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The overall backlog of asylum seekers awaiting a decision is currently just over 100,000. Of those on board the hijacked Ariana Airlines aeroplane, 73 have returned to Afghanistan, 13 men have been arrested and charged in connection with the hijack, and 69 passengers have applied for asylum.
Does the Home Secretary accept that the backlog of unprocessed asylum seekers has doubled under this Government since 1997? Is it not the case that while the Government estimate that 38,000 people can be processed in a year, more than double that number are appealing for asylum? Can the Home Secretary understand the anger and incredulity of people in Lichfield, at a time when both Staffordshire and West Midlands police are being slashed and when hospitals are under threat, that asylum seekers from Afghanistan are put up in luxury accommodation in the Hilton hotel? Does he understand that that gives the wrong sort of message and leads people to believe that Britain is a soft touch?
I think that what the electors of Lichfield will understand is that the hon. Gentleman is soft. They will also understand that the Administration he supported left extraordinary chaos behind them and that, despite the backlog, the time taken to make initial decisions in asylum cases has decreased from 20 months—the length of time they took in April 1997—to 13 months today. We do not plan only to deal with 32,000 asylum applications a year—thanks to the fact that we have returned investment in the immigration and nationality directorate to an upward path following extraordinary Conservative party plans to cut 1,200 staff even though people were waiting 20 months for an asylum decision. Asylum decisions are 250 per cent. higher than they were before the problems last year.
As for the litany of problems that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) alleges have arisen in his area since the election, including in education, the police service and the health service, I feel sure that the incredulity will be directed at him, because he is a member of a party that calls for increased investment in all key public services but votes against such investment and describes it as reckless.
I accept that hijackers must be dealt with firmly under international law, but does the Home Secretary agree that all asylum seekers must be judged fairly on the evidence, and not in relation to political statements that he or other members of the Government make?
I made it clear in my statement last Thursday and in subsequent comments that asylum applications are judged in accordance with the law—the 1951 convention as it has been interpreted by statutes here and decisions of the courts—but I wish also to make it clear that the hijack presents us with a clash of obligations. We have obligations under the 1951 convention; we also have clear obligations under international law, which the British public plainly support, to ensure that we take the strongest possible measures to prevent and deter the international terrorist crime of hijacking.
The Home Secretary knows that the national fire college at Moreton-in-Marsh is in my constituency. I say in parenthesis that it would have been courteous if someone in Gloucestershire had been informed, before we heard it on the news, that the refugees were coming there. I want to re-emphasise the Home Secretary's comments on "On the Record". We in Gloucestershire hope that the status of the asylum seekers will be determined as quickly as possible, partly for their own good—because the accommodation in Moreton-in-Marsh is spartan and unsuitable for long-term residential use—and partly because the asylum seekers should either be granted asylum, in which case they will receive long-term accommodation in this country, or refused it and immediately sent back to Afghanistan. Will the Home Secretary use whatever influence he has to ensure that the hijackers are brought to justice and dealt with swiftly so that, if they are convicted, they can be sent back to Afghanistan as a deterrent to others?
On the first point, I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman and the authorities in Gloucestershire were not informed, but he will understand that decisions had to be made very swiftly. In a perfect world, he would have been informed: we do our best to ensure that people are informed in similar circumstances. If he does not mind my saying so, we are getting a mixed message from the Opposition. The Essex police are criticised for using the allegedly luxurious accommodation in the Hilton hotel, yet the hon. Gentleman seems to believe that accommodation that is perfectly acceptable for trainee firefighters for many weeks is too spartan for asylum seekers.
On the speed with which those decisions will be made, I made it clear in the House on 10 February that my aim is to take them as quickly as possible, although the hon. Gentleman will also understand that there may be other processes thereafter.
On bringing the hijackers to justice, as I told the House a moment ago, I understand that 13 men on board the plane have been charged with offences in respect of the hijacking, but plainly it would not be appropriate for me or any other Member of the House to comment further on those charges.
The right hon. Gentleman informed the House on 10 February:
In the special circumstances of this hijacking … I personally will make the determination of any application for asylum made by persons on board the aircraft.
A sentence later, he said that he
would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable.
Does he accept that that statement was prejudicial to an independent determination? If so, was it a clanger or a ploy?
I am answering it. On Sunday, the right hon. Lady was saying the things that she is saying today; on Friday, she was, unusually, expressing sympathy for me, saying, "This is a horrible decision and not one that I would want to take"—I happen to believe that that view is shared by the country. The right hon. Lady said that she was quoting from the record; in fact, she was quoting only partially. What I said was:
Subject to compliance with all legal requirements, I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable.
That is a very different statement from the one that she has attributed to me, and of course it will not prejudice my determination of those claims.
Can the right hon. Gentleman imagine a circumstance in which a judge would say to a jury, "Subject to all your deliberations, I expect you to find a guilty verdict"? That is the exact equivalent of what he said.
May we move to another of the right hon. Gentleman's ploys? [Interruption.] Another ploy. He said over the weekend that he was interested in searching for third countries that might be willing to accept the asylum seekers on the hijacked plane. How many people who sought asylum in the last full year for which statistics are available have been removed from Britain to a third country, other than safe European countries through which they had passed?
I note that the right hon. Lady slid fairly quickly off her first point. She well knows that no Secretary of State is in the same position as a judge and jury—or even magistrates under our Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill.
On third countries, we are in discussion with a number of such countries as possible destinations for those who have remained in this country. The right hon. Lady asked me about the number of removals to third countries and I shall have to give her details of that in writing. However, I can tell her—and I am delighted to tell my hon. Friends—that the number of people removed from this country following failed asylum applications was 50 per cent. higher last year than during the last year of the Conservative Administration.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when he talks about removals being 50 per cent. higher, what he actually means is that he removed 3,000 asylum seekers in the last full year for which statistics are available—compared with the many tens of thousands of refusals of asylum applications? If not, his figures are wrong, and he should apologise, because that is what he said in a parliamentary answer.
May I return to my first question, as the right hon. Gentleman seems unwilling to leave it? Can he name any circumstance in which a Home Secretary, acting in a quasi-judicial role, has announced in advance the outcome that he would prefer? Is he not inviting judicial review? Would it not suit him to sound extremely tough and then find that his decisions were overturned by the courts?
I made it quite clear to the House last Thursday—I thought to the general approbation of the House, including the right hon. Lady and her party—that I would consider the asylum applications on their merits, as I always do consider decisions involving a quasi-judicial matter that is before me. What I said remains the case:
Subject to compliance with all legal requirements, I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable."—[Official Report, 10 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 418.]
I thought that it was important to place that on the record.
Members of the Conservative Front-Bench team have obviously been taken over by an infection of dodgy figures. I have the figures before me, and they show that the number of asylum applicants, excluding dependants, who were removed in 1999 was 7,650, compared with 4,840 in 1996.