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5.23 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I think it beyond dispute that the Government have mishandled immigration. In recent months, they have been active in trying to address a problem that they
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themselves allowed to grow over the previous 10 years. When they came into office in 1997, the attitude was that it was racist to talk about control of immigration—indeed, I should know, because I was talking about the control of immigration. The initial signals sent out were all that the system would be relaxed: the primary purpose rule was abolished; an amnesty was granted to 25,000 asylum seekers who had not even had their applications processed; and some high-profile deportation decisions taken by the previous Government were reversed. So, the signal went out: the system is now more relaxed.

Fairly recently, when the Opposition were asking for quotas—which we were allowed to have under EU law, and as some other countries were proposing to have—when we faced the likely influx of immigration from eastern Europe, the Government’s attitude was that we were being alarmist, that we had it wrong, and that it would all be perfectly all right on the night. That was a disastrous prediction, which has proved to be wholly without foundation. I think that there is merit in some of the Home Secretary’s proposals, and I welcome some of them, but they have come very late.

We all tend to talk about immigration as if it were a single mass lump, but it is roughly divisible into three separate strands, although of course there are sub-strands. The first strand is work permits. On the whole the work permits system benefits us: we compensate for the deficiency of skills by bringing people in. However, what was said by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is very true: over the years, it has become a rather stealthy method of entering the country for the purpose of home settlement, rather than merely to gain work at a restrictive time. Although there may be nothing new about that, if we are now thinking seriously about how to limit immigration, I think it right for us to examine the link between those who come here lawfully on work permits, but as a means of—equally lawful, at the moment—permanent settlement.

Chris Huhne: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I should like to continue for a short while, but I promise to give way later.

Chris Huhne: Will the right hon. Lady give way on the point that she has just made?

Miss Widdecombe: On that point? All right.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way, because I wanted to intervene on the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on exactly this point.

The scheme that you propose has been tried in both Switzerland and Germany. It is the Gastarbeiter scheme. The truth is that in a developed democracy, when the period for which people have come here to work has ended, there is not the will to throw them out again. As a result, they settle and, eventually, must be absorbed. I am afraid that you are going for a soft option which does not exist.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to have to correct the hon. Gentleman, but he has continually used the second person, thus involving—no doubt unintentionally—the Chair. He must get his language right.

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Miss Widdecombe: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have heard you make no pronouncement on this subject for a very long time.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that if the problem is absence of will, we shall have to find the will. We shall have to implement the systems. That is what today’s debate is is about: it is about finding the will that has been remarkably lacking in the past.

The second strand of immigration is the equally lawful but vast-scale immigration from the eastern bloc of the European Union. We had an answer to that, if only we had implemented it: to set quotas. It is possible that some of it will right itself, with people going back because of the economic downturn, but we need to take a much firmer approach to understanding that even if immigration is welcome—and I welcome the Polish plumbers: they are terrific—if it is on an unpredicted large scale, it will put a sudden pressure on the infrastructure with which we simply will not be able to cope. One of the reasons for the deep resentment that sometimes emerges from various sections of the community is not that the immigrants are unpleasant and not that people do not want them, but people’s recognition that schools, hospitals, housing and other services simply are not geared up to deal with a sudden influx of that order.

Mr. Davidson: Does the right hon. Lady believe that we need managed controls on future EU migration, particularly if Turkey joins the EU?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, I do. I think that experience teaches us that we must find some method of ensuring that we can exert more control than we have exerted so far.

The third strand, which I particularly want to address because it has been very much pushed to one side in recent public debate—swamped by the Polish plumbers—is the asylum system, which is still the biggest source of abuse of immigration in this country. It is the easiest way for people to come in clandestinely and then utter the magic words “I claim asylum”. They must then be admitted to the country while we examine their claims. As this is a country without identity cards and with a flourishing black economy, even now, it is also a country in which it is phenomenally easy to disappear. It is very hard to—

Paul Rowen: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I want to pursue this issue for a while as it relates directly to a point raised by the Home Secretary. This is a phenomenally easy country in which to disappear and the message that goes out is, “If you can get in to Britain, you are very unlikely to be removed.” Twice today, the Home Secretary came up with a ludicrous statistic: that we are removing somebody from this country every eight minutes. Once the Government have stated targets, it is, as the Home Affairs Committee pointed out, the soft targets that are removed.

We do not have an army of immigration officials trying to find those people who came over here, registered and then disappeared into the system, precisely because they are mighty hard to find. Instead, we have people going to the doorsteps of those who have stuck by the rules, given their names and addresses to the Home Office and reported faithfully every week. Before now,
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on constituents’ behalf, I have given chapter and verse in this regard. Then we hear, “Oh look, it is a removal.” We must distinguish between removing those who are seriously abusing the system and removing those who have stuck to the rules but who may then be unsuccessful. There is a huge distinction and it is one that the Home Secretary was very careful not to make.

I can only say that I stand by the policy that I have always advocated for the control of the abuse, not the use, of the asylum system. I believe that all new asylum seekers should be housed in secure reception centres while we consider their claims, so that we can distinguish much more quickly the genuine ones who get clogged up in the system. That cannot, of course, be done by Tuesday afternoon; it has to be rolled out. Under that system, we will know where those to whom we will say no—which can be 80 per cent. in any given year—are, and will be able to remove them. Then the message will go out: “Come to Britain with a false or flimsy claim and you will be detained, dealt with quickly and sent back.” Nobody will pay £5,000 to a human trafficking agency for that.

That is not to say that we do not welcome those who are genuine, but simply trying to solve this by finding—by whichever way it is done—some overall number, as the Home Secretary seemed to suggest, and saying that everything has to be dealt with within that number, will not allow us to make the distinction between those who use the system and those who abuse it.

Paul Rowen: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I will in half a second. The greatest resentment that people feel towards immigrants is towards those who come here illegally, play the system and do not contribute. If we are seen to address that, there will be a generosity towards the others.

Paul Rowen: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Does she agree that in addition to the abuse, perhaps the greatest issue as regards asylum seekers are the legacy cases—the 430,000 people in this country whose whereabouts are known to the Government and whose cases are still unresolved? Does she agree that that is a real and pressing issue?

Miss Widdecombe: It is obviously in the interests of fairness and efficiency to resolve people’s cases. With my system acting as a deterrent to people coming in, we would have fewer cases to deal with and we would be able to resolve them much more quickly. I regard my proposed system as a contribution towards greater fairness and efficiency. As I said, there are genuine people clogged up in the queue.

Mr. Frank Field: Does the right hon. Lady accept that if we had a Government who were more successful in controlling our borders, the case that she is making would become more important as people sought other ways of entering when, up to now, they have found it easy to come here legally?

Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman and all the House will accept that, whatever we do, people will try to find ways round it. That is why I am trying to counteract such disappearances.

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However, none of this is to say that we should not welcome genuine asylum seekers. We live in safety; we will walk out of this place tonight without fear of arrest or persecution because, even under this Government who try to police everything, we still live in a reasonably free country. We should remember that, but that is not to say that we should ever tolerate the consistent and growing abuse of our system, which does a disservice not only to the indigenous community, but to those who are welcome here and who seek to join us on a lawful basis.

5.35 pm

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): It is an honour and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), and I do not mean to cause offence, so I hope she will not mind too much if I say that Poland is not in eastern Europe. This is not as difficult as the difference between Kentish men and men of Kent; a brief examination of an atlas will show that Poland is in fact at the heart of Europe.

Miss Widdecombe: I meant that Poland was a former eastern bloc country, which it was.

Stephen Pound: Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I stand corrected.

It is absolutely right that almost every contributor to this timely and important debate has mentioned the extraordinarily beneficial impact of immigration on this country. These islands are, in fact, a nation of immigrants. I sometimes think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) is probably the only purely English Member of this House. If we think about what makes up our nation, it is clear that we have been refreshed by constant waves of immigration. However, despite—or, maybe, because—of this, we have never been able, at least during my brief time here, to discuss this subject objectively and sensibly; we seem to have squeezed ourselves into, as it were, a lobster pot of liberalism, whereby we are so anxious to avoid giving offence that we cannot realistically discuss it. One of the easiest things for Members to do in this House is to make a speech in defence of unlimited immigration to this country, and to talk about the great advantages of that, and always to play the race card in a way that is not normally thought of, as it is actually playing the racist card. We can easily make a speech that is something of a Southwark squirm, going on and on about the great advantages and simply refusing to accept that there are also profound differences and disagreements.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)—who appears to have been temporarily deported from his place in the Chamber—made an extraordinarily interesting contribution, but he was wearing the fixed smile tinged with anxiety of the charity mugger as he was trying to make his case, because the point he was making sits ill with the reality of his party’s actions when it was in power. I cannot be the only hon. Member who remembers that in 1997 people would come to advice surgeries who had done 14 years on student visas—14 years doing degree after degree, and constantly coming back and
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retraining. After 14 years, many of them were married and had children, and it would have been a vicious cruelty to have then forcibly removed them from this country.

We have heard about legacy cases. There were people coming to my surgery in the late ’90s and the beginning of this century who had been here for so long that they had almost forgotten where they came from, and these people were in many instances supported and subsidised by crooked solicitors and lawyers. If there is one thing we should do above all it is to continue in our examination of, and clamping down on, those blood-sucking leeches who take cash from the weakest and most vulnerable people by holding in front of them the false promise of British citizenship in exchange for a lump sum in cash. That was the reality then.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could find the time during his contribution to respond to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the co-founders of the group on balanced migration of which I am a member, of breaking in two the process of arrival here and ultimate settlement, with just a stage for points to be obtained for employment purposes, and then points at a later date, perhaps, to be obtained for settlement. Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is important to break that automatic link?

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend seldom rises to speak in the House without enlightening us. He scatters the caliginosity that sometimes reigns here, and as ever I agree completely with him. He is absolutely right that there has been an automaticity in the process. The assumption was encouraged, in many cases by those who should have known better, that once a person had worked here for a certain period, the process would be just as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said. It was assumed that someone would claim asylum, be refused, appeal, be refused, go to an asylum and immigration tribunal, be refused, make a human rights appeal, be refused and then somehow get exceptional and then indefinite leave to remain. They would then become a British citizen. It was a tedious, long process that utterly destroyed any attempt to have managed, let alone balanced, immigration.

We are discussing not specifically asylum seekers but the Australian points-based system, secure borders and border controls. Above all, we are discussing a profound and fundamental disconnect between what is often said in this House and what is felt, feared and expressed by our constituents and in the wider world. I am not saying that we are guilty of some trahison des clercs, but we seem not to be in tune with the majority of people in this country. In that darkness, extremism grows. If we do not confront the issue utterly seriously, people who have no interest in democracy will flourish. That is the true problem, and that is why it is so important that we discuss the matter today.

Mr. Davidson: Given that my hon. Friend is on his train of challenging sacred cows and listening to the views of our constituents, does he agree that we ought to be questioning whether uncontrolled EU migration should continue to be accepted?

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Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend, in his seductive way, tries to lead me down a different byway.

Mr. Davidson: Is that a yes or a no?

Stephen Pound: No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend on this occasion, but I do believe in a managed, balanced migration system, wherever the migrants come from. We are a European nation and part of Europe, and I am proud to be a European and a Londoner. We gain massively from our membership of the European Union and I see absolutely no problem with it, but it does not completely devolve power and control over our own borders. That is why, given all that I have heard from the Minister, I salute him and am immensely grateful to him for raising these often uncomfortable subjects. He has done the House and the nation a great service. Since April, 11,000 potential illegal immigrants have been detected and prevented from crossing the channel. That sort of action and work and the move towards a border agency are very important.

The hon. Member for Ashford talked about a border police that would be responsible for removals. When I am on holiday, I sometimes find it embarrassing to admit my job, and sometimes I suffer from difficulties. Can the hon. Gentleman imagine what sort of person would admit to being a member of the deportation squad? That is what we are talking about—a sort of Waffen-SS of the Border and Immigration Agency. The people involved would have the specific job of being deporters. Who would do that, and how could they do it objectively? That is why the existing structure of the UK Border Agency is so much more sensible, so much better and so much more with the grain of public opinion.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman completely wipes the slate clean about how these matters were handled in the past and praises the fact that we are now able to talk about them in a responsible atmosphere, will he concede that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and I introduced regulations to control asylum benefits and made many of the same arguments about the difficulties of controlling asylum and immigration when we were in office, we did not get the same considered reception from the Opposition Benches? The undercurrent from the Opposition was that our motives were wrong, which is not how the current Opposition are prepared to handle the debate. We would have been able to have much better discussions had the Opposition at the time handled the matter differently.

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