Five-year Asylum Strategy

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 7th February 2005.

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Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary 3:32 pm, 7th February 2005

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the five-year strategy that I am publishing today to take forward our reforms to the immigration and asylum system.

The Government's approach to this important subject begins with the recognition that migration is vital for our economy and society. Visitors sustain a tourist industry that is worth £38 billion a year and employs more than 2 million people. Migrant workers, skilled and unskilled, do key jobs that cannot be filled from our domestic labour force. Overseas students make a major contribution, economic and intellectual, to our education institutions, and many as a result develop lifelong ties with this country. The positive effect of migrants is true throughout the United Kingdom. For example, in Scotland the declining population presents a particular challenge that Scottish Ministers are addressing through their fresh talent policy to attract and integrate bright, talented people. We will continue to support measures of this kind.

Moreover this country has always been among those first in the world to recognise our moral and legal duty to offer protection to those genuinely fleeing death or persecution at home. It is a fact that those who have migrated to this country over centuries have made, and continue to make, a major contribution to all aspects of our national life. But I think that the House will agree that it is essential to enforce our rules rigorously and fairly to ensure that we admit only those who bring this country the benefits or meet the moral obligations that I have described.

The proposals that I am publishing today are intended to build upon the major progress that we have made in recent years. We have strengthened our borders by operating our own controls in northern France and Belgium, supported by sophisticated new technology to detect illegal immigrants in freight vehicles. This has substantially cut illegal entry through the Channel tunnel and Calais and other ports. We have tightened the asylum system against abuse, reducing applications by 67 per cent. from their peak. Since 1997, we have doubled the number of removals of those not entitled to be here. We have made our legal routes for migration much more robust against abuse.

We must do more, however, to clarify the basis on which we admit people to the UK, whether temporarily or permanently, and we must do more to ensure that we operate an effective control to prevent those who do not meet our criteria from getting here, and to ensure that they leave when they are no longer entitled to be in the UK.

Lack of confidence in our systems of control can foster bigotry of whatever kind, and it is our responsibility—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Members often ask me to bring Ministers before the House to make a statement. The Secretary of State is making a statement and it should be treated with courtesy. Many Members, including me, have asylum seekers in their community, and we want to hear what the Secretary of State has to say on this matter.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The strategy that I am setting out today comprises a major programme of measures to build confidence. We will continue to welcome genuine economic migration within strict criteria. The current system works well but is complex and difficult to understand. Therefore, we will bring all our current schemes for work and student migrants into one simple points-based system. That will ensure that we only take migrants for jobs that cannot be filled from our own work force and that we focus on the skilled workers that we need most. We believe that the labour available from European Union member states—old and new—should over time meet our national needs for low-skilled work. Therefore, in consultation with the industries and over time, we intend to phase out the current low-skilled quota schemes. We will of course review with the sectors how to fill any gaps that still remain, but any new schemes will be, as now, quota-based, temporary and tightly managed to ensure that people return home at the end of their stay. They will only be open to nationals of countries who agree to take back their citizens when they are no longer entitled to remain in the UK.

That points system will be supported by new measures to ensure that it is not abused. Workers and students will be required to have sponsors such as employers or educational institutions who will share the responsibility of ensuring that they leave at the end of their time in the UK. The cost of running the visa system will be recovered from those who benefit—I am answering a written statement on that today. Where there has been clear evidence of abuse, we are ready to introduce financial bonds to guarantee that migrants return home when they should.

We will set up an independent skills advisory body to advise us on labour market needs and skills shortages. The Government believe that a modern market-based economy such as ours requires a system that is flexible and employer-led, rather than some kind of centrally determined, rigid and arbitrary quota.

We will continue to welcome genuine refugees. Like all other developed countries and the rest of the 145 nations that are now signatories, we will honour our obligations under the 1951 Geneva convention. It is part of the international legal and ethical framework that enshrines basic principles of human decency. The Government reject the idea of a fixed and arbitrary quota of refugees and withdrawal from the convention as unworkable, unjust, counter-productive and immoral. Withdrawal would deny to us the international co-operation that we need to deal with the real problems that cause asylum such as resolving conflict, combating immigration crime and returning failed asylum seekers to their own countries.

We will continue to root out abuse by implementing rigorously the measures that we have taken to identify genuine refugees, by further strengthening our borders and by removing those whose claims fail. We will rationalise the appeals system to improve access to justice. From April, we will implement the new streamlined single tier of appeal. We will abolish the right of appeal against refusal of leave to enter the UK for work or study, and we will tighten up the operation of family visit appeals. We will continue to allow permanent settlement in this country where there is clear economic benefit and where migrants wish to integrate socially. We will tighten our conditions of settlement to reflect that by requiring those who want to settle to pass tests on English language and knowledge of the UK, by restricting settlement for economic migrants to skilled workers only, and by extending the period for which they need to have been here to five years before they get settlement.

We will in future grant genuine refugees temporary status once their asylum claim has been granted, as happens in many comparable European countries. We will encourage them to work and participate in local communities, we will keep the situation in their home country under review and, if there has been significant improvement, we will expect them to return. If there has been no improvement after five years, they will be permitted to settle in the UK.

Over the next five years, we will transform our immigration control. Using new technology, we will develop an integrated system dealing with people before they enter the UK, at our borders and while they are in the country. We will fingerprint everyone when they apply for a visa. Those fingerprints and other personal travel information will be checked against our own watch lists of those who present an immigration or security threat. Airlines will not have the authority to carry people until that check has been made.

Identity cards will provide a simple and secure way of verifying identity, helping us to tackle illegal working, organised crime, terrorist activity, identity theft and fraudulent access to public services. The new borders technology will record people's departure from the country, which will help us to target our immigration checks, and we will back that up with fines for employers who take on illegal labour.

We will continue to crack down hard on organised immigration crime, which targets the most vulnerable, the poorest and the young. We have introduced tough new penalties, gone after criminal assets and established the multi-agency Reflex task force to co-ordinate law enforcement and intelligence activity. That will be a major priority for the new Serious Organised Crime Agency.

Swift removal of those not entitled to be in this country is central to the credibility of the whole system. Although we have removed many more failed asylum seekers and other immigration offenders than ever before, we intend substantially to increase the number in future. We will introduce a new and faster process for asylum applications, detain more people and use other means of contact like tagging to prevent people from absconding when they are ready to be removed.

We will take new measures to prevent people from concealing their identity by destroying their documents and thus making it much harder to get their own countries to take them back. We have already made it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK undocumented without good reason, and we are asking airlines to copy travel documents on certain routes.

It will be most important to secure more effective returns arrangements with the countries from which most of our failed asylum seekers come. We will place migration at the centre of our relationship with those countries. We will give support to help with the reintegration of failed asylum seekers, if they need it, but we will also make it clear to the relevant countries that failure to agree such a joint approach will have implications for our wider relationship, including access to some migration schemes.

Migration is a consequence of the increasingly global world economy, and asylum is an international issue. We will best address and make progress on those issues through effective international co-operation, not through some kind of fortress Britain splendid isolation. The fact is that partnerships with other countries, the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are essential to delivering our objectives.

Taken together, this is a major programme to build on the foundations that we have laid by creating a system which will be, and which will be seen to be, transparent and fair to all. It is a practical and systematic response to the real problems of asylum and immigration. It will provide a simple and robust system for economic migration. It will tighten our rules for permanent settlement to ensure that those who stay bring benefit to the UK. It represents real determination to eliminate illegal entry, illegal working, asylum abuse and people-trafficking gangs, who, through their heinous crimes, gain most from the failures of our system. I commend the strategy to the House.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

As usual, I am grateful to the Home Secretary for generously allowing me advance sight of his statement. I am particularly pleased to tell the House that today's statement accurately reflects the newspaper reports over the weekend.

Eight years ago, the Labour party manifesto stated:

"every country should have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception".

The Prime Minister promised to clamp down on the thousands of people who settle in Britain illegally. Four years later, the manifesto promised:

"asylum seekers and their dependants whose claims are rejected will be removed from Britain with the aim of more than 30,000 in 2003–04".

Instead of the clear, firm and fair asylum and immigration system that we were promised, we have a system that is confused, weak and chaotic. The latest published figures show that asylum applications are 67 per cent. higher than they were in 1996. Only one in five failed asylum seekers is currently removed from Britain. There are now more than 250,000 failed asylum seekers in this country who should have been removed.

Net immigration has tripled under this Government. The legal aid budget for asylum and immigration has increased sevenfold since 1997. Despite obvious abuse of the system there have been far too few people convicted of employing illegal immigrants.

It comes as no surprise that on his first day in the job, the current Home Secretary said that he believed that the immigration asylum system needed "urgent reform". The right hon. Gentleman is right: it desperately needs reform. That is reform of the mess that the Government have created over the eight years that they have been in power.

The Home Secretary has, today, set out plans to bring the system back under control—a rather different perspective. In November 2003, the previous Home Secretary described the Asylum and Immigration Bill as the "final phase" of reform.

As I first called for an Australian points system about nine months ago, it would be unfair of me not to welcome that system in today's plan. There is a clear economic case for limited migration of skilled people coming into and out of Britain, and a points system will allow us to manage this more effectively. However, will the Home Secretary explain to the House why the Government decided to do this only now? Is it because last year more than 200,000 people came to Britain, entering under various schemes for employment purposes? Migration is, of course, part of a competitive, dynamic economy. However, the issue is not only about the economy. It is also about pressure on public services such as housing, schools and hospitals. So we must decide how many people we can take. For that reason alone we need a clear limit on numbers.

The Government's plan to introduce a points system will not necessarily reduce the number of immigrants coming into Britain unless a limit is introduced. In 2003, the former Home Secretary said that he believed that there is

"no obvious upper limit to legal immigration".

Does the current Home Secretary agree?

The Government failed to foresee the implications of European Union enlargement. Today's announcement discusses but does not really deal with the EU accession states, whose 75 million population have an average wage half that of Britain's minimum wage and are registering at a rate of well over 100,000 a year, not the 13,000 originally claimed by the Home Office.

Given what the Home Secretary has said, is he, effectively, going to set a zero, zero quota for unskilled immigrants from outside the EU and the succession states? Will he explain why, last year, the Government increased the numbers under temporary labour schemes but did not implement departure controls? Does he know how many people remain in Britain having completed their employment under these schemes or, indeed, came to the country under any temporary visa and stayed here illegally?

We know from leaked Home Office documents that most major countries have good methods of estimating numbers of illegal immigrants but that this Government decided not to do so because it was embarrassing. Will the Home Secretary now publish the estimated number of illegal immigrants in this country?

The five-year plan proposes to reintroduce embarkation controls. Again, we welcome this because it is also familiar from nine months ago. However, the electronic system that is being proposed today has yet to complete its pilot stage. It will be yet another very complex computer project for the Home Office to get wrong and to overrun on cost and time, and time matters on an issue of such fundamental importance to national security.

The National Audit Office estimated that the cost of reintroducing embarkation controls will be about £26 million, or a little more, per year. Does the Home Secretary not think that this will be a far more cost-effective way of controlling entry and one that could be introduced relatively quickly—not the three-year timetable that he currently has, I think?

Finally, we learn that the Government are going to restrict the right to permanent settlement. It will not surprise the House to learn that this is also familiar from nine months ago. The number of people granted settlement in the UK between 1997 and 2003 more than doubled, the figure having been almost static between 1993 and 1997. Will the Home Secretary explain precisely when this measure will come into effect?

The Home Secretary proposes today to speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers—a measure that he describes as key to the credibility of the whole policy. I am afraid that we have heard this all before and frankly, the Government's record to date on this issue is abysmal. Targets have been constantly missed and dropped, and then missed again. This is not the first time that the Home Office has talked tough on removing failed asylum seekers. In 2001, the Government announced a target of 30,000 removals, against a background of the then current average of 8,000. That Government promise was simply dishonest; they knew when they made it that they could not achieve it.

I sometimes illustrate our immigration debates with leaked documents. This time, evidence of the Government's dishonesty is hidden in plain sight—in a document that is technically in the public domain—albeit buried in the middle of a 459-page report on the fire at the Yarl's Wood removal centre. The report quotes a deputy director of the immigration and nationality directorate, who said that

"the 30,000 target had been met with shrieks of hollow laughter" at an immigration service conference. According to the director of detention at the immigration and nationality directorate, the culture inside the Home Office was such that despite the target's being—the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration will like this phrase—

"some kind of fantasy, you had to publicly acknowledge" it, and if you did not,

"you were branded 'not one of us' and a trouble maker".

Disturbingly, the director of detention said that reasoned debate was forbidden.

The previous Home Secretary was told immediately after the 2001 general election that his target was unachievable. It was reported that he felt "uncomfortable" with the news. So he should, as the Government plainly knew that their campaign promise was incapable of being achieved before they made that promise. The question that the current Home Secretary should perhaps ask himself is this: given that history of deception by this Government on this subject, why should anyone believe them now?

It has taken the Government eight years to come up with a five-year plan—a plan that is a series of half steps towards a proper solution. It goes no way towards sorting out an asylum and immigration system that is a total shambles. It might surprise the House to learn that I feel some sympathy for the Home Secretary and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. Both inherited a complete disaster. We have had eight years of incompetence, cover up, deceit, missed targets and unmet promises. This is the latest headline-grabbing initiative from a panic stricken Government in the run-up to a general election. We have heard it all before; why should we believe any of it now? Frankly, we do not, and nor will the people of this country, who have now completely lost trust in a completely discredited Home Office.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

Well, that rant—that is the only word that I can use—was notable for its lack of comment on our detailed proposals, and for the right hon. Gentleman's reiteration of two fundamental weaknesses in his policy. First, he reiterated the official Opposition's commitment to quotas. I want to make it absolutely clear—in a way that the whole House, including Conservative Members, will understand—that the Tory quotas would damage our economy and our world-class education system and remove existing fundamental human rights under international law. It is an arbitrary, populist and impractical assertion that can achieve nothing, and I was disappointed at the right hon. Gentleman committing himself to it yet again.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the border controls that we rigorously establish in this document. They will enable us for the first time fully to understand exactly the movement of people into and out of this country, which was never done under the Conservatives or previously under this Government. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman affirmed that he supported it in principle, but I am disappointed that he did not take the opportunity to renounce the cuts that the James proposals suggest for the Conservatives, which would remove the resources necessary to make our borders strong and robust at home and abroad. That is the second big weakness.

Thirdly, I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman made no mention of his intention to leave the Geneva convention on refugees, which would destroy the very international co-operation that is essential to solve the challenges that we face on immigration and asylum. The fact remains that we are putting forward today a clear, coherent and practical set of propositions as against the false rhetoric of the official Opposition. I believe that the Conservatives will show that they have mistrusted the whole country in that regard.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement. While there are many issues on which we disagree in this debate, we welcome at least his attempts to highlight the positive economic case for immigration. Included in the proposals that the Home Secretary has announced today is the suggestion for an independent economic review to assess how many jobs are needed. We have argued for that proposition since last summer, but will he consider our further suggestion that he should use the findings of the review to set an annual economic quota so that the public can see that it is being done independently rather than by politicians?

Will the Home Secretary also confirm that he has no plans to end the right to settlement after four years? Does he accept that workers who have been in this country with their families for four years have put down roots in the community, making it wholly wrong for them to lose that right? Furthermore, will he confirm that his proposals will apply to all immigrants, including those from America, Canada and Australia?

On asylum, I am glad that the Home Secretary rejected the totally unacceptable proposals for a quota that the Conservatives are advocating, but will he give a firm guarantee that the Government have no targets in mind for the number of asylum seekers coming into this country? Will he confirm that, in the next five years, there will be no further plans to change the rights of asylum seekers on appeal, and what is he going to do to try to get the initial decisions right on more occasions, because far too many of them are wrong at the moment? We welcome the plans further to speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers. In the past, the Government have set targets, but failed. Are there any targets in place now for the number that they intend to remove?

Finally, does the Home Secretary share my frustration that there is now a bidding war taking place on immigration and asylum between the Government and the official Opposition? Is it not important to speak up for the positive role that migrants play and to defend at all costs the principle that, in this country, we welcome refugees?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

Let me begin with the hon. Gentleman's final point. I do not believe that there is a bidding war of any sort whatever and it is quite wrong of him to say that there is. What is critical is to ensure that our migration regime allows our businesses, public services and universities to flourish while maintaining our responsibility to ensure that everyone who has the right to claim asylum is able to do so and encouraging visitors to this country for a variety of purposes. I believe that it is ludicrous to impose some sort of economic quota in that context. It will be factors in different areas of the marketplace that determine the position—and quite rightly so. The position is simple. The hon. Gentleman is right to welcome the advisory body, which will ensure that we properly—and, independently, by the way—understand exactly where the pressures in the system are, how to carry the necessary measures through and how to build on our sector skills council approach. That is a sound approach to the problem.

We are not setting specific targets on the number of applications, removals or other particular aspects. We do believe that we can move forward in the directions that we suggested, including establishing settlement at five years, rather than four years. To answer another of the hon. Gentleman's questions, we believe that the proposals should apply to everyone, rather than to any particular groups. We will try to make the initial decisions more effective, and we believe that the accelerated asylum system will mean that better decisions can be taken more rapidly than in the past. My final appeal to the Liberal Democrats would be not to play a game of party politics, but properly to consider the merit of the proposals and decide accordingly.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Labour, Doncaster North

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Anybody with half an ounce of grey matter between their ears knows that economic migrants are a good and necessary thing for this country. The real problem is the amount of people who try to cheat the asylum system. My constituents want the Home Secretary to concentrate on that issue, not get drawn in to a "mine's bigger than yours" contest with the Conservatives.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is correct and I shall be unequivocal in my response. We welcome migration for economic and educational reasons and we understand and meet our international obligations. However, the determination at the core of the document is to reduce and minimise the number of people who evade the system through duplicity, organised crime or collusion between various forces. My hon. Friend's constituents, like many other people, are impatient when they see the system bypassed in that way. That is why, once we have clarified exactly what the basis for entry is, it is necessary to ensure that the system is rigorously policed, enforced and tightened up. I am glad that my hon. Friend has focused on that aspect of the proposals.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

The House has been unduly harsh on the Home Secretary and he should be congratulated on delivering his statement with a straight face. However, he should recognise that no one believes him on this issue. They do not believe his figures or his statement. When he talks about enforcing rules vigorously and strengthening our borders, very few constituents will believe those words for a moment. If he does know what the figures are, will he undertake to put them in the Library so that the allegations that he made in his statement can be sustained by the actual facts?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

The reason I try to make my statement and give my responses with a straight face is that this is a serious issue which needs to be seriously addressed. It is true that there is room for party political badinage, but the people of this country are fed up with that aspect and seriously concerned about what needs to be done in practice. My challenge for the other parties is to put forward serious, considered and practical proposals, as we have sought to do, based on the facts of the situation as they are properly understood. That is what the document seeks to do, and I invite the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to do that also. That is the basis on which we should have the national debate.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary accepts that if someone is given refugee status, which is not very easy to get, it implies that we accept that they would be in real danger if they returned. Can he confirm whether people who are given refugee status in the future will retain the right to family reunion while they have the temporary status that he proposes? If so, we will be leaving people in limbo for up to five years while their families start to put down roots. What will happen at the end of the five years if we then attempt to send those people back? We will certainly see those people in our surgeries if that happens.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend on this issue over a period of time. The important point to acknowledge—as many other European countries do—is that refugee status becoming settlement is a privilege, rather than a right. We need to acknowledge that some applications for refugee status are temporary in character. The most recent example is Kosovo, but there are others. In such cases, one may reasonably anticipate that by seeking to end conflict in various parts of the world, we can address some of the genuine issues that give rise to applications for refugee status in the first place. That is why we say that it is necessary to keep the situation under review. If the cause has not changed after five years—and in many cases it will not have done so—we will, as now, grant indefinite leave to remain as a permanent status. However, it is reasonable that after refugee status is granted, it should be kept under review in the light of changing circumstances for each individual.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

In August 1997, I—and, to be fair, Mr. Prosser—informed the Home Office, on the basis of information provided by Kent police, of a likely influx of illegal immigrants. In the autumn of that year, my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard and I called on the then Minister of State to reinforce personally our concerns. No action was taken by the Home Office and the floodgates opened. In 1996, approximately 50 applications for asylum were made in Kent. Can the Home Secretary say how many asylum seekers are currently resident in Kent and what in his statement today will prevent the many asylum seekers who are now illegally on the electoral register from voting in the election?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I cannot give the figures for Kent, but I can draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to figure 5 on page 17 of the document that we published today, which clearly shows that, according to the latest estimate, the number of asylum applications in 2004—the most recent year—was about the same as it was in 1996–97. I can also say that when Labour entered office in 1997, we found no serious preparation by the Government then leaving office to deal with the terrible crime of people trafficking, which was the core of the system. The Labour Government have put that at the top of the agenda and established approaches to deal with it. That is to the credit of our Government and to the discredit of the Government whom he supported.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

Is it not the case that the majority of economic migrants into this country come from the island of Ireland, New Zealand and Australia? How, if there are two applicants with equal qualifications for a job under the quota, can we be assured that the applicant with white skin will not automatically get the job?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

My hon. Friend's figures are correct. One of the reasons why I oppose quotas as proposed by the Opposition is that they could have precisely the effect that she suggests.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs; Treasury), Leader, Scottish National Party

The Home Secretary complimented the fresh talent initiative, but yesterday's Sunday Herald detailed five separate instances of policy initiatives proposed by the Scottish Executive being turned down by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor. How on earth can he satisfy Scotland that the policy he has announced today will recognise the economic benefits of immigration when he is simultaneously engaged in an increasingly unpleasant auction with the Conservative party on who can sound toughest on immigration?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We specifically welcome the fresh talent initiative, as I was at pains to point out in my statement, and I engage in regular dialogue with my colleagues in the Scottish Executive, including the First Minister, on what we can do to support it. We are not involved in a bidding war.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon John Spellar, Minister of State), Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend is right to identify as a source of profound public concern a situation in which the vast majority of asylum seekers cannot establish a case for remaining in the UK, but do so anyway. If democracy, peace and stability take root in Iraq, will the Government under the new policy take the measures necessary to ensure that every failed Iraqi asylum seeker is removed to their country of origin?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

The short answer to that question is yes. The question illustrates extremely clearly the fact that in the modern world, in large part, the need for asylum arises from conflicts in various parts of the world—Africa, east Africa, the middle east and elsewhere. The principal aim of our policy is to resolve those conflicts in the best possible way, and resolution enables us to consider returning people who were genuine refugees to those countries if necessary. That is what we will consider.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk

The right hon. Gentleman has spoken of the Government's moral responsibility in these matters. We have reached, or nearly so, the anniversary of the shocking events in Morecambe bay, over which the Labour Government presided, and as a Norfolk MP he is aware of the intolerable abuse suffered by some migrant workers at the hands of some unscrupulous employers in East Anglia. The reason for that abuse is that such people are invisible. His predecessor memorably said that he had not a clue how many migrant workers there were in Britain, either legally or illegally. Will one of the results of today's announcement be that in future the Government will know and, as a consequence, will be able to accord to those forgotten and neglected people the protection that the Morecambe bay workers so spectacularly did not have?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

The right hon. Lady is quite right. The imposition of the border control systems that I have set out today will allow this or any Government to have the information that she rightly identified as necessary. She is right, too, about the impact of illegal working and people trafficking on our economies. She will be aware that an individual who ran a huge people-trafficking business in East Anglia was found guilty last week, and was brought to justice as a result of measures that we introduced. However, there is a great deal more to be done. The right hon. Lady has rightly campaigned on these matters, and I will join her in doing so.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

The Opposition spokesman raised the issue of pressure on public services, but may I tell my right hon. Friend that swathes of those services, especially in London, could not function without migrant and refugee labour? I, for one, pay tribute to those people. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in opinion polls the British public regularly overestimate the size of the migrant and refugee population, and assume that between one quarter and one third of the entire population are first-generation migrants. Last week, however, the House of Commons Library advised me that the figure was nearer 4 per cent. Will he do what he can to ensure, particularly in the next few weeks in the highly charged atmosphere in the run-up to an election, that we reach an agreement that it is not in anyone's interest to distort and exaggerate the picture?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is quite right. As I understand it, 27 per cent. of professionals in the health service were born overseas. A vital number of key services and businesses depend entirely on that migration, so I was accurate in describing the Opposition's proposals for a quota as economically illiterate and destructive, as they would wipe out much of that key support. As for responsibility in the debate, it is legitimate to debate these questions, but every party to the debate, political or otherwise, should be required to introduce a balanced set of practical propositions. That is the nature of our proposals, and I very much regret that the official Opposition have not introduced proposals that are even remotely practical, as that can foster fear and uncertainty.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does the Home Secretary not agree that confidence in him is important if his proposals are to work? Many people must be asking why all this was not in the Queen's Speech or, indeed, previous Queen's Speeches; to the general public it looks very much as if the right hon. Gentleman has introduced these proposals only because of the sensible proposals introduced by the Opposition. He is under fundamental pressure from No. 10 to deliver on this very matter.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I am staggered that the right hon. Gentleman should consider the proposals introduced by his Front Bench team sensible. I am surprised that, with his personal record and internationalist background, he should be happy that they propose to withdraw from the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees. I agree that confidence is important, but the Queen's Speech deals with the legislative programme of the present Parliament. A vast number of the measures that I have set out today can be introduced without primary legislation, and we shall do so.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

May I tell my right hon. Friend that, as a first-generation immigrant whose parents did not have to face a quota before they came to the United Kingdom, I am concerned about his proposals to limit the right of appeal in family visitor cases. That very special right was introduced by a Labour Government, and it affects people in this country who want to see family visitors. Does he not agree that if he is going to charge higher fees at the immigration and nationality directorate, then the services that it provides must be much better; and that we must get a grip on that system?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I agree with my hon. Friend. I intend to retain the right of appeal in family visitor cases, as I have made clear. However, that should be done on the basis of papers rather than oral hearings, and I have said in terms that we will consult on the question of a charging regime, precisely because, as my hon. Friend argued, it is important that any charges be considered alongside the efficiency of the service that is provided. I therefore accept the general thrust of what he said.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I for one on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome much of what the Home Secretary said today. When he spoke about removals, he did not emphasise what the problems had been and why we had not been able to remove so many people. Why should people be confident that the Government now have a plan that will get it right, when they failed so badly in the past, with tens of thousands of people who have been refused permission to stay remaining in the country?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

There are three key things that we must do in connection with removals. First, we must identify countries that are not ready to accept removals in the way that they need to. I set out a coherent cross-Government strategy for doing that in a way that has not been done before. Secondly, we must ensure that everybody is identified consistently. Though we have some good record on this, we do not have a good enough record, and we must make technology work for us in that regard. Thirdly, we have recently legislated to make it a criminal offence to destroy documents upon entry to the country. That is only a recent development, but we need to take it still further. All three steps are part of our removals approach. Putting all three into effect will build on the record that we already have for the highest number of removals the country has ever had.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Is the Home Secretary not concerned that the debate is being increasingly conducted in a shrill atmosphere of dealing from the lowest card in the deck? We are going to the lowest common denominator in the debate. Will he reflect on the plight that many asylum seekers face in this country? They come from war-torn communities, having suffered personal and systematic abuse, often live in great poverty in this country because they are unrepresented through the asylum system, and are then threatened with removal to countries such as the Congo, which are extremely unstable. Will he not instead raise the debate to the level of serious concern about human rights for people all around the world, as we want for ourselves, rather than indulging in a debate with the Opposition about who can be toughest on immigration and toughest on asylum?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I am very disappointed that my hon. Friend takes the view that that is what I have been doing. I do not consider that I have been shrill or that I have adopted a lowest common denominator approach. I have tried, in a way that has not always been part of the debate, first, to assert the absolute importance of migration to this country for work and study, for visitors and for our economic necessity, and not to confuse that with other aspects; and secondly, to assert our absolute determination to honour our membership of the Geneva convention on refuges, precisely to protect people in the position that my hon. Friend described. I consider that a positive way to look at the debate, and the document is a positive way to set it out. I do not know whether my hon. Friend agrees, but I think it is reasonable to debate these matters, rather than not. We should discuss them, and the document is a serious effort to provide a basis for doing that.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

With what remains of the Yarl's Wood detention centre being in my constituency, and the insurance claim against Bedfordshire police still unresolved nearly three years after the fire, the Home Secretary will appreciate the importance of his remarks to the people of North-East Bedfordshire. Will he accept the invitation offered by the leader of Bedfordshire county council, Angela Roberts, last week for him to come to Bedfordshire to explain why the Prison Service ombudsman held the failures of Home Office policy to be responsible for the Yarl's Wood fire incident, and at the same time explain to my constituents why they should have any more faith in the current five-year plan than those many thousands who suffered from the fiasco of the past five years should have in that?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I am certainly ready to consider with the hon. Gentleman the best way to discuss with his colleagues on Bedfordshire county council how we can address these matters in a positive way for his constituents. The approach set out in the document will provide a firmer basis for doing that.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

My right hon. Friend recognises the concerns in the community about the pressure that people perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be placed on public services by the asylum system. How is he working with colleagues across Government to make sure that a similar approach applies across all Government services, so that fairness in public services is both the public perception and the reality?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I am grateful for that question. My hon. Friend is right. It is important that the approach should go right across Government. For example, we intend to work with our colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that the law is enforced strongly and coherently in relation to employing people who are in the country illegally. We intend to work with our colleagues in the Treasury and elsewhere on establishing a border regime that works extremely carefully. We intend to work with the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that we have a proper regime for the recruitment of people coming into the country. In relation to housing, it is particularly important that we have that dialogue with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. So we are working right across the range and will continue to do so.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

It would be churlish of us not to commend the Home Secretary for having the honesty to admit that the time has now come for him to clear up the mess made by his own Government. Could he perhaps tell the House why all the things that he now tells us need to be done were not done during the past eight years?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

Actually, what I tried to say—perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying attention—was that in each of the areas that we are talking about, and in particular in reducing the number of asylum applications that deal with embarkation at Calais, Sangatte or through the channel tunnel, we have made significant progress. The question is how we make further progress. It is obvious, I would have thought, that more progress needs to be made, and it is that to which I am committed.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

I am pleased to welcome the Home Secretary's announcement and the measures to continue cutting out abuse in our asylum and immigration systems and improving security at our ports. Does my right hon. Friend recall his visit to my constituency last month? He met immigration officers and heard about the dramatic fall in applicants that has already taken place because of past measures on border controls, juxtaposition and other matters. Will he join me in paying tribute to those hard-working immigration and customs officers who put policy in place and are actually making a difference today?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's raising those points. I recall my visit, and I am grateful to him for inviting me to Dover. I was extremely impressed by the commitment, energy and drive of the employees of the immigration and nationality directorate and Customs and Excise, and others working on such issues. Also—and this is a really important point in light of the preceding question—they all told me, when I met them at the beginning of January, that there had been major improvements in the previous six to nine months, during which things had moved forward. They felt—and it was they, not me or even my hon. Friend who said this—that there had been major progress. The question is how we build on that progress; we should consider that, rather than pretending that no progress of any kind has been made.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

During this Parliament, lawful net immigration to this country has averaged more than 150,000 a year. Does the Home Secretary think that that level of lawful immigration is too high, too low or about right?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I do not really have a view on that—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] That is for a very good reason; I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why. I am not one of those who, like the right hon. Gentleman, takes the Stalinist view that the best way to proceed is for the Government to decide exactly how many people will work in each sector of the economy, how many students will come to the country and how many visitors we will have. That is a very silly way to proceed. What has to happen—perhaps, I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman, in a more free market way—is that companies and organisations in each sector of the economy, universities that recruit students from south-east Asia, or whatever it might be, should come to their views about what is the right thing to do. Our system would then facilitate that. I think that that is a good way to proceed.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

The Home Secretary rightly paid tribute to the role of migrants in recent decades—and, indeed, over the centuries. Does he accept that people from migrant and non-migrant families would agree with him that those who abuse our visa regimes and our refugee processes should be quickly removed from these shores? Does he also accept that one of the issues that he has to deal with in the Home Office is the slow rate of processing of those claims? That is imperative. Many people retain their long-term relationships with family and friends outside our shores. Does he join me in accepting that the need for family visits, and a proper, effective and fair system whereby people can visit these islands of ours, is imperative if we are to be seen to be taking the racism out of this debate? I know that that is what my right hon. Friend wants to do.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I am very glad that my hon. Friend raised that point. The fact is that the time for processing an asylum application is now two months for an initial decision in 80 per cent. of cases, against an average of 22 months—11 times as long—in 1997, when the previous Government left office. That is a significant process of achievement, as I know that my hon. Friend will agree; but, yes, we have to do far more in that regard.

I particularly appreciated my hon. Friend's first point—that people who live in this country, whatever their origin and history, all agree that we need to address the issue of people who try to bypass the system, and to get it right. That is what we are trying to do. Anyone who suggests that the set of measures is for one community or against another is simply wrong. I assert that strongly and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to make that clear.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Given the Government's past woeful achievement on the matter and the Secretary of State's admission that most of what he has announced will not require primary legislation, when will anything happen? For example, when will he introduce embarkation controls? When will the points system come in? When will he introduce the temporary status for asylum seekers? It is all very well listening to his comments, many of which we all support for the reasons that my right hon. Friend David Davis outlined, but what matters is when he delivers.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

Some of the proposals will be delivered with immediate effect and others will take more time. The hon. Gentleman's first point was about embarkation controls. We cannot establish that system until the technology and regime are in place to make it work. We have taken the first steps but the process must be completed. We anticipate that the full fingerprinting system for visas will be complete by 2008. On the other hand, it is possible to set in motion the process for the points system almost immediately, after we have held a proper consultation about what the points regime should be. There is therefore a different answer for each part of the proposals. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as of today, we will move forward on implementing the whole document.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his important statement. If he has had the opportunity to read last year's Home Affairs Committee report on those matters, he will have found a more measured discussion of them than has been apparent in much of the past fortnight. The report recognised the considerable improvements that the Government made in reducing the time taken to process applications and in the reduction of failed asylum applications. However, it highlighted the need for radical change in the approach to the return of asylum seekers, for embarkation controls and for making asylum issues central to this country's foreign policy. My right hon. Friend has dealt with those matters this afternoon and I am grateful to him for that.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I very much appreciate the way in which the Home Affairs Committee, under my right hon. Friend's chairmanship, has sought to conduct the debate. It is potentially an emotive and difficult debate and we must all conduct it in a balanced way which is based on the facts. The Select Committee has shown us the way on that. I am glad that my right hon. Friend believes that we have been able, at least to some extent, to move in the direction that the Committee suggested. I look forward to continued dialogue with him and his Committee.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

Until my hon. Friend Mr. Paice asked the Home Secretary about the timetable, the right hon. Gentleman had not condescended to give us any detail about the schedule and when we could expect the reforms to come through. What does he expect the public to have to pay for those additional proposals?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

As I said in answer to Mr. Paice, there are different timetables for the different aspects. For example, establishing a points-based scheme, the requirement for migrants in specific categories to have sponsors and bonds, changing the settlement regulations and so on require secondary, not primary legislation. On the other hand, establishing a new civil penalty for employers, removing appeals for work and study routes and so on require primary legislation. A detailed schedule will be published in due course, but I can assure the House that we start work on the document immediately.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

When a person has entered the country and gained indefinite leave to remain as a spouse, will that person be allowed to continue to act as a sponsor after leaving the wife who sponsored him? Or does my right hon. Friend have plans to stop that sort of abuse?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

We are trying specifically to deal with that. I believe that I understood my hon. Friend's question correctly and that what I have proposed today will tackle the abuse that she describes. However, to avoid doubt, I shall write to her rather than give an answer at the Dispatch Box, to ensure that I have understood the wording of the question accurately.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I thank the Home Secretary for drawing attention at the beginning of his statement to the importance of migration to this country's economy. He drew attention to skilled and unskilled migrant workers. Now that he is Mr. Nice Guy at the Home Office, will he emulate his predecessor in at least one respect and update and publish the economic evidence that asylum seekers and refugees, when given permission to work, are net contributors to the public purse and not a drain on the national economy?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

We always seek to analyse these matters and to keep them under review. However, it is important that the hon. Gentleman should be clear about the Liberal Democrats' policy on this issue. I have tried to set out our position as clearly as possible, as I think I have done today. I look forward to his comments—

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

Well, if this is the hon. Gentleman's idea of being helpful, it is a bit like when he supports Norwich against Ipswich: he always gives slightly barbed support at the key time.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

As a descendant of an economic migrant of 1849 and a representative of a city founded almost entirely on layers of migration, I welcome today's statement. It will ensure that the door remains open to those would-be migrants whose lives are at risk, while seeking to close the door on the human trafficking that results in problems of abuse by gangmasters and other criminals, and which also, perversely, ensures that deserving migrants do not get in because their places are taken by those who can pay the huge charges demanded by the human traffickers.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Home Secretary

I am particularly glad that my hon. Friend should focus on the role of the human trafficking gangs and on the trade that gives billions of pounds in profits every year to some of the most unpleasant people in the world. It is important to remember that some of the people coming into this country under their auspices are the wretched—really they are. They are the victims of the system rather than the causes of evil. I have sought in my statement to distinguish between the legitimate migration path that my hon. Friend celebrates and the pressing need to deal with the illegitimate paths.