before concluding that touch on an important sentiment that inspired many of the contributions to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned destitution. If I am candid, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of
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analysis of this issue in the report. As the hon. Member for Ashford knows and as he said, people come to this country and claim asylum without any basis whatsoever. It is not an accident that three quarters of asylum claims are rejected. That happens because individuals are seeking to abuse the asylum system. If we are going to be honest and to try to have a balanced debate, that needs to be stated up front. It is then necessary to have a much more realistic engagement with some of the challenges and difficulties involved in removing people from Britain when they have no legal right to be here.

One of the most important barriers to removing somebody back to where they came from is travel documentation. We often need to detain people for extended periods to establish their identity, during which time we work with their embassy or consulate to prove to it that the individual whom we have in detention comes from that country and needs to be issued with a travel document to go back home. The truth is that many individuals do not want to comply with that process because they do not want to go back home: they want to stay in the United Kingdom.

The BIA can force the issue and seek to remove a person from this country in an enforced manner. That is expensive—according to the National Audit Office, it costs about £11,000 a time—but we are committed to doing more of that, which is why I have said that I will double the resources for enforcement in the agency over the next couple of years. That is also why we have sought to bend over backwards to help people go home voluntarily.

To those people who say that the Home Office is trying to run immigration policy in a way that appeals to the tabloids, let me say this: every time that we have sought to strengthen and reinforce the arrangements for voluntary returns, that is not a tabloid-friendly story. That is a story that is deeply unpopular with the tabloids, but it happens to be the most humane and efficient way of encouraging people to go back home voluntarily. I wish that more people would take it up, but the fact is that they do not. That means that we often have to enforce removal.

The difficulty with enabling people to work is that it creates a new incentive for them not to comply with that documentation process. For example, it is not untypical for us to succeed in detaining somebody and to open negotiations with their embassy or consulate about where they came from and why they need a new passport to go back home, whereupon that individual will then lie about who they are and where they are from and the embassy and consulate, after protracted negotiation in common, will come back and say, “We’ve never heard of them. I don’t think they’re one of ours.”

Therefore, we have a difficulty, in that we need to encourage the individual to comply with us, and multiplying the incentives not to comply with that process hampers the enforcement of effective immigration control. I shall give a simple example, just by way of anecdote. A large number of people who claim asylum and claim to be from Eritrea are going through a linguistic analysis pilot at the moment. Unfortunately, many of the people who claim to be Eritrean are actually from Kenya. One
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of the difficulties with running an effective immigration system is that people are not necessarily straightforward with the BIA about their background.

The debate about the right to work and other incentives is important and difficult. It would be tremendously fruitful if the Committee collaborated in designing a way out of a very difficult situation, to which the Home Office genuinely does not have all the answers. That is one area in which further work could be done.

Mr. Gerrard: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I have come across individuals who have not been honest about their country of origin and I understand the difficulties of getting papers. However, on work, the people who perhaps concern me the most are those whom we have identified and whom we know will not be returned to their countries of origin. We provide them with section 4 support if they agree to return when they can, but they might be here for a long time. We should consider them.

Mr. Byrne: That area of concern would benefit from a great deal more debate in the House and elsewhere. Section 4 allows people to claim support when there are so-called barriers to removal. However, one of those issues is outstanding legal representations, such as judicial review. The Home Office wins more than 95 per cent. of judicial review applications, so we know that that process is possibly being abused. My hon. Friend said that we know that they cannot go home. I have some difficulty with that. Only 9,500 people are on that kind of support. However, there is a genuine difficulty—this is not straightforward—because some of the barriers to returning home are created by the individual in question when they lodge a judicial review application.

For example, there about 16,000 failed asylum seekers from China—by far and away the largest number from any one country. In many of those cases, an independent tribunal will have decided that there is no human rights barrier to an individual returning home. As far as I know, there are pretty regular flights to China. However, by creating the opportunity to work we might well encourage more people not to co-operate with the redocumentation process, which is particularly problematic with China. That is a difficult problem, which should be debated further.

I want to thank the Committee for its work and advice on children. There has been considerable change in the Government’s policy towards children over the past 18 months. I have to sign the authorisation for every child held in detention for longer than 28 days. I have never signed that authorisation without thinking of my three children at home. It is a difficult thing to do. Very often, those cases involve individuals who have filed judicial review applications, been disruptive or sought to abscond. Those are genuinely difficult decisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made a point about the UN convention and the UK reservation. I continue to look at how the Committee’s ambitions can be met, but I have not yet found a way to do so. However, I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), continue to pursue that. In
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the new year, we will propose new policies to deal with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and present our conclusions on whether X-rays should be used. That is another difficult policy area. We have listened very hard to advice from medical practitioners and others. My concern remains about how we ensure that there are not adults in the children’s care system or children in the adult system.

As the hon. Member for Ashford noted as well, I am concerned that we look at how the burden centres on particular authorities, such as in Hillingdon, which the Committee quoted in its report, and how we can create a network of specialist authorities better able to share that burden. The duty to keep children safe is a new legal obligation under the responsibility of the Border and Immigration Agency and we will publish the code of practice, again in the new year. Crucially, those obligations will apply to contractors—an idea put to me not only by children’s charities, but by the Opposition in the House of Lords. I was happy to accept it.

The alternatives to detention pilot in Kent is dear to my heart. We have not made a big song and dance about it, but it is important. My ambition is that kids are not held in detention centres and that we find workable alternatives. I wish that people would check in voluntarily, but unfortunately those pilots have all failed. We concluded, therefore, that an element of restraint is important. However, we need a more humane approach.

I want to make a final point about balance. This has been a very important debate and I welcome the Committee’s report for keeping the subject alive. I hope that that debate continues. My one plea is that we conduct the debate with more balance. In the future, it would be helpful for there to be more engagement, analysis and constructive criticism of the processes involved in enforcing immigration laws. I should like there to be interviews with the immigration officers whom I have met, who talk about how difficult it is to arrest and detain somebody who has covered themselves with excreta in order to frustrate removal. I should like there to be interviews with young, often female immigration officers who have young kids of their own and who, at 6.30 am, have had to arrest and detain a non-compliant family, who have been abusive and are potentially violent, and to help get young children safely away. When we talk to immigration officers in that way, we can see how emotionally drained and gutted they are, and how difficult the job that they do for the British Government is.

I should like there to be interviews with those who run detention centres. The House would benefit from hearing on the record what it is like to keep order in a detention centre with people who, frankly, would rather be in a British immigration removal centre than on the back streets of the communities that they came from. The debate is difficult, and those are the realities of running an immigration system and enforcing the laws that Parliament has passed and that have been delegated to the Border and Immigration Agency to enforce. The subject is difficult, emotional and does not benefit from one-sided arguments. I hope that in the future, as with many arguments in the immigration debate, we can conduct it with a degree more balance.

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5.37 pm

Mr. Dismore: I have one or two brief comments to make in response to the debate, which has been helpful. As has been said, it is some time since we published our report and since the Government response, and we have moved on.

To pick up the Minister’s point about balance, it is important that somebody speaks up for those without a voice, such as asylum seekers. When we visited Yarl’s Wood, we spoke not only in private to detainees and their children, but to the staff—the ordinary guards who deal with the asylum seekers from day to day, locking the doors and so on, and to the management. I was very impressed with the professionalism of the two guards—I am not sure whether that is the correct term for them—who showed us around. They were sympathetic in dealing with people in their charge, but the fact remains that they were dealing with people who were detained, and I still question whether it is appropriate for children to be in those circumstances. I was pleased, therefore, to hear what my hon. Friend said about considering other ways to deal with the problem.

The Minister takes exception to our views on destitution, and suggested that they lacked analysis. However, we did not come to our conclusions lightly, but by analysing the evidence before us, which came from both sides of the House. The Home Office took the opportunity to present its evidence, too, but we were impressed by the enormous volume of evidence received from a plethora of non-governmental organisations and in our discussions with individuals in places such as Yarl’s Wood. That was why we came to our conclusions. The basic thrust of our argument is that although we accept that people come here who should not, and that they should be required to leave, the question is whether we can do that humanely. Are dawn raids to detain families with small children really the only way to go about it?

Obviously, some officers have very difficult stories, and we sympathise with them. However, we have to come back to the basic principle of trying to deal with people properly and fairly. We can remove people from Yarl’s Wood in a humane way, unlike the case that I mentioned in which a woman and her baby were put in a van at a moment’s notice. She had no time to change the baby’s nappy, get its milk or even a jumper to keep it warm. That is not humane. That woman could have been given 15 minutes’ notice so that she could change the baby and collect the items that she required. It cannot be humane to separate a breast-feeding mother from her baby. Those were the sorts of cases that we came across. That is why we come back to the point about how we deal with them.

On a more positive note, my hon. Friend the Minister talked about developments in areas such as health care and about section 4, and he asked us to keep an eye on them. I can assure him that our Committee has a policy of following up inquiries. Once Select Committees publish a report, they tend to look at the Government’s response, have a debate, and then forget about it. I can assure him that that is not our policy. We will follow up issues. For example, we are holding our own mini-conference on the Yarl’s Wood case in January. We followed up our inquiry on people trafficking. I am sure that my Committee will want to return to those issues, particularly to analyse his proposed new policy statements. I can assure him that
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we will keep an extremely close eye on those troubling issues relating to section 4 and health care.

It has been a very helpful debate. Although I may disagree with my hon. Friend on some of his conclusions, I am grateful to him for his co-operation and measured response. He has approached the issues sympathetically, even if he has concluded that we need to use the mail fist rather than the velvet glove when we
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deal with some of these people. I hope that he will reflect on some of the examples that we have given. The problem is that policy may say one thing at the top, but at the grass roots, where it is implemented, we see a very different picture. That is what drove us to our conclusions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Six o’clock.

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