The Select Committee on Home Affairs reported yesterday, and I hope that the report will be of value to the House in the debate today and also in scrutiny in Committee. I should particularly like to thank the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who, as part of the asylum applications inquiry, has appeared before the Committee on some six occasions in the last calendar year. I wish all Ministers were so happy to give evidence. We shall be publishing a fuller report on the asylum process in the new year, but we picked out for the current report the elements that applied to the Bill.
Asylum is clearly a major issue for many of our constituents. There is real concern about abuse of the system and about the impact on many areas of the country of significant numbers of new people moving into settled communities. I think the case for being seen to take strong measures to tackle flaws in the asylum system is sound, and the recent figures suggest that the Government have had considerable success in doing that.
I want to start with two general comments. First, we need to ensure that the public are kept properly informed about the issues. The Minister was very helpful in trying to inform the Select Committee about the overall costs of supporting families in the asylum system, but it was very unfortunate that that was done in a way that enabled the cost to be represented as a much higher income than some of our constituents enjoy, when the reality is that, on a like-for-like basis, asylum-seeking families have a standard of living that is significantly below the income support levels available to British families. It does no good for any of us if the problem is overstated in the public mind—it creates a rod for all our backs if people get the wrong impression.
Secondly, we must recognise that failed asylum-seeking families are human beings. Of course, there are people who try the asylum system who are of outright criminal intent, and certainly there are many who wish to use the flaws in the system to remain here as long as possible, to exploit the ability to work illegally and so on. But the truth is that most are people who, although they have no valid claim to be refugees, have set out and risked a lot in the hope of a better life for themselves and their families. When the decision comes that the answer is no, they still deserve to be treated humanely by the system, and we need to bear that in mind in talking about these proposals.
The Select Committee considered the proposals but not the Bill; we did not have time to do that. I have to say that there was too little information available at the consultation stage for the Committee or many of the respondents to respond in detail to the proposals that are now being discussed. Particularly in relation to clause 10, which will clearly be controversial, it would have been better if the full shape of the Government's proposals had formed part of the consultation document. Difficulties will arise in another place, if not here, and it would have been better to work through the issues.
The Committee's overall assessment of the Bill is that its basic principles are right, but its implementation will be critical. There is clearly a significant problem with undocumented passengers, both in returning those who have no case for asylum to their countries and in tackling people traffickers. The Committee supported the general proposals to tackle those who deliberately destroy documents or fail to co-operate with redocumentation.
However, we must ensure that there is real protection for those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. Most people who enter the country, particularly on airlines, depend on people-traffickers; they get their information from people-traffickers. If people are to be aware of the consequences of destroying documents, we need to ensure that they understand the position fully. There must be improved information to passengers.
When the Minister came before the Committee, she told us that it was not the intention to use the provision against those who have no option but to travel on false documents because they come from countries where they cannot approach the embassy to ask for a visa, or even get a passport in the first place. We welcome that assurance, but I believe that it should be explicit and included in the Bill. That would provide a valuable protection.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Government that the reforms are urgent and that the Government were therefore justified in not carrying out due process in relation to consultation or making the appropriate details available to his Committee and other Members?
I believe that there is a powerful case for the Government introducing this legislation in this Session of Parliament. It is unfortunate, however, that Parliament—and, more particularly, the informed organisations outside—did not have more time to comment on the details. I think that there will be problems as the Bill goes through that could have been avoided if we had had a longer consultation period, and that is a shame.
To return to the problem of undocumented passengers, the Committee believes that not all the burden should be placed on the individual asylum seeker. We were given useful information about the use of covert surveillance and other methods of ensuring that the authorities knew which flights people had arrived on. There is scope for far more action of that kind at airports—for example, having immigration officials meeting selected flights, and so on. These cases depend heavily on the individual asylum seeker at the moment, and more could be done about the way in which the immigration and nationality directorate operates.
We have to be realistic about the appeal system. There is undoubtedly a significant incentive in the system at the moment, in that the lengthy and cumbersome appeals procedures with their multi-layered approach enable those supporting people coming to this country to tell them that they will be able to stay for a very long time before their cases are resolved. In terms of pull factors, that is a significant issue. The Select Committee took the view that, in principle, simplifying the appeals procedure so that the process did not last as long as many hon. Member know it does now was the right thing to do. Those who say that there is nothing wrong with the current system are simply turning a blind eye to the fact that that long-drawn-out procedure is a significant pull factor.
The Committee therefore supports, in principle, a simplified system with a single level of appeal. But—and it is a very big "but"—the problem currently lies in the quality of the initial decisions. To switch to a simplified system when so many of those decisions are wrong and when there is so much reliance on further stages of appeal will be very difficult. The statistics are not satisfactory, because the Home Office does not keep track of what happens to particular cohorts of asylum seekers, but one in five decisions are overturned at the initial decision stage, and it would appear that well over half the cases that reach the immigration appeal tribunal are overturned in one way or another—cases are either held up or referred back to an adjudicator.
The Government must recognise that there needs to be confidence in the system. I understand that rights for asylum seekers are not a popular concept, and that tough action is. However, tough measures must be founded on sound principles and procedures. The Committee therefore concluded that initial decision making must be improved, as demonstrated by a fall in successful appeals, before the system is simplified. We are saying not that this part of the Bill should be removed, but that there should be a clear commitment about when it will be brought into effect. I regret the fact that the Government rejected this recommendation from the Committee within hours, if not minutes, of our report being published on Monday. I hope that they will listen to the tone of today's debate and look again at the issue—given that it will take time to put in place a different system of tribunals anyway—and set themselves a target to improve their record on initial decision making before the changes are made.
I do not disagree with the principle of simplifying the adjudicator and immigration appeal tribunal process. That is where the principal delays are occurring. Many people will agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has just said, including those who criticise clause 10. He will get an extra two minutes as a result of this intervention, so will he briefly address the question of the proscription of any judicial overview of this process? That is absolutely unique in our system, and, as I have said, has not existed since the Star Chamber.
The Select Committee did not consider that issue. We were unable to do so, as the Bill had not been published when we were preparing our report. My own view is that we must avoid a situation in which such a recourse becomes as regular a part of the procedure as the IAT or judicial review. I shall go no further than to say that it is worth exploring whether that protection can be provided but in a limited set of circumstances, so that the rights to which my hon. and learned Friend referred can be protected.
The restriction of family support is the most controversial element of the Bill. It is deeply unsatisfactory that we do not have any estimate of the number of asylum-seeking families currently in the system to whom this measure could potentially be applied. We are having a major debate with no idea whether we are talking about tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds or tens of families. It is a problem with the Home Office statistics rather than with the Minister, but none the less the Standing Committee must be given better information.
The Select Committee came to the view, which I support, that the principle is right. It is difficult to say to our constituents that a family who have no right to be here should expect taxpayers' support ad infinitum. To go against that principle would be to make a mockery of the asylum system for families—we might as well say that once they have set foot in this country they should be allowed to stay. We are not suggesting that clause 7 be removed from the Bill. However, the House must scrutinise carefully how the Government intend to implement it.
We accept that the aim is to achieve more voluntary returns, and we must examine how that will be done. Our Committee has said in the past that much needs to be done to improve the return and removal system—not necessarily with more snatch squads or dawn raids. We should ensure that the whole system is reformed, so that it is understood by all parties that a failed claim will lead to swift action to effect removal. I hope that the Committee will say more about that in the new year. My view is that everyone should be prepared before they receive the decision, so that it is perfectly clear that if it is yes, this is what will happen to them, and if it is no, that is what will happen to them. I worry that we are still starting the process when the appeal letter arrives, which is too late to involve people in informed decision making.
No, I will not give way as I have very little time left.
In the Standing Committee, the Minister must set out exactly how the procedure will work. If the House can be persuaded that it will produce more voluntary returns, the Government should implement it. But we need to be sure that it will not lead to the worst possible outcome, which is children being taken into care and parents working illegally.
No, I am running out of time, I am afraid.
It is critical that we know which countries the Government believe are safe to return people to, and which have a return and resettlement programme. This issue already arises with single people, but now that it will be linked to the removal of benefits from families, we need to know which countries those are, and that must be open to scrutiny. Our Committee considered whether that should be a statutory process, and decided against it for obvious reasons. The Government must in every case make it perfectly clear which countries they believe it is safe to return families to.
Those are the Committee's major conclusions, and I hope that they are helpful to the House in the weeks to come.
I agree with the analysis made by my hon. Friend Mr. Malins. He is right not to reject the Bill wholesale, but to say that there is a great deal of important work to be done in Committee. I fear that this could be a law of unintended consequences, in one respect at least.
Last week, I was e-mailed by Mr. Michael Wills, the principal of the Salisbury School of English, who made representations about the impact of the Bill on language schools in this country. I spent Friday with the chemistry department of the university of Southampton and with my Royal Society pair, Dr. Andrew Hector. I heard from students and the vice-chancellor of the university that the Bill would have an unintended consequence for overseas students and universities up and down the country. They expressed great concern about clause 20, which also concerns me.
In clause 20, power is given to the Secretary of State to impose fees that exceed the administrative costs of determining an application for a visa. It also gives the Secretary of State power to reflect benefits that the Secretary of State thinks are likely to accrue to the person who makes the application. In other words, the Secretary of State can say, "If someone attends a language school in Salisbury, they are likely to have a higher earning potential when they get home, so I'll screw them".
According to the explanatory notes on the Bill, charges will be set at some stage by statutory instrument—although we do not know what the statutory instrument will say—and a further regulatory impact assessment will be completed. Today—indeed, for a week and more—it has been very difficult to get hold of the regulatory impact assessments. But it was always clear, since the press release issued by the Home Office on
"More than 500,000 non-asylum applications are expected to be made this year from people who enter the UK to work, study or join family members."
I was relieved to hear the Home Secretary say that he would guarantee that the Home Office would consult people who would be affected in that way. What a pity that it did not do so before.
In annexe B to a letter dated
The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has said that his Committee's report—and a very good report it was—was written before the Bill was published. The Committee therefore had no opportunity to scrutinise this aspect of the Bill, and to consider who might be affected and what it might cost.
Paragraph 24 of the regulatory impact assessment states
"The over cost charging indicative figures are that charges might range between £20-£500 but would be introduced on a rolling programme over a number of years."
In the excellent House of Commons Library briefing for the Bill, the excellent researcher points out that in saying that, the assessment identifies the risks of introducing above-cost charging, and the entry fee is pitched at a level that encourages people to consider illegal entry, overstaying and working. In other words, the consequence of, say, a £500 surcharge on a student coming to a language school might cause him or her to try to enter the country illegally in order to avoid it. That is absurd.
I was approached by Pat Marchiori-White from the Southwold School of English, on behalf of the Recognised English Language Schools Association, who pointed out that at present a visa for a fortnight's course in the UK costs a student £95. If the student wants to extend the visa by a week, however, it will cost £155 to do so by post and £250 to go to London in person to do so.
Exactly the same concern arose in relation to a recent order on visa fee extensions. Again, the Home Office had not consulted and the consequences were substantial. Is there not a real risk that the controversy over top-up fees will be supplemented by concern about top-up visa charges?
My hon. Friend is right.
I do not accuse the Minister or the Department of a conspiracy. I have been a Minister myself, and for me the cock-up theory wins every time. I do, however, think that the Minister should look at this carefully, because the impact could be enormous. Quite simply, the business will leave this country and go elsewhere.
The Recognised English Language Schools Association says:
"the importance of students to the UK economy is not just what they spend on course fees, accommodation and social programmes while they are here, but their value through the affinity they develop" with our country. When they go home, says the association,
"they recommend British education to others, they are more likely to return here as tourists with their families, and they are more likely to look favourably on UK suppliers in trade deals etc."
After all, only a couple of years ago the mayor of Shanghai, who had been at a UK university, raised with the Prime Minister the whole question of the excellence of British education. In 1999 the Prime Minister launched an initiative to increase the number of foreign students attending UK universities, colleges and language schools. If the Secretary of State for Education had been standing at the Dispatch Box today, he would have trumpeted the success of the Prime Minister's initiative of 1999. Instead, the Home Secretary is doing his best to destroy it by hitting students with a succession of charges. He will drive those students, many of whom come from the Pacific rim economies, for example, to competitors in New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere. Were that to occur, it would of course have a big impact on my constituency.
The importance of English as a foreign language to the UK economy is the main factor in arguing that the industry should not be penalised by the Government in this way. It is also extremely important to universities, as the vice-chancellor of Southampton told me last Friday. The charge already made for foreign students to extend their visas in order to complete degree courses is punitive. Of the total number of international students on UK education and training programmes, each year some 600,000 participate in English language programmes, almost 250,000 participate in higher education programmes, and 250,000 participate in other programmes. The value is enormous. Courses involving English as a foreign language bring in £1.3 billion a year to the UK economy. Higher education courses bring in much more—£3.5 billion a year. Further education courses bring in £450 million, and private sector training is responsible for some £1.6 billion. That is nearly £7 billion a year in invisible exports from this country, as a result of such people coming here.
I am sure that Home Office Ministers never intended this outcome, and I hope that the consultation, along with the judgment, will be thorough and careful. I hope that the judgment will also be sensible and will neither discourage students from coming to this country, nor discourage science students in particular from attending British universities. I hope that drawing attention to this important problem in this way will help Ministers to make up their minds.
This is the fifth time that I have taken part in a Second Reading debate on an asylum and immigration Bill since entering this House in 1992. It is also the fifth time that I have been told that such legislation was going to solve all the problems with the asylum and immigration system; and, of course, it is only a year since the last such Bill was debated.
When I first looked at the Bill before us, I could not see too much of a problem with clause 28—the short title—but I have some difficulty with more or less every other clause. I then realised that I was perhaps being a bit harsh. Some clauses deal with trafficking and the powers of the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner. With some minor changes, they will be welcome, but there is not much else in the Bill that I welcome. It has been presented to some extent as a tidying-up exercise that deals with some of the remaining problems in the system, but it is not just that. The effects of some clauses, particularly clause 10, are far more fundamental.
Of course, clause 7 does not introduce an entirely new power. Schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 contains the power to allow support to be withdrawn from a family who do not co-operate with removal directions—so the Government already have that power, which can be applied to a family with a dependant. It was introduced in 2002 at a very late stage in the legislation's passage, and we had virtually no time to debate it. In fact, the total time spent debating some of the later clauses was very short indeed.
The proposal in clause 7, however, is of a different nature. Under the clause, we will use destitution, or the threat of destitution, to get families to leave the country voluntarily, rather than using the Home Office's existing powers to remove people whose asylum claims have been rejected. We all understand that removals must take place, and that removal is not a pleasant thing. Indeed, it can be a very unpleasant exercise, especially when families with children are involved. Time and again, I see failures arising from the complete dislocation in the Home Office system. There is no real connection between decision making and enforcement, as completely different groups of people are undertaking the two processes. As a result, huge time lags occur between a decision being taken and something being done to enforce it. It is not surprising when that happens, and it has nothing to do with appeals. Appeals can all be finished, but nothing happens, so it is not surprising that people then assume that they will be allowed to stay, and do not take the removal directions seriously.
I am not entirely comfortable with the Select Committee's recommendation that we should just wait for assurances on that matter. I referred earlier, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Coleman, to assurances that we were given last year on section 55 of the 2002 Act—another part of that Act that was debated for a grand total of, I think, 15 minutes in this Chamber—which cut off support to people who applied late. We were then told clearly that the section was intended to deal not with people who had been in the country for only a short time, but with people who had been in the country for weeks and months, and it would not be used to deal with people who had been here a matter of days. None the less, people have had support cut off when they have been in the country for a day or less. The first time that I have heard the period of 24 hours cited as a norm has been in today's debate, when the Home Secretary cited it at the beginning, and then said that he would generously extend it to three days. That is still completely different from what we were told when the provision was introduced. When one has had such assurances in the past, one becomes a little wary of accepting them over the operation of new legislation.
May I take my hon. Friend even further back in time, to the introduction of the voucher system and totally cashless support? When some of us complained that that would only drive people further into destitution, we were told that we were wrong, and that that system would be an engine and a lever to discourage abuse of the asylum system. What happened? People were forced further into destitution. A punitive approach to asylum control demonstrably does not work.
That argument has been put many times in this Chamber over the past few years, and it has been proved right. Punitive approaches simply do not work.
I have one last comment on clause 7, which is on the practical implications of how it will operate. Some of us have seen a flow chart produced to illustrate how the process will run through stages involving up to four different letters from the Home Office to the family, depending on whether a family attends an interview, fails to attend without reasonable excuse and so on, through to either their leaving the country or support ending. When I looked at it, I found that there were chunks missing. I could not find any box that said "Home Office sends letter to wrong address because it doesn't have a record of a person's change of address", or "Home Office sends letter cutting off support to someone else of the same name", or "Home Office has lost the reply from the person who sent it". Believe me, all those things will happen. That is precisely what happens time and again now. I can tell hon. Members that distressed families will turn up in our surgeries time and again because of the operation of the system, and we will have the nasty job of telling them what is going to happen to them.
Clause 7 is bad, but it is not the worst part of the Bill. The most serious part of the Bill, by some way, is clause 10, which seems to be based partly on the view that the use of appeals is just deliberate delay, and that the judicial system is not there to be used. We put the Human Rights Act 1998 in place, but we complain when someone uses it.
As has been pointed out, clause 10 removes all judicial oversight of decisions. That is not just for asylum cases but for many immigration cases as well, which at the moment can go through that process. It will be impossible to challenge decisions on a point of law. The only person who will be able to decide whether a point of law is involved will be the president of the new tribunal. That is justified on the basis that people waste time and that the number of successful appeals is tiny—3 per cent. has been cited. I have looked at the statistics, and I think that I know where the 3 per cent. comes from, although I am not absolutely sure. The only place that I can find anything that looks like 3 per cent. is where the number of decisions made by the immigration appeal tribunal on leave to appeal is compared with the number of appeals allowed. That works out at about 3 per cent., but it is a completely spurious statistic.
Let us examine what happens on the basis of the latest figures. Nearly 23,000 people applied for leave to go to the IAT. We heard that there were 6,900 appeals. The tribunal knows how to filter out cases that do not have much merit. It allowed 620 appeals—only 11 per cent.—but sent another 48 per cent. back to the adjudicators, so almost 60 per cent. of cases were recognised as worth looking at. That is not 60 per cent. of initial decisions, but 60 per cent. of cases that go before the IAT.
The same applies to judicial review. Many applications are made, but the courts reject most of them and do not allow them to go much further. In 2002, there were 2,980 decisions on applications, of which only 260 were granted leave. The court gets rid of cases pretty smartly when it does not believe that there is much merit. Of those that were determined, however, 30 per cent. of people seeking judicial review won their case.
Those are not insignificant figures, but are we playing a numbers game? I am not defending the IAT as such, or saying that I have a fundamental objection to a simplified appeals system with one tier of appeal, provided that people can still apply to the appellate courts or the higher courts, if necessary. The decision must not be made solely by the president of a tribunal. The Select Committee is wrong in saying that we should wait until we have an improved number of decisions, because it is playing the numbers game rather than examining the principles involved.
The purpose of the higher courts such as the House of Lords is to deal not with large numbers of cases, but with important cases. They should set case law, but no case law will be established under the new system. Case law, when established, affects many people, so it is not the numbers that matter, but the principle of how a system operates. If the principle under discussion applies here, where else will it apply? We could find out how many civil or criminal cases go to the highest court in the House of Lords and express that as a percentage of all appeals. It would be tiny, so let us get rid of that. That would be just as logical as what is proposed.
My hon. Friend is right that we must have a decent appeals system, but I ask him to examine it from the other side as well. Individuals and families going through an appeals system, usually represented by legal aid, are dragged through a process in the belief that there is justice and a positive answer at the end. I mention the Ay family, who were dragged through the system in Scotland, when, quite honestly, the decisions taken at an early stage were the right decisions, but someone—their legal representatives—saw fit to drag them through a system with no decent outcome at the end. Some people use the appeals system for all the wrong reasons.
I am aware of cases where lawyers have given extremely poor advice about the chances of winning on appeal and dragged people through the system without helping them in the slightest, but the higher courts are not unskilled at quite quickly filtering out the cases with no merit at all. As I said earlier, I do not object to a basic one-tier system, provided that there is judicial oversight that allows cases that really matter to be looked at by the appellate courts—up to the House of Lords, if necessary.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must finish.
The Bill goes further than any that I have ever seen in removing judicial oversight of the asylum system. I cannot help wondering what we would have said if this Bill had been introduced by a Tory Government. I recall what was said by Mr. Blair when the Tories were removing certain rights to appeal in 1992:
"It is a novel, bizarre and misguided principle of the legal system that if the exercise of legal rights is causing administrative inconvenience, the solution is to remove the right."—[Hansard, 2 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 43.]
Now that he is Prime Minister, he should remember those words.
I believe that the Bill is insidious. Clause 2 deals with the criminal offence of not having travel documents without reasonable excuse. It seems to me that few asylum seekers have their own passport—indeed, possession of one's own passport is sometimes taken by immigration officers to mean that the holder is not a genuine refugee, since the authorities of a persecuting country are unlikely to issue passports that will enable people to escape. In addition, agents bringing asylum seekers to the United Kingdom generally provide them with false travel documents, which they need to board the aircraft, ferry or train, and tell their charges to destroy or dispose of them.
Article 31 of the convention on refugees recognises the difficulties that genuine refugees are likely to face in attempting to reach a safe country. It prohibits the prosecution of asylum seekers who enter the country illegally provided that they claim asylum promptly and "show good cause" for their illegal entry. In 1999, the High Court denounced the immigration police and prosecuting authorities for their failure to implement that provision. In direct contravention of article 31, hundreds of asylum seekers who had entered the UK on false documents were being sentenced to prison terms of up to six or nine months. In response to the High Court criticism, the Government enacted legislation that provided a defence to the charge of possession of false documents. The Law Society has expressed the view that clause 2 appears to contravene article 31.
Clause 14 makes it a criminal offence to fail, without reasonable excuse, to comply with a broad range of demands that the Secretary of State might make in order to obtain documentation for a person's removal, including providing fingerprints or other biometric data, making an application to the embassy of the person's country, attending interviews and answering questions, and filling in forms "accurately and completely". It is hard to think of any other field in which failure to tick a box on a form or to provide fingerprints might result in imprisonment. The maximum sentence for the offence under the clause is two years' imprisonment.
The provisions relating to withdrawal of support have attracted the most media and public attention. They appear to me to be inhumane in the extreme. As the Home Office itself has acknowledged, the difficulty is that many countries of origin are simply not safe enough to send failed asylum seekers back to. Such countries, including Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Iraq, are the subjects of Home Office policy scrutiny. Nationals of other countries simply find themselves in limbo, unable to work or obtain support, yet never told to report for removal. It is feared that denial of support will result in whole families going underground to prevent children from being taken into care, leading to a swelling underclass of people working as sweated labour in inhuman conditions for virtually nothing, unable to obtain health care or send their children to school on pain of discovery and separation.
I am told that Government lawyers have warned the Home Secretary that the proposal to withdraw all state benefits from rejected asylum seekers will trigger human rights challenges in the courts. I am also advised that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, has protested to the Home Secretary about that proposal and about the provisions restricting access to the High Court to challenge decisions through judicial review. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are expected to urge the public to consider backing even more far-reaching proposals, including much greater use of detention of asylum seekers and, in effect, rewriting the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees. No doubt they will be told some things at big conversation events that focus on this subject.
Britain's directors of social services have also joined the mounting opposition to the package. They have said that the threat to take children of failed asylum seekers into care is something that
"belongs to an earlier century."
The detailed explanatory notes accompanying the Bill make it clear that Whitehall will foot the extra costs involved in taking children into care, using savings made when rejected families leave Britain in the face of that threat. They also state that that could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment and a breach of the right to respect for private and family life under the European convention. However, I understand that lawyers have also advised the Home Secretary that if those people leave, their legal challenge on that basis will end as a result.
I cannot understand how that one-tier appeal system will improve matters. Before the Bill was published, it was not made clear that rights of appeal and review from the tribunal to the High Court, and from the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords, were also to be abolished. The "ouster" clause proclaims that no court may entertain proceedings questioning the tribunal's decision, even if there is a breach of natural justice, an irregularity or error of law, or any other problem. It is astonishing that we should be considering bringing in such an insidious Bill as this.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an especially repugnant factor is that a Ministry of the Executive should be asking Parliament to accept that no decision that it takes should be subject to judicial overview? Does not that underline my argument that we need a Ministry of justice that is entirely separate from the Home Office's executive functions?
I agree entirely. In no field other than immigration is recourse to the higher courts prevented. Such prevention is, of course, in breach of article 13 of the European convention on human rights. The Court of Appeal has frequently spoken about the high constitutional importance of access to the courts. Senior judges are likely to oppose the attempt to deprive them of their supervisory role, especially in asylum cases, where the consequence of getting it wrong can be fatal. The Home Office and the immigration appeal tribunal have frequently got it wrong in the past.
The deprivation of access to the higher courts has to be seen in the context of the proposals to remove legal aid from asylum claimants, thereby reducing their access to proper advice. On the one hand, asylum seekers are told that they will be given one chance to persuade a legal body of the merits of their claim. However, on the other hand, they are to be deprived of the legal help required to do that. In addition, most asylum seekers do not speak English and are unfamiliar with the procedure. Many are suffering from the physical and psychological effects of their experiences, and are dispersed to parts of the country where legal expertise is sparse and where they face hostility and marginalisation. Others receive no support at all and are supposed to prepare and present their claims while they are homeless and have no means of support.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is on to an extremely important point. Does he recall that when the Home Secretary opened the debate he said that there are 30,000 asylum seekers in London who receive benefit but are not given accommodation? That shows that people come to London because they see it as a place of safety, where there is a degree of community network and public charitable support for them that is denied in other parts of the country?
That is absolutely right. It is understandable that that community support would exist in London, as there are many people in similar situations. Problems are always worse—or at least as bad—in rural areas. We do not talk about rural areas often, but they face problems too. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is true even of parts of rural Wales.
It will be hard to monitor the denial of access to the higher courts, but I cannot accept that we should legislate for a second-class justice system. One significant cause of delay and inefficiency in the asylum system is flawed decision making. The Home Secretary has admitted that that needs to be improved. That is borne out by the large number of successful appeals.
Plans to remove judicial scrutiny are therefore worrying, and I shall refer briefly to the Law Society's position. It says:
"The Law Society believes that a second tier appeal is currently essential in view of the poor quality of Home Office decision-making at the initial stage, which means that in many cases adjudicators are, in effect, the first instance decision-making body. If the Government proceeds with the removal of the IAT second tier appeal it is absolutely essential that improvements to Home Office initial decision-making are made concurrently."
"The Council on Tribunals complained . . . in April that 'better-quality decision-making at first instance' and 'speedier and better preparation of appeal papers by the Home Office' were among the conditions required to ensure an appeal process of adequate quality."
He went on to say:
"The removal of judicial oversight provides no incentive to raise or maintain standards."
Those quotes come from people who know what they are talking about.
The Refugee Council is worried about the package in the Bill and says that several of its provisions breach article 31 of the convention on refugees. It says:
"The Government proposes to remove support from families in a position to leave the UK. Support under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 will not be available to asylum seeking families. If necessary, children will be separated from their families"— as we know. Most seriously, the implication that children could be taken from their parents and placed in care flies against the aim of the Children Act, under which the well-being of a child is, and must be, paramount. The Government propose to reject that principle for young children, who will find themselves in an awful legal limbo, although the situation is nothing to do with them. Experience has shown that the removal of support under section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 has increased destitution and put refugee communities under further pressure, and the provision has resulted in 800 High Court injunctions. The withdrawal of section 20 of the Children Act will undermine the principles of that Act.
The Bill is insidious. If there is a blockage in the asylum system, the problem should be tackled by improving the quality of decision making. We do not need the Bill. Its proposals might look good in the Daily Mail, but it is awful. I shall be proud to vote for the reasoned amendment.
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words about the Bill. If one comments adversely about the themes and underlying principles of the Government's policy on immigration and asylum, one is often told that that is because one does not understand the problem and how people feel about it, or that one is trying to deny that a problem exists. My constituency probably has more asylum seekers, immigrants and economic migrants than the constituencies of most hon. Members—apart from half a dozen of my hon. Friends—so I am only too aware of the challenges posed by asylum.
My constituency has its fair share of casual bigotry about asylum seekers. I hear all the remarks that my hon. Friends hear, such as, "If I were an asylum seeker, I would get rehoused," or, "These asylum seekers come over here and get everything." I hear bigotry from British constituents who are white and from British constituents who are black. If I hear comments that have substance in fact, I deal with the facts, but if the comments are just casual bigotry, I name them as such. However, I do not come to the House to demand ever more draconian measures. I tell my hon. Friends that they will of course hear casual bigotry because people want to scapegoat asylum seekers for their many dissatisfactions, but Labour Members should be able to do better than colluding with that by coming back to the House to demand ever more draconian enforcement and legislation.
I want to speak about three things: removals, clause 7 and clause 10. There is no doubt that the level of removals is low, but I point out to Conservative Members that the level was even lower under their Government. But what does that prove? Does it prove that successive Conservative Home Secretaries, such as Mr. Howard, were greater bleeding heart liberals than our own Home Secretary? No, not a bit of it. What it proves is that removals are extremely contentious and that they are difficult to achieve.
What it proves is that under the last Conservative Government there were fewer failed asylum applications because there were fewer asylum seekers altogether. The number in the last year of the previous Conservative Government was only a third of the number last year, under the Labour Government.
It is easy to demand more removals, but tricky to achieve them, not least because when it comes to forced removals one of the organisations that is most reluctant to get involved is the police force. Of course, we must have a more effective system of removals, but we should not fool ourselves that the mass removal of people who may have been settled in this country for a long time is either practical or desirable. We would be dealing with a few small areas where there are quite large groups of people. There would be scenes on our televisions and written about in our newspapers that the British people would not tolerate, whatever the Daily Mail and the Daily Express ran in their leader columns. Let us not be glib about removals. If it were so easy to remove people, the number of removals under the Tories would have been much higher.
On the issues relating to children under clause 7, I have heard the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration say, very reasonably, that reasonable, sensible parents, faced with the prospect that their children would be taken into care, would agree to go back whence they fled. They would do the reasonable and sensible thing, take the plane ticket and go back. She clearly has not done what some of my hon. Friends have been doing for 17 years: she has not sat across a table from people whose asylum or immigration case was going nowhere and told them what they have already heard half a dozen times from lawyers, advisers or social workers. She has not had to try to talk to such people only to see complete disbelief and terror in their eyes.
Reasonable people, people in the Minister's position, take reasonable decisions. Desperate people—those with whom I and some of my colleagues deal week in and week out—take unreasonable and irrational decisions. Tragically, some parents faced with that choice will take the ticket and go home, but many others will find themselves forced underground, or even more vulnerable and marginalised than they were before.
I do not care if most parents take reasonable decisions. If some parents are so frightened of going home to face torture, political persecution and, yes, economic chaos and destitution—something that we in this place cannot really get our heads round—that they are prepared to see their children go into care, that is a situation that no decent Government should bring about. The use of even one child as an instrument to enforce the removal of its parents is one child too many. As a Government, we cannot use the threat of destitution or losing a child as an instrument of asylum policy. There must be better methods than that.
One method would be to increase the efficiency of the system. Year after year, I have said in the Chamber that the biggest incentives for making phoney asylum claims and for working the system are the interminable delays—the dislocation between enforcement and removal. Why do not we get the system working properly? Why do not we cut out the delays caused by the Home Office itself? Why do not we ensure that we have an efficient system before we turn to people and say, "Guess what? We're going to use your child as a lever to remove you from this country."
We have heard what the British Association of Social Workers said. Even the Select Committee on Home Affairs said that we should defer the clause until we have some statistics on its likely effects. I cannot believe that the clause will not be challengeable under the Race Relations Act 1976. It will inevitably bear most heavily on children and families with an ethnic minority background. I put it to Ministers before it is too late—just as we tried to appeal to them on the issue of vouchers—that they should think again about a thoughtless and punitive piece of policy which I do not believe will bear scrutiny, and will hold them up to an extremely harsh light. Like so much that has been done under asylum and immigration policy over the past seven years, clause 7 wholly underestimates the desperation of the people with whom we are dealing.
I move on to clause 10. It is with a sense of timidity that I tread into legal matters—so many distinguished barristers are waiting to speak on these matters. The point at issue is the cutting off of a group of people who are currently resident in these islands. The clause will cut them off from proper review and appeal processes. I do not object to one tier of appeal, so long as there is some possibility that where necessary and where appropriate, they can take their case to a higher court.
I shall quote Lord Denning—I cannot do the accent—ex parte Gilmore. In 1957 he said:
"If tribunals were to be at liberty to exceed their jurisdiction without any check by the court, the rule of law would be at an end."
I did not say that. It was not said by a member of an extreme left-wing group; as I said, it was Lord Denning. The issue that clause 10 raises goes wider than the issue of asylum—it goes to the heart of the way in which we organise our legal system. If we can get away with removing proper appeals and proper legal redress from asylum seekers, what other group that is not popular with the Daily Mail will we move on tomorrow and the day after? We cannot offer one standard of legal redress to one part of our population and another standard of legal redress to the rest of the population because that particular part of it, this morning, is getting negative leaders in Associated Press newspapers.
We could greatly improve the pure administration of immigration and asylum policy. I support Ministers who have recently begun to talk about the need for a managed system of economic migration. Sadly, this Bill, which is the fifth on asylum and immigration that I have spoken on since 1997, is yet another Bill that is more concerned with appeasing leader writers at the Daily Mail and the Daily Express than with building a coherent, a fair and a non-racist system of asylum.
There is no confidence in the Government's asylum policy. Organisations concerned with the welfare of asylum seekers do not have confidence in the Government's policy. Professional organisations, such as the Law Society and the British Medical Association, do not have confidence in the Government's policy. People generally do not have confidence in it. That is in no small part because the Government appear not to know from one day to the next what their asylum policy is.
I shall take one simple and straightforward example. Clause 7 adds a new paragraph to schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Incidentally, we appear to have annual asylum Bills. Doubtless the Queen's Speech in 2004 will contain another such Bill.
The purpose of clause 7 is to make it clear that failed asylum seekers with families will cease to be eligible for public support. The Government are clearly having considerable difficulty in working out what the new clause means. The Bill, in whatever form, is clearly bad news. The General Council of the Bar has said that
"if passed into law, not only will . . . this Bill severely curtail the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants, but it will set a very dangerous precedent, and send a most unfortunate message around the world."
The United Nations has said that
"the UK Government has been the subject of severe criticism from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Joint Committee on Human Rights about its treatment of children. It will be impossible to ensure that legislation operates within the framework of the Children Act 1989."
Before the Bill was published, Home Office officials briefed journalists heavily, saying that one of the consequences of the provision was that children of failed asylum seekers could and would be taken into local authority care. Consider the Prime Minister's comments, as reported by the Press Association on
"If someone makes an asylum claim and their claim fails, and they exhaust all their appeals, and we say to them 'we will pay your fare back to your country of origin'; if they refuse we are saying we are going to withdraw social security benefits from those people. In those circumstances, asylum seekers' children are being treated no different than anybody else's".
The Prime Minister could not have made the position clearer. He had obviously been briefed by Home Office Ministers on the same basis as the media. There was a public outcry, and almost immediately Ministers changed their tune. The Home Secretary went on the BBC programme "Any Questions?" the next day to deny any such suggestions. On the Thursday, the Prime Minister said one thing, but on the Friday the Home Secretary said something completely different. In the transcript of the exchange between the Home Secretary and Jonathan Dimbleby, the Home Secretary says:
"It would be a choice of the parents not of us."
Mr. Dimbleby asks:
"But if they aren't encouraged then presumably if the children, in your view, face destitution then there will be a requirement on the appropriate officials to go into people's houses where the parents are with their children and forcibly remove the children from the parents.
The Home Secretary replies:
"The encouragement is not about taking their children away, the encouragement is to say we cannot have a system where you fail but we carry on paying you and housing you because if we do who the hell will leave voluntarily, it means with each and every family—each and every family have got to be pulled out."
That is markedly different in tone from the Prime Minister's comments. The Home Secretary's comments also differ from those of his colleague, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. I tabled a straightforward parliamentary question in which I asked the Secretary of State
"how many children of asylum seekers he estimates will be taken into local authority care each year following the Government's recent announcement."
The Minister replied on
"It is not the Government's intention that any children will be taken into care as a result of this proposal."—[Hansard, 8 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 235W.]
That answer is unambiguous—no children of asylum seekers should be taken into care as a consequence of the Bill.
Explanatory notes to the Bill were published on
"Failed asylum seekers with dependent children receive asylum support until such time as they leave the United Kingdom or fail to comply with a removal direction . . . if the Secretary of State certifies that, in his opinion, such a person has failed without reasonable excuse to take reasonable steps to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily or place himself in a position in which he is able to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily . . . then asylum support for the family will cease. The family is also rendered ineligible for various other types of support or assistance, although the children in the family may still be supported by, for example, the local authority."
In other words, failed asylum seekers will be told to leave the country, and if they do not their children will be taken into care. What is in the Bill is therefore completely different from what Ministers are telling Members of Parliament, non-governmental organisations and the public generally.
If one had any doubts about the meaning and import of that explanatory note, the interpretation is confirmed by paragraph 121:
"A possible consequence of creating a . . . class of person (failed asylum seeker family) who will cease to be eligible for support . . . is that some children might have to be accommodated by local authorities. The costs to local authorities of children being accommodated under these circumstances will be met by Central Government. The savings made by this measure should cover any such costs."
The matter is relevant and important to the residents of north Oxfordshire. The House will know that the Government intend to build an accommodation centre for up to 750 asylum seekers on the outskirts of Bicester. The origins of the policy are the Government's knee-jerk "we have to be seen to be doing something about it" mode of response. For a while, they were deeply embarrassed by nightly television reports of asylum seekers coming through the channel tunnel from the Sangatte refugee camp. Something had to be done. They wanted an initiative—any initiative—to give the impression that they had a grip on the problem.
The Home Secretary proposed accommodation centres for asylum seekers where they would be processed and dealt with on one site. The only difficulty was that he had used up all his good will with the Treasury, which was understandably exasperated by the ever-spiralling cost of the Government's asylum policy. The Treasury told the Home Secretary that he could go ahead with his trial for accommodation centres, but the funds would be limited—so limited that the only place they could be built was on land already owned by the Government—and as a consequence, they would have to be big accommodation centres. Hence the proposal for 750 asylum seekers to be accommodated on former Ministry of Defence land at Bicester.
That is an utterly friendless policy. There is not a single organisation that supports the proposal. Originally, the Government intended to use their emergency powers to push through the proposal, without even the most cursory scrutiny by the planning system. Having appreciated that that course of action might result in judicial review, the Government eventually submitted the proposal for planning approval, which in due course led to a public planning inquiry.
Again, people thought that they knew what Ministers were saying. On
"The Government have made it clear that we will abide by the planning process, and by the outcome of any public inquiry. That is both fair and democratic".—[Hansard, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 152.]
I was a planning Minister for four years, and believe that almost everyone would consider the outcome of a planning inquiry to be the decisions and recommendations of the planning inspector—almost everyone except the Deputy Prime Minister. Having considered thousands of pages of written evidence, including that of Home Office lawyers, and having heard 48 witnesses in person over a period of two weeks between December 2002 and March this year, the planning inspector concluded that the
"first Secretary of State should not give approval for proposed development".
The outcome of the planning inquiry was clear and unambiguous. The planning inspector adjudged that the centre should not be built. He concluded that such an accommodation centre contradicted the Government's own planning guidance and would put an additional burden on already overstretched local public services, and that such a location for an accommodation centre raised safety concerns for local residents and asylum seekers alike. The planning inspector comprehensively rejected the Government's proposals.
The Deputy Prime Minister ignored the planning inspector's conclusions and put two fingers up to the inquiry. He behaved as though the public inquiry had never taken place, and decreed that as the Government wanted the accommodation centre, and notwithstanding the planning inspector's recommendations, the accommodation centre for asylum seekers would go ahead. Ministers have decided to try to press on with proposals to build the centre, notwithstanding the concerns of local people, the objections of Cherwell district council, the conclusions of the planning inquiry, and the fact that not a single organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees supports the Government's plans.
That is neither fair nor democratic. The proposal is fundamentally flawed on policy and planning grounds and would probably cost taxpayers millions of pounds if it went ahead. It is almost certainly doomed to failure. Is it any wonder that there is no confidence in the Government's asylum policy? The decision is subject to possible judicial review so, under the rules of the House, I shall say no more about it.
Under the Government's proposal for the accommodation centre at Bicester, 750 people will be processed every six months—that is, 1,500 people a year. Many of those will be single young men, but a not inconsiderable number will be families with children. At present, on average, eight out of every 10 asylum applications fail. There is no reason to believe that the failure rate at Bicester will be any different, which will mean that a not inconsiderable number of families with children will be refused asylum. In the words of the explanatory notes, children will have to be
"supported by . . . the local authority"— taken into care.
Children taken into care are potentially the responsibility of the local authority until they reach the age of 18. There could be a substantial and accumulating number of children, which will be a substantial new responsibility and burden for Oxfordshire county council. The children taken into care will have to be educated; they will require schooling. I understand from the Department of Health's figures that that would cost at least £16,900 per child, and for some special needs children Oxfordshire is paying as much as £91,624 per child in care.
When Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister cannot agree from day to day on the basics of their asylum policy, it is not surprising that there is no confidence in their having thought through the ramifications or the details of the consequences of their policies. When Ministers ignore the totality of evidence presented at a planning inquiry as if it had never happened, it is not surprising that there is little confidence that they are approaching the issues in a sensible, proportionate and balanced way.
The Bill, which meanders from forgery to fingerprints to electronic monitoring, will doubtless find its way on to the statute book, but undoubtedly it will not reassure north Oxfordshire residents that the Government have a grip on asylum policy; indeed, quite the contrary. The Government feel—
I profoundly disagree with Mr. Malins, who led, though with some hesitancy, for the Opposition, that the asylum system is in real difficulties. I am very impressed by the progress that has been made by the Home Office with the asylum system in recent months in speeding it up. In short, I would describe the Home Secretary and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration as having brought it back from the brink. They have started to turn it into a legitimately effective system—speeding it up, cutting the backlogs, halving the applications. I accept, too, that there is more to do and that further steps have to be taken to achieve greater efficiency.
Subject to the Standing Committee's deliberations and to a good deal of anxiety, and I hope a good deal of Government flexibility, I could even be persuaded that further strong measures to persuade people to be removed are necessary, but if there are to be tougher removal measures, it is critical that we are sure that we will remove the right people, and that requires a proper judicial process with a proper appellate system.
At present, asylum seekers apply to the Home Office and the appeals, as we know, go to Home Office adjudicators, who allow about 22 per cent. of those appeals. But what is clear, and I think is admitted by those on the Government Front Bench, is that the quality of those initial decisions is very poor. What is also clear, and I am very ready to accept, is that many appeals beyond that are put forward when they have little hope of success.
As I said in an intervention, there are excellent practitioners and there are very poor ones. Very good asylum practitioners bringing proper appeals have success rates of 90 per cent. That is how poor the calibre of initial decision taking is, and how unrepresentative even that quite high figure of a 20 per cent. success rate is.
It is clear that the quality of decision making at the beginning should be improved, but it is equally clear that we must root out those charlatan advisers who push families through an appellate process inappropriately, doing them no harm and everybody else a good deal of damage. However, the Legal Services Commission is beginning to know who they are, it is beginning to weed them out, and it can do more. That is the job that should be being done now. The problem is the slack in the system, which can be weeded out in the ways that I have mentioned.
At present, appeals from adjudicators go to a High Court judge chairing a panel, and that is the tier that would be abolished. I can say, without any fear of contradiction, that that is by far the best tier that exists in the asylum system. First, it is presided over by a High Court judge; adjudicators are not that—I will say what they are in a minute. It is speedy, efficient, self-regulating, it has recently speeded up its processes and it polices its own considerations, so it grants leave for itself to review cases only if there is merit in them. That is proper judicial supervision.
It is so odd to be trying to abolish that tier, because, as has already been said, it is terrifically good at weeding out exactly the appeals that should not go any further—those that are put in by some of the less good advisers. It weeded out nearly 23,000 applications for leave, and since the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 removed any power to appeal by judicial review against the decision not to allow an appeal, that is really the end for a vast number of appeals. That is an important role and that too will be abolished if that tier of appeals is abolished. Moreover, it works—this is important—on a proper legal merits basis. It has been said, but it bears repeating, that when it accepts that appeals have been properly brought, the panel allows 60 per cent. of them—that is to say, 60 per cent. of adjudicators' decisions that are properly appealed are defective.
The intention is to scrap all appeals to that tribunal, which is crazy. The process will simply stop at the adjudicators. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary called them judges, but that is not right. Their numbers have been rapidly increased through recruitment to cope with the huge burden of work. The only qualification that is required is to be a solicitor or a barrister of seven years' standing—they do not even need to have dealt with an immigration or asylum case before. They are not highly trained, and they are under huge time pressure—it is common for them to deal with three cases a day. They tell us that they have to work at breakneck speed, to deal with badly reasoned Home Office decisions, to conduct a fresh inquiry from the start, to look at the background country conditions again from the beginning, and to consider all the relevant legal principles. They are required to consider natural justice in highly complex situations, and to look at a mass of national laws and rules and a mass of international law principles from a variety of conventions. They often have to do that without well qualified representatives before them, and sometimes there are no representatives.
They do not have to be qualified in the area of work that they are intended to deal with. It would be rare to get such a vast increase in recruitment of district judges. I could tell the hon. Gentleman some horror stories about people who are working in this field.
The tribunal that will be the beginning and the end of every asylum seeker's appeal process has, on a legally scrutinised basis, a 60 per cent. failure rate. Clause 10 says:
"No court shall have any supervisory or other jurisdiction" over any of its determinations or decisions, even if such a decision was a nullity because there was a lack of jurisdiction, an irregularity, an error of law, a breach of natural justice, or for any other reason. It is the be all and end all.
What is to be gained at this judicial appeal? Frankly, nothing worth having. It will be able to review its own decisions. That means that a person appeals to the same people, so that the issue is not between them and the Home Office, but between the Home Office and the tribunal—and it is the tribunal that does the decision making. That is called being the judge in one's own cause—or, as we would see it up in Redcar, it is like Boro playing the Magpies with the referee coming from Middlesbrough. The fact that that is the only way in which we would ever win the match is beside the point. One has to ask what is the point of such an appeal. If the tribunal upholds its own decision or refuses to review it, one can do nothing about it—one is dealing with the same people with the same level of qualifications and training, who get many things wrong.
Another overwhelming principle is involved. The adjudicator
"who knows that his decision may be subject to appeal is likely to be a good deal more circumspect, careful and even-handed than the officer who knows that his power of decision is absolute. That is simply, I fear, a matter of human nature, quite apart from anything else."—[Hansard, 2 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 43.]
I am quoting the Prime Minister, and he was right. There is nothing to put in its place. There is a nominal power for the president of the adjudication body to refer on to the Court of Appeal for advice. However, he will not necessarily be a High Court judge, because that requirement has been removed since the previous Act: he need be no more than an ordinary adjudicator.
There is no provision for anybody to ask the president to make a referral; there is no procedure for that. How will he determine the cases that he refers on a principled basis? How many hundreds of adjudicators must he supervise? Even if one can write to ask him to use his powers, there are no criteria whereby he decides whether to do that. He does not even have to read the letter. The correspondent will never know whether he has done so. There are no legal precedents to guide him about the decision because the immigration appeal tribunal—the body that sets them—has gone.
If the president sends the right case and the point of law is found to be wrong, there is no means of enforcing the finding. The victim of the wrong point of law can do nothing. The Court of Appeal has the power only to make an advisory ruling. It may be clear that I should not be deported to Burma—someone was almost deported to Burma a couple of weeks ago, despite all that is said about that country—but there is no way to enforce that right because the Court of Appeal's power is merely advisory. Neither power—to refer and to advise—is worth much. The process therefore starts and finishes with adjudicators, who, as we have witnessed, are frequently wrong, yet make decisions about life and death.
I accept that there is delay in the current system. Some lawyers and advisers—for cash or political correctness—waste time and resources. That is the problem, and the Legal Services Commission should close those lawyers down. The immigration appeal tribunal is speedy and efficient, has good procedures, is effective in weeding out poor applications and finds that 60 per cent. of those left have been decided erroneously. It has proper processes. All we are left with is an adjudicator's decision being checked by the adjudicator at the next desk. That cannot achieve the same result. We must be careful not to act on a call for efficiency and deliver gross injustice.
The Bill is fairly adequate and can be considerably improved. I am sure that we shall have the opportunity to improve it as it proceeds. I begin by describing what my constituents—and, I am sure, those of many other hon. Members—perceive as the problem that we are trying to resolve. Mr. Oaten, who is no longer in his place, denied that there was a problem.
The problem is a gross overflow of asylum seekers and other immigrants to this country, to the extent that 20 per cent. of the population of London are of ethnic minority origin, and 80 per cent. of the population of the country want better control of the immigration process. It is evident that the Home Office has no idea of the numbers. It produces a variety of statistics on different occasions and challenges the information that organisations such as Migrationwatch UK provide. The Home Office believes that there are 45,000 people from Colombia in this country, whereas the Colombian embassy believes that the figure is 250,000. Perhaps both are wrong.
In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that people are prepared to say what they would have been ashamed to say 10 years ago. According to a recent poll, between a third and a half of the population accepts that, as individuals, they are "mildly racist". The term has been abused so much and applied to so many that people think that, if it is racist to question the number of migrants to this country, they are prepared to admit that it applies to them. I do not believe that it is racist to challenge the number of migrants, and it is not wrong for the Government to act to put right the deficiencies of the immigration system that my hon. Friend Mr. Malins outlined so effectively.
The 200,000 or so people who come to this country every year put huge pressure not only on London but on the outer boroughs, the countryside around London and as far away as my constituency. It is no surprise that, when 200,000 people a year come to this country and 200,000 new houses are required in the south-east every year, people see a connection.
That situation will become even worse when the new countries join the European Union shortly. It is estimated that, as a result of the Nice treaty, 72 million people will be entitled to live in this country, although not all of them will come here. The draft constitution that we just escaped having imposed upon us last weekend provided for immigration to become a joint competence and therefore out of the control of the House altogether. That is not something that I find satisfactory.
I am glad that the Government—unlike the Liberal Democrats—recognise that there is a problem and that they are taking some steps to resolve it. However, those steps are meagre and inadequate, for various reasons. As Ms Abbott said, it would be better if we could also get the processes right, but that does not absolve the Government of responsibility to put through this legislation, with some amendments.
Let us look at what is wrong with the Bill, because there is quite a lot. Clause 7 is certainly open to criticism, and one of the problems was that the Home Office had not briefed that clause 7 meant that children would be taken into care, while No. 10 Downing street had briefed to that effect. The Minister did not deny that No. 10 had provided that briefing; she denied that the Home Office had done so—
That is indeed what was claimed. The Minister will have heard the words of my hon. Friend Tony Baldry. I am not an expert on these matters, but it seemed to me that the Home Office was delivering an honest briefing while No. 10 was issuing a briefing thought to be more suitable for the columns of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Perhaps that is where the problem arises.
If children will be taken into care as a result of the implementation of clause 7, would it not be more useful if some of the responsible bodies contributed charitably to the sustenance and support of those children, so that they did not have to be taken into care? I refer to bodies such as the Law Society, Liberty, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, Justice, the Refugee Council, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and a host of others that constantly try to undermine the efforts of this Government and previous ones to control the number of migrants to this country. Their making such a contribution would be a much more useful and effective use of their time and energy.
I referred in an intervention on the Home Secretary to one of the key problems, which is that too many lawyers are making too much money by giving inadequate advice—in some cases, wholly inadequate advice—to people, and raising their hopes in the way that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington described. I have two examples of that. The first involves a man of Chinese origin who was advised by a mainland lawyer to get a letter from his Member of Parliament—that is, me—to support his application. I am not competent to provide a letter saying anything other than what that person has told me. I do not undertake investigations into whether people are telling me the truth. Why is his lawyer advising him to get a letter from a Member of Parliament, as though that would make a difference to the process? The unsupported word of a Member of Parliament written on the basis of unsupported evidence provided by someone who may have been resident in his constituency for less than a fortnight certainly should not make a difference.
The second, similar example is that of a person who came to this country from Italy, claimed asylum and spent six months going through the asylum process. He was subsequently convicted of rape. A number of statutory agencies gave information in support of him and his family remaining in the country, which turned out not to be supported by the information that he and his wife subsequently gave.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Government should take away the right of Members of Parliament to make representations in immigration cases. Clearly, we must accept what our constituents say to us. It is an important right to be able to make representations to Ministers, and to leave it to Ministers and officials to make the decision.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Indeed, it is an important right for us to make representations, but it is not the right of someone who has lived in a constituency for two weeks to demand that a Member of Parliament supply a letter. It is certainly wrong for a lawyer supported from the public purse to advise someone that they have that right.
I said that that person had no right to expect such a letter. That is what I intended to say anyway, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I did not make that clear.
I should like to move on to some improvements that could be made to the Bill. Representing the Isle of Wight, I am well aware of the fantasy island argument, which I believe originated with my friend in the European Parliament, Tim Kirkhope, who produced a paper for my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin when he was shadow Home Secretary. If we implement my right hon. Friend's other proposals, it is important that we find a place where those who end up in this country can be placed pending a decision, whether that decision is taken by the British Government or by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In my view, it is appropriate that people in those circumstances should be confined and not able to move out into the community. One way of doing that is to put them at some distant place offshore. That may be a British dependent territory, or there may be other territories where those arrangements could be made. [Hon. Members: "Where?"] I hear what hon. Members say. I am not in a position to tell them where it is, but that is the sort of place that we—and the Government if they are wise—should be looking for. It should be somewhere from which people do not have the right to return to this country.
We should consider providing temporary leave to remain for asylum seekers if we believe that circumstances may change in their home country. There are many Iraqis in this country who will be grateful for the changes that have taken place in Iraq recently, but we should ask whether they are entitled to remain here indefinitely, because they came here when there were problems in their home country.
I welcome the proposals on loss of documentation. I hope that that provision will not operate to the disadvantage of British carriers. If people arrive on these shores in carriers from other countries, perhaps those carriers should be persuaded to provide a bond for their good behaviour.
Will the Home Secretary consider more effective coastal controls? We have the coastguard, Customs and Excise and the immigration and nationality directorate, and between them they cover the 57 miles of coastline in my constituency, most of which is rural, for half a day a week if we are lucky. I think that there should be a single agency to cover coastal security, because not just immigration but smuggling needs to be covered. I also think that the immigration service should have the power to enforce removals, so that the police need not be involved.
As I have said, great improvements could be made to the Bill, and I hope that that will be possible in Committee. As I told the Home Secretary earlier, he is making difficult judgments and there are no simple solutions, but it is not right for children to be used as a weapon by the Home Secretary to effect the removal of their parents, or for them to be used as a weapon by their parents to secure the acquiescence of our immigration policy in their remaining unlawfully in this country.
I shall try not to use all the time available to me, not least because clause 7 was dealt with magnificently by my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, and clause 10 was dealt with similarly by my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird, who I thought was at her compelling and frightening best. Those clauses are the two iniquities in the Bill. When it is written in a Bill that children are at risk of impoverishment, that is a matter warranting the utmost scrutiny, demanding the utmost answer.
The answer that we received from the Minister today was very simple. She said that the solution lay in the hands of parents. They had the option of returning whence they came or had been sent, and we would throw in some money to help them. The responsibility was theirs.
Let me echo what was said by Mr. Turner. It is deplorable that parents should use their children to obtain benefit or advantage. That happens in this country, among our indigenous population, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of times each day. It is, however, infinitely more deplorable that the state should attempt to use children to deny that benefit or advantage, however illegal it may be. The Minister's response that she is sure—profoundly sure—that parents faced with that alternative will go back, no matter what the consequences may be, simply underlines the power of the threat without attempting to explain away the threat itself.
Let me now turn to the part of the Bill on which I have concentrated during the debate—clause 10, which deals with the removal of judicial oversight, judicial review, the Court of Appeal or any form of judicial counterweight to the tribunal that we are setting up. Judicial review is an ancient right that goes back to the Star Chamber. No tribunal in the country is free from judicial review. If we pass the Bill in its present form, we will pass a measure that—in peacetime—has been without compare for centuries.
It is worth reflecting on precisely what that means. It means that the tribunal, once established, can make any decision, however unreasonable, even if it is so unreasonable that no tribunal could previously have arrived at it. The decision may be capricious, but it will be immutable and without challenge. The tribunal will be able to act entirely outside the powers that we in Parliament have given it, and that too will be immutable and without challenge. That is the extent of the Bill that we are being asked to pass, and it is entirely unique.
The other aspect, which has already been touched on, is the effect of the appeal process on tribunals. If I may, I shall draw from my own limited experience. I have sat as a temporary judge since 1982, and I can say without hesitation that it concentrates the mind wonderfully to know that one's decisions, whatever they are, will be the subject of judicial review. But in this case, the only review will be that by the tribunal itself. The tribunal will have the capacity to look again at its decision, but that is not an appeal process. If I were asked to review a decision that I had taken, I would have a natural proclivity to think that it was probably right, particularly if I knew that there was no appeal against it. That is the extent of the power that we are giving to such tribunals.
It is interesting to reflect that no tribunal in this country is free from judicial review. If a planning tribunal that is deciding whether a conservatory may be put up acts unreasonably or outside its powers, it is subject to judicial review. Here, we are talking about a tribunal that can decide whether a person is liable to torture or death, yet its decision will not be the subject of any review.
We must be careful where we travel in this regard. Recent history's examples of repressive or oppressive regimes have hallmarks that can be traced through them. The first is the identification of unpopular, minority or weak groups. The second is the vilification of those groups as being unworthy and undeserving. The third is the removal from those groups, and only those groups, of the protection and rights that they enjoy under the law. The fourth is the blaming of those groups themselves for the removal of those rights, and, often, the vilification of the civil liberties organisations that attempt to protect them.
So as we embark on this road, it is worth reflecting—as I hope the Home Secretary will—that we are entering dangerous territory and a realm in which we have bad friends. I hope that he will reflect that if we put into effect measures that give the appearance of a repressive and oppressive state, we are but a short step away from becoming a repressive and oppressive state. For my part, I do not accept in any way the apologia that by imposing these strictures and eroding these civil liberties, we will in some way head off the extreme right by taking its ground and distilling away its support. I do not believe that for one minute; nor is there any historical context in which that has proved the truth. The fact is that moving down that road offers the extreme right encouragement and support, and, ultimately, success.
One of the most powerful criticisms of the Americans' approach to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay is that they do not have a right of appeal outside the military system. That is extraordinarily like what the Home Secretary is proposing—that there should be no external appeal against a decision of the tribunal.
I concur with that point.
Of course, this is not a statistical matter—it is the principle that is all-important—but it is worth reflecting that in 2002, the judicial review process threw back 260 cases as being not simply wrong, but so wrong that they were wholly and completely unsupportable. It is reasonable to suppose that if half those cases involved families, 200 to 300 children were involved in those decisions. Those are the people who will now have no right of appeal. They will face the agonising choice of going into impoverishment and care or going back to the country in which they were persecuted. For those reasons, it will be a pleasure for me to support the reasoned amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre. I very much hope that many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will be able to do likewise.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Marshall-Andrews. He always makes a lot of sense to me—but perhaps that says more about me than about him.
My constituents increasingly raise asylum and immigration issues with me, so I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. We have heard some very good speeches. I was particularly pleased to hear the speeches of my hon. Friend Mr. Malins and of the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr. Denham.
Ms Abbott said that when dealing with such matters, we must all be aware of the urban myths that are around. We probably all know them. Locally in Hillingdon we have the housing myth, which I am sure is also found in many other areas. It says that the fact that no one can get a house is somehow all the fault of asylum seekers. Another story that I have increasingly heard is that everyone seems to know a neighbour or a friend who has sold a car which was paid for with a cheque from social services or the benefit agencies, but when one asks for more details, somehow they disappear into the ether. Not so long ago I even heard from someone who was very worried because they had heard that the top floor of Hillingdon hospital had been closed down to house asylum seekers. Those may seem amusing stories, but they spread around and cause more and more concern, which is one reason why the subject of immigration and asylum is so often raised.
The people who are concerned are not racists and bigots, although those do of course exist. Similarly, those who genuinely raise the rights of asylum seekers are living in the real world, although the facts are sometimes uncomfortable for people. I dare say that next week at many a Christmas day service, sermons will be given about asylum seekers, which will lead to much harrumphing, with people saying that the vicar should have said a bit more about Christmas. But it is a good thing for us to be reminded of such cases.
We must also always be reminded that although we refer to groups, we are talking about individuals. For example, one of my constituents is always telling me that immigration and asylum seeking are not being dealt with properly in Parliament and saying, "It's about time you lot woke up." However, he knocked on my window at home late one evening to ask me to do something to prevent a Kosovan of his acquaintance from being deported. When we are dealing with individuals, it is a different matter.
There is a problem, as everyone acknowledges. We have to resolve certain problems, which cannot be done in this Bill. I have just mentioned housing. If there were not a housing problem, the urban myths would not exist. The high level of council tax is raising problems in my borough because, as the hon. and learned Member for Medway said, someone is getting blamed for it. There is an issue, which I am taking up with the Minister, of a recent court judgment about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children over 18, which will have a considerable financial effect on the borough. We have asked for a meeting and I am sure that if she has not agreed to it, she is in the process of doing so. It worries me when people I know, such as general practitioners or head teachers, talk about "the Heathrow effect". We know what they are talking about when they say it. It is genuine, and it is upsetting for community relations within the borough.
To return to the Bill, I wholly agree with some measures. We know how many passports and documents turn up in bins at Heathrow airport, and we have to deal with that problem.
The quality of decision making has been mentioned. I am not sure exactly how decisions are taken, but I suspect that some people have to work for long stints. Inevitably, they will get jaded. Security officers at airports have only a limited time to deal with each case; otherwise, they are not doing their job properly. Some of the people taking the decisions might be bombarded by a whole load of applications and it is easy to get rather blasé about it all. I do not know whether anything is being done about that. The quality of advice given by some legal practices can also be dubious. The lawyers often seem to take the money and then send the applicants along to our surgeries.
Another problem is the endless set of appeals. We MPs may be just as guilty, in that when someone complains at our surgeries, we often put the matter to a Minister again and again. As Jeremy Corbyn said, we have the right to raise such matters, though we do not judge them. The time lag is the real problem.
Clause 10 does concern me and I hope that the Government will listen to what is said about it. We should all be aware of a potential slippery slope. Speeding up the process sounds appealing—although that may be the wrong word to use in this case—but we must be careful.
I waver a little on clause 7. When I first heard about it in the media, I was, like many others, appalled. Perhaps I am too generous spirited, but I believe the Home Secretary and the Minister when I hear them say on the "Today" programme that their intentions are entirely honourable. However, Glenda Jackson made the important point that even those who are not genuine asylum seekers—in the sense that their cases are not accepted—are still very desperate people.
Many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who end up in the borough of Hillingdon are not orphans; people may have spent a lot of money sending them here on an aeroplane. We may find it incredible that people could send their children away, but people in desperate circumstances do precisely that. I can therefore quite understand people going along with being deported, but wanting to leave their children behind. We need to take that into account.
It is difficult for us to appreciate how desperate some of these people are. My experience is mainly drawn from the people who come to my surgery. Some are, shall we say, making the system work for them, but there are some heart-rending cases. I have only limited experience of seeing refugees abroad, but I did see internally displaced people in Serbia, being trucked out of Kosovo. I have seen the conditions that they live in and I can understand why they might want to go to another country. For us, it is almost inconceivable that we should ever want to leave our country, but I can understand why people in different circumstances might want to leave theirs.
Some of the Bill's other provisions, I wish well. I am not sure about electronic monitoring, but it sounds all right and I am prepared to be persuaded that the technology works. Similarly, this morning the Home Secretary was talking about ID cards as a means of protecting our borders. Yes, we need some controls, but I am not sure that ID cards are the answer, although I am prepared to listen. My hon. Friend Mr. Key made some interesting and valid points in relation to clause 20, which I hope the Home Office will examine. I have Brunel university in my constituency, and many of the things that my hon. Friend said would apply equally there.
If I do not vote for the reasoned amendment, it will not be because I do not have a great deal of sympathy with it. However, I think at this stage that there is enough in the Bill to let it run its course. My hon. Friends and Labour Members will do their job in Committee, and when the Bill comes back for Report and Third Reading, we will have another look. If it has not been improved in the areas I have mentioned, we may have to vote against it.
I was going to say that I agree with everything Mr. Randall said. Well, I do, except for the last bit. I think that the Bill needs to be opposed because of its serious deficiencies.
I shall be brief so that others might have a chance to speak. I ask myself why we are here again, and then I look at the headlines in the Daily Express two days ago—some spurious stuff about every asylum seeker receiving £16,000 a year. That is not my experience of talking to the large number of asylum seekers in my constituency, many of whom are desperate to work and to contribute to society and feel angry that they are often denied that right. As the Home Secretary said, there are in London some 30,000 asylum seekers who moved to London after having been deposited in other parts of the country by the National Asylum Support Service and who are living here without any housing support. They have only income support, which is of an extremely limited nature, and they live on the grace and favour of people in their community. We should think for a moment of those 30,000 people spread throughout London's boroughs—an average of 1,000 per borough—living in grossly overcrowded accommodation, the children at risk of underachieving in school because of that degree of overcrowding, the parents enduring considerable hardship, and other members of the community going through hardship to support them because of the degree of racism and harassment of asylum seekers that persists in many parts of the country and from which London is not immune.
Those who sanctimoniously write the newspaper headlines making abusive comments about asylum seekers should ask themselves whether they do not in part encourage the racist attacks against asylum seekers and the killings of asylum seekers that have occurred in several parts of the country in the past two years. We all have a duty and a responsibility to be careful in what we say and how we say it. We must remember that a remark of ours that is thought to be an expression of a prejudice becomes something very nasty when it gets into the hands of a group of racist thugs on a Saturday night on a street anywhere in the country. The people who cop it are those who thought that they had left a place of danger and desperation. We should not be so self-satisfied about racial tolerance in our society, because a high degree of racism remains and the people who suffer are those who thought they had got away from that type of danger.
We should ask ourselves why so many people are trying to seek asylum now. Look at the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Congo, where some 3 million people have died. Look at the instability and disruption in Somalia and in so many other places around the world. Although I do not pretend, claim or assert that this country is responsible for all those conflicts, I do believe that collectively the European Union and north American contributions to the world arms trade, to the search for and the extraction of minerals and to the trade policies followed around the world lead to instability and to large numbers of people seeking a place of safety—asylum—somewhere else. Is the history of the 20th and 21st centuries to be written in memory of the people who have died in rusting hulks trying to cross the Mediterranean to gain a place of safety in Europe? Economic, political and social migrants have all been treated with a brutality that is seen as typical of the uncaring, arrogant and aggressive attitude that rich countries take towards the victims of poverty elsewhere in the world.
I do not pretend that we can solve all the problems, but we must maintain a sense of reality. We must understand what it is like to face the ultimate disruption of having to leave one's country, home and society because they are no longer safe.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should remind ourselves that 70 per cent. of asylum seekers stay in their own regions, and that only 30 per cent. find their way to the west?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The number of asylum seekers turning up in Europe and north America is quite small, whereas the numbers that try to survive in India, Jordan, Mexico and many other much poorer societies around the world are huge. Anyone who has visited a refugee camp that has existed for many years will be aware of the misery, hardship and sense of bitterness that exist there, and will have some understanding of the problem.
In common with other hon. Members, I have very strong objections to parts of the Bill. I object to the atmosphere in which it has been introduced, and to the assertions that have been made about it. However, my main objections are to clauses 7 and 10.
Clause 7 proposes that we should punish children for decisions made by their parents. Those decisions may be irrational ones, arrived at after a series of legal judgments, or as a result of the very poor level of representation available to families in the first place. The idea is that putting children into care for those reasons will serve as a deterrent, but I agree with what the hon. Member for Uxbridge said. It is incomprehensible that anyone living in a relatively affluent society in western Europe should knowingly put children at risk. Yet what decisions would any of us make if we were faced with the grim alternatives that some asylum seekers face? Those alternatives include the possibility—or grave danger—that children might be inducted into a child army, or that they might die because of malnutrition or serious health problems. We need to think more deeply and carefully about that.
I also have serious and strong reservations about clause 10, the problems with which have been well aired in the debate by other hon. Members. If it goes through, the Bill will establish a tribunal, and that tribunal will appoint a president. The Government are very fond of calling people "tsars". Mostly, the title is ridiculous, but in this case it would be ideal. As I understand it, the tribunal president will have complete power over the decisions that are made. The president will decide whether a decision should be reviewed—and whether his or her actions should be reviewed by a higher court.
It would take a particularly saintly person, as tribunal president, to refer himself or herself to a higher court to be judicially reviewed for any capricious decision that might have been made. Such a person may be available: my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews could be an excellent candidate, but I doubt that his name is in the frame at the Home Office just now. I suspect that the president will be someone who is far more pliant in respect of the existing system.
We need to think very seriously about this matter. We are elected Members of Parliament, and we are proud of our judicial system's independence from political interference. We are proud, too, that people who go to court know that their cases will be heard fairly—we hope—and that they will be represented independently and properly—we hope. We are also proud that in such cases there will be a similarity in the standards of decision making that can be reviewed by a higher court through the judicial review process. The Bill will set up something totally outwith anything that we have had in this society in living memory—indeed, for several hundred years. We are creating a dangerous precedent.
My hon. Friend has spoken with passion in every immigration debate in the House for the past 16 years. Does he agree that another reason why we should pause before accepting clause 10 is the restructuring of our judiciary? Given that it has been announced that the role of Lord Chancellor will be abolished and a new committee set up, should we not take the changes as a package and pause to think carefully about the provision?
My hon. Friend makes a sensible suggestion. If we are to establish a new supreme court and alter the ultimate structure of the legal system by changing the office of Lord Chancellor, ideally we would not go ahead with the clause but would fit the provisions in elsewhere.
I do not intend my comments to be interpreted as scaremongering. However, we have legislated to allow the Home Secretary to imprison foreign nationals indefinitely on the grounds that they might be terrorists, without giving them access to normal justice. If we allow asylum seekers to be tried by a tribunal that is outwith any normal justice, what will be next? Will we have special tribunals to try special categories of crime to which normal judicial rules and habeas corpus will not apply, and in relation to which judicial review will be impossible? The provision represents a dangerous road to go down, and I hope that the Minister recognises that many of us have genuine concerns about it.
Like my hon. Friend Ms Abbott, I have a crowded inner-city constituency that has all sorts of problems and social tensions and contains many asylum seekers. The asylum seekers whom I meet have often been through horrific and terrible experiences. They want better for their children—we all want that; it is a normal human reaction—but above all they want to contribute to our society. There is great joy in seeing asylum seekers who have been through human rights, literacy and computer courses and have got to university and qualified. Such people have made, make and will always make a contribution to our society. Surely hon. Members should applaud and welcome that rather than allowing the popular press to be so beastly to asylum seekers and playing up to their game by using language such as that in the Bill, and by implementing its measures. I hope that the House will oppose the Bill and support the reasoned amendment moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson. If the Bill receives its Second Reading, as I expect it will, I hope that clauses 7 and 10, at least, will be emphatically removed in Committee or by another place.
My bedtime reading over recent weeks has been "Every Child Matters", which is a good White Paper that the Government published several months ago. But it would appear from the Bill's provisions and from what we have heard in the debate that every child matters except for the children of asylum seekers.
Mr. Dawson organised a good meeting in the House last week during which we heard about conditions in detention centres. That was a bit of an eye opener for me, and given that detention centres are mentioned in the Bill, I thought I would use this opportunity to ask the Minister to address the problems. It is unclear why people—especially families with children—go into the detention centres and at what stage of the process that happens. The original intention for people to go into such centres as a result of a court order seems to be have been thrown out of the window, because that no longer happens. No one knows who decides the length of time for which people stay in the centres.
Inspections carried out by Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons show that people in the centres often have no privacy and that their rooms have no locks. They are not allowed access outside and their children receive no proper health care or education. Those facts are not rumour or anecdote: they come from an official inspection. At last week's meeting, it was questioned whether the Government are upholding the human rights of families and children who are in detention centres. The situation is serious and scandalous, so I hope that the Minister will address it in her response and tell us what the Government will do about it.
A lot has been said about clause 7. I merely repeat that families with children are usually the most genuine asylum seekers. Who would haul their children halfway across the world to a country where they know few people and do not speak the language, when they have no money and no means of finding work, if they were not in genuine fear of persecution? I cannot believe that people would do that.
On the other side of the coin, the Government say that people would rather leave this country and take their children with them than stay without benefits. If I were in their position, knowing the treatment I would get when I returned to my country of origin, I would probably prefer to leave my children in care and take the risk. At least I would know that they would be safe. Clause 7 is appalling.
Does the hon. Lady agree that a good example of her point is offered by the "kinder transport" system that existed before the second world war, when families put their children on a train and never saw them again.
Absolutely. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to the report from the British Association of Social Workers, which made that very point: we thought that sort of thing had stopped during and just before the second world war. We thought that we would no longer have to take children away from families who would never see them again. Are we really going to introduce that practice—however unintentionally—in the 21st century? I hope not.
Jeremy Corbyn made a pertinent intervention to ask who assessed how safe it was for people to go back to their country of origin. On a similar point, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said that if people returned to their country of origin they would go with support. I shall tell the House briefly of one such experience.
A year ago I travelled to Kosovo with my hon. Friend Mr. Willis to visit a family who had recently returned there. The family had come to the UK at the height of the war in Kosovo and found refuge in Harrogate. While they waited for a decision about whether they could stay in Britain, they settled in the town; the man found a job as a waiter, his wife had a second baby and they were accepted by the community. They had a quality of life that they had never experienced before.
The final decision on their application was that they were refused asylum and told to get out. When all the due processes had been followed, all the charities and churches in the area, my hon. Friend and many others tried to stop the family's removal. That little family, with two small children—a toddler and a baby—were happily established, but they were taken from their house at a few minutes' notice, put on a plane and sent back to Kosovo. They were met, taken by car out into the countryside and dropped within a mile of their original village and given Euro10—only Euro10.
Is that the support to which the Minister referred? Is that how we treat people who have had among the worst experiences in the world? I hope that the Minister will tell me that such things will not happen again as a result of the Bill.
Worse was to come for that family. The man was persecuted by the Kosovo Liberation Army; he was seen as a collaborator because he had worked in a Serb factory and wanted to keep his job. He has not lived with his family since their return. The last we heard was that nobody knew where he was; he moves from safe house to safe house, trying to escape persecution. Is that the support that we give these unfortunate people? Why did the original process take so long, with the result that the family were settled before they had to be turned out of the country? As the hon. Member for Islington, North asked, who checks that the country of origin is safe? Who says that a person will be all right when they get back? Let us hope that more provision will be made in future for returnees than Euro10.
In just over a week's time we shall be celebrating the birth of a child to the most famous refugee family in history. I am appalled and ashamed of what the Government are doing in my name to some of the most vulnerable people on earth.
I am concerned about clause 10, especially the loss of judicial review, but my greatest concern is clause 7, to which, given its potential impact on families and children, I shall address my remarks.
Ministers have said that they do not think that many, or any, children will be affected by the clause and end up going into care. However, if even one child is so affected, the Bill should not go ahead. The Government have not been able to give a figure for the number of children who could be affected. I tried to obtain the figure for Wales, which has far fewer asylum seekers than the constituency of my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. The Cardiff and District asylum network estimates that 511 families are seeking asylum in Wales, and that 576 children could be affected by this legislation: 576 children are likely to end up in families who have been refused asylum and had their benefits removed.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the standard way of dealing with the issue is forcible removal? That is made clear both in current legislation and in the Minister's remarks to the Select Committee. Under current arrangements, families would stay together, albeit that they would have a 5 am call by the police.
I cannot accept that treating asylum seekers' children differently from any other children can be acceptable.
There are already problems with failed asylum seekers who are destitute and are single. There are delays in arranging for failed asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin, as a result of which they are existing without support. There are those who are deemed unable to return to their countries because of circumstances in those countries: Zimbabwe and Somalia have been mentioned, for example.
In such circumstances, people can apply for hard case support, but that is not available in Wales. People can apply in Wales, but there is no accommodation to which they can go. I was told this morning of a stateless man in Cardiff who has been refused asylum. He has no money and has nowhere to return to. The situation will become more difficult when more families are put in the same position.
Organisations in Wales are already concerned about the numbers of those who will be made homeless after failed claims. I know that the figures are very small compared with those in constituencies elsewhere, but in Cardiff, 81 people have been recorded this year as being evicted from National Asylum Support Service accommodation and many more have been evicted from private accommodation. The proposed legislation is likely to make the situation worse.
There is already concern about illegal employment and about people being able to return to their own countries. Resources are also likely to be under much pressure. The Association of Directors of Social Services has already been mentioned today, and it has said that
"if put into effect the proposals would put unacceptable pressures on what are already overstretched resources".
There are fears that women will seek refuge in women's aid hostels, even if they are not fleeing domestic violence, because they do not have anywhere else to go. In Cardiff, the black women's refuge provided by BAWSO—the Black Association of Women Step Out—is already under strain providing two places for women and their families without any recourse to public funds. Other women's aid hostels in Wales do not give places to women in that position because they lose the rent for the rooms and have to pay for food and clothes for the destitute families. The trauma of having to move those women and families on is almost too difficult for them to cope with. BAWSO receives 99 per cent. of its funding from public bodies, but has to raise money for the two families in the refuge without recourse to public funds. There is a queue of women waiting to get into the hostel. BAWSO greatly fears that the legislation will drive many women to try to get into a hostel such as the one that it provides. As it has no recourse to public funds for such families, its position will become much more difficult.
The needs of children should always be put first. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, before I became an MP I was a social worker, and worked for the local authority and for Barnado's. We made every possible effort to prevent children from going into care, and always worked both to maintain the family and in the best interests of the child. The Bill contravenes a child-centred service, and possibly contravenes the UN convention on the rights of the child, particularly article 3 on the best interests of the child, and article 9 on separation from parents.
As I mentioned in an intervention, Wales has a Children's Commissioner, who is required by the Welsh Assembly to have regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child. The commissioner's functions need to be seen in the context of the convention. He is a champion for children in Wales, and I am sure that he will be a champion for the children of failed asylum seekers. As I have already said, the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales has expressed concern about the Bill. It believes, as many Members have said, that every single child matters. Their rights and welfare, rather than the circumstances that have led to their being in the country, are important. The child impact statement by the National Children's Bureau, prepared for the all-party group on children, cites the recommendation made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in October 2002 that the state should ensure
"that refugee and asylum-seeker children have access to basic services, such as education and health, and that there is no discrimination in benefit entitlements for asylum-seeking families which could affect children".
The proposals in the Bill, however, clearly affect children.
The NCB asks how we can determine whether someone has taken reasonable steps to prepare to leave. How do we determine whether someone is in a position to leave? What about women who are pregnant, and what is the position when there is illness in the family? It is important that those issues are examined in much more depth. The NCB believes that families will go underground or may even decide, as has been mentioned today, that it is in their children's best interests to go into care. We cannot criticise people for making that decision, because many Members have said in forceful terms that we cannot appreciate the desperation of people who want to do the best for their children, but have a different idea about what that entails from us. We cannot criticise their decisions, but we should not drive them into making them.
The UK's reservation about article 22 of the UN convention on the rights of the child has been criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The UNCRC states:
"We recommend that the Government demonstrate its commitment to the equal treatment of all children by withdrawing its reservation relating to immigration and nationality."
That is the key issue. All children should be treated equally, and we are not treating asylum seekers' children equally. Failed asylum seekers' children should be treated the same as every other child in this country. A child is a child, and I do not see how we can have different provisions for different children. We breached that principle before this debate, when we decided that asylum seekers' children would not be able to go to local authority schools, but should be educated in the accommodation centres that have not yet been built. That was a bad decision, under which all children are not treated equally.
The Bill goes even further and may bring about circumstances in which children could be physically and emotionally harmed. I hope the Government will reconsider the measure, especially clause 7, which could be damaging and divisive. Many people in Wales have lobbied me about the measure. They feel that clause 7, in particular, threatens social cohesion and all the efforts that are being made to build a society that is diverse and in which we value people for their individual worth. Through legislation such as this, we are moving away from our concept of such a society.
I appeal to the Government to look again at the Bill and to think about why many of us came into politics. All of us on the Labour Benches came into politics to look after the interests of children—not just children indigenous to this country, but all children. I shall be pleased to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.
The Government are short of friends on their own Benches. I have listened throughout the afternoon to speech after speech from Labour Members criticising the Bill, much of that criticism coming from those who have experience of the asylum system, such as Mr. Gerrard and Mr. Marshall-Andrews. They and others who know a little about asylum find the Bill illiberal and in many ways unfair. We have heard words such as "insidious" and "repugnant", and the Home Secretary will go away from the debate in the knowledge that he has little support on his own Benches for the measures that he is trying to put through the House tonight.
It is such a pity. If the Government had consulted at greater length and spoken to those who know something about the system and about how asylum works, it is entirely possible that a better Bill could have been brought to us. I shall confine my remarks to observations on comments made by hon. Friends, but I shall not let the occasion pass without thanking Mr. Denham, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who is not in his place, not only for producing a report so quickly, but for expressing in it some of the concerns that we all understand.
My hon. Friend Tony Baldry spoke of the many people who have no confidence in the Government's asylum policy. He was rightly critical of the Government's conflicting signals on the issue of taking asylum seekers' children into care and, reflecting the enormous amount of work that he has done in his constituency on these matters in the past couple of years, he reinforced the view that there is next to no support in his constituency for the siting of an accommodation centre in a rural area. He has certainly fought well on behalf of those whom he represents.
My hon. Friend Mr. Key spoke with knowledge and experience of schools and universities on the vexed question of clause 20, rightly referring to the lack of consultation with educational establishments and other interested parties. I think that it was my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell who referred to top-up fees or charges, and we shall have to consider that issue very carefully in Committee.
My hon. Friend Mr. Turner, in a powerful speech, made the very true point that we should, in this House and elsewhere, be entitled to debate levels of immigration in a rational way, without being tagged as racist for so doing. Not unnaturally, given his constituency, he referred to the need for much more effective coastal controls.
My hon. Friend Mr. Randall, who has some experience of these matters through his constituency interest, made the point that asylum seekers must not be demonised. He was one of many speakers throughout the House today who rightly expressed concern at the potential cut in appeal rights to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.
The debate has been interesting, and I look forward to serving on the Committee. If I may say so to the Government Whips, I am sure that they will select to serve on the Committee many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, in order to obtain a balanced Committee and to ensure that the improvements to the Bill that we all want to see are made.
I will take only a second; I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Having heard his words in opening and in summing up the debate, and the words of his colleagues during the debate, I would find it impossible to reconcile the views expressed with a decision on the part of the Conservative Opposition to do anything other than to oppose the Bill tonight. That would not be the act of a rational Opposition.
I have served with the hon. Gentleman on Committees before and he knows that in Committee we will table amendments to improve the contentious parts of the Bill, and we will be speak to them and vote on them. I say now to the Home Secretary that clause 2, which will criminalise many innocent people, clause 7, which deals with the withdrawal of support, and clause 10, which is perhaps the most contentious and which cuts down so much on the appeals that can be made, will all be looked at carefully by us in Committee and very carefully in another place.
The Bill must be improved in Committee. It sets out to achieve a better and more streamlined system, but in its present form it will not do that properly. It could achieve that if it is properly amended in Committee. If we can make progress in Committee on those contentious issues and others, the Home Secretary will have our support. If not, and judging by the mood of the House and of many outside, when the Bill comes back on Report and Third Reading, he will not have it.
We have had an energetic and considered debate, and I am grateful for the contributions from Members of the House on what is always—rightly always—a difficult, complex and emotive set of issues.
The Bill sets out our third planned phase of reforms to the asylum and immigration system and builds deliberately on the action that we took in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Though I say it myself, the Government have made dramatic progress in reducing claims by half, reducing the backlog to an all-time 10-year low, removing record numbers of failed asylum seekers and processing 80 per cent. of more recent claims in two months. I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird for recognising that. The Bill represents the next essential stage in completely transforming and reconstructing the asylum system. I agree with Members on both sides of the House who said that operational efficiency, accuracy and consistency are vital—that is why we have given the Bill such a high priority and will continue to do so.
Inevitably, the debate has focused on asylum, but it is important, not least for some Labour Members, to put our asylum reforms in the context of our wider policy on migration. There is a clear dividing line here. Conservative Members—we heard a little of this refrain in the contribution of Mr. Turner—want to stem all immigration into this country. By contrast, this Government's progressive policy is to welcome migrants where that helps our economy and to give opportunities to people from less developed countries. We are committed to finding better ways of integrating refugees here and helping genuine refugees worldwide. That includes our work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify refugees abroad and to bring them directly into settlement in the UK. Those are the forgotten people—the refugees who can never make it to the west in the back of a lorry because they cannot afford the traffickers who fuel that movement, and who languish instead in camps in poor countries across the world. Our commitment lies in managed legal migration and in more help for refugees.
We cannot, however, expect to make the case for managed legal migration and more help for refugees unless we deal with the misuse of the asylum system and return it to the purpose for which it was intended—the protection of people fleeing persecution, not the provision of a route into settlement for those seeking a better life—understandable though that is. I never speak negatively about asylum seekers, and neither do my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or my colleagues, but that is not the purpose of the asylum system. If we are to have a system that makes fair decisions, regulates the process and returns asylum to its proper purpose, we must enforce the outcomes of those decisions fairly and properly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a good deal of illegal entry into this country and abuse of the system has been carried out by traffickers who have deliberately brought people into the country for benefits scams, servitude and other purposes, and that the Bill will help to clamp down on that abuse?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We have added to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which penalises trafficking for sexual exploitation, by including in the Bill a measure that criminalises trafficking for non-sexual exploitation, domestic slavery, organ harvesting and labour exploitation. I am very much committed to that.
I have to say that I occasionally wondered in the course of the debate in whose interests some Members were primarily speaking, and where the views of their constituents came into play. It is vital that the public, who are our constituents, have confidence in the asylum and immigration system. We are introducing these measures because it is important to build that confidence. It is an ongoing process, however—we have to respond quickly and robustly to global migration trends and to the way in which organised criminals constantly try to find ways around the controls that we put in place. People have a right to know that the Government and Parliament are addressing their genuine concerns about the misuse of the process—otherwise, they will look beyond the established parties in this Chamber to the extremist policies offered by the British National party and others. That has already happened in Europe, and we cannot and will not allow it to happen here.
Public confidence in the system is crucial for the successful integration of refugees and to maintain cohesion in our communities in towns and cities throughout the country. We have a proud tradition of welcoming people; we are proud of modern Britain's ethnically rich and diverse society. We must not allow that to be soured by traffickers or people who misuse the system, for whatever understandable reasons.
We have made radical improvements to the controls, but no one can seriously say that nothing more can be done. The Bill shows that we are determined to take action further to improve our border controls, ensure that the systems continue to fulfil the purposes of enabling legal movement, encouraging legal migration and honouring our international obligations to offer protection to those in genuine need.
I shall try to respond to some of the specific points that hon. Members made. I welcome the response of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. My right hon. Friend Mr. Denham made it clear that the Committee has not asked for any of the provisions to be withdrawn. He especially mentioned the figure of 16,000. He knows from his experience as a Minister that when a Committee Chairman asks Ministers for information, we have to provide it. That specific information was already in the public domain because we made it clear when we announced the ILR—indefinite leave to remain— exercise. Would that we could control some newspaper headlines, but I fear that we cannot.
Mr. Key mentioned charging. We are about to embark on a full consultation on the first months of implementation of the current charging mechanism. All the issues that he raised will be open for people to comment on further. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear, the provision on charging is only an enabling power. Any proposals will be made through the secondary process and be subject to full consultation.
Hon. Members talked mainly about clauses 7 and 10. Clause 10 covers the proposals to create a single tier for appeals. Again, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar that it is vital to have a proper, fair judicial system that is independent of the Home Office and the initial decision that takes place there. However, I disagree with her view and that of most of my hon. Friends who spoke on the matter that the Bill will not achieve that. It is important, for all the reasons that hon. Members mentioned—for example, the need to return people quickly when their claims fail—that we do not allow appeal after appeal. That is why we propose a single tier and a single body. We shall outline the proposal's operation in greater detail in Committee, and I hope that we can reassure hon. Members about some of their concerns.
I shall not take an intervention because the hon. Gentleman has heard hardly any of the debate. I am happy to take interventions from people who have been present.
A panel of three will hear complex cases. There will be a facility for either party to apply for review. A senior judge will undertake that review and can uphold, overturn or replace the decision or instruct a rehearing. The president can take novel and complex issues of law to the Court of Appeal. I fail to understand how that is tantamount to what my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews, my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, and the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) described as removal of judicial oversight. It is not.
As part of the process, will the published minutes of meetings be made available to Members of Parliament who might take an interest in such cases, even if they are not placed in the public domain?
It is standard practice under the current mechanisms. Although it is a matter for the Department for Constitutional Affairs, I do not understand why it cannot be continued for adjudicators, and currently tribunal adjudicators, so that they produce a report that summarises their conclusions and the reasons for them. I imagine that that will happen.
My hon. Friend has correctly said that progress has been made at the immigration and nationality directorate, but is she seriously suggesting that the detail of how the appeal system will operate has not yet been worked out? Are we going to remove a whole tier of the appeal system without the Government having worked out the details?
No, my hon. Friend must have misheard me, or perhaps he was not listening for a moment, because I said that there would be more time in Committee for Ministers to explain the detail, which has been fully worked out. Indeed, we have involved the judiciary in that process, as he would expect.
Hon. Members have identified the quality of decision making at both stages, the initial decision and the appeal, and I agree that that is crucial—[Interruption.] I shall finish my point if hon. Members will allow me to. That issue is critical, which is why we have been working on it and will continue to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take the matter further.
I should be happy to set out those details in Committee. I am not prepared to spend time in a Second Reading debate on a matter of detail for the Committee.
I acknowledge the concern of the many hon. Members who raised the issue of clause 7; I shall not take up time naming them all, because it involved nearly everybody. This is a difficult issue, and I repeat that our intention is not to put children into care as a result of this measure, contrary to the deliberate misinformation put out by some newspapers—[Interruption.] I would ask hon. Members to consider this point. We must face this difficult question—and it is a question for every Member of the House. When families have come to the end of the process and been refused, should we carry on housing them and paying them ad infinitum if they refuse to go home or to co-operate with the arrangements regarding re-documentation? That cannot be right.
No, I will not.
Most of our constituents would expect us to conclude that people must take responsibility for their position, and that parents must be responsible for their children. I understand the concerns—
I have 15 minutes in which to respond to every Member. My hon. Friend has had 12 minutes for his own speech. I need to come to my conclusion.
The details of the way in which the process will operate are fundamentally important, and we shall articulate those details in Committee. The process will involve an interview and up to four letters explaining exactly what will happen, so that people will be under no illusions.
The Bill is the next essential stage in our programme of reforms to the asylum and immigration system, and it responds to the continuing and increasingly sophisticated abuses of that system. It also builds on the progress that we have already made. Genuine refugees have nothing to fear from the measures in the Bill. We are getting tougher on traffickers and on those seeking to play the system, to ensure that the public have confidence in that system. In turn, that will ensure that genuine refugees and legal migrants can continue to be welcomed here and valued for the important contribution that they make to life in the United Kingdom.
I recognise that this is a difficult issue, and we need to balance the rights and responsibilities of all those concerned in the process, including asylum seekers. In case my hon. Friend Ms Abbott is under the illusion that I do not see any asylum seekers, I must tell her that I do, at every advice surgery. I am therefore putting forward these proposals with a full knowledge of the interests of both constituents and asylum seekers. The Bill is in the interests of our positive approach to immigration, of refugees worldwide, of the communities in Britain and, above all, of our constituents—the people whom we represent—who rightly expect us to have a fair system.