Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 17 December 2003.

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[Relevant document: The First Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2003–04, on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, HC 109.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department 1:33, 17 December 2003

Before I move Second Reading, Mr. Speaker, I should be grateful if you forgave me because, in the light of the court judgment that Ian Huntley is guilty of the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, I felt that the House would want to send the families our love and concern. Our hearts go out to them this afternoon. I shall lay a statement before the House and, in conjunction with the Opposition spokesmen, take steps to initiate an investigation into some of the events that took place from 1995 onwards.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I understand that the shadow Home Secretary is ill, and send him our best wishes for Christmas. [Interruption.] There seems to be some demurral among Liberal Democrat Members, but I send good wishes on their behalf—let us be joyous for Christmas. The Bill is part of a jigsaw that includes not only the legislation already on the statute book but the administrative measures that we have been using to improve the operation of our border controls and immigration system. As the House knows, there have been substantial improvements in recent years, but we all accept that many changes are still required, both in legislation and to improve administration. To repeat what I have said when we have debated these issues over the past two and a half years, Ministers are painfully aware of the difficulties of achieving substantial improvement, given the significant rise in the number of people applying for asylum, while at the same time modernising and improving the rest of the immigration and nationality directorate. We often forget that asylum is only a small part of broader immigration and nationality responsibilities. There have been considerable improvements in the non-asylum elements of the service, but there is still a great deal to be done.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Is my right hon. Friend not concerned that, notwithstanding the fact that the consultation period on the Bill did not comply with Cabinet Office guidelines, it has not been possible, even today, to get hold of a summary of the report on the responses to that consultation? That report is specified as a relevant document, but I could not get hold of it until 12 o'clock. Does that not cause him concern, as we are considering legislation without all the relevant information to hand?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, we laid the response to the consultation before Parliament today.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I authorised it to be placed in the Library this morning, so I apologise to the House if that has not been done—[Interruption.] I understand, however, that some Members have been able to obtain it from the Library.

In our debate on the Queen's Speech, I spelt out the key elements in the Bill that would enhance and support the work that has already taken place. There must be a determination of honesty in relation to individuals and those advising them before the authorisation of the initial decision and the subsequent adjudication. We should consider the blocking of people who arrive at our airports, throw away documents or refuse to co-operate either with the process of determining their country of origin and their passage into the country or with redocumentation for return purposes—I shall come back to that.

We must deal with the question of organised criminality—the way in which people, with the connivance of facilitators and organised traffickers, become involved in international trafficking and criminality. We need to extend the measures that we have already put in place on sexual exploitation, in both the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and the sex offenders legislation.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not all the public feelings of antagonism towards our present system are the result of media hyperbole or invention? There has been a large increase in the criminal elements who are getting involved in the asylum process to the detriment of the public acceptability of our asylum policy—and, indeed, the acceptability of all our policies.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree entirely. Asylum has been regarded as an opportunity by international gangs of organised criminals to make a great deal of money. Very often, they have made money out of the exploitation and degradation of people with whom they have been dealing. They take large sums of money, sometimes for children whom they have trafficked across the world and literally dumped on our soil, unfortunately in large numbers.

Of course, those gangs have often done that alongside multiple criminal trafficking activities and the smuggling of drugs and guns. They switch between the different opportunities that they see to make money. They have obviously been doing so in the wake of worldwide people movements—the enormous movement of people across boundaries, which we have discussed in the House before—on a scale unprecedented in our history. Whereas 20 years ago, very small movements initiated by major catastrophes were the order of the day, now, partly because of communication, partly because of the English language and partly because of the economic changes in the world, people are desperate to seek a better life, as well as to seek refuge from terror, and opportunists have taken advantage of that.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

No one disputes the amount of criminality involved, and we remember the Chinese who suffocated to death and who were undoubtedly the victims of criminal gangs, but does my right hon. Friend accept that much of the controversy over the proposals could be avoided if more attention were paid to the quality of decision making? The Home Affairs Committee report, to which I was a party, makes the point, which I am sure my right hon. Friend has noted, that, whereas one in 25 appeals was successful in 1994, the figure has risen to one in five. The quality of decision making by Home Office officials is so important, and some of the controversy about the taking away of children as a last resort could be avoided if that quality were improved.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am terribly sorry but the last point is completely irrelevant. It has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of initial decisions, or the subsequent appeals that take place. Clause 7, which we will come to in a moment, deals with those who have been through multiple appeals systems and have not had the initial decision to refuse overturned. My hon. Friend does his case no good at all by mixing the very real issue of improvements in decision making with the issue of clause 7. If hon. Members take every opportunity to use anything, no matter how extraneous or irrelevant, to deal with clause 7, we will not have a sensible debate this afternoon. I say that in all sincerity, because clause 7 relates to people who have failed to establish their right to be in the country.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way in a moment, but first I shall address the sensible and rational issue that my hon. Friend raised—the quality of decision making. The massive increase in volume, especially over the past three years, which can be tracked in terms of the numbers coming in, has undoubtedly put enormous pressure on the system. We accept, as Ministers, that we need to take steps to improve decision making, and we have already done so. That has certainly been true of the recent steps that we have taken, including a fast-track system, building on the experience of Oakington and Harmondsworth, and ensuring that the non-suspensive appeals process is robust.

We accept that further steps are required. My hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is announcing today that we will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, accept UNHCR's offer to work with our training programme to improve decision making, and undertake integrated work with the adjudication system, so that we can learn the lessons and get it right. I am happy to respond to such approaches and to the justifiable concerns expressed by hon. Members in all parts of the House to make sure that the system is administratively competent, that there are no delays and above all that we do not have to overturn on appeal.

There is one other element. None of that discourages people from seeking the asylum route when they would be more justified in seeking legal economic migration. The steps that we have taken to secure our border controls with France are the most significant thing we can do, together with the signals to organised traffickers, to prevent people from seeking asylum when it is not asylum that they want, but a better life, offered through the massive expansion of the work permit system.

Photo of Mr Jon Owen Jones Mr Jon Owen Jones Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff Central

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in response to the strategy that he is setting out on how to deal with asylum seekers who have failed to show that they have a right to asylum in this country, he is opposed by a fantasy island strategy and a Nelsonian blind eye strategy that pretends the problem does not exist?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes. I am trying to match the two together—Nelson in search of a fantasy island that does not exist and that has apparently been wiped off the map by the Leader of the Opposition, who decided last week, I think, that the Opposition could not find such an island, despite the help of ITV, and that they might seek a peninsula somewhere far away instead.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend has taken to improve what is happening at the immigration and nationality directorate, but one of the problems is that Home Office presentation officers do not attend court. A large number of cases are adjourned because the officers do not attend. Will he take steps, with the tribunal service, to make sure that they turn up to present their case, so that cases will not be adjourned?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We have taken urgent steps, and carried out further recruitment and improved training, and there will be a new tranche of presenting officers in January, to avoid such delays and circumstances in which officers are not available, with the consequent cancellation of the hearings to which my hon. Friend refers. That is not acceptable. We understand that that aspect, like much else that we have been dealing with, needs to be improved, and we give a guarantee that it will improve in the new year. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is taking the issue on board, as it is extremely important.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Many parts of the Bill touch on day-to-day immigration matters, not the controversial issues of asylum. Overseas students, whether they go to public sector institutions such as universities or further education colleges, or private language colleges, make a valuable contribution to the UK economy through their fees, and when they return to their own country, they usually leave well disposed towards the UK. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he does not intend to use clause 20 to charge that group of applicants more than the actual cost to the Government of processing their visa applications and visa extensions? If he were to do so, it would, in effect, be a tax on an important export industry for the UK.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We all accept, as I did when I was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, that we wish to maintain the high levels of application and entry to this country for qualifications. That has the advantages that my hon. Friend outlined. Clause 20 is an enabling clause. I guarantee that we will consult before laying an order. The factors that my hon. Friend mentioned will be a substantial part of our consideration, in conjunction with the Department for Education and Skills. I want to put it on record, because it is not often said, that considerable benefits arise from the availability of the education process in this country and from all the ancillary support and health facilities that go with it, which are not available in other parts of the world. That is one of the attractions for people coming, including—this is not the same thing as asylum seekers—those who bring their families and receive education for their children and access to health care. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

In light of what the Home Secretary fairly said—that decision making is, by and large, of poor quality and needs to be improved—is it not extremely unwise and possibly unjust to remove judicial oversight of the process at this stage?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

First, I did not use those words. I said that, given the number of appeals that were overturned, we accepted that there was room for improvement. Secondly, we are not overturning the right of appeal and it is that to which the 20 per cent. is relevant. That particular appeal is not affected by the proposition that we are putting before the House this afternoon.

I do not simply blame the media—that is a fairly fruitless task anyway, especially at Christmas—but it is important that people do not automatically believe what they read but study what we are putting forward. That is why the provisions in the Bill streamlining the appeals and removal process, preventing the exploitation of legal services and allowing generous legal aid and advice are crucial.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

My right hon. Friend just referred to what one reads in the newspapers, but did he see the claim in a newspaper a couple of days ago that an asylum seeker in Britain receives on average about £16,000 a year in benefits? I find that hard to believe, but that is true of most of what I read in the newspapers about the asylum system. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

There are two separate issues here. One is the total cost of processing and supporting applicants. The other is what they receive, and it is important to distinguish between the two. A family would receive less than £7,000 a year in direct support, but what was presented to the Home Affairs Committee by the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration was the total cost. We have been transparent about that and it is one of the issues with which we seek to deal, in terms of the totality of the draw-down on the public purse.

Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the fast-track procedure at Harmondsworth has been extremely successful, but does he also agree that, this being the fifth immigration and asylum Bill to come before the House, the real problem, apart from entry, is removals, and if we can get that right, we can crack the system? The level of removals is still very low. Will my right hon. Friend give us a guarantee that this time we will crack that issue and that we will not be back here in a year's time with another Bill?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I think that all agree that removals are important, but let me take this opportunity to set out the challenge. It is important to understand the difficulty that we face on removals. We have increased the number of removals to 1,500 or 1,600 a month, which is now over 18,000 on an annualised basis. We separately remove 1,300 people a month, and the figure is rising, who are here illegally but who, before we managed to remove them, did not claim asylum. We have separately managed each month to stop 3,000 clandestines getting into the country. The total picture is rarely presented because in our media, which I have already said I love, one set of people is told to present the worst possible side of asylum and immigration and another is completely convinced that it is not an issue and that it should present the matter as though we have some sort of obsession. Neither reflects the reality. The developed world is addressing a difficult challenge and we are part of that process.

The difficulty in removals is not simply fast-tracking, giving people their final decision and then putting them on a plane or a boat; it is the process that stops us from being able to achieve the goal. First, there are legal constraints, which is why we intend to improve and streamline the appeals and judicial review process. Secondly, there is the issue of documentation. Even if individuals or families are held in a secure removal centre, they cannot be removed without the documentation that allows the country of origin to take them back. That is a crunch issue, because 70 per cent. of applicants either have never had or have thrown away their documents. Many of them are now being advised, sometimes by disreputable people, that if they do not co-operate in the redocumentation process we cannot remove them, and therefore we will continue to sustain them. Therefore, without the documentation required by the receiving country, we have the devil's own job to trigger compulsory removal, which we are undertaking, and without a country to receive them, we have nowhere to remove them to. We cannot eject them into outer space.

The complexity of these issues is growing by the day. Every time we close a loophole, the facilitators and those behind them, and many advising those who claim asylum, tell them what to do. I understand such advice from those who are dedicatedly against any removals, with their campaigns for what they call no deportation, but in terms of fulfilling public policy and having a system that works and is trusted, and in which people have confidence, we are constantly fighting a battle to close the loopholes and thwart those who will use any ends to make a monkey of the system.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does my right hon. Friend have any concerns about the conditions faced by people who, after an unsuccessful asylum application here, are deported to a country from which they have fled and who may then be open to abuse and intimidation? What monitoring is undertaken by his Department or in British posts abroad, and what consideration is given to the safety of such people when they return?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The whole system is geared not to send people back to countries where they will be threatened with death and torture. That is the whole basis of the 1951 convention and of our immigration and asylum laws, and will remain so. Secondly, people whose individual claims fail, but whose country of origin, to which we would usually return them, is considered unsafe, are not returned. That is the serious problem that we face with regard to people who have no legal right to be here but whom we cannot remove on humanitarian grounds—and we do not intend to change that. We of course monitor and take the international, as well as national, in-country assessment. As a consequence of the previous legislation we agreed to have an advisory group and to take further advice, so we are going out of our way not to send such people back. Even if people inside or outside the House disagree with the Bill, when we return people who have failed all their claims and whom we can return to a country that we believe to be safe, where appropriate we shall assist them with resettlement, as we are doing at present with regard to Afghanistan.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

The Home Secretary said that there was evidence to support the view that 3,000 clandestines were prevented from coming into the United Kingdom each month, and I should be grateful if he would substantiate that claim. Will he also clarify—[Interruption.] The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration laughs, but the Home Secretary made the claim, and it is worth having it substantiated. Secondly, what will the Bill do to make easier the removal of people with no documentation? The House appreciates the problems that the Home Secretary explained, but I cannot see anything in the Bill that will make that task easier.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

On the first point, the statistics relate to those who are turned back at the new border controls in France—and now in Belgium, where we have put in place facilities at Zeebrugge—and therefore do not claim asylum at our ports and airports. The statistical facts on those people, who are turned away because they have no legitimate right to be in the country, are on the record. Presumably, people do not know about that because we do not shout about it loudly enough, but I have every intention of doing so from here on in.

On redocumentation, we are working with countries across the world from where large numbers of returnable people seek asylum, to get them to accept simplified and speeded-up measures for acceptance of nationality or a simplified redocumentation system. We are putting in place a system to guard against those who throw away their documents when they get off the plane—bearing in mind the fact that they must have had a passport and other documents to get on it in the first place. That includes our consultation on copying relevant parts of those documents to ensure that we are able to present the facts to the person's country of origin. That measure will assist us substantially.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Does the Home Secretary acknowledge the damage that is done to community relations when many decent citizens without a racist bone in their bodies become understandably frustrated by the fact that after several years of different pieces of legislation from Governments of two different political persuasions, there remain massive delays in processing, a degree of profiteering by certain unscrupulous lawyers and advisers, and extensive profiteering by private landlords, all at the taxpayer's expense? What will the Bill do to address those issues?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree with my hon. Friend's analysis. That is the kind of discontent and disquiet that others feed on and use to cause friction, break down social cohesion and damage race relations. That is why, through the administrative changes in the Bill, we stress that people should be honest in terms of their presentation of the facts and their willingness to give evidence on what has happened to them. The Bill will help us to tackle organised criminality; to strengthen our borders; to speed up the system, including the adjudication and appeals process; to tackle bogus advice; and to deal with legal aid.

As well as taking measures to ensure that people have to present their case honestly, retain their documents and tell the truth about their country of origin, we need to be sensitive in understanding the difficulties that some asylum seekers face when they reach the country. The process and the legality of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 was upheld by the courts, and we intend to respond to that through the Bill. The measures that we are introducing, following discussions with refugee organisations, will allow us to be more flexible in assessing whether people have been in the country for any length of time. That is why my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration will announce today that we will provide to those who make the decisions the necessary adjustment in advice to allow them—subject to people's giving an honest account of how they reached the country and how long they have been here—72 hours, rather than the current 24 hours, in relation to people claiming asylum and being entitled to benefit.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for making that point about greater flexibility in relation to the time that is taken to apply for asylum. Another problem is the difficulty that the National Asylum Support Service faces in accepting that, a decision having been made, a person is really without any means of support and qualifies for assistance under section 55(4) of the 2002 Act. Apparently, several hundred applications to court have not been opposed by NASS in cases where court orders have been given instructing it to provide support for people who, having had an adverse decision, find themselves on the street and destitute. Will the Home Secretary accept that that is a second component where more flexibility is required?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Where a court indicates through judicial review that we have an obligation to reconsider the case or to provide support, we will of course do so. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman make known to my hon. Friend the Minister of State any examples of cases where that is not being done.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In a moment. I should explain that I now intend to move through the clauses so that Members are able to intervene at relevant points. However, I shall give way once more if my hon. Friend has a general rather than a specific point.

Photo of Mr Iain Coleman Mr Iain Coleman Labour, Hammersmith and Fulham

With reference to the Home Secretary's comments on section 55 of the 2002 Act, does he recall the informal discussions that he had with me, and a number of my hon. Friends, prior to its introduction? My recollection—I stand to be corrected by the Home Secretary—is that we were told that it was not the Government's intention to use the powers in section 55 for people who had just arrived in the United Kingdom, and that we were talking about not 24 hours or 72 hours but, at the very minimum, weeks, if not months.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I think that during that meeting we moved delphically from 72 hours to a period of months. I have never said that those who have been in this country for months could establish a claim to asylum. The purpose of section 55 was to prevent those who had been in the country for other purposes, on other visas and for other requirements from finding themselves destitute and deciding that this route was the fastest and most effective way of gaining public support in relation to subsistence and housing. We indicated that that was not the correct way in which to do so.

Asylum is about those who are threatened with death and torture escaping from that and seeking sanctuary in this country. We offer that sanctuary readily, but on the basis that when people arrive they demonstrate that they are asylum seekers, not economic seekers of a better life or people who have come for other purposes and do not want to go back home. I am seeking, with my hon. Friend the Minister, to ensure that we show a deal of flexibility within the requirement, so that people should be prepared to co-operate with us. That is not unfair—it is something for something, which is the principle that we apply in terms of the welfare provision offered to the indigenous population of this country.

Clauses 1 to 5 tackle illegal immigration and abuse of the system, and clause 2 is specific about the undocumented arrivals that I mentioned. I shall not go into that again, because most people would accept that it is unacceptable to throw away evidence of where one has come from and which plane one arrived on, and that we should take action on that.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

I support the Bill and the measures that the Home Secretary has introduced in past years, mainly because of the effects in my constituency: I echo what my hon. Friend Mr. Salter said about the way in which community relationships can be destroyed by a feeling that the situation is out of control. However, will my right hon. Friend give us some assurances and securities in relation to specific clauses? For instance, as regards people coming in without documentation and destroying their documentation deliberately, can he assure us that he will go to some lengths to inform incoming passengers that that will be a penalised offence, so that they do not take the advice of the traffickers, tear up their documents and end up being prosecuted unnecessarily?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is a sensible point. We should work with sea and air carriers to ensure that the message is clearly conveyed. We have tried to make more sophisticated the subsidiary ruling on airports in relation to section 55 of the 2002 Act. At one stage, we were almost being asked to provide public address systems at airports to tell people that if they wanted to claim they should do it immediately. That struck us as a trifle odd, but I accept the thrust of the helpful suggestion of my hon. Friend Mr. Prosser; I believe that it would help people to thwart traffickers and facilitators.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Further to that point, would it not be even more satisfactory if, at the embarkation points, we had copies of asylum seekers' travel documents, which would detail likely points of departure? Even if they destroyed the documents, we would then know their identity. Could not such a responsibility be placed on carriers?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We are consulting on precisely that point. We are in discussion with Departments that have an interest in the matter. I should like to ensure that such a liability did not interfere with free competition or disadvantage British-based carriers. We should try to ensure that that does not happen. Any such provision would be in conjunction with the purchase and presentation of a ticket and run alongside the visa regime which applies to countries where visas are required.

Clause 6 deals with people's preparedness to give a reasonable explanation. I have commented on that in the context of thwarting facilitators, and that is linked to clause 2. Clauses 4 and 5 introduce a new criminal offence and build on the powers that relate to sexual exploitation, which I mentioned earlier.

The behaviour of those who are authorised to take steps to provide credibility will be important. The credibility of the claim, and the credibility clause, as we may deem clause 6, will enable us to respond to the debate a few moments ago about providing a better, faster and more sensible method of dealing with the initial decision. Adverse behaviour makes a hell of a difference in such circumstances. The countries through which people have passed, the way in which they present their claim, timings and much else will be considered.

I hope that hon. Members will give me a moment to explain our thinking on clause 7. There is disquiet about our holding families in detention centres when their claims have failed and they are in the process of being redocumented or given removal directions. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration responded to concerns about children who are held in those centres by saying that there will be what might be called a ministerial lock. The Minister will not only monitor but have to approve any lengthy stay in removal centres. The conditions in which families are held in those centres have been and will continue to be improved.

Some people fundamentally oppose holding families in removal centres, however. Some fundamentally oppose compulsory removal of families—picking up children and families, putting them on a plane and removing them. Anxieties about that have already been expressed this afternoon. Some people, including some hon. Members, are worried about the withdrawal of public support from those who have been through a lengthy process, including multiple referrals by letter and interview, and a 14-day stay while the family is further informed about what will happen.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way to both hon. Members shortly.

Some people oppose all three measures that I outlined and believe that if people will not leave, we should simply do nothing and accept the position as a burden of a modern, economically successful country. I do not agree with that.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party, Perth

The Home Secretary mentioned the comments that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration made yesterday. She said that children would be held in Dungavel removal centre for an initial period of 28 days and thereafter, they would be subject to a ministerial review. Does not the Home Secretary accept that for a child, 28 days at Dungavel is 28 days too long? Surely, as a plain-speaking man, he accepts that that will punish innocent children for the actions of their parents. By what means will the Bill exclude the competence and jurisdiction of the children's panel system in Scotland, which has primacy over the matter?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Lady knows that the issue is reserved. There has been a massive campaign about Dungavel. The average time families are held in removal centres is 10 days because there are some long-stay cases, but the bulk of cases are dealt with in five or six days. On Monday this week, 38 children were held in removal centres in the United Kingdom. I regret the holding of any child in a removal centre and I want other measures to be applied to avoid that happening. They include encouraging people to be redocumented and supporting them with free return and, when appropriate, resettlement. That is why, in a sensible debate, people cannot simply rule out every possible measure to achieve a public policy goal and then criticise the Government for failing to achieve it.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I welcome the news of progress on monitoring children and families in detention centres. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the oversight will include input from the relevant social services authority with child protection responsibilities? In expressing frustration about the way in which some asylum seekers try to thwart the system, will my right hon. Friend also confirm that their children are highly unlikely to have played any part in the decision either to come to this country or to try to evade immigration authorities?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

First, I accept that social services have a highly relevant and appropriate central role to play in protection and in our education programme. On my hon. Friend's second point, of course I accept that the children are not responsible for their parents' decisions, but neither are we. We have to deal with children and support them wherever we can, consequent on the decisions and responsibility of their parents.

We are considering an issue of fundamental values. The primary concern of parents is the well-being of their children. That should come first, second and third. If it is in the interests of that well-being to comply with sensible and sensitive removal to the country of origin when asylum seekers have failed to establish their claim that they faced the threat of death and torture, they must take responsibility and accept the consequences. Parents, not only the state, must take responsibility for consequences. I reiterate that the state has an important role of last resort. However, in a civilised society, it is our job to protect children and not to give way to, second-guess or replace parents' responsibility for the care of their children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I accept my right hon. Friend's comments, but does he agree that much of the welfare state's work is protecting children from the consequences of their parents' actions, and that, by and large, that should be done by keeping families together?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As someone who was a chairman of social services for four years and dealt with difficult issues, such as removing children from their families, I accept my hon. Friend's point. I accept that we should take every possible step to ensure that children are well cared for, supported and maintained in their family unless they are at risk. As we have seen cases from Maria Caldwell all the way through to Victoria Climbié, our only objective is to protect children's interests when the decisions of adults whose care they have been in—parents or otherwise—have led to their being at risk. When they are at risk, we intervene to care for them.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Liberal Democrat, Winchester

Will the Home Secretary give an absolute commitment that social services will be informed at the point at which a decision is taken to withdraw benefit from a family with children, so that social services are not brought in too late?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The obligation on the family is, first, to accept the removal directions and to be removed—we shall be tracking these families—and secondly, if they are in distress, to indicate that that is the case so that we can take the appropriate steps, including, as a logical conclusion of destitution, although not as part of the Bill, supporting the tiny number of children whose parents have taken such a contrary decision that it has put those children at risk. That is the normal practice. We are not in the business of trying to engineer a situation in which children are at risk and destitute and have to be taken into care. That is neither the role of the state nor the will of the Government. Had this issue not been totally distorted publicly after three weeks of the initial consultation, we might have been able to hold this debate on a more sensible basis.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The whole House will agree with the Home Secretary that the actions of adults have consequences. However, the question at issue in relation to clause 7 is whether those actions should have consequences that are visited on the heads of children.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In every circumstance in which parents make decisions and are held responsible—whether it is parents who engage in unlawful action, parents who neglect or abuse their children, or parents who are no longer in receipt of benefits as a result of their actions—we have to take steps. In the domestic situation—and I am familiar with the legislation—section 1 of the Children Act 1989 enables social services, in extremis, to intervene financially. What we are saying is that we are prepared to intervene financially: we are prepared to pay the fare and provide support to those being returned to their country of origin. [Interruption.] That pager might have been providing an answer that I needed to give to the House. I thought I had better pause for a moment in case it was something vital. What we are not prepared to do is to get ourselves into the situation in which parents, having gone through all the processes that I have described, know that we will not withdraw public support from them because they have a child. In those circumstances, what chance would we have of getting the growing number of people being advised not to co-operate with re-documentation and removal to leave? That is the simple public question: what do we do, and what do people expect?

Our actions have consequences, as do the decisions of parents. Through our actions, we have identified a massive and growing problem: 70 per cent. of those claiming asylum do not have documents, and many are not co-operating with re-documentation. They are being advised by those who should know better to "play the game". So what do we do? Do we simply say, "If you are a family, when you touch British soil, you are here for ever"? We cannot do that and have a credible system.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way in a moment.

Let us bear in mind the fact that, when one hon. Member said earlier that the real issue was removals, there was an enormous number of "Hear, hears" around the Chamber. I can say, "Hear, hear," to the removal of those who have no legal right to be in the country, but not to taking away any steps that we put forward to make that a reality. It is the challenge of a legislature to make decisions, to ask the Executive to implement policies that are both credible and administratively possible, and to back them in taking those difficult decisions forward. When we were debating the previous legislation, I said—this is in Hansard—that I believed that people would encourage us to step up removal, but that there would be tears when removal was implemented. That is the case.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My right hon. Friend knows that the Home Affairs Committee and I support the principle behind clause 7, as I hope to explain later. I welcome the fact that, earlier this afternoon, he said that he was looking again at the way in which section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 is being applied, perhaps because some of the consequences had been harsher than the House or he intended. Does he take from that the fact that the House must look very carefully at how the Government would implement clause 7 in practice, to ensure that it achieves the outcomes that he wants, rather than resulting in consequences that we would find unacceptable?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I accept that stricture from my right hon. Friend. I am pleased that his Committee is not recommending that clause 7 be removed from the Bill. I accept that, as with so much legislation, it is crucial that the Executive are properly scrutinised and that the House—including the Home Affairs Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs—does that job. That is part of Parliament's democratic role, and it is a very important one. If we can be shown to be in the wrong in terms of the way in which we apply legislation administratively, or to be too harsh or too soft, the House should hold us to account. While I cannot engage in a subjective judgment, as requested by the Select Committee, in terms of predictions of numbers, I can assure its Chairman that we will present all the facts to it and keep it informed on how we are implementing this legislation.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am sure that many of us sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman in terms of the very difficult decisions that he is trying to balance in the Bill. He referred to people who ought to know better giving poor advice, and to people making a monkey of the legislation. Does he have—or will he take—the power to withdraw legal aid contracts from firms of solicitors that consistently give poor advice, propose failed appeals and bring forward failing arguments?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs is to implement a review of the legal aid system, which will apply from April, and, with the Legal Services Commission, a new accreditation system for those providing advice—not to withdraw the accreditation but to ensure that there is proper monitoring. We are also strengthening the powers of the commissioner in the Bill so that he can achieve what the hon. Gentleman is seeking, in the interests of good advice and public probity and of ensuring that the very large tranches of public money that are going into the system are used wisely.

Photo of Mr Keith Bradley Mr Keith Bradley Labour, Manchester, Withington

I seek further clarification on clause 7. I have here a briefing which states that

"local authorities will have to take whatever action is necessary to protect the children. In most cases, this would not involve taking children into care".

Will the Home Secretary clarify exactly what actions local authorities should take where they do not take children into care?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

There might be family friends and members of the community who are able to assist. Let us bear in mind that 30,000 people in London receive benefit only, and not accommodation, and therefore are presumed to be accommodated by the host community or by family and relatives in this country.That is an interesting point in itself. We were enjoined not to withdraw benefit only when we introduced the measure in the 2002 Act, and we have not done so, because we have listened to the requests of hon. Members not to do that.

Those in a responsible position should give advice and support to families to encourage them to take up the offer of voluntary as opposed to enforced removal. Other measures in the Bill will assist us with enforced removal. With the fast-track process and better notification of the removal directions when the final appeal is turned down, we should be able to achieve a more streamlined system.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I want to return to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham. The Home Secretary is asking us to accept that very few children will be taken into care or be made destitute as a result of clause 7, but large numbers of people could be affected. It is a question of how the provision will be implemented. Some of us have studied section 55 of the 2002 Act. My hon. Friend Mr. Coleman asked for an assurance that that would not be used against people who have been in the country for only a short time—a matter of days. However, as we have just been told, the practice was 24 hours. I have a letter issued two months ago to someone who was denied support and had been in the country for one hour. How are we expected to accept assurances when that is our experience of what has happened under section 55?

Photo of Janet Dean Janet Dean Labour, Burton

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way in a moment, but I would be grateful if I could first answer the question put by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard.

There are two separate issues: one is the individual's claim and the other is the credibility of the claim. Any individual can claim that they arrived only an hour ago, depending on where they arrived from and what mode of transport had got them within an hour of being able to make their claim.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

If it was accepted that the person had arrived an hour ago, their claim to enter the asylum process and to receive support, including at an induction centre or through the fast-track process, in which the country of origin may be taken into account and the non-suspensive appeal may apply, should have been put in place. I am happy to take my hon. Friend's complaint if the procedure was not followed and the situation was badly handled.

I acknowledge that in the period after the 2002 Act was passed a year ago we had multiple claims from people in-country who had been here for some time and whose credibility was in considerable doubt. We believe that in the circumstances that we are now addressing, alongside the legislation dealing with greater credibility, we should exercise a degree of flexibility. I am happy to take criticism for having been too harsh, but I will not take such criticism when I have actually been more flexible and have acknowledged that what is being said to us has merit and we have changed our minds.

I shall give way one more time, to my hon. Friend Mrs. Dean.

Photo of Janet Dean Janet Dean Labour, Burton

It is clearly nonsense for the asylum system to be run in such a way that those who fail in their claim can carry on receiving public money. But will my right hon. Friend assure the House that people who have failed in their claim receive adequate warning that public funds will be taken away from them? That is vital when children are involved.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I can give that absolute assurance. There will be multiple notifications, interviews and a further period of notice. People will be clearly informed of the consequences. The whole intention is to have a process that avoids that problem. The fast-track process, the sensible operation of removals, including encouragement to leave voluntarily, resettlement help and, despite the difficulties of planning consent, the experimental accommodation centres, were all designed to achieve precisely that. We want people either to move through induction to accommodation, receive a validated claim and be integrated, or to receive a removal direction and be removed immediately from the accommodation centre—as opposed to a secure removal centre, where we have to hold people in secure provision. Someone has always been against all that in one form or another.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration and I just have to accept that we will not satisfy everyone, either this afternoon or during the operation of the system. I respect the view of those who believe that, whatever the circumstances, families should continue to receive benefit on the ground that there may be some detriment to their child as a consequence of their decision. I understand and respect that view, but I cannot agree it as public policy.

I want to move on to clause 10, because I am sure that hon. Members will want to discuss the issue of decisive speed and effectiveness in dealing with the present system. Clause 10, together with schedule 2, will introduce the fast, speeded-up single tier of appeal. An appeal will be retained, and within the single tier multiple tracks for different forms of application. There will be an appeal to the president of the immigration appeal tribunal, and the ability on points of law to challenge whether the initial decision of appeal adjudicators was correct. A case can also go from the president of the single tier to the Court of Appeal when a point of law requires to be tested.

We believe that that will cut out the terrible situation in which, despite the adjudication system, which weeds out initial decisions that are doubtful, we end up with months and sometimes years of prevarication before action can be taken. We recommend to the House that we should move along those lines judiciously and sensibly to make the system work.

As with non-suspensive appeals, the different tracks will enable us to test a case when there is an unusual or new situation. I think hon. Members will agree that that process has been implemented with some care.

Photo of Robert Marshall-Andrews Robert Marshall-Andrews Labour, Medway

What will happen if one of these tribunals exceeds its power, perhaps grossly, or reaches a decision on the facts that no reasonable tribunal could have arrived at? Under the Bill, there is no provision for appeal. How will such decisions be reviewed?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

There will be an appeal within the single tier to the president of the adjudication system—I am talking about judges, some of whom are part-time and some full-time. They will make a decision on whether the application made to the president is valid. That does not involve the case having to leave the single tier, and the president of the adjudication system will be able to make a judgment as to whether the application fits the criteria specifically—my hon. and learned Friend uses the word "specifically", because that is appropriate for such an application—and whether it should be referred to the Court of Appeal. I think that that is a reasonable process to adopt, so that we do not end up with judicial review after judicial review on claims that are not valid.

Clause 11 concerns safe countries. I think most people would agree that ours is a reasonable proposition in terms of the groups affected. Clause 12 is merely a tidying-up exercise, as are clauses 13 and 14. Clause 15 will allow us in the future to use new technical developments, primarily to avoid the need for people to be in secure accommodation. It is envisaged that they will be able to choose whether to be in a secure removal centre or, if the technology allows it, to use that technology to enable their whereabouts to be traced. Clauses 16 to 19 concern immigration advisers and the new powers of the Immigration Services Commissioner. I have answered a question about clause 20, relating to charges reflecting the totality of the benefit available and to the consultation we are undertaking.

I sincerely hope that in the next 18 months my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I will have a full night's sleep. I hope that we will answer fewer parliamentary questions, sign fewer letters and attract less acrimony, and that we may even be the subject of the odd complimentary leader in The Guardianalthough I am not holding my breath. I also hope that we will have a system which, legally, administratively and in terms of competence, satisfies the requirements of what I believe to be the overwhelming majority of Members. That will be in the interests of a system and a process that work, but above all it will be in the interests of good race and community relations, and of the ability to give a warm welcome to people from around the world who—as I said at Chatham House a month ago—should be welcomed here, in a diverse, open society.

If there comes a time when we can have the sort of debate that I asked for a month ago but did not get, I for one will be a much happier man.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 2:41, 17 December 2003

I echo the Home Secretary's comments about the Soham trial, and welcome the investigation to which he referred.

I apologise profusely for the absence of my right hon. Friend David Davis, who is confined to his bed with flu. With slightly gritted teeth, I wish him a speedy recovery. I hoped that he might have recovered yesterday. The House will understand that I, more than most, regret his absence today, but I wish him well.

David Winnick made a brief reference to the fact that one day in June 2000, some three and a half years ago, we woke to a shocking headline in our newspapers: 54 Chinese had been found suffocated in the back of a van at Dover. They were all young people—four were women—and they had suffered appalling deaths, having travelled across the continent of Europe to reach this country under the influence of criminal gangs. To any decent and civilised person, it should not matter whether they were genuine refugees or merely economic migrants in search of a better life. The fact is that these were young lives needlessly lost.

That tragedy brought the debate about asylum and immigration policy into sharp focus. It is a debate that has been very necessary. I think—and I thank the Home Secretary for all his contributions during his time in office—that we in the House have engaged in it rationally and sensibly—an approach that, sadly, has not always been adopted in the press and other media.

We are all agreed on one proposition: that our asylum system must be humane, and we must continue our long and honourable tradition of giving safe refuge to the persecuted. Along with humanity, however, there must be efficiency. I contend that our current system lacks efficiency, and is beginning to lack humanity.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the present Government inherited a large backlog from the previous Government. He was involved in that Government as Parliamentary Private Secretary to, I think, a Home Office Minister. Does he not agree that his party shares some of the responsibility for not ensuring that the system was more efficient when the present Government took office?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The hon. Gentleman should never forget that under the present Government, the number of asylum applicants has trebled. He should never forget that this Government have been in power for nearly seven years. He should never forget that under the previous Conservative Government we had a treaty with France under which those who turned up illegally on our shores were returned to France, and that the treaty lapsed and was never renegotiated. I will never forget that I was not here during that Parliament: the electors of Croydon, North-West had said goodbye to me in 1992.

I was saying that our current asylum system had begun to lack not just humanity but efficiency. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that it has reached a state of almost total collapse. For a start, many of us would agree that the wrong people are claiming asylum. It is claimed almost entirely by those who reach the United Kingdom illegally, or those who, having come here legally, try to overstay. Unlawful entry normally requires the paid services of people-smugglers—the criminal gangs who take vast sums from their victims by extortion and threats. Many of those who claim asylum have the economic resources to get here; they are not destitute, or the most deserving of help.

Furthermore, our system has been characterised by delay and inefficiency for many years. I believe that in recent times the Home Office has been overwhelmed by the number of applications.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

The hon. Gentleman says that those with money, who can pay the people-traffickers, are less deserving of asylum, while the more "destitute" deserve it. Is he not making a case for economic migrants to use the asylum system to come here on false pretences?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I am merely saying that there are those with the money to cross the continent to get here, and that the most persecuted are often the poorest. They simply have not the resources to travel any distance from their own countries.

As I have said, the number of asylum applications has almost overwhelmed the Government. Last year the number of people seeking to come to Britain for asylum topped 110,000. That figure is the highest in Europe, and it is three times as high as the number claiming asylum in the last year of the Conservative Government. I do not believe that the Home Office has been able to cope with the volume of applications, and there is a growing feeling that the Government are beginning to lose control of our borders. Here is the rub: the Government believe that by legislating they can cure inefficiency and a discredited system. Legislation, however, is not the answer. The answer is to have practical operations working properly.

Let me say gently to the Home Secretary—who could probably say the same to me of my party—that we legislate too often and too hastily. Today we are discussing the second major piece of legislation introduced by the Home Secretary in two years: the ink is hardly dry on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. As the House will recall, the flagship policy of that Bill was the establishment of accommodation centres where asylum seekers would live. The Government, of course, got it wrong then, ignoring advice from all the experts and proposing centres that were far too large and in the wrong places.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is absolutely nothing humane in placing large numbers of asylum seekers in huge accommodation centres in the middle of the countryside? Will he confirm that an incoming Conservative Government would abandon such a policy?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done on his constituents' behalf in respect of the proposed accommodation centre in his constituency. He has worked tirelessly on their behalf. No, we are not in favour of large accommodation centres being established in the wrong places, and we were backed up in that—[Interruption.] An hon. Member says from a sedentary position, "In Banbury", but, as we know, all the experts outside this House say, "Keep the accommodation centres small, and keep them near urban areas, rather than rural ones."

Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West

I have served with the hon. Gentleman on the Home Affairs Committee, where we discussed these and other issues. Does he accept that it is something of an exaggeration to say that the system is collapsing? It has got better under the legislation that we have passed, and it will get better still under this Bill. Does he accept, however, that it was near to collapse when the previous Government introduced a hopeless IT system and sacked 1,200 experienced immigration officers?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record on the Home Affairs Committee, so I had anticipated an extremely friendly intervention; I am only mildly disappointed. The previous Conservative Government did many very good things in the asylum field, one of which I have already mentioned. We had a treaty with France, whereby people were returned there forthwith when they arrived here illegally. The treaty lapsed and has never been renewed by this Government, despite my pressing them on many occasions to do so.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I give way to Mr. Prosser, with whom, I should point out in advance of his intervention, I shared very happy times on the Home Affairs Committee.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I am afraid that he will get an equally unfriendly intervention from me. Does he not remember that it was the current Leader of the Opposition who signed up to a Dublin convention that was designed never to work, and that on the day that he did so, the original arrangements collapsed? That is the real reason why we were no longer able to send people back to France.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The agreement lapsed, but there was nothing to prevent this Government from working tooth and nail to renegotiate it.

I was referring to accommodation centres, the work done by my hon. Friend Tony Baldry and the Government's flawed policy. The House will not be surprised to hear that, some 18 months after the introduction of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, not one single accommodation centre is yet up and running. That shows that although we can discuss legislation for weeks and months and ram it through this House at great pace, it does not equate with efficiency. We legislate too quickly: after Second Reading of the 2002 Act, the Government added 342 of their own amendments and 25 new clauses.

What about this Bill and the consultation period? Frankly, that period has been disgracefully short—a view shared by many on the Government Benches.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

The hon. Gentleman may remember that in the Queen's Speech debate I intervened on the Leader of the Opposition to ask him whether they were going to oppose this Bill, at which point he launched into a tirade against it. Are they going to oppose it, or do they intend to allow failed asylum seekers to continue to receive benefit for long periods? Was the performance of the Leader of the Opposition just for show?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition was particularly opposed to a matter relating to children, to which I shall turn in a moment. I am afraid that I missed the hon. Gentleman's intervention during the Queen's Speech debate, although that had nothing to do with the fact that there was a one-line Whip. I should point out to him that I have a long track record in the world of asylum and immigration. There are some things in the Bill to which I can give qualified support; in other respects, I want to tidy it up and improve it in Committee. We do not even know whether there will be a vote on it later today—at least, I do not. However, I should point out that there is much in it with which I do not agree, and which must be improved in Committee or in the other House. That view is shared not just by my Conservative colleagues, but by the vast majority of Labour Back Benchers.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Is the hon. Gentleman really trying to tell us in his gentlemanly way that Mr. Howard was shedding crocodile tears when he made that vehement statement about children in care?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Quite the contrary. My right hon. and learned Friend—incidentally, he himself has a refugee background—was expressing justified concern, which has also been expressed across the nation, about the possible treatment of children under one of the Bill's clauses. I shall return to that point and make my feelings quite clear.

The Government wrote to interested parties with their proposals on 27 October. They set the wholly unrealistic deadline for responses of 15 working days, completely contrary to Cabinet Office guidelines. The Bill itself was published only nine working days after the deadline for responses. My guess is that it was printed before the consultation period even began, and I should not be surprised if the Government flood this House and the Committee with amendments.

The Home Secretary will point to improvements that have taken place in the past few months, such as a drop in the number of asylum applicants. It is possible that the Government deserve some credit for that, and I pay tribute to him if it is true that any of his measures have indeed improved the system, but before he becomes too smug—he has never been so in the past—let us ponder the following facts. The number of asylum seekers is still much higher than under the previous Conservative Government. Secondly, there has been a policy U-turn, involving the reintroduction of Conservative proposals that the Labour Government condemned and scrapped; indeed, that may be a factor. Thirdly, the recent drop in asylum claims may in part have been achieved by letting greater numbers into Britain by other means. Legal immigration is up dramatically. Hundreds of extra Home Office staff are granting thousands more work permits. Because we do not count people out, and because our borders are not secure, nobody knows how many illegal immigrants are in this country. Indeed, the Home Secretary confessed recently that he did not have a clue how many illegal immigrants there were. He could have added that, after nearly seven years, the Government still do not have a clue about how to manage an efficient system.

Let me focus on one or two of the Government's failures, which I hope the Home Secretary is prepared to accept. First, they have abjectly failed in their policy for removing failed asylum seekers. That failure strikes at the credibility of the whole system; indeed, Mr. Singh referred to it. That credibility was further damaged when the Home Secretary announced a series of amnesties for failed asylum seekers. Many in the country were dismayed at his recent announcement of an amnesty for up to 50,000 people whose asylum claims had failed. Surely a key ingredient in the integrity of any asylum process is the Government's ability to remove those found not to be in need of protection. The story so far has been one of Government failure—a fact confirmed by the Government's own Back Benchers in a series of Home Affairs Committee reports.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman criticises the Government for the level of removals, but is it not true that the level was not much higher under the Conservative Government? [Interruption.] Indeed—it was lower. It is easy to call for many more removals, but in fact it is a very difficult and contentious thing to achieve.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is a very difficult thing to achieve. I also agree that the previous Conservative Government did not remove every failed asylum seeker, but she should not forget that the problem is getting worse. I hope that she understands that there are tens of thousands more failed asylum seekers than there were seven years ago.

Let us have a look at the comments of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It was three years ago, I say to the hon. Lady, if she is prepared to listen—[Interruption.] She is not. It was three years ago that the Home Affairs Committee, dominated by the Labour party, concluded that this Government had been dilatory in enforcing removals. It added that that in itself had attracted more people to the UK. There was further criticism of the Government on removals by the same Committee in spring this year. A glance at the statistics illustrates the problem. Last year was one of the worst on record. Of 45,000 failed asylum seekers who should have left, only 10,000 went through removals and voluntary departures. What kind of efficiency is it when barely one in five failed asylum seekers are being removed from the UK?

The Government compound the problem by setting themselves targets to try to grab the headlines. They had a target of removing 30,000 failed asylum seekers per year, rising to 37,000 by 2003–04, but what on earth is the point of setting a target if it is so unrealistic that it cannot be met and has to be abandoned? Again, as the Home Affairs Committee has remarked, what on earth was the basis for the belief at the time that the target was achievable? A target that is not reached and is dropped serves only to arouse false expectations of what can be done. That failure results in a drop in morale among all concerned.

There is another basic failure, which is at the beginning of the asylum process: the Government's continued refusal to understand that initial decisions must be fast and of the highest standard. At the moment, I do not believe that they are either. A parliamentary answer in June 2002 revealed that the average time for a Home Office official to reach an initial decision on an asylum application was seven months. It further revealed that at that time nearly 20,000 cases had been awaiting an initial decision for more than six months. Some 16,000 cases had been outstanding for more than 12 months. That was in 2002 and, to the Government's credit, times for initial decisions are coming down, but it is a slow process and it will take years to catch up. Even today, with the vast resources and money poured into the system, considerably more than 20,000 applications per year have to wait more than two months even for an initial decision.

What of the quality of those decisions? They are made largely by inexperienced Home Office officials who are on a starting salary of £15,500 per year—two thirds of the national average. With only 27 days of training, those officials have to make decisions that can literally mean life or death to the applicant. They are neither paid nor trained well enough to deal with those complex issues. I wonder whether the Home Secretary knows what the turnover rate of such staff is. It is a telling but unsurprising fact that considerably more than 20 per cent. of appeals against their decisions are successful. The percentage used to be 4 per cent. In relation to some countries, the successful appeal rate against initial decisions is even higher. That must surely concern us all, and it has certainly concerned the Labour-dominated Home Affairs Committee.

The inefficiency at the early stage of the process is compounded by the fact that at most appeals before an adjudicator the Home Office simply does not have a presenting officer present to argue its case. I ask the Home Secretary, what has happened in the past year to cause so many part-time and full-time adjudicators to bemoan the fact that the Home Office has simply stopped providing representation before them? That failure can only lead to more delays and, in practice, a greater likelihood of appeals being allowed.

With that background, it can be no surprise that the Government have largely lost the confidence of the British people. I wish that they would take our advice and concentrate on an expert and timely initial decision-making process, coupled with an efficient removals system.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

When the then shadow Home Secretary, now the shadow Chancellor, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs a few months ago, his party's solution was to put all the applicants on an island, from which their claims would be processed. Does that remain the policy of the Conservative party?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what our policy is, and I am glad to have the opportunity to do so. We believe that the current system is in many ways discredited and that the Home Secretary has real difficulties getting it to work properly. We doubt whether he will ever be able to do so, although we wish him well in that pursuit. We believe that the appropriate course of action is to scrap the current system entirely, to accept—[Interruption.] I am explaining, if the hon. Member for Walsall, North will listen, that we should accept a quota of refugees, designated and agreed between us and the UNHCR every year, so that we know when they arrive that their arrival has been agreed, and they are to be welcomed.

Under that quota system, if anyone else sought to claim asylum on these shores, they would be removed to a safe offshore haven. I am using my words carefully here: they should be removed to a safe offshore haven—forget the island—where their cases would be decided. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Keith Vaz to barrack, but there is a great deal of sense in deciding asylum applications offshore if possible, because we would be able to avoid the problems that the Home Secretary is now facing, which he cannot solve.

We want to work towards a combination between a quota system and offshore decision making. We do not want a system like the one that the Government preside over, which is so discredited throughout the country.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I shall give way to my right hon. and learned Friend first.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

May I press my hon. Friend a little on the policy that he is enunciating? If we are to delegate to the UNHCR the role of determining who is an asylum seeker, is not one of the consequences that if somebody comes to this country unlawfully we should simply refuse to entertain an application from that person, but rather say that he or she should make an application within the UNHCR procedure?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend—or at least, I think I am. We all want to avoid the situation in which people travel to this country, at great risk of their lives and under the cosh of the gangs, in order to make their claim, so there is much to be said for the proposal that every year we take a quota of refugees who are officially recognised by ourselves in conjunction with the UNHCR. There is also a great deal to be said for moving as rapidly as possible to an offshore processing system, which would be a much more efficient way of handling matters. [Interruption.] Before Government Members scoff, let me ask them this: in the seventh year of this Labour Government, is not their record one of abject failure on all fronts, and do not the British people regard the system that they are currently operating as chaotic and in a complete shambles?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Would the accommodation provided in those offshore havens be of a large institutional nature, or would there be small units, as advocated by Tony Baldry?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The hon. Lady is trying to tweak me on this subject, but I shall give her a frank answer. We do not know the answer to that question yet. Let us just occasionally be frank in this House, and say that we are not sure—

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I shall give way in a moment. I shall just finish my sentence and say to the hon. Lady that there would be centres where—

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Neither offshore nor sure.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

That is a good line. I shall remember that. Let me just tell the hon. Lady that at those offshore bases and centres there would be a proper judicial system, with legal advice and the fullest possible help given. Part of the purpose of that policy is that if we send a message throughout the world—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Lady will take this on board. I am saying that if we send a message—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should listen to the hon. Gentleman's response to the question.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

If we send a message that we in this country offer a genuine welcome to the needy who have been identified as such, and a message to those who want to use the asylum system as a means of getting here, that they cannot, because they will be removed to have their claims decided offshore, we shall have fewer applicants.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am almost sorry to ask the hon. Gentleman this question, because I imagine that flu is rapidly developing. A propos the accommodation centres, will he tell us whether the offshore facility per se would have to be in an urban rather than a rural area, particularly given the Conservative party's clear policy on those matters?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The Home Secretary gets a reasonable laugh for that, but not the greatest that we have heard in the House. Let me tell him frankly that we have to identify methods—we are currently working on this—by which we can move to an offshore processing centre. I say that in the certain knowledge that if our policy can be formulated and put into practice, there will be far fewer abusive applications for asylum in this country.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I want to make some progress and I have already given way several times. However, I shall give way to Mr. Denham.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is dealing with the problem with his characteristic good humour, but does he not recognise the dangers in his approach? Many of our constituents say that there must be some simple solution, like sticking all asylum seekers on a boat somewhere or shoving them off to an island. However, it is extremely dangerous to encourage the idea that there is a simplistic solution that can wish the problem away. Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that Conservative Members need either to produce a credible policy or to shut up about it? The idea that there is some simple solution is highly dangerous.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all that he has done in home affairs and for what he is doing now. Let me say, quite frankly, that there are no easy answers to any of these problems. However, I also say, just as frankly and with all the force that I can muster, that the movement towards having a recognised quota of refugees, identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ourselves, coupled with offshore processing of those seeking admission to this country, is the right way forward. That is my and my party's view and that is what we shall do.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am sorry to press my hon. Friend on the point, but I wonder whether he may be unduly complicating our position. I can understand the point of having a quota system based on the UNHCR—it may require changing our ratification of the convention—but why the need to have a secondary ability for people to come in and then make an application from some secure centre? Surely it would be best to have one way in—through the UNHCR—and then entertain no applications that do not fall under that one process.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

My right hon. and learned Friend makes his point in his own way, but there will be people outside the quota system who seek to claim asylum in this country, and my message to them today is that we will remove them to a safe offshore centre where their applications will be processed. That will bring more order into a system that is utterly discredited.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

No, I want to make some progress. I have given way on every occasion so far and I shall not do so any more.

Some of the Bill's proposals are to be welcomed. Anything that can be done humanely to improve the removals system will be welcomed on the Opposition Benches and throughout the country. We offer a welcome to the extension of powers of arrest, entry and search for immigration officers. We also offer a limited welcome to the proposal to criminalise those who wilfully destroy their passports or immigration documents with the purpose of pursuing unmeritorious claims, which is a pernicious practice. We welcome provisions to tag electronically those subject to immigration control, provided that such measures work in practice.

One of the Government's greatest failures hitherto has been their inability to keep in touch with asylum seekers in the community, and not to require sufficient reporting at regular intervals. A classic example is the Oakington centre. That fast-track procedure, which incidentally costs the taxpayer £1,600 a week for each person in detention, works quickly, humanely and efficiently. But at the end of the process, it utterly fails. Why? Because applicants are released into the community, and many are never seen again.

We also welcome measures that seek to make the appeals process more efficient, provided that justice is not lost in the process. However, we have concerns, which are shared by not only expert organisations outside the House that work in the field of asylum law, but many of the Home Secretary's own Back Benchers.

In respect of making it a criminal offence, punishable by two years imprisonment, to present oneself to an immigration officer without a valid immigration document, have the Government considered what effect implementation might have on the prison population in this country?

Photo of Robert Marshall-Andrews Robert Marshall-Andrews Labour, Medway

The hon. Gentleman knows that clause 10 removes any judicial review or oversight from the tribunals. The only review will be by the tribunal itself, which is not a review. For the first time since the Star Chamber, we are creating a body that has powers over people's lives that are not reviewed by the courts. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that? Knowing him as a libertarian, I am sure that his immediate answer will be no. If so, why are the Tories not voting against the Bill, and why are they leaving it to Labour Members to test it?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Let me deal with the point of principle first. Am I in favour of that clause? The answer is that I am not, and I do not believe that any fair-minded person would want it to remain unamended.

Returning to the offence under clause 2, there is one category of people who must be dealt with: those who tear up their immigration documents on a flight or on arrival at an airport wilfully and with intent to evade the system. Would it not be more effective either to require carriers to take copies of traveller's documentation, or to take such documents from them when they board the aeroplane and give them back at immigration control?

Can we not distinguish that group of people—those who wilfully destroy their documents before arrival—from the other group who flee persecution, crossing the continent, often under the influence of criminal gangs? Thousands of those people have never had travel or immigration documents, or passports. Such people would be guilty and could go to prison for up to two years. We are potentially criminalising people who have to flee in a hurry and are told to destroy documents by the smugglers, people who never had them in the first place, and people who have them collected by the smugglers before they reach immigration control. A huge percentage of genuine asylum seekers have no documentation whatever, so there is real concern that the provision might catch and hurt innocent and vulnerable people, rather than merely catching those trying to defeat the system.

How many such asylum seekers have dependent children with them? What would be the effect on those children if the asylum seeker, on being charged, were remanded in custody and, on conviction, placed in prison for up to two years? What if their parents were fined thousands of pounds that they clearly could not pay? If they came before the courts as defaulters and had to go to prison, what would happen? What sort of system is that for the genuine asylum seeker?

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. The Government have said—I finally saw the consultation document in the Library—that few people would choose to go to prison rather than return home. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people who are prepared to go to prison for two years are likely to have established that they did have a well-founded fear of persecution?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The genuine asylum seeker arriving here, fleeing persecution, torture and possible death, would, if offered a choice between going back or spending two years in a British prison, opt for prison every time. However, the clause is potentially unfair, unless it is amended in Committee to make sure that we punish only those who are deserving of the punishment—in my view, those who wilfully tear up their documents on the aeroplane or when they reach our airports, not those who flee in haste across the continent.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

Is the hon. Gentleman confused about the idea that it might be deemed an offence not to have documents? As far as I can see, the Bill certainly does not suggest that it is an offence for someone not to have documents, as opposed to someone wilfully refusing to co-operate with the authorities in seeking to establish his or her identity. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that point on board.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The clause reads as follows:

"A person commits an offence if when he is first interviewed by an immigration after arrival . . . he does not have with him an immigration document which . . . is in force".

That is the offence. The broad nature of that allegation means that we might send tens of thousands of innocent people to prison, so the clause will need to be carefully examined in Committee.

Clause 7 deals with withdrawal of support. Until now, asylum seekers with dependent children have received support until they fail to comply with a removal direction. The issuing of a removal direction is an administrative act signifying the Government's immediate readiness to remove the failed asylum seeker—it comes right at the end of the process. Now, it is proposed to stop benefits much earlier. That may encourage more failed asylum seekers to take advantage of an opportunity to leave the UK; it may send a signal that those who attempt to play the system cannot expect to succeed; but it may also drive failed asylum seekers underground and split up families, as well as make removal more difficult.

The measure may hit many people who have nowhere to go—people on whom the Government would hesitate to serve a removal direction because of the hardship involved in removing them to their country of origin. Zimbabwe is a case in point—a prime example. Removals to Zimbabwe have been suspended for a long time, so what happens to the failed asylum seeker whom the Government cannot and will not remove to Zimbabwe? Does such a person receive the notice stopping all their benefits or not? There are many people whom the Government would hesitate to remove because of the practical difficulties in getting the country of origin to receive them back—countries such as China, Moldova, Zimbabwe and the Congo all have their own particular difficulties. What would the Government do about failed asylum seekers whom, in the normal course of events, they would not remove to those countries? Will the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration set out precisely what is to happen to such people? As the Bill stands, they could be refused any support, which might be grossly unfair.

There is one aspect of the changes that the Conservative party will never tolerate. Last month, the Government briefed the press that the children of asylum seekers would be taken away from them to make them leave Britain. It was a despicable and disgraceful idea, and the British people have already expressed their disgust, yet despite the opportunities given to him on many occasions in the House by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard, the Prime Minister has refused to rebut his officials' briefings. The Home Secretary has distanced himself from the threat and there is no mention of it in the Bill. If the Home Secretary can guarantee that the removal of children into care will not be used as an explicit threat to asylum seekers, he will have our support; but if any amendment is made to the Bill to the effect that asylum seekers' children will be taken into care simply to persuade their parents to go home, we will have none of it and we will oppose it in the strongest possible terms.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

The hon. Gentleman discredits himself with that accusation, which the Home Secretary has refuted on many occasions, including by writing to the newspaper concerned. The newspaper repeated that story, even after we had disavowed its version of clause 7. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that that story was in no way the result of briefing by either Ministers or officials?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I have to say to the Minister that the briefing began somewhere—the press were briefed to that effect by someone in the Government. All I ask the Minister to do is to give us the undertaking I described.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I want to make a little progress before giving way again. I have given way almost every time I have been asked.

We have always said that a streamlined, fast and efficient appeals system is important. Like the Home Secretary, we deplore attempts by those who seek asylum to play the system for all it is worth and to mount a succession of unmeritorious appeals, so in principle we understand and accept the desire to unify the appeals system. However, I greatly regret the proposal in the Bill to abolish all existing rights of appeal and review to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. One of the strengths of the present system is that the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords have decided a large number of asylum cases and given clear and binding precedents on a number of vital matters. I would be more than sorry to see that go.

It is a fact that the stakes are often highest for the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. A mistake could send asylum seekers back to a country where torture and execution await them, and we must be absolutely sure of ourselves before introducing the measure. As the Bill stands, the obvious question to ask is how an erroneous decision by the new tribunal can be corrected if there is no right to apply to the Court of Appeal for a binding decision. The Bill offers only one possibility: for the tribunal to review its own decision on the basis of written representations. That provision is surely too restrictive, in effect, making the tribunal a judge of its own cause. Remember also that under the Bill as it stands, there is no judicial scrutiny of a decision by an immigration officer to remove someone. I share the concerns expressed by many hon. Members, not only Conservatives but Labour Members, most eloquently Mr. Marshall-Andrews.

Photo of Mr Iain Coleman Mr Iain Coleman Labour, Hammersmith and Fulham

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's most recent observations, but may I take him back to his comments about destitute children and the leader of the Conservative party? I advise the hon. Gentleman that the policy of a large number of Conservative-controlled local authorities in the event of a family being found to be intentionally homeless—perhaps because they have got into rent arrears or refused an offer of accommodation— is to take away the children of that family and put them into care against their parents' will? Does he regard that as despicable and barbaric, and if not, why not?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

As the hon. Gentleman was speaking, an hon. Friend was whispering something into my ear, so although I picked up most of what he said and will give the best answer I can, if I do not completely answer his point, let us talk about it afterwards. In principle, I am not generally in favour of taking children into care. I believe that the splitting up of families with the children being taken into care is potentially extremely damaging to the children, to the family unit and to the long-term prospects of those young people.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Let me make some progress.

Can we not agree that the highest courts in this land should, when appropriate, be available to all our people, regardless of background? We will have to examine the clause closely in Committee. We will also look closely at the provision for charging immigration applicants more than the cost of processing their applications. That has caused much concern in educational establishments, and needs to be considered with care.

We can therefore give the Bill qualified support, subject to proper scrutiny and amendment in Committee and the other place. It is greatly to be hoped that it will do much to remove the incentive to remain in Britain after an application has been refused on appeal, and that it will end the dire situation whereby some failed asylum seekers can cynically play the appeals system. However, it troubles me that the Government are seeking to exclude the judges.

It is something of an irony that the Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, championed the right of individuals to have access to the highest courts in the land, yet now talks to his party conference about the problems that the Government face from what he describes as "judicial interference". When the Government accuse the judiciary of interfering, it is time to be very concerned about our ancient liberties.

I end with this advice to the Government: in future, legislate less, and give much more thought to legislative proposals; consult more widely; move more slowly; and remember that legislation has never created, and will never create, operational efficiency. That is what is wrong with our current system.

Finally, in view of what so many of us feel about some of the Bill's illiberal aspects, the Government should never lose sight of the principle that although our system must work, it almost certainly must remain a beacon of humanity and decency to the rest of the civilised world.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench Members' speeches.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre 3:30, 17 December 2003

I beg to move,

That this House
declines to give a Second Reading to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill because it contains provision that would make children destitute.

I am extraordinarily grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this reasoned amendment. I have spent most of the morning being warned by vastly more experienced colleagues that that would not happen. That it has is a mark of Mr. Speaker's commitment to the rights of Back-Bench Members. It is also, I hope, an indication of the seriousness of this subject. I regard it as a matter of fundamental principle and conscience. Other hon. Members will deal with the merits or demerits of many more of the Bill's 28 clauses than I shall. I intend to concentrate solely on clause 7.

Clause 7 is so wrong in what it intends to do that it should be opposed by every hon. Member from every party in this House. The presence of the clause in the Bill demeans all of us here.

It is an indication of the seriousness of this matter that all hon. Members will have received a briefing from the British Association of Social Workers. I spent 25 years as a social worker, but I never joined the association as I did not think that it reflected the profession's radicalism. It is extraordinary, and entirely to be commended, that the association should say that it cannot overstate its opposition to receiving children into care on the ground of parental poverty, which it regards as a breach of professional ethics. The association briefing states:

"We expect our members to strongly resist the implementation of this clause."

It is a matter of enormous regret that the Bill has been produced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and that it has the support of my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. Both are exceptionally fine people, whom I hold in the highest respect and regard. They have an enormously difficult task, and I support them in many aspects of the job that they try to do. However, they are wrong in what they propose this afternoon. They are taking us a step far too far.

It seems extraordinary that I have to say this to a Labour Government, but in no circumstances whatever should the basic means of sustenance be removed from children. That is true whatever their parents have done, whoever they are, wherever they come from, and regardless of the merits of the case presented by any adults involved. All hon. Members should reflect that, if they vote for a Bill that contains clause 7, they will be voting for a measure that will mean that children in this country will go hungry. That will be their individual responsibility, not the responsibility of Whips. They will be taking direct responsibility for children becoming homeless. They will be taking direct responsibility for children being at risk of physical and sexual abuse, and they will be taking direct responsibility for children needing to be looked after by their local authorities and separated from their parents simply because those parents are destitute.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend knows that I greatly respect his tremendous work on behalf of children. Will he reflect on the fact that families are rapped out of their beds at 5 o'clock in the morning and wrenched out to the airport by force at present—children must also go through that traumatic experience? The Bill is an attempt to put in place a system of co-operation that would be gentler and better supported, which should be better for children all round.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am sorry, but I entirely reject my hon. Friend's view. I entirely support ways of working with families and helping them to deal with situations in which they find themselves, but we do not help families by taking away their basic means of sustenance and impoverishing them. I have gone to bed in nice hotels in Romania, Angola, Burundi and Kenya knowing that destitute children were right outside the building, but that has never happened here. My hon. Friends might like to protest that such things will never happen and that families with no right to remain in this country who are faced with the prospect of destitution will take their leave earlier and more quickly. They may also argue that local authorities will intervene, after which people will be removed virtually immediately in any case. I hope that they are right—they may well be right for several cases.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I have told my hon. Friend that I know of and respect his great concern for children. However, it might be worth while for him to set out where he thinks that parental responsibility lies in such circumstances. There is an important difference between the families about which he is talking, and indigenous families and those with the right to remain. Those families will have the opportunity to get an assisted package to help them back home to their country and assistance with resettling, if necessary, so they will consequently have the means of avoiding the possible consequences of support being taken away from them.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I shall try to respond to my hon. Friend's point in part later in my speech. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that neither the Home Office nor all its procedures will be infallible, so people who are forced to go home might well be pushed back to a life of torture and oppression in the countries from which they came. We need to draw a clear distinction when comparing children in such circumstances with children from our country. The welfare needs of children from our country are met by keeping the family together and offering all sorts of support, but they are occasionally removed from their families to address their protection needs. Several hon. Members have conflated those issues already.

When some families are faced with the implications of clause 7, whatever the merits of their case, they will ask local authorities to look after their children because they are unable to do that. They may do that at an earlier stage than my hon. Friends would like to believe. The nature of section 20 of the Children Act 1989 has already been misunderstood this afternoon. Children cannot be taken into care under the provision, because the arrangement is entirely voluntary. If parents go to local authorities because they have no money to look after their children, given that the authorities will not be able to provide the families with money and the only alternative would be to try to construct a network of voluntary support, social workers will probably have to agree to accommodate children under section 20 despite the fact that that offends against the paramount principle of the Children Act and every tenet of good professional practice. Thereafter those parents could disappear, leaving their children as alone as any unaccompanied asylum-seeking child who had made their own way to the UK. Such children would be left in the care system and would need to be looked after until they were grown up.

Those children could be the lucky ones, however. I have great faith that the overwhelmingly decent people of this country would rally round to help families made destitute by clause 7. The horrible, ridiculous nonsense peddled by the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun does a gross disservice to the people of this country. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, voluntary organisations, friends, families and many individuals will do all that they can to offer food, clothing and shelter. They may reduce the number of people who will need to beg, to steal and to camp out on our streets, but people will still be on the streets as a consequence of the clause.

The criminals and paedophiles will also spot new prey. Only last month, we passed the fine legislation that is the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but how many families desperate to stay in this country will be impelled back into the arms of traffickers or forced into the arms of thieves and pimps, into the homes of men who will have an uncommon hold over people who will feel the full weight of that obligation? In such circumstances, social workers may have to intervene with compulsory powers.

Over the past few days, we have heard much, rightly, about the awful human difficulties of compulsorily removing families from this country under our immigration laws. My right hon. and hon. Friends might also like to contemplate the awful human difficulties of removing children from their families under emergency protection orders. That can be a very harrowing experience indeed.

The proposed legislation will make some families—some children—disappear from view and they will be in colossal danger. As I wrote that sentence I thought, "My God, I hope I'm wrong." We should not dream of putting the legislation, or families, to the test. What is proposed in clause 7 is wrong. It undermines all the work that the Government are rightly doing to emphasise the principle that every child matters. Under clause 7, some children do not matter. The clause breaches the Children Act 1989; it breaches articles 3 and 9 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child; and goodness knows how the Home Secretary can believe that it complies with the Human Rights Act 1998. The Human Rights Act is not worth having if these provisions comply with it.

The Bill invites us to attempt to persuade adults to do something because if they do not we will harm their children and break up their families. That is immoral.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Is my hon. Friend aware that the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales has expressed grave concerns about the legislation? Does he agree that when there is a children's commissioner for England that person may express similar concerns?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The children's commissioner for England would face the prospect of such legislation with coruscating anger and would take the Government fully to task for even contemplating it. We should not allow this country to reach that position.

Voting against Second Reading is a moral imperative for Members on both sides of the House. We have heard utter confusion from the Conservative Front Bench and I appeal to Conservative Back Benchers, over the heads of their Front Benchers and the crocodile tears of their leader, to vote with their consciences this evening.

The Whips should have no sway over the issue. I am confident that even they might examine their consciences in this case—[Hon. Members: "No, never."] I remain confident.

I sincerely urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reconsider clause 7, to think again and to decide not to take our precious, tolerant, democratic society, which is based on fundamental human rights, down a wicked road. ROYAL ASSENT

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Act 2003.