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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that the migration was based partly on the settlement for the independence of Commonwealth countries? Commonwealth citizens were given rights as British subjects, which they exercised.

Lord Renton: My Lords, that is history. Perhaps I may move to the present. We had to introduce the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which limited the right of Commonwealth citizens to settle here. The Labour Party voted against it on more than 40 occasions and threatened to repeal it when they came to power. However, the Labour Government did not repeal it but strengthened it, and quite rightly so.

According to the 1961 census, which was then the relevant figure, the population of the United Kingdom was 51,284,000. Thirty years later, according to the

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1991 census, the figure was 54,192,000, which is an increase of nearly 3 million in 30 years, which was not too bad. But now the figure is nearly 60 million, which is an increase of about 6 million in 10 years. That is a very big burden for the people of our country to bear.

Of course, England is much more heavily populated than other parts of the United Kingdom. Therefore it is in England more than elsewhere that immigrants have caused unemployment, housing congestion, hospital, health and education problems. They contribute towards urban congestion in our large towns and cities.

Although the number of asylum seekers has greatly increased in the past few years, it is fair to point out that the problem had already become serious when the present Government came to power in 1997. It is now worse. We must give the Home Secretary, Mr Straw, the fullest support in such attempts as he has been able to make so far to deal with the problem. I need not repeat the arguments which have already been used about the need to strengthen controls in various ways. As I say, I believe that they should be strengthened, which is what the great mass of our native people expect the Government to do.

4.34 p.m.

Lord Joffe: My Lords, when I arrived in England as an asylum seeker about 35 years ago it was with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude to be in a free and tolerant country where human rights were respected and those fleeing from persecution were welcomed. When I was granted British citizenship five years' later I felt immeasurable pride to be a citizen of such a country. But today, when I read the newspapers demonising immigrants and recklessly stirring up hatred of them, with many politicians competing with each other in proposing ever more draconian measures to prevent immigrants entering this land, I hardly recognise this country as one of which, above all others, I had aspired to become a citizen. Having now listened to the speeches in your Lordships' House today, I am greatly encouraged that I made the right decision.

It is almost inconceivable that, on the one hand, the Government are set on depriving poor countries of the nurses, teachers, information technology specialists and other professionals, which these poor countries so desperately need, and on the other hand, the Government are erecting almost insuperable barriers for many political refugees and economic migrants. Surely, that does not accord with the principles of justice and fairness for which this country once had a fine reputation.

The starting point for an examination of the issues must surely be the reasons for some of these barriers. Are they myths or realities? Some noble Lords who have spoken today have exposed some of them as myths. I chair Oxfam. It has produced a briefing paper examining the major arguments used by the media for their attacks on immigrants. If I had the time I could take noble Lords through it. It covers issues such as

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Britain being a soft touch, taking more than its share of refugees. It also deals with council taxes being increased to fund asylum seekers. It either rebuts many of these myths, putting them in the dustbin, or places them in their correct context. Having read and studied them all, one really wonders what is the media's motive in raising the issues in the way that they do and ignoring the impact that their actions have on refugees both in and outside this country.

In practice, the Government have erected barriers to the admission of all immigrants. There are two distinct categories of immigrants; one is asylum seekers who are entitled to entry and the other is economic migrants who, as a rule, are not so entitled. To the extent that the barriers created discourage or deprive genuine asylum seekers from entry, the Government must surely be in breach of their obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees to which they have subscribed.

There are positive steps that the Government could take to assist genuine asylum seekers. Perhaps they already exist and the Minister may refer to them in his reply. Surely, it would be possible to fast-track the applications of asylum seekers who have a strong case and to avoid sending them to detention centres.

Turning to the second category, economic migrants, there is a powerful case for a coherent policy which would enable an appropriate number of them into the United Kingdom each year. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has made the case far more eloquently than I could. I would add one caveat. It cannot be right to cherry-pick and limit entry into the UK in order to allow in only professionals which the country needs. Surely, it must be the case that if we are to deprive poor countries of the skilled resources which they desperately need, we must be willing to accept as future citizens an appropriate number of less skilled, and even unskilled, immigrants.

I make one final point regarding refugees seeking political asylum being restricted more or less to the countries closest to where they are being persecuted. The argument raised by the United Kingdom Government seems somewhat self-serving. Because Britain is an island bordered by the European Union, the number of asylum seekers who would enter Britain as the "first safe country" would be very small.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing this subject to your Lordships' attention, and for his well-balanced remarks in opening the debate. There is little doubt that serious problems exist in our immigration and asylum policy and it is alarming to hear from the Immigration Service Union that the asylum system is nearly out of control and that there is no satisfactory system for returning bogus asylum seekers.

However, I wish to be clear from the start that I really do believe in giving asylum to those who are found to be genuine asylum cases. The problem is that there are too many bogus asylum seekers and far too

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many illegal immigrants. It is to these people that my remarks apply, not to the genuine cases. I support the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Renton.

There has been a staggering increase in asylum applications in the United Kingdom. Applications rose from 26,000 in 1990 to just over 76,000 last year. This country now ranks second after Germany for the total number of entrants. This begs the question as to why so many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants attempt to come to the United Kingdom and how we can stem the flow to ensure that genuine asylum seekers are dealt with in an efficient and speedy manner.

Some of the reasons why asylum seekers come to this country have been given by the Home Affairs Commons Select Committee. There is scope for them to live here without any official documentation; there is a generous interpretation of asylum law. An excessively slow decision-making process allows them to live here for years while their cases are reviewed. Benefits are readily available, and there is a good chance of a job. There is a hopelessly inefficient system for removing them if and when they are told to go, and they have access to public services such as health, education and housing. In fact, it has been said that the UK is known as a "soft touch".

Another reason that makes it easier for asylum seekers to come to the United Kingdom is that, once they have crossed into one European country, there are no border controls until they attempt to cross the Channel to come here. There is no doubt that the majority of applicants have been in a democratic country--frequently referred to as a "safe country"--before reaching the United Kingdom. But more alarming is the fact that two-thirds of all asylum applicants are already inside the country.

Under the outdated 1951 UN convention, we are still obliged to consider requests for asylum. The convention clearly needs revising. However, it would be a huge and time-consuming task. The Government do not believe that this would be the most efficient way to progress. However, under the convention it seems open to a country to return an asylum seeker to a safe country through which he or she has travelled. The convention protects them from prosecution for illegal entry only if they have come directly from their country of origin. Illegal entry from a safe country is not protected. Clearly and logically, the requirement is for asylum applications to be made in the first EU country reached. Any subsequent country to which the applicant travels should have the right to insist that the application for asylum be made in the previous country.

It is clear that some other countries operate their border policy in a different way to that of the United Kingdom. But we are fortunate still to have border controls. We had the good sense not to sign up to the Schengen agreement; otherwise, the flood gates would really be open. We are fortunate that Britain is an island, with identified ports of entry, be they by rail, sea or air.

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It is interesting to note how other countries deal with this problem. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book. Illegal immigrants entering Germany from the Czech Republic and Poland are returned to those countries immediately without the issue of asylum being raised, as it is deemed that they have come from a safe country and so have no need to seek asylum in Germany.

It is clear that our measures to deter and detect illegal entry into the UK are not effective. It beggars belief that the Home Office is not aware of the number of failed asylum seekers who leave of their own accord and, consequently, it does not know how many failed asylum seekers remain as illegal immigrants. There is no system for monitoring departure and, because the Government do not know whether visitors, students and failed asylum seekers have left the country, they cannot tell how many people have remained beyond the time permitted. This in itself must make the UK very attractive to illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers. It is important to note that the Home Affairs Select Committee has recorded the Home Office as being dilatory in enforcing the removal of people whose asylum claims have been refused and those who have gained illegal entry into the UK. This in itself has attracted more people to this country.

In conclusion, how can some of these factors be counteracted in the immediate future? We should search all lorries while in transit on ferries. A card should be issued for entitlement to benefits. That would have the effect of helping to deter and detect illegal immigrants; it would certainly help to address benefit fraud. Employers should face substantial fines if they are found to be employing and exploiting illegal immigrants. We should provide the necessary resources and up-to-date technology to ensure that the Immigration Service can do its job efficiently and properly. Finally, we should ensure that asylum applications are made in the first EU country reached.

4.46 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for providing us with the opportunity to debate this matter. I should like to join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, in concentrating on the public perception of asylum seekers.

In November last year, a group of young asylum seekers addressed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children. Among them were two Kosovan young men, one of whom was head boy at his new school, a young Eritrean man, a young woman from Afghanistan and a young Nigerian woman. The last of these was incensed. She could not tell schoolmates she was an asylum seeker. She felt that, if they knew, they would shun her. Several of the young people expressed their gratitude at being given refuge in Britain. However, the mood of the meeting was one of outrage at the portrayal of asylum seekers.

It is wholely unacceptable that children who have experienced persecution in one country should face further aggression where they should expect

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protection. Your Lordships are doubtless aware of the hardships experienced by refugees. These have been highlighted in this debate. Their tales of liquidation, destruction and family loss are familiar to Members of this House, if not so much to members of the general public.

Perhaps I may give my own illustration. Last spring, I became acquainted with a young Somali man who had spent three weeks sleeping on the streets of King's Cross before finding a bed at Centrepoint's shelter in Soho. His village had been razed and his parents had been killed. He did not know what had become of his brothers. A foreign traveller offered to help him leave the country. He entered Britain, somehow missing the normal authorities and was taken into the home of a Somali woman. Eventually, she was no longer prepared to house him. As he had missed the normal immigration procedure when he first entered Britain, he was not eligible for benefit. So he found shelter in an arcade in King's Cross. He appeared to me to be a gentle and well brought-up young man of intelligence, exhausted after his ordeal.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree with me that in our anxiety to control the flow of economic migrants we should not wish to, albeit inadvertently, perpetuate the hardship of refugees in this country. A small number of asylum seekers have been placed in detention camps. Most are not allowed to work in their first six months here and are given vouchers to buy their food and other essentials. The Government may or may not be justified in such measures. However, the consequence of these measures is that asylum seekers are made to seem like criminals, outcasts and layabouts. The effect is to degrade asylum seekers in their own eyes and in the eyes of the public--as Mustapha, a contributor to the Prince's Trust research into the needs of disadvantaged young people put it to me this morning.

I am encouraged by the news from the Refugee Council that local authority consortia in the dispersal areas are making good progress in their health, education, housing and media plans for asylum seekers. Can the Minister assure the House that those media plans will be well resourced and robust? Can the Minister say what else is being done to ensure that the public are aware of the circumstances of refugees? The warm reception of Kosovars in 1999 demonstrates that if politicians and the media communicate those circumstances the public can be overwhelmingly sympathetic. What steps are being taken to make all students aware of why people become refugees? I recognise that this is an issue for which the Government are castigated perhaps more by their own Back-Benchers than by the Opposition.

The fact that the Home Office is beginning to reduce the backlog of asylum applications is most welcome. The fact that removals and voluntary departures of asylum seekers increased by 8 per cent last year is some encouragement although it must be qualified by the comments that other noble Lords have made this afternoon. If the Government were to achieve their goal of a four month turn around for asylum seekers,

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that would dramatically improve the way asylum seekers are perceived by the public. However, currently, many of the British public appear fearful at what they see as rising numbers of asylum seekers. There is a possibility of their assuaging that fear by attacking asylum seekers or supporting attacks in the media. The current situation is grave.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating the debate. The noble Lord was at one time a Member of Parliament for mid-Sussex where I live. Of course he did not expect me to vote for him, but I have listened to him with great care. His contribution today is an example of how we can debate such issues without giving rise to saloon bar politics.

Immigration and asylum issues are fairly emotive. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Greaves highlighted what could happen if such issues are raised in an emotive way during a general election campaign. In the past we have seen such issues exploited. I suspect that with the proximity of the general election in a couple of months, the same pattern may again emerge. My appeal to politicians is to take great care in the way such issues are debated. I hope that they will follow the example of the noble Lords, Lord Renton of Mount Harry and Lord Garel-Jones, and others in the way they debated the issue. I was disappointed at the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I listened to him with great care. In one clean swipe he has destroyed my hope of ever being classified as a native person of this country. However, I shall, of course, forgive him for that.

Rational debate is part of our political process but that carries with it a responsibility to ensure that it has no damaging effect on those who need our protection. There is evidence that emotive debates have resulted in violence and harassment, as has been repeatedly pointed out today. It would be a shame if, in the country to which asylum seekers have turned for protection from persecution, they were to find themselves victims of harassment based on xenophobia.

Britain has a rich history based on a nation of migrants. They have made a unique contribution to the prosperity of our nation. In arts, science, technology and politics they have made important contributions. Let us consider the last major intake of refugees in the 70s. The noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, mentioned that. In that case a Conservative government accepted over 28,000 Ugandan Asians. No one would dispute the fact that they have made a great contribution to our economy. We are indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, who was Home Secretary at that time, for the way he handled that issue. To this day many east African Asians worship him for the action he took. It was a courageous political decision and a lesson for successive Home Secretaries to follow.

We are now seeing major political parties competing with each other in their readiness to curtail the arrival of newcomers. Of course, every country has a right to

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determine its immigration policy and must take into account the national interest. With the increasing development of a global economy, the pressure to migrate is immense. There is no doubt that the distinction between economic migrants and those in fear of persecution is often blurred.

Equally, western nations require the skills now available in many parts of the world. The drop in the birth rate signals a dilemma for countries such as Germany and Britain. In a declining working population, who will pay for welfare and pensions? It is here that we need to balance the rhetoric with reality. We shall have to look at immigration and the arrival of newcomers as an ongoing process. No longer can we slam the door in the face of those who can make a substantial contribution to the prosperity of our nation.

However tight the controls, we know that they do not always work. The Runnymede Trust report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain states in relation to the control mechanism:

    "There are three problems with this approach. First the sense of panic the issue instils and the subjectivity with which it is discussed lead to bad law, giving rise to challenges both in the UK courts and among international human rights bodies.

    Second, it prevents or obstructs an objective and forward looking examination of the need for, and benefits of, immigration.

    Third, it undermines Britain's development as a cohesive but diverse society, for it implies or indicates that politicians are not genuinely committed to addressing all forms of racism".

Those are hard words but politicians have themselves to blame for the present situation. The way we have dealt with asylum issues must bring shame to those who are responsible for the legislative framework we have established. What is the reality: three major Acts of Parliament over six years and press campaigns that smack of xenophobia?

The situation facing us today is of our own making. The previous administration happily allowed cutbacks in immigration staff to a level which seriously affected the ability to handle the backlog of applications. The present Government did little to recruit additional staff until the backlog reached crisis point. That situation should never have been allowed to happen and the Government should bear full responsibility for it. As my honourable friend Jackie Ballard said in the other place,

    "If people in other countries know of a backlog of applications in the United Kingdom, how long it takes to process the applications and the inadequacy of the system to monitor the departure of failed asylum seekers then that in itself is a pull factor that draws them here".

We need to separate economic migrants from those who are genuinely in fear of their lives or who are persecuted in their homeland. What we have done over a period of time is to close all doors so that there is no way in which a genuine asylum seeker can enter the country legally. That is why we see massive exploitation of human cargo and why we see people suffocate in container vans. Those who are responsible for such exploitation are never brought to justice. All of us must condemn such practices.

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Let us consider those who arrive on our shores. Have they broken any laws? The law provides for them to claim asylum, which many do. It is the system and the weakness in the decision-making process that create the backlog. If the Government cannot reach a decision on time, they must accept the blame. To make asylum seekers scapegoats is unacceptable.

In May 1997, the average intake per month was 2,590. In December 2000, it was 5,820. The total in that year was 76,040. Today the figure stands at 71,160 or thereabouts--a slowly declining number. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, pointed out, in terms of asylum applications, the UK ranks 10th out of 25 in Europe. As has been said, this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the refugee convention relating to the status of refugees. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a right to seek political asylum. The convention on refugees gave that right legal expression. We have a long history of offering refuge to those who flee persecution. We must maintain our obligations. It is still a reality that the vast majority of refugees remain in the developing world. Many of those countries do not receive sufficient international aid to cope with that influx. We have seen the rise in violence, war and persecution in many parts of the world which has contributed to the growing number of asylum seekers.

The Government were ill advised when they made earlier pronouncements about bogus asylum seekers and beggars only to retreat when public opinion condemned such volatile expressions. We support the proposals for common EU asylum procedures, but we are concerned that refugees seeking asylum should remain in the first country to which they flee.

The proposal is flawed. It would place an even greater responsibility on some of the world's poorest countries which already host an unfair proportion of the world's refugees. Of course we need to distinguish between illegal immigration and asylum seekers. We need to separate economic migrants from those who are victims of persecution. We need to co-operate with other EU countries to fight organised crimes relating to trafficking in human cargoes.

But we must never lose sight of the contribution that refugees have made to this country. They have brought economic benefits to this country. Those communities have gone through all the disadvantages and yet come up with success stories. We should welcome them. In generations to come, we shall value their contribution because that will determine the prosperity of our nation.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, all noble Lords appreciate the initiative of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry in securing the debate and his introduction of it. The result has been a calm and constructive debate about what we all agree is an extremely difficult and potentially emotive subject. We can also agree that it is both an economic and moral question, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said. We have long accepted our obligations to genuine refugees.

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However, there was also considerable concern during the debate, as there is outside the House, that the Government's policy is not working satisfactorily. It is working neither efficiently nor humanely. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was supposed to deter unfounded applications. Statistics demonstrate that it has not done so. The dispersal and support system was supposed to spread asylum applicants across the country to be looked after. That is not succeeding.

The statistics are clear. The number of applications was 76,000. That does not include dependants. The figure is 100,000 including dependants. Of those applications, half or so are eventually refused but, according to the Home Office, only about 9,000 actually leave. The union tell us that about 12 a month are removed forcibly. About 1,200 a year leave with financial assistance; and others leave voluntarily. The Government's new system is not deterring applications. Neither does it prevent those who are not refugees from staying more or less permanently

Those figures demonstrate that it is not solely a question of perception. People need the reassurance that there is a fair but efficient system which looks after people who come as potential refugees. If they have that reassurance everything else becomes much easier. When the dispersal and voucher arrangements were being discussed during the Bill, there was a great deal of scepticism and foreboding throughout the House. Many of those warnings have proved right.

A most interesting Answer to a Written Question by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on 6th February stated that there are 534 staff employed by the National Asylum Support Service of whom 523 work in head office and one in each of 11 regions. So whoever else has been dispersed, it is not the support system. Its motto seems to be, "Go where we say", not, "Come with us". That issue may need to be considered.

Reference has been made about the review of the voucher system. On 27th November the Home Office asked for responses by 22nd December. If the Home Office could respond to those submissions with the same speed with which they expected other organisations to submit their view on this difficult subject, we should have had the result of the voucher review in mid-January, even allowing for Christmas; I do not tie the Home Office down to a precise number of days. When shall we see the results of the voucher review?

Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to the need for guest workers. We need some immigrants for economic reasons which I understand. But a separate system of work permits addresses that question. It works reasonably smoothly and allows temporary and often permanent immigration into this country in the national interest. That is the system which should be addressed with regard to that question; it is not the subject of today's debate.

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The underlying, long-term problem which is the subject of today's debate is clear. We live in a crowded island. We have debates on the shortage of housing and land, in particular in the South East, the Midlands, the west of England, the London area, and so on. I think that we have been tolerant of foreigners throughout most of our history. Many Members of your Lordships' House--we have heard from the noble Lord who spoke recently--are descended from immigrants and many holders of ancient peerages have a lot of overseas blood. We have a long tradition of accepting refugees. There is no doubt that we have benefited from that.

Despite some of the newspaper headlines, I believe that there remains in this country a great reservoir of caring towards those who come to our country in this way. It was illustrated magnificently in the debate, notably by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham who spoke about what was being done to look after refugees in the North East. Over many years, we have accepted economic migrants and sympathise with their reasons for coming.

However, the world is much smaller. Travel is much easier than it used to be. Information travels more easily. More people know about the conditions in other countries. Reference has also been made to the fact that there is fighting in many parts of the world. Civil war and repression give rise to huge movements of refugees. I believe that we cannot take all who would like to come. We have an obligation but we need a humane and efficient policy to deal with it if we are to reassure our people. I am sorry to say that I do not think that the present system is working humanely or efficiently.

This country has made a considerable contribution to development aid and conflict resolution. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke about them. They play a huge part. But criminal gangs have given rise to increased problems with asylum seekers. I hope that the Minister will find a minute or two to tell us more about what is being done to combat criminal gangs, because we all hate that phenomenon and want it to be dealt with as severely as possible. In particular, we want an assurance that the organisers of the gangs who profit from the practice are at least in danger of being locked up.

The debate has also raised other questions. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to appeals dismissed in the absence of the applicant. That is a result of dispersal and of the difficulties in making contact with legal representatives in time.

There has also been confusion in the past few days about the costs of current asylum policy. The Minister in the Commons, Mrs Roche, said that the cost was 600 million, but the Home Office letter to No. 10 Downing Street in the Sunday Times said that it was 834 million this year. There seems to be some confusion. It would be helpful if that was cleared up.

The Home Secretary has started talking about revising the 1951 convention and about EU co-operation. That is useful, but it is for the long term.

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The daily problems need to be dealt with. That is why my right honourable friend Ann Widdecombe has suggested secure reception centres for asylum seekers. That is a humane contribution to the problem, not an inhumane one. We can look after people better in reception centres, where interpreters, social workers, lawyers, medical services and immigration officials can attend to them. Of course, the change cannot be made overnight, but it can be given priority, particularly as the Ministry of Defence is shedding barracks and camps. This seems a good time to start. We have done it in the past in special cases, and it must be at least part of the future of this very difficult subject.

5.12 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I join in the general congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating the debate. More than that, this afternoon he has begun to lead us in a more constructive direction in the character and content of the debate. In one sense, his speech might be seen as a fightback from the liberal wing of the Conservative Party. I read it that way. His plea for decency and fact to lead this important debate should be welcomed throughout the House. I was pleased that noble Lords welcomed the way in which his speech was delivered. I found much to agree with in the content of the noble Lord's speech--but then, I found much to agree with in the content of many of the contributions to this stimulating debate, which I hope that people will take careful note of.

The issue of asylum is frequently the subject of public and media discussion, as many noble Lords have said. However, its complexities are rarely well understood. The front page of this morning's Sun newspaper gave an ample example of that. An abuse of statistics is an understated way to describe that front page. It ignored the facts. Last year--it is important to say this for the record--there were more than 9,000 removals of asylum seekers, not the 12 that the front page tended to suggest. That exceeded a previous record of 7,600 in 1999. That compares with 4,840 in 1996. There were also more than 28,000 non-asylum removals last year. The number of cases in which there has to be an escort to a point of destination is 30 per month. I do not understand where the statistics that the Sun decided to alight on came from, but they are misleading. Such misleading statistics and facts have been all too common throughout the debate on a subject that should be dealt with dispassionately, decently and with integrity, because it is a sensitive subject.

At the risk of adding to the welter of statistics that have already been bandied around your Lordships' House this afternoon, it is right to try to put the asylum pressures in context. The total number of applications last year was 76,000. That was an increase of nearly 7 per cent compared with 1999, but it was smaller than the increases in the preceding two years. There was no increase in the period from April to December 2000 compared with the similar period in 1999.

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As many noble Lords have said, it is vital to recognise the European and international context of the figures. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, made that point. In comparison with the zero increase here that I have mentioned, other European countries have had increases: the numbers for Sweden increased by 53 per cent, for Denmark by 42 per cent, for Ireland by 18 per cent, for Belgium by 16 per cent, for France by 14 per cent and for the Netherlands by 6 per cent. The figure for the EU, excluding Italy, was 1 per cent. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, we remain in the middle of the European league for the number of applications received per head of population.

The number of asylum seekers applying in the United Kingdom, as well as in other European countries, is largely a result of political instability in other parts of the world. It can be little accident that the top four countries are Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. In contrast, we have successfully reduced numbers from countries to which removal is more straightforward. From April to December last year, applications from eastern Europe were at 3,295--almost half the number for the same period in the preceding year.

Asylum is a complex issue for any Government. Many noble Lords have made that sensible point. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. We are committed by the convention to provide genuine refugees with protection from persecution. We shall do so with pride. However, there can be no doubt that asylum is being used by traffickers, who profit by exploiting illegal immigration. We must take firm action at national and international level to deal with that criminal activity. We must also take action at international level to deal with some of the factors that create asylum pressures for the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, who made that point, arguing for conflict resolution and aid as possible means of solving some of the problems.

On the domestic front, we have embarked on the most comprehensive programme of reform for decades. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was right to call for investment. We have invested. In contrast with the under-investment in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate under the previous Government, we are investing to create a modern and efficient system. We have recruited more than 3,000 extra staff, including about 500 asylum decision-makers. As a result, a record 110,000 initial decisions were made last year. I pay tribute to the hard work of all IND staff, which has contributed to the tremendous achievement that those figures represent. The backlog of initial asylum applications has fallen by a third, to 66,000, as at the end of last year.

Faster decisions do not mean lower-quality decisions. We have invested heavily in providing high-quality training to our case workers, who also have support from a team ofbarristers working alongside them. As a result, adjudicators upheld decisions in eight out of 10 appeals last year.

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The Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Lord Chancellor's Department are working together to deliver a faster appeal system. The Lord Chancellor has trebled the courtroom capacity, doubled the number of interpreters and appointed an extra 150 adjudicators. The average time that it takes to hear an appeal has halved over the past 12 months. Almost two thirds of appeals are dealt with in four months.

For those who are allowed to stay at the end of the process, we are working to ensure speedy and effective integration into society. My noble friend Lady Whitaker made a plea for that, and that is exactly what we are doing. Over the centuries, refugees have enriched our society. Last year, we launched a national strategy to co-ordinate the efforts of central and local government and the voluntary sector to ensure that we achieve that integration.

Again, I want to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, on the work that he undertook when he faced similar problems in the early 1970s. I believe that his work provided an example and a beacon which future governments must live up to. We certainly intend to play our part in doing exactly that.

In the interests of genuine refugees, we must also face up to the need to remove those who make unfounded claims. That is perhaps more straightforward in relation to some countries than it is to others, but it is always extremely resource-intensive. We are providing substantial additional resources to support asylum removals.

Next year we intend to return 30,000 failed asylum seekers. That is a bold claim and it will certainly be a tough target for us to meet. We are recruiting additional immigration staff and expanding detention capacity. The development of three sites which will provide 1,700 extra beds is under way. With the International Organization for Migration, we are developing a voluntary return programme. However, no one should underestimate the difficulties of that task. In the case of many countries, achieving the return of unfounded applicants is extremely difficult. Those difficulties are shared by all European countries.

In parallel with the additional resources, the 1999 Act represents the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration legislation for three decades. Two key provisions were rolled out from April last year. The new National Asylum Support Service began on 3rd April. I would argue that it has established a coherent, national system of support to replace the shambles created by the legislation of the previous government. That left local authorities in London and the South East with an intolerable burden. The new scheme has been phased in very carefully.

I believe that those who, for example, criticise the dispersal arrangements must remember that it was pressure from many Conservative authorities which led to the introduction of that scheme by our Government. Those authorities have welcomed that

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approach. I accept that, as with any new system, there will be operational difficulties and pressures. However, the system is working better than many people predicted. As it beds down, the distribution of responsibility for supporting asylum seekers will be much better and fairer.

During the course of the debate this afternoon we heard praise indeed for the extension of the civil penalty scheme, which deals with those who bring in to this country clandestine entrants by road, through the Channel Tunnel, by ferry, and so on. As we made clear, the purpose of that measure was to encourage hauliers and others to improve security and thus prevent their vehicles being used and abused by the facilitators who organise clandestine and illegal entry for their own profit.

We are now seeing the benefits of the scheme. The civil penalty has created strong commercial pressures on hauliers and ferry operators to introduce better security systems. In early December, P&O Stena Line introduced carbon dioxide checks on vehicles which use their ferries at Calais. As a result, so far almost 1,400 persons have been found and handed over to the French authorities. Compared with the four weeks before the checks were introduced, in the four weeks from 6th December there was a 41 per cent reduction in undocumented passengers and clandestines dealt with at Dover.

Other measures in the 1999 Act are also helping. Wider powers to fingerprint applications are helping us to tackle fraud and abuse by deterring multiple applications. In December, a new electronic fingerprint system was introduced at the Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon. It will be extended to the major ports soon. More than 100 fingerprint matches have already been identified from new applicants at Croydon. Thirty-two applicants have been arrested. Of those, 11 have been charged with various offences, including making false statements and obtaining leave to remain by deception. Four have been convicted, with two receiving sentences of imprisonment for three months. We are also now extending civil penalties to freight trains.

The Act has been implemented in a planned, phased way. We are yet to see the full effect of its provisions and of other measures that we have introduced. In particular, we have still to see the full effect of faster decision-making and appeals, extending the civil penalty to rail freight, and increased removals. However, there are good signs that our strategies are having an impact on unfounded claims from Eastern Europe.

I want to turn to the need for effective international action--

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