Immigration and Asylum

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 23rd February 2005.

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Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 2:30 pm, 23rd February 2005

rose to call attention to immigration and asylum controls for the maintenance of good race relations, national security and the provision of public services; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, immigration is an important issue of great concern to the public and, judging by the number of noble Lords who have put their names down to speak today, we think that it is a highly appropriate matter to be discussed in this place.

There are always people ready to make mischief out of immigration, but history shows that if genuine concerns are addressed in a sensible manner, immigration can cease to be politically very contentious. I say that with some diffidence, but I believe that by the latter part of the 1980s, with firm and fair immigration control established under the government of my noble friend Lady Thatcher—who I am glad to see in her place today—immigration policy had ceased to be a very contentious matter. It is the abandonment of that firm and fair immigration control that has brought immigration policy back into the headlines now.

It would be foolish and wrong to start a debate such as this without a clear acknowledgement that immigration has brought great benefits to this country. Britain is immeasurably better off as a result of the new Britons who have come here over the past half-century. Very many individuals have made a great contribution to society and we are privileged to have some of them as colleagues in this place.

In more general terms, we all know that immigration plays an important part in creating a dynamic and competitive modern economy, providing skills that are in short supply and filling gaps in the workforce.

But none of this should make us fail to recognise that while immigration can bring great benefits, too much uncontrolled immigration can bring dangers. People can be frightened by over-rapid change in a locality, and good community relations can be imperilled as a result. As most immigrants tend to go to the same parts of the country, an intolerable strain can be put on public services in those parts—on hospitals, schools and housing.

The truth of this is, frankly, recognised in a report of the Government's own Community Cohesion Panel set up after the Bradford riots. The report entitled The End of Parallel Lives? states, referring to the troubles in Bradford and to places like Bradford:

"The 'pace of change' . . . is simply too great at present . . . inward migration does create tensions . . . communities will perceive that newcomers are in competition for scarce resources and public services . . . The pressure on resources . . . is often intense and local services are often insufficient to meet the needs of the existing local communities, let alone newcomers".

Now, presumably the Government say that it is in recognition of these problems that they are implementing what they call "controlled immigration", but I have to say that to describe what is going on as "controlled immigration" is a very strange use of language.

The goings-on leading up to the resignation of Beverley Hughes did not look to me much like controlled immigration. Thousands of Bulgarians and Romanians were granted British visas by the Home Office even though immigration officials knew the applications were fraudulent and said that they should be turned down. Some of the visas were granted to people who were in the country already, having entered illegally, others were for people in the country who had been refused asylum but had not left the country.

Then there is the business of sham marriages, giving people the right to stay in the country. One of the first things that Labour did was to scrap one of the barriers to this kind of abuse and put nothing in its place, so I do not find much evidence of controlled immigration there.

Then one has to ask: is immigration controlled or out of control when entry is allowed for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of bogus students, many of them signed up to attend bogus institutions? It is, to put it mildly, somewhat surprising that it should have taken an approaching general election for the Home Secretary to come to the House of Commons and say that from now on we will make them all have sponsors.

How can one talk of "controlled immigration" and, in the same breath, concede that thousands of unaccompanied children are literally dumped in Britain every year—3,000 in 2003 and 6,200 the year before? The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was kind enough to tell me of his interest in this matter and I understand that he will be saying a few words about it later.

But the most staggering change from the days of firm and fair immigration control is the more than threefold increase in the number of work permits granted since Labour took office—73,0000 were given out last year to people who were already in Britain on another pretext. Why were they allowed to enter the country for one purpose and then to stay for an entirely different purpose?

We are told that a total of 175,000 work permits will be issued this year. That is not filling gaps in the workforce. That is not immigration control but a system out of control. What about border controls so lax that the other day the Metropolitan Police Commissioner felt it necessary to express his concern about what he called the tide of foreign criminals entering the country? Again it has taken an approaching general election for the Home Secretary to come to Parliament and say that he has plans—not at once but in the next five years—to do something about it.

What about the criminals who import illegal immigrants and then leave them to be exploited, like the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers? How many times have the Government said that they are about to crack down on that kind of thing without anything happening?

According to the Office for National Statistics, total net immigration to the UK, which in 1997 was 46,800, has over the past five years averaged 157,000 a year. That means enough net immigration a year to populate each year a new city the size of Peterborough.

According to the Government's own predictions, the population of Britain will grow by 6.1 million over the next 30 years; 3.6 million of the 6 million will be new immigrants and they and their offspring will together account for 5.1 million of the 6 million. That is enough to populate six cities the size of Birmingham.

Of course almost certainly those figures are a hopeless underestimate and will have to be revised upwards. Why? The reason is that they do not take any account of how wildly inaccurate were the Government's predictions of the number of people who would come here from the new member states of the EU. An absolute maximum of 13,000 a year, the Government said, but in fact they have been arriving at the rate of 10,000 a month.

The figure of 6 million also takes no account of failed asylum seekers who do not leave the country when their claims are turned down, and other illegal immigrants. But even assuming the published figure is right, admitting to the country enough people to populate six cities the size of Birmingham is not filling gaps in the workforce to meet the needs of an expanding economy; it is changing the landscape.

I find it impossible to accept that immigration on this scale is necessary for the economic benefits it brings. Benefits for whom, one might well ask. Large-scale immigration like this certainly does not benefit the unskilled whose wages it tends to lower and among whom unemployment tends to rise.

The Prime Minister talked about the benefits of immigration for an expanding economy. But, if his prediction was correct, it would mean at the most an increase in wages for individuals in Britain of roughly 50p a week. So, one is talking about a trivial benefit for all these enormous changes that would come about by that scale of immigration.

We were told in January that the Government were going to introduce new measures to demonstrate their determination to address public concerns, but the Home Secretary's Statement in the other place a few days ago was about the thinnest I have ever read. We were told that people would have to be here on a work permit for five years rather than four before they could stay permanently. But most people—I know from my experience when I worked at the Home Office—make themselves irremovable long before the four years are up. The truth is that there is no point in such a change if there is to be no limit on the total number of work permits issued.

I do not doubt that the Government are worried about what might be the electoral consequences of their incompetent management of immigration, but, insulated from real life as most of them seem to be, I do not think they really care about the worries of ordinary people.

Certainly, Mr Blunkett did not seem to be caring when he famously said on BBC "Newsnight" on 12 November last year that there is no obvious limit to legal immigration. Mr Clarke did not seem to be caring very much when he said on "Newsnight" on 7 February that the current, unprecedented rate of around 150,000 additional people settling in Britain each year was in his view "about right".

So far I have not said a word about asylum policy. I am certainly not mixing up the two issues. I have been very careful not to do so, because I want to make a very important point. Although asylum may be the most contentious and difficult area, it is only to a small degree responsible for the enormous increase in immigration under Labour. In fact asylum accounts for less than one-fifth of foreign immigration. It follows that immigration could be greatly reduced, brought under proper control, and the sort of firm but fair immigration control we used to have restored, without touching asylum policy.

Turning very briefly to asylum, however, there is a crying need not just for someone to run the existing system with a modicum of competence, but for us to examine whether the time has come to introduce an entirely new system. Of course we should maintain our proud tradition of giving refuge to people fleeing persecution, but surely we should seek to do so without allowing the system to be abused in so obvious a fashion. Only two in 10 of those who arrive here and apply for asylum are actually granted asylum, and rather less than another two in 10 are granted exceptional leave to remain. As to the rest who are refused, they are not sent back to where they came from. Just one in five is removed, and it is estimated that there are over a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers now living somewhere in Britain.

The system is in a chaotic state and I cannot believe that it cannot be made to work better. However, the question that has to be addressed is whether we should not aim to secure a new system.

The Home Affairs Select Committee was certainly not very happy with the present system. It made the very important point that the vast majority of claimants enter Britain by circumventing controls, either completely or by deception. That means that asylum seekers who do manage to make a claim in Britain are not representative of the world's wider refugee population. They are more likely to be young, male, healthy, educated, with access to significant financial support, and less likely to be old, female, ill, uneducated or poor; and a large proportion of them arrive in Britain as the result of illegal people-smuggling operations conducted by criminal gangs.

It was no doubt as a result of all that that, not so very long ago, the Prime Minister himself said that the UN Convention was drawn up for an entirely different world, and he hinted broadly that he was in the business of negotiating changes to it. The fact that since then he has, stealthily and without consulting the public, signed up to EU directives which effectively prevent him from doing so is hardly a reason for his criticising the Leader of the Opposition. The same thing goes for the suggestion that people should be sent to zones away from the country, where their claims could be assessed.

The Hague programme of the EU calls for a feasibility study of just such a proposal, and I understand that discussions have actually taken place between the EU and Libya. It is absurd, therefore, to dismiss out of hand the suggestions that have been made by my right honourable friend Mr Michael Howard.

I have spoken for long enough and I am anxious to hear what noble Lords have to say about this fascinating and extremely important subject. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour

My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing this subject. He was Leader of the House when I entered it, and so I should first of all declare my various interests.

I came on a work permit in 1965. I did not then know for how long I would stay. Nobody told me how long the work permit was for, but I think that the LSE was unable to sack me and so I stayed. Twelve years later, I became a citizen.

I am very proud that, under this Government, the number of immigrants has trebled. We should make no bones about it. There has been immigration over all of human history, and there are very few examples where immigrants have cost more to the country to which they go than they contribute to it. One third of Europe's population migrated to North America in the 19th century. In the 19th century, 20 million people migrated abroad from this country. Migration will continue, despite the fact that nation states everywhere discourage their people from leaving and, at the other end, try to control immigration.

For a party which believes in economic freedom, I am surprised that the Opposition is so much against immigration. Except for the honourable exception of Mr Major, at every election that I have witnessed—the last six—come election time, the Conservative Party raises the flag of immigration control and, every time, we hear it trot out the same arguments.

As the noble Lord has said, 157,000 people have come in legally since Labour came to power, compared to his figure of 46,800. Have real wages fallen? No. Has unemployment increased? No. The idea that there is a fixed pot of work to be done, and that the more people you have the less there will be for everyone to do, has been around for 200 years. Sometimes people on the Left have held that view; sometimes people on the Right have held it. It is a fallacy none the less, especially if an immigrant comes and does not have full entitlement to lots of benefits. Most immigrants work. They have to work. Very often they work in marginal, lower-paid jobs. However, the contribution they make through their skills, through their tax payments, and through their citizenship qualities is enormous.

The idea of "fortress Britain" is not only no longer viable, but it is also not even desirable. Let me say why. A number of recent studies, through the United Nations and elsewhere, have argued that, given the trend in longevity all developed countries are experiencing, if we do not have immigration in Europe—and I include the UK in that—the balance between workers and dependants, children and retired people, will be so bad that there will not be enough active workers to sustain the pensions of the retired people. We know about this problem. There are some partial solutions, of course: that people cannot retire at 65 but must retire at 75, or whatever.

The UN Economic and Social Affairs Committee has said that Europe needs 100 million extra people between now and 2050, if the balance between workers and dependants is be maintained at the same ratio as it is at present. So the six Birminghams—or whatever number of Birminghams it is—which will be created by immigrants over the next 20 or 30 years are absolutely essential. They are not surplus to requirements. There are jobs for them to do, because there will not be enough people of working age to do the jobs, which will produce the surplus, which will finance the pensions.

Let there be no doubt about it. As far as unskilled people are concerned, because of the enlargement of the EU, there are people of sufficient numbers who are entitled to come here in any case, and they will come. Not just Bulgarians and Romanians, but Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Cypriots—everybody will come. What is wrong with that? Because there will be a large supply of unskilled labour from within Europe, the choice is on the margin of the skilled people. Quite correctly, the Government have decided that the country needs skilled, professional people. Why not?

The noble Lord raises the question of people being given work permits who are already here. It is simple to explain that. I have worked for 40 years in the London School of Economics. We have bright students who come from abroad. They graduate; they get a PhD; and then we want to hire them. Why? Because we know how good they are and they are good enough to stand up in competition against people, some of whom may have migrated, some who want to migrate and others who are natives. If they are good enough to do the job, if there are the best people to do the job, of course we apply for a work permit. Why would we not? That is the law of the land.

There is nothing sinister about the fact that people who are already here apply for work permits. Everyone who gets a work permit is here for legitimate reasons. Converting from one thing to another is not a bad thing. My one slight worry about my right honourable friend's policy is that he wants unskilled people to come here only temporarily if they are from outside Europe. But some of them get themselves skilled while they are here. We ought to allow them to change category from unskilled to skilled.

It is essential to realise that the old Malthusian spectre is now gone. We have had full employment in this country throughout the Labour Government's term. There has been a remarkable drop in youth unemployment, thanks to the policies introduced by this Government. Unless we manage our labour influx much more skilfully than we have so far, we will be in real trouble. There will be inflation and a decline in the standard of living.

Let me say one thing further about those policies. The Americans have an intelligent policy on immigration. They have occasional amnesty for illegal immigrants. The projections are that America will gain from that relative to Europe for the next 50 years. We should adopt the same policy. Let us legitimise those people, because they have come here in horrible circumstances and have worked hard. Let them stay here and contribute more without fear, without insecurity, without any trouble.

Photo of Baroness Neuberger Baroness Neuberger Spokesperson in the Lords, Health

My Lords, I rise to speak in this debate for two reasons. One is my alarm at the tone of public debate on these issues in this country and the other is my personal background. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing this debate. Of course, some of that tone is not new. Robert Winder's excellent book, Bloody Foreigners, records the fact that there were 3,000 foreigners in London in the year 1500, 6 per cent of the population, and Tottenham, according to one alarmed Londoner in Henry VII's day, "has turned French". So this is not new. We have often felt threatened and disliked having that number of people of foreign origin in this country.

I share a great deal in common with the leader of the Conservative Party in terms of background, but that has led me to rather different views about these matters. My mother was an asylum seeker. She came as a domestic servant, because you were allowed to work in those days, as we should allow asylum seekers to work now. Wonderfully welcomed by good people in Birmingham, she got her parents and her young brother, still at school, out from Nazi Germany. Most of the people who helped them were not Jewish. Although there were press campaigns and concerns about so-called flooding, many people helped. I wish it were so today. For the record, my paternal grandparents were so-called economic migrants and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for saying that economic migrants bring something to the country. I hope that they have.

I am appalled by the tone of the debate coming from both the Conservatives and the Government. I know that I am not alone. The UN High Commission for Refugees issued a press release on 8 February this year which expressed concern about the state of the debate on asylum in the UK. It stated:

"'The international partnership reflected in the 1951 Convention is absolutely essential to addressing today's asylum issues', said Anne Dawson-Shepherd, the UN Refugee Agency's Representative to the United Kingdom, 'An estimated 87 per cent of the people of concern to the UNHCR are looked after by some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia'.

'As well as talking about moral obligations and international co-operation, we need to talk reality too' . . . The public continues to be confused by the mixing of immigration and asylum and by the myths that have seeped into the public debate in the UK'.

World-wide, the number of asylum applications has continued to fall and is at its lowest for 17 years. The UK is not the top receiving country. Pakistan is the most generous host—looking after over 1.1 million refugees—and has been for years. The UK ranks just 74th world-wide in terms of refugees per GDP per capita".

It is clearly perfectly possible to design a managed immigration system, but it must be fair, not wholly geared selfishly to what Britain needs but also to its obligations. The immigration system needs to work properly, efficiently and sensibly. In that regard, the pressure for health checks in countries of origin needs to be examined closely and seriously. Let us take tuberculosis, for instance. I shall ask the Minister three questions before I move on specifically to asylum.

With the proposal now on the table to test would-be migrants from countries with high prevalence of TB, first, do the Government have any evidence that the prevalence of TB in migrant populations is related in any positive way to the host population, or may the migrants be different from much of the population—being, for instance, both younger and wealthier? Secondly, do the Government have any evidence that such tests will reduce the number of cases of TB in this country according to any model that public health experts may use? In other words, would there be any fewer cases? Thirdly, how ethical is it to tell countries bearing the brunt of the 2 million TB deaths per annum, compared with 450 a year in the UK, that they must set up chest X-ray units for their would-be emigrants? Should we not be helping poorer countries to do that more widely anyway?

I return to how, when it comes to asylum and refugees and the deliberate muddling of the categories, the debate has gone too far and we should be ashamed. Refugees cannot help being refugees. Asylum seekers very largely cannot help being asylum seekers. The children certainly cannot help it, even if they are dumped in this country.

We as a family set up a charity in memory of both my parents to help young refugees and asylum seekers, especially with access to education. We did that because people were so good to my mother and her family when they came and we wanted to carry on the tradition. Knowing the details of what happens to children and young people is educational, to say the least.

Let me tell your Lordships about the young asylum seeker and refugee endeavour awards that we hosted with Hillingdon council a few weeks ago, a moving ceremony where one sees young people who have been through terrible things doing brilliantly well out of sheer determination and hard work. One young lad, in England for less than three years, had won a place to study medicine at Cambridge, but had no idea what had happened to his parents in Afghanistan. Already speaking four or five languages, he learnt English and is predicted to get four A grades at A-level. He will make a brilliant doctor. Is he not the kind of person that we should be welcoming wholeheartedly and congratulating, instead of abusing?

Some of your Lordships will have read in today's Independent,

"Happy birthday—we're throwing you", out of Britain.

It tells of an 18 year-old Albanian being sent back, even though he saw his parents shot dead for their political beliefs. Can that be humane, or even sensible? Let us take a different child, a Rwandan, from last year's endeavour awards ceremony. I will not give him a name, he is too young, he is only 10. He saw his parents killed before his eyes and had been deeply troubled. He has managed to concentrate, after great difficulty, and began to achieve in his standard assessment tests and to be well liked at school.

There are hundreds and hundreds more, just a few of whom I have been privileged to meet: tough, resilient but often deeply disturbed young people who have had terrible experiences that are clearly not of their making. Yet because of the tone of the public debate, these kids—they are already troubled and doing their best in tough circumstances—are subject to catcalls in the street. They get called asylum seekers as a term of abuse, as though it were their fault. When other children use "asylum seeker" as a term of abuse when it should be a statement of fact—someone seeking asylum—it is time for this country to think hard about what we are teaching and what this language of the debate about immigration is leading to.

I have two last points. The first is that we are being roundly criticised by the United Nations for what we do; and I declare an interest as a vice president of the United Nations Association. Asylum seekers and migrants, including children, can be detained at any stage of their claim to remain in the UK for any reason, and with no time limits. The UNHCR suggests that the UK detains more people for longer periods and with less judicial oversight than any comparable country in Europe. It is not clear why this should be so unless those measures are purely to satisfy public opinion that "something is being done". However, one of the unintended consequences is that it compromises seriously the education of the children among the detainees. The UK has been roundly criticised by the UN for its attitude to asylum seeking children and the Children's Alliance, a coalition of children's charities including the biggest in the land, has spoken out in the wake of the 2002 UN condemnation arguing that,

"children's human rights are being sacrificed to adult opinion".

I could say a great deal more. I conclude by saying that we should worry about the state of some of our detention centres and removal centres. In 2002, and again last year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, criticised Lindholme, an immigration centre in Doncaster. We were assured that something would be done. I should like to know from the Minister whether something has been done.

The tone of this immigration and asylum debate, nationally and locally, should make us ashamed. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, we need immigrants in this country to do a variety of jobs. And we have obligations. As someone who would not be alive if this country had not acted rightly, if not sufficiently, in the 1930s, and as someone whose mother was welcomed by people who had no particular interest except their sense of what was right and wrong, I ask: can we not now think differently about immigrants and asylum seekers and change the note of xenophobia in the music, showing leadership and moral courage instead of following a nasty, racist trend that victimises those who cannot answer back?

Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Bishop

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for bringing these matters to our attention. It was just over 30 years ago that the Leicester Mercury carried a notorious front page headline, "No room here". It was sending a signal to Ugandan Asians seeking a new home after Idi Amin's expulsions. For three decades the city has repented of that headline even as the process of immigration from east Africa, south Asia and other parts of the world has continued. It has repented because these decades of immigration have brought prosperity, civil renewal and cultural diversity to a city whose key industries in hosiery and textiles were in terminal decline.

The great majority of those who have arrived have been people whose primary identity has been their faith rather than their nationality. They puzzle over the reasons why some government policy, elaborately developed to enable effective working with faith communities, can at the same time include immigration and asylum proposals which have the effect of increasing their insecurity and slowing down the process of their identification with the cultural values of the host country.

In the brief time available to me, I want to build on what the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said about the tone of the debate. In Leicester, for 30 years two key principles have shaped and undergirded the commercial, political and religious leadership of the city. Neither are adequately discussed by the major parties' proposals. Indeed, both are undermined by much of what is contained in them and in the public debate on these matters.

The first principle is that of trust—the systematic, often laborious, unglamorous and repetitive work of building up understanding and, therefore, trust between different communities about our traditions, languages, festivals, foods, cultures, and so on. The second principle is the management of anxiety. In my experience, this is best done by making speedy, sensitive and appropriate collective responses to world events, whether in Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, or the effects of the tsunami disaster. Those are the two key fundamentals in the building of social cohesion which I believe we all want to see. I have to tell noble Lords that the effect of some of the public debate on this matter is not to undergird or enhance these principles but to undermine them.

It is claimed that,

"firm immigration controls are essential for good community relations".

But the fact is that much of the language currently in use heightens anxiety and undermines trust in both the immigrant and host communities. We are in danger of making immigration a lose-lose issue.

Of course, the Government's promise in their current proposals to speed up asylum claims, to give proper attention to the root causes of immigration, proposals to enable protection for refugees in countries of origin, and linking development with the prevention of involuntary migration, and so on, are to be welcomed. But I want to draw attention to some major concerns, particularly in relation to the Government's proposals relating to asylum seekers.

First, they make the status of the refugee increasingly precarious. I refer in particular to the proposal to grant refugees temporary leave to remain for only five years in the first instance. Those who work with these people know how much their lives become fixated on the outcomes of their hearings. Their lives are on hold; they cannot plan for the long term; they are psychologically absorbed in the process. Are we to inflict this condition on them and their families every five years or so? This is a recipe for making insecurity and anxiety a permanent condition of life.

Secondly, it is already becoming clear that it is virtually impossible in practice in some cities for asylum seekers to get any legal support due to changes in the legal aid system and the requirement of a new examination for all solicitors who wish to engage in work with asylum seekers. This has led to almost all the firms in my home city dropping that work from their portfolios.

Thirdly, there is not enough in the Government's proposals about the Home Office's assessment of safe countries or the routes through which people are enabled to leave their home countries. The suggestion that the UK Government should co-operate more closely with countries from which unsuccessful applicants have come would have required HM Government in the past to seek to enter rational negotiations, for example, with Iraq and Zimbabwe. Is that a realistic proposal?

Further, the Government's proposals in the document, Controlling our borders, seek to address the difficult issue of returning unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It is vital that the Government ensure that policy-making in this area is guided by domestic and international standards on children's welfare and is removed from the current highly political debate on immigration and asylum.

The Churches and faith communities are well placed to speak for the most vulnerable in our towns and cities whose lives, freedoms and rights are most likely to be subtly undermined by the tone of our immigration debates. We want to express concern for a relatively small number of people within our society who are involuntary exiles from their own country, many of whom are daily denied what they need to realise their full potential. In many cases these people have come to Britain to find themselves disbelieved, denied the possibility of working, kept waiting for months and, finally, refused. They have often been detained behind barbed wire and threatened with deportation back to their own country and the security forces from which they fled. One of the most corrosive and undermining experiences for people who have escaped persecution, especially for those who have suffered rape, imprisonment and torture, is to be told by officialdom that their story, their personal, human narrative, lacks credibility—in other words, that they are lying.

Jeremy Harding, in his book The Uninvited, put the issues this way:

"The more freely capital and goods move around the rich world, the harder it becomes to inhibit the movement of people, with the hostility of . . . voters to foreign influx growing in proportion as the ability to restrict it dwindles. The power of government to reverse this process is no greater than it was in the past, but its capacity to signal an intention and project that signal is far stronger".

It is for the reasons that I have sought to outline that I hope that we shall exercise extreme caution in the signal that the House sends from the debate today.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, on entering the debate, I cannot help reflecting on that Russian proverb which says that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive. Can we have a measured debate on immigration in the somewhat febrile atmosphere of a pre-election period?

As I said in my maiden speech, as the child of second-generation Jewish immigrants, I have reason to be grateful for a sympathetic immigration policy. I live in multi-cultural, multi-racial Southall, and my children benefit from attending schools that reflect the multi-ethnic nature of our community, as do the local hospitals, the local authority, the building sites and the restaurants, all of which employ a significant number of former immigrants. I have no doubts about the benefits that they bring to our society, but the need to separate fact from fiction and to deal with prejudice arising from misperception and the racists who use the issue to promote their misguided views makes immigration an issue that we should treat with care.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing the debate. I warmed to the initial points that he made about the benefits of immigration, but I despaired as we were given a litany of problems. The noble Lord seemed to be painting a picture which did not recognise that we have the lowest unemployment for 20 years or more. The problem is not unemployment; the problem nowadays is finding workers to fill the vacancies. We benefit hugely from immigration in that regard.

It is a changing landscape; nobody could argue against that. We need only consider the inner-city communities to recognise that fact. There are problems, but it is manifestly wrong to say that the Government have not attempted to deal with them. The noble Lord instanced the disaster in Morecambe Bay, which was a terrible tragedy. He forgot to mention that legislation to license the people who exploit illegal immigrants resulted from that terrible tragedy.

The Independent—indeed, all today's newspapers—quotes the dramatic fall in the number of asylum seekers since 2002. Whether you rejoice in those figures may well depend on your standpoint, but at least they serve to separate fact from fiction. Last year, 40,200 people, including dependants, claimed refuge, which is down from a peak of more than 110,000 two years earlier. Home Office statistics show that asylum seekers are arriving at a rate of just over 2,800 a month, compared with 7,600 at the peak in 2002. Iranians are now by far the largest national group claiming refuge in Britain, a fact of which, I must admit, I was unaware.

I too have examined the Government's policy. I may part company here with the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, and the right reverend Prelate, but it seems to me that there must be a policy on immigration. Nobody denies that. I read the statement made by the Secretary of State. He said:

"Each year there are millions of visitors to our shores. We have global communications, global economies and global movement of people. We have to adapt to these developments, not by putting up the shutters, but by managing, controlling and selecting".

If I had a worry, I would add the words "in a humane and fair way" to the end of that statement. That is, perhaps, the difficulty.

We cannot pretend that we do not live in a changing world. We must deal with the situation. Is the Government's policy absolutely right? I am sure that, like all policies, it will change and develop and will be capable of improvement in the light of a calm assessment. It builds on significant progress. Asylum applications are down by 67 per cent, back to 1997 levels. Four out of five new claims are now decided in two months, rather than the 20 months that it took in 1997. That is important. It benefits people who are left in a terrible state of limbo. They might not always like the outcome of their application—I am trying to help an individual at the moment who does not like that outcome—but it is far better that those claims should be processed in a reasonable time.

The number of claims outstanding is at a 10-year low, and the number receiving NASS support continues to fall. Border controls have been tightened, with the introduction of detection technology and the presence of UK immigration officers in mainland Europe. Enforcement action against illegal working has been stepped up. That is important because there is a large amount of criminal activity associated with it that benefits nobody, other than the criminals who seek to exploit the appalling tragedy of workers who have done nothing but try to get themselves out of a terrible situation in their own country and go somewhere which, they hope, will be better.

Key measures in the strategy include a transparent points system for those coming in to work or study. I would have thought that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, would welcome that. There are financial bonds for specific categories in which there has been evidence of abuse to guarantee that migrants return home. There will be an end to chain migration and an end to appeals when applying from abroad to work or study. Only skilled workers will be allowed to settle long-term in the UK, and there will be English language tests for everyone who wants to stay permanently.

I must admit that I agreed with the point made by my noble friend Lord Desai about not focusing only on skilled workers but recognising that there is also a need for unskilled workers. After all, people are capable of changing from unskilled to skilled. We should recognise that.

The Home Secretary said:

"This country needs migration—tourists, students and migrant workers make a vital contribution to the UK economy. But we need to ensure that we let in migrants with the skills and talents to benefit Britain, while stopping those trying to abuse our hospitality and place a burden on our society".

I worry about some of those words, for the reasons that others have given. Nevertheless, we must recognise that they address a public concern. That concern may be misplaced, and it may be a misperception, but we should concern ourselves with how we handle that.

The Government's policy is broadly right for dealing with a situation that is difficult to get absolutely right. If I look at what the other main party offers, I become very concerned. The Tories' proposals on immigration and asylum policy do not give much detail. They say that there will be an annual quota for immigration and asylum, but they refuse to give the size of the quota. They even imply that more, not fewer, refugees could be accepted. They say that no one will be allowed to apply for asylum in this country and that they will process applications in centres near the country of origin, but they have no idea where those will be, how they will fund them or how they will get the agreement of other countries and of the UNHCR. That does not make me believe that there is a serious attempt to deal with an exceedingly difficult policy in any way other than to encourage a debate, not in the best way, during a pre-election period.

I hope that we recognise that there is a challenge. We live in a society that is more mobile than it used to be and a truly global world. There will be real pressures, but, in the final analysis, immigrants have brought enormous benefit to this country and will continue to do so.

I do not think that we should be ashamed of our record. While I understand the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, about people being called asylum seekers, I can reflect only on the atmosphere in my local primary school where I am a governor, and where many different languages are heard—there are 29 examples where English is the second language at home. There is a tiny amount of racial incidence in that school.

We should look at the good that is taking place in multi-racial, multi-cultural Britain, and should not embrace a policy of despair. We should honestly recognise that it is not an easy problem. Have we got it right? I doubt it, which is why the debate is worth having. Nevertheless, I believe that the Government's policies take us in the right direction.

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Waddington has drawn attention to the sharp increase in immigration in recent years. Net cumulative immigration has amounted to almost 750,000 between 1999 and 2003. If net immigration were to continue at the present level of 150,000 a year the UK's population would rise to 69 million by the middle of this century, which is roughly 12 million greater than it would be without immigration. It follows that during that time the composition of the population would alter considerably.

The matter deserves to be debated openly. Of course, there are benefits in multi-culturalism—rich benefits. But, as Prospect magazine has pointed out, there are also risks in too much diversity.

I want to concentrate purely on the so-called economic arguments for immigration because, from time to time, the Government have attempted to close down the debate by arguing that a high level of immigration in the modern world is inevitable and produces great benefits. Some of the arguments are questionable and some are static snapshots that ignore the longer term.

The Government frequently point out that a Home Office survey argued that in 1999–2000 immigrants contributed £2.5 billion net to the Exchequer. That is another dodgy dossier. The interpretation of that report, if it is extrapolated into the future, is distinctly dodgy. The Home Office conceded that that figure depended on Britain's position in the business cycle. That point was taken up by Professor Robert Rowthorn, the Professor of Economics at Cambridge University, who strongly disputed the Government's conclusion.

Moreover, the study ignored the higher cost of housing in the south-east, where two-thirds of migrants settle. Like many studies, it ignored the lifetime impact of immigrants and their dependants, and the fact that since the mid 1980s immigration has been adding to the population and new investment has been necessary.

The Government also try to argue that immigration will improve the balance between the old and the young, thus helping us with our pensions problem. Unfortunately, there is a problem with that reasoning: immigrants themselves grow old. That argument would hold water only if the migrants were temporary migrants to this country. The Home Office again conceded that point and went on to argue that for that argument to have any impact, net inflows of migrants not only needed to occur on an annual basis, but had to rise continuously. That issue was gone into by a Select Committee of this House, which pointed out that to stabilise the age of the population of this country, immigration would have to be at the rate of 500,000 a year. That is clearly not practical.

The more central point that high levels of immigration add to economic growth is also very arguable. Many major studies have been carried out in the United States, Canada and Holland, and none has supported the view that immigration is needed for economic prosperity. Indeed, the study in the United States was followed by a recommendation that immigration be reduced. When the Government argue that immigration increases economic growth, they forget that when dependants are taken into account the population increases by virtually an identical percentage.

The most plausible economic argument for immigration is labour shortages. I wholly agree that it is in our interests to import skilled and talented people with special skills. Whether that is in the interests of the developing world, however, is a different matter. Different questions arise with mass unskilled immigration. The benefits are not so clear, especially if immigration is permanent, not temporary.

The right response to labour shortages ought to be higher wages, more training and investment. No doubt employers and the CBI do not want to pay those costs but the local population are the losers when labour is imported. The noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Desai, referred to the fact that immigration has increased but unemployment has not. We also need to take account of the effect of immigration on the other economically inactive groups, including the one million on incapacity benefit who, according to Alan Milburn, would like to work if the conditions were right. Mass immigration, through its pressure on wage rates, intensifies the poverty trap.

The effects of unskilled labour are felt not just in the areas where immigrants arrive but in other parts of the country. A recent study found that immigration into the south of Britain led to significantly reduced migration from other parts of the UK—from Scotland and the north—to the south. If that is correct, we should expect to see the effects of immigration showing up in those areas where there is a surplus of labour that may be deterred from moving south by competition from immigrants.

Some economists—and presumably the Government—would argue that forcing unskilled labour to compete at lower wages is desirable on grounds of national competitiveness, as costs are reduced, prices decline and, in the long run, workers are no worse off because they gain as consumers. Nominal wages are reduced but real wages are not. Of course, such an argument depends on continuing immigration.

However, many economists, including Professor Rowthorn of Cambridge and, possibly the leading migration economist in the world, Professor George Borjas, have argued that any such gains from mass unskilled immigration are likely to be small. Borjas argues that a 10 per cent increase in the labour force followed by a 3 per cent fall in wages would generate a surplus of only 0.1 per cent of GDP—not 1 per cent, but 0.1 per cent. That is the boost to output of lower cost. That is not the lifetime cost with discounted tax contributions and benefits received of immigrants. That would be a very different calculation over a lifetime. The boost to output is so small because most of the benefit goes to the immigrants themselves.

It is often said—and we have heard it again today—that immigrants are needed to do the jobs that locals will not do. It is not so much a shortage of labour as a shortage of cheap labour. Again, the answer is to raise wages and to have more specific training.

It is said that the NHS would collapse without immigrant staff. We are importing 15,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors a year, which is an indictment of the Government's medical training policy, but that is not a reason for having 150,000 immigrants a year.

Martin Wolf, the distinguished Financial Times economic commentator, made the point that mass unskilled immigration to deal with labour shortages can be self-defeating. He said:

"If the response to shortages is to import labour, additional demand for goods and services, then further shortages of labour will emerge. The argument from shortages creates an open-ended demand for more immigration. If the UK had a population of 120 million it would still have labour shortages and so a demand for yet more immigration. The demand could never be justified".

Many economists argue that the main beneficiaries of immigration are the immigrants themselves rather than the host country. Of course, there is an argument for migration and immigration that is based on global concerns rather than the concerns of any one country, but the first duty of government is to the inhabitants of this country.

Mass immigration for permanent settlement is not the answer to an ageing population or labour shortages. It harms the weakest sections of our society. Ultimately, this is not an economic issue. It is a political and social one. The Government should stop trying to justify a political decision with very questionable economic arguments.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing this debate. I agreed with perhaps his first two sentences, but he and I have been disagreeing on these issues for around 35 years, which we will no doubt continue to do.

The noble Lord referred to the "intolerable strain" of immigrants on public services. Eighteen months ago, unfortunately, I had to spend cumulatively about a fortnight in Burnley General Hospital. All the doctors who saw me were not born in this country. A lot of the nurses were local, the rest of them came from the Philippines. I was extremely grateful for their care, commitment and competence, and will continue to be so.

The consultant who carved me open on the fateful day of my operation originally came from Sri Lanka; his family was Sri Lankan. My operation had to be deferred for three weeks, which I am pleased to say was not harmful, because he had to attend the funeral of his brother in Malaysia. That is an indication of how the world has changed.

Many families throughout the world are genuinely global as families and communities. It is ironic that the English were, perhaps, the greatest global colonisers. They used to look at the globe, half of which was red, and say, "Isn't it wonderful?". Now, many of us are among the least global in our lifestyles. Far too many retreat into what used to be called "little Englandism". We can argue about whether that is good or bad, but it is a fact that will not go away. We have to come to terms with it. My view is that to be global is a good thing.

I am angry about the Dutch auction taking place between the Labour and Conservative parties on immigration and refugees in the run-up to the general election. That is not because it is being done for reasons of naked, unprincipled and selfish party advantage on both sides, although it clearly is, or because it will be particularly successful. There is a myth in this country that immigration and race issues are election winners, which goes back to Enoch Powell in 1970 and 1974. I do not think it goes much beyond that and it will not succeed.

However, I am angry because it is being done without a care in the world for all of the individual people who will suffer as a result. Most of those people are neither immigrants, legal or otherwise, nor applicants for asylum, justified or otherwise. They are members of ethnic minorities who are legally settled here, in some cases for several generations. In most cases, they are British citizens who have as much right to be here and to integrate as everyone else. But their lives and lifestyles are being put at risk.

Mr Howard and Mr Blair may take care when using words such as "immigrant" to use them correctly. But they know what they are doing. When people hear the word "immigrant", they think of someone with a skin that is some shade between black and Roma. When they hear the words "cutting the numbers", they do not think of cutting the numbers of immigrants coming through Dover, they think of cutting the numbers who live near them.

The Independent has been quoted already today and there is an article by Trevor Phillips which puts that rather well. He wrote:

"In the pre-election campaign, the language is 'controlled', 'managed' 'immigration' and 'asylum'; but much of the electorate is hearing 'stop', 'black', 'foreign' and 'Muslim'".

It is to do with "triangulation", a word which puzzles me. I read much about it, written by clever political reporters, but I do not think that most people understand what it means. It seems to mean that new Labour gets scared that some Right-wing issue is playing well for the Tories, so it neutralises it by taking over the Tory ground or even leapfrogging it to the Right. I am not sure what that has to do with triangles, but that seems to be the way in which it works.

The main effect will be to make it more acceptable to dish out the low-level racist and cultural rudeness that many people—British citizens and immigrants alike—experience day-in and day-out. You only have to talk to people to hear about the fear of crime being more of a problem for many people than crime itself, which can imprison people in their homes and restrict what they do. But the fear of racism and that kind of rudeness works in exactly the same way for members of ethnic minorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred to the Cantle report on parallel communities in northern towns. The more that leading politicians debate immigrants as a problem, the more ethnic minority communities will turn inwards and the more they will build defensive barriers to keep the rest of us out; and the further we will be from what I would like to see—a liberal vision of a society that is both diverse and integrated. In parenthesis, it is interesting that much of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country has been put at the door of some of the less understanding members of the Muslim community.

But that is a defensive reaction against being attacked. If minorities are attacked, in many cases some of those people will lash out and attack other minorities. I tell my Muslim friends in Nelson and Colne where I live that in this country, at least when it comes to the challenge of the BNP, fascism and so on, Jews and Muslims are on the same side and should be fighting on the same side.

The global economy and wars and repression mean that the movement of people between countries and across continents will continue whatever politicians try to do. Equally, there are pressures within society that lead inexorably to people coming together. Employers need workers. Children meet at school. Students meet at university. Politicians need votes. Customers and service providers alike have to maintain at least a minimum level of politeness if they are to sell their goods. People fall in love. People worship their sporting and show business stars despite their prejudices. Even the tabloids need to sell papers to more than just the bigots. Even the bigots need to buy their curries.

Many of us work for a multicultural society because we believe that it is right. I am very proud to have spent much of the past two years helping to get a very good friend of mine—Sajjad Karim—elected as a Liberal Democrat MEP for the north-west. He will be a brilliant MEP. The fact that he is a Muslim and from an Asian background is an added advantage, but that he is a brilliant Liberal Democrat is most important, and there are many more of them to come.

Meanwhile, a lot of individuals will suffer directly from the Blair-Clarke package that has been announced. Refugees face the prospect of being uprooted and sent back after five years. How can that contribute to their social and psychological well-being and integration into British life?

Unskilled workers will not be allowed to bring families with them. How can encouraging camps of single men or women contribute to family stability or the Government's favourite buzz phrase "social cohesion"? Unskilled workers from outside Europe, mainly from the black and Asian Commonwealth, will be replaced by people from eastern Europe who are mainly white. There is only one word for this—intentionally or not—it is indirectly racist.

Both the Labour Party and the Tories are being dishonest. The Tories have upfront hard-line policies that they know will not work in the modern world and cannot work. New Labour pretends to be anti-immigration to stop the unbelievable Tories stealing xenophobic votes. But it knows that it cannot cut immigration and does not intend to do so. It has at least more understanding of the British economy than the Tories or the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who has just addressed us.

Meanwhile, a lot of people will feel more insecure, more disliked and more unwanted—all because Mr Blair and Mr Howard appear to think that the place to slug out the coming general election is in the Right-wing political gutter in company with people like Kilroy-Silk and Nick Griffin. The prospects are appalling and it is a disgrace.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench

My Lords, this is a very timely debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for introducing it. I say timely because the Government have set out in the Home Office document, Controlling our borders: Making migration work for Britain, the dilemma that the UK, among other European countries, faces in dealing with asylum seekers and they give fair warning about the ways in which they will deal with the problem. I am of course aware that this debate is perhaps more concerned with the inadequacy of current controls rather than the need to adhere to international laws that protect asylum seekers.

But my concern here is to underline the need to bear in mind the principles and practices governing the treatment of refugees which is enshrined in several international treaties, notably the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Although this document was drawn up in the chaos of the aftermath of World War II when Europe was awash with displaced people, the fundamental principle of protection of the vulnerable applies equally today.

I have a special interest in Section 5 of the Home Office document which noble Lords will know refers to removals—whether by means of assisted schemes, voluntary returns or return to safe third countries. Paragraph 76 also refers to unaccompanied asylum seeking children and concludes that it is not in the child's best interests to remain in the UK separated from parents and announces the start of a project to undertake return of these children to Albania. This is a complicated business. There are many, many reasons why children end up as unaccompanied asylum seekers. For example, given the increasing obstacles to asylum introduced throughout Europe in the past few years, desperate migrants, whether genuine refugees or not, have no alternative but to seek other ways to leave economic or political persecution. Some will deliberately take along young children believing that their chances of successful asylum application will be strengthened. Others tell false stories hugely to their disadvantage in order to pass through immigration controls.

More sinister, however, are the rise in illegal methods and the exponential increase in trafficking of drugs and of women and children for prostitution. The statistics in so far as they are known—and we have to accept that in this brutal underworld of people trafficking we know relatively little—are shocking. It is estimated that thousands of illegal would-be entrants have perished in the seas separating Europe from north Africa and eastern Europe. Traffickers aiming for a quick getaway force asylum seekers off boats at gunpoint. There is nothing to protect asylum seekers who use smugglers with the result that these people, if they survive the journey, are drawn into a network of exploitative relationships in order to pay off debts.

Children are an especially vulnerable group and we know that trafficking of young children from eastern, central and southern Europe for the purpose of prostitution in western Europe and beyond has become big business. The smuggling of children from Albania is widespread partly because of its geographical position. It is estimated that something like 4,000 children were trafficked from Albania to Greece between 1992 and 2000. Repatriation of these children with a view to family reunification is not therefore a simple solution.

Child asylum seekers are possibly the least protected group of children under UK domestic law. The Refugee Children's Consortium, a network of some 28 child-focused NGOs, points out that the refusal rates for indefinite leave are very high for children when compared with adults and the Home Office decision-making procedures have been repeatedly criticised by the Home Affairs Select Committee and by Amnesty International. Children are not guaranteed legal representation and guardians to see them through the process are rarely appointed. The result is that the special conditions which have driven a child to become an asylum seeker are inadequately researched and serious errors in repatriation can and do occur.

As a result of the ever-present threat to children UNHCR—the UN refugee agency—and Save the Children have published a statement of good practice that incorporates some of the relevant provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the UK is a party. The statement makes clear that child refugees must receive special attention to ensure that the child is involved in decisions that affect his or her future, that he or she is never returned to a context of unsafety and that every effort is made to establish what is in fact in the child's best interest—something that may well be counterintuitive, particularly in those countries where trafficking is rampant and where the social service infrastructure is weak and child protection measures wholly inadequate.

All other factors such as the fight against illegal immigration should be secondary to the fundamental protection to which a child is entitled and governments are obliged to provide. I would therefore like to seek the assurance of the Minister that the good practice provisions referred to be made statutory in any forthcoming legislation concerning asylum seekers.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

My Lords, I had the good fortune—I hope that he thinks the same of me—of travelling to Pakistan with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who proved to be a good and affable companion. But that does not stop him from suffering from tunnel vision when it comes to issues of asylum and immigration. All who take his point of view argue about balancing, moderation and immigration. Then they embark on the most immoderate of approaches and, unfortunately, that was the case today. Hardly a word emerged from his lips about those who are leaving the United Kingdom. Fortunately, some sort of balance has been applied in this debate, and I thank all those who have participated.

We should be chary of playing into the hands of extremists and racists, which has been done in part today, notably by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Lamont. Some 34 years ago, I made a speech on this issue in Committee in another place in 1971. It was then that I quoted the debate that had taken place on the Aliens Bill in 1904—more than a hundred years ago—but redolent of much of that, in my opinion, is ill-advisedly advanced today. At that time it was the Jews, fleeing from persecution in the East in large measure. The Chinese were not immune from that. Together, they were the butt of the racists' abuse. Attacks, not dissimilar from those iterated today, about seeking to enter this country, were replete, but exemplified by somebody from the Conservative side who represented Bethnal Green of all places—Major Evans Gordon. He asserted that the burdens of immigration were being transferred to the poorest and most helpless. Unfortunately, we hear that again. He spoke emotively of people driven from their homes deprived of their work and of an "unrestricted influx". Those ugly words are also repeated today, all too often.

Sadly, all this was iterated by the then Conservative Ministers. Those "undesirables" all too often became valued members of the community. My own grandparents were among those assailed and I am not prepared to condone what happened at that time when the voice of moderation was hardly ever heard. There was no balanced debate about immigration. All that happened at that time was that the bigoted views of a few became wholesale in their application. I do not say that a complete parallel should be drawn with the past, although some would do well not to overlook it. I am thinking particularly of the Leader of the Opposition. He would be among the first, in my view, who ought to pay a tribute to those who have exercised some degree of moderation as far as this is concerned.

I do not argue for a complete absence of immigration controls, because that would be impractical and impossible. What I contend is that recognition should come from immigration authorities and from politicians that most immigrants, and certainly asylum seekers, who come here are looking for a better life and better opportunities than they have experienced elsewhere.

Both therefore are entitled to be dealt with civilly, rather than in a hostile fashion, particularly when their claim is rejected or when they take up residence. Regretably this is not always the case. The shrill claims that are heard about asylum seekers and immigrants are unacceptable.

If claimants deliberately break the law, then normally, and I stress normally, they should be returned to their place of departure. But we have an obligation to look at that place as well, to make sure that there are no kinds of ordeal to which they would be subjected. They are still entitled to respect, and that they do not always have.

In my view the press and the public media have an especially significant role to play. Their role should not be to inflame the situation—a role gleefully adopted by some tabloids in particular, although certain broadsheets are not immune from blame. Their task should be to educate and inform about the reality, and not as so often happens to distort those realities. Asylum and immigration are hugely sensitive topics and should be dealt with sensitively.

Having said all that, I am glad that we have had the opportunity to debate those issues—I hope, moderately.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

My Lords, I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said with great interest. I remember him well as a friend and companion on the opposite Benches in the other place. I agree with him very much that immigration and asylum are sensitive issues and must be dealt with sensitively. I think he is perhaps a little optimistic in thinking what help we might get in that respect from the media, but there is never any harm in trying. I fully agree with him when he thanked my noble friend Lord Waddington for introducing the debate and for making us think about this difficult subject at election time.

I followed my noble friend Lord Waddington as Minister of State responsible for immigration matters at the Home Office. He went on to higher things and I inherited what was even then—in 1987—not an easy task. At that time asylum applications were around 7,000 a year and we thought that was extremely high. Then, too, Lunar House was in a mess, as it still is now.

One thing that my noble friend left me was 70 asylum cases of Tamils leaving Sri Lanka. The cases had not been fully resolved. There was judicial review and they were sent back for me to look at as my first task as Immigration Minister. I asked my office to do an assessment of them, to tell me which were the really hard ones, so that they would be the ones that I would have to look at. I had an awful lot of other work to do. "No, no", they said, "it has got to be your judgment, your decision, entirely".

My experience of looking at those cases, very soon after I went to the Home Office in 1987, did rather sear me. I well remember looking at photographs of people's knees and having to make a judgment on whether that was a self-inflicted wound or where they had been hit or tortured by the police. It was on that kind of judgment that I had to make a decision on who should go back to Sri Lanka and who should not.

Against that background, I really do venerate the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. It is worth reminding your lordships of the wording. A refugee is one who,

"owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted . . . is outside the country of his nationality and"— in consequence—

"is unable or . . . unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".

Way back, since 1987, we were saying that the UN Convention needed revising. It was written for the late 1940s and early 1951, particularly to help people fleeing in front of the Russian armies as they went into eastern Europe. Clearly that is unsuitable for a world in which travel agents say, "Jump on this plane. We will get you into the UK. Dump your passport into the loo as you go and apply for asylum the moment you arrive". I remember as Minister that that is exactly what happened. I was taken to see one aeroplane in which that was happening.

I do not think—I would say this to my colleague, David Davis, in the other place—that there is any case for us withdrawing unilaterally from the Convention. Try to reform it certainly, but to step away from it would be a dishonour for this country. We would be reneging from our obligations to try at least to find out who are the genuine refugees and who are not.

David Pannick wrote a very good article in The Times of 8 February, in which he pointed out some details. If we were to resile from the convention we would also be breaching Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and it would be necessary for us to withdraw from the European Union. That is perhaps extemporaneous to this particular debate. What is more apposite is the comment he made that the essence of the matter was that the decision-making process should speedily and accurately distinguish well founded claims and baseless applications. People who have no right to remain should indeed be removed without delay.

That is at the heart of the matter. It comes back to where I think more money needs to be spent at the moment—on the standard of entry clearance officers, who interview at the first stage. The impression I get from talking to those involved at the Immigration Advisory Service is that there still is an extraordinarily low standard at the first stage of process. In consequence, many claims are refused wrongly or indeed permissions are granted wrongly.

I would hope that if the Home Secretary has extra funds, he will use them at that level, on entry clearance officers. I have to say this rather carefully, but I am advised that they are often illiterate and ignorant, let alone of course the absence often of good interpreters. The standard of that process should be greatly improved.

That leads on to the other point that I would like to make, which is about the extraordinary announcement by the Home Secretary the other day that he was proposing that there should be no right of appeals for intending overseas students who wish to come and work here. Now, noble Lords will remember that the 2000 Act provides that the removal of right of appeal can be done by statutory instrument and no longer requires primary legislation. But it has been pointed out to me that 65 per cent to 70 per cent of appeals made by overseas students who have at first sight had their visa application refused are eventually approved. Why is that? The reason is that the standard at the first gate is too low.

If we go further and say that in addition, as has been threatened, charges will be greatly increased from £155 to almost £500 for those who require visa extensions, what will be the effect? There will be a major withdrawal of international students from this country. It is very arrogant to think that international students will stay here if they are being confronted with these sort of difficulties—charges that are not being made on them in other countries.

I declare an interest in that I am on the council of Sussex University and also know its neighbour, Brighton University, very well. Both have pointed out to me that something like 8 per cent to 9 per cent of their students are international and pay full fees, which is a very important addition to the universities' income. They also bring a cultural benefit to the university, which helps domestic students who may not have had much international experience. So I very much hope that that proposal can be revised; it is being studied by UKCOSA and Universities UK, and I hope that new proposals will be accepted.

To indulge in any auction on who can be tougher about immigration at election time is a very great mistake. There are no votes in it; it is bad for race relations; and, much more, it is bad for the reputation of this country. I believe that the immigration problem, in a world of globalisation, is bound to get worse, with increased travel, numbers and Internet information inevitably encouraging people to move from poor countries to richer, as they did from East Germany to West Germany. But we must remember the words of John Donne:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main".

There are no more islands in the globalised world; we are all part of continents, and we must learn to deal with that.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for allowing us the opportunity for this important and timely debate, and I thank him for referring to me in his opening speech. I was warned that my noble friend Lady D'Souza would speak on unaccompanied children, so if I may I shall write to him on the specific point that he raised.

I feel that I hardly need to speak, because the points that I wish to make have just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, so I wish to concentrate on the importance of continuing our commitment to the 1951 Convention on Refugees. I draw to your Lordships' attention the conclusion of the European Union committee report of last April, called Handling EU asylum claims: new approaches examined. It looks at a number of the approaches that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, outlined. The report says:

"The 1951 Convention regime has stood the test of time. There is no viable alternative to it as the principal international instrument of protection for those at risk of persecution".

I congratulate the Government on their investment in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. I remember as a schoolboy reading about what a shambles Lunar House was in. I know that there must still be a long way to go but, having visited the inspectorate last year, there seemed to have been an important investment there. The fact that 80 per cent of initial decisions are made within two months of application must be some indication that improvements are being made—though I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, that there may still be a long way to go.

Your Lordships have raised concerns about housing in the past. Given that now more than 100,000 families are homeless, though thankfully they do not live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation any more, we have to take that matter very seriously. The advice that I have had is that all asylum seekers given housing assistance by the National Asylum Support Service are dispersed, generally to areas experiencing low demand for social housing. Once granted refugee status, a person can apply for assistance under the homelessness legislation. Section 11 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 automatically establishes a refugee's local connection as being with the authority to which they were dispersed. That makes it very difficult for refugees to be given housing in areas already experiencing pressures on social housing. I hope that gives some assurance to noble Lords.

I shall give some examples from the past and present as to the importance of the UN Convention on Refugees of 1951. I begin with the history of Laura Selo, in an excerpt taken from I Came Alone—The Stories of the Kindertransports. The excerpt says:

"There were children's transports coming to England, and the Czech Trust Fund in England and the Committee in Prague were finding families who would take refugee children like us. It was my mother's wish that we three children should not be separated, but the Committee could not find anybody willing to take all three of us into their homes. But, at last one day we heard that we were finally leaving for England, and that a lady called Miss Harder would have all three of us . . . She was a spinster, in her early fifties, who owned a small confectionery and tobacco shop just by the Archway Underground Station in Highgate. The Committee, although it had been touched by her desire to help, had never found a child who would have been suitable for her to take in. Probably they thought she was too poor. When, just by chance, someone mentioned the three of us and the fact that our mother did not wish us to be parted, Miss Harder offered to take us all, to the Committee's astonishment. She was asked to think the matter over carefully, taking into account her circumstances, lack of accommodation and the responsibility, but she had made her decision. She even turned down the Committee's offer of financial help because, as she put it, she did not want another child to be deprived of its chance of coming over to England because she had taken the money.

Those early weeks when we were miserable—we missed our mother and often cried—must have been very difficult for Miss Harder . . . Gradually we learnt English and got to know Miss Harder and after the first few months, we managed to adjust ourselves to our new surroundings and began to settle down. Then came a telegram from a friend of my mother's in Prague saying that mother had disappeared. After that another message said that she had been arrested and imprisoned as a hostage for my father. Our foster-mother tried everything to console us and take our minds off our sorrow. Somehow her efforts to comfort us brought us even closer together . . . but six months after our arrival in this country, Miss Harder died of consumption, and what she had tried to prevent, happened: my sisters and I were separated. They went to foster-parents and I got a job as a maid. Now, one of my sisters lives in San Francisco and the other one in New York, while I live in London. Our mother died in a concentration camp.

I think it is only now, after all these years later, that I understand what a truly kind, wonderful and courageous woman Miss Harder was. She was my second mother for those few months. My sisters and I owe our lives to her, but we can never repay her for her kindness for having taken three unknown children into her home, given them love and understanding and her compassion".

I believe that that example speaks for itself in terms of the importance of adhering to the convention, which, if it was withdrawn from unilaterally, would certainly be very weakened and would risk the danger of other countries following us—other countries indeed poorer than ourselves. At the same time, back in 1938, a Member of your Lordships' House received a telegram from the Foreign Minister of the Spanish republican government. The Member was the vice-chairman of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. The telegram said:

"I can assure you after having visited the entire city in which 2,000 people have been killed and an equal number wounded that the worst predictions of the coming aerial warfare have been converted here into the most abominable reality".

This Committee on Spanish relief provided hospitality and ultimate repatriation for about 4,000 Basque children.

Since then, the promise made to my parents and to many of your Lordships—that, if we defeated Hitler, we would move toward broad sunlit uplands—has, for us, largely come true. Yet in many parts of the world tyrants and despots like Hitler continue. I have talked with your Lordships previously about the experience of meeting young people from Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Only today, listening to the news at lunch, we were hearing of Darfur and the way the Government stand back from the militias' rape of the innocents in Sudan.

I wish to conclude simply by welcoming what the Government have said in this regard:

"The 1951 Convention is part of the legal and ethical framework that enshrines basic principles of human decency. We reject the idea of a fixed quota on refugee numbers or pulling out of the Convention as unworkable, unjust and counter-productive".

I hope that the Minister will, in his response, reaffirm the Government's commitment to adhering to the convention.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative

My Lords, I went to a London school and in 1937 my headmistress, together with the distinguished MP Eleanor Rathbone, went to Germany—and, in the following year, to Barcelona. On each occasion they brought back refugee children who they adopted. One of them became a doctor and another a magistrate: they became friends of mine. From early in my life I have therefore seen, met and known refugees.

No consideration of the process of asylum in this country can ignore the incomprehensible position adopted by this Government on the issue of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe. In 2002, as a result of protests from all parties, the Government temporarily suspended the forcible removal of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe before they could even leave the aircraft and enter the country. Henceforward nobody could enter without a visa. In 2004, asylum seekers whose appeals had failed received letters requiring them to apply for voluntary repatriation—since the Home Secretary had decided, in their case, that Zimbabwe was a safe country to which they could return. Meanwhile, of course, accommodation and a basic allowance were withdrawn. They were forbidden to work and were, in effect, in limbo.

The tribunals ignored the FCO report on human rights and the fact that Amnesty International and the UNHCR had, for over three years, consistently reported that there was, and is, widespread abuse of human rights—and not just, as Her Majesty's Government have said, turbulent political conditions. They were also ignoring the African Union's own human rights commission report as early as 2002. The Home Office, however, bases its decisions on what are acknowledged to be deeply flawed procedures—and I warmly agreed with what was said by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry—applied to individuals who had inadequate and often incompetent legal advice. The tribunals took no notice of the UNHCR or of any other body in assessing human rights in Zimbabwe. The Government totally ignore the fact that returned asylum seekers fall straight into the hands of the CIO when they come off the aircraft; they can expect, and receive, no mercy.

How can any honourable, or even sensible, government decide that if an appeal is unsuccessful,

"that means it would be safe for that particular individual to return to their country of origin"?

The Home Office letter I am citing was withdrawn, but in December 2004 the new letter said,

"You must now leave this country".

On 10 November the Government had decided to end the

"temporary suspension of enforced return of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers".

It also announced—evidently as a success—the fact that out of a total of 2,025 decisions on Zimbabwe only 195 were granted. Nearly 90 per cent of claims were refused and 82 per cent of subsequent appeals to the independent adjudicator were dismissed or withdrawn. The Government

"expected these people to leave voluntarily, but if not they would consider it entirely proper to enforce their removal as they would nationals of any other country".

Those removals have begun.

I shall have the opportunity, in the week after next, to discuss the long-term and serious effects for both this country and Zimbabwe of what I regard as a misguided and essentially unjust policy. Today, I want merely to urge that those who attack asylum seekers for battening on the state and costing the country money should remember that these people are not allowed to work. For many of them, that is the greatest hardship that they face. We take away their self-respect and they can do nothing to remedy their situation—nor to pay taxes, as they would wish to do. I believe that this policy should be reviewed and that asylum seekers should not be confused with the unfortunates who are brought in by people-smugglers as part of a corrupt financial transaction. More resources could be allocated to catch both the smugglers and those they smuggle in—who often have no word of English and no skills. These are the arrivals most likely to create a certain just resentment in the community.

The Government should amend their policy at least to allow those who have the skills we need to work. If it is necessary to make this an exceptional, temporary measure applicable only to Zimbabweans—perhaps as former Commonwealth citizens—then surely that could be done. Our dependence on such countries as South Africa and Indonesia for a high proportion of our NHS doctors and nurses has been widely and recently reported. Yet I know of a qualified Zimbabwean doctor—fully registered with the General Medical Council—who has been forbidden by the Home Office to work. That is only one example. A high proportion of Zimbabwean asylum seekers are professional people—British-trained, and therefore able to assimilate easily into the country.

The Government should recognise that those Zimbabweans who come here on, for instance, Malawian passports have no other way of obtaining entry and seeking asylum. Without a passport they cannot obtain a visa—and I doubt whether the embassy in Harare would issue one if the applicant were to declare that his object was to seek asylum. I hope the Minister will tell me if I am wrong. It takes a year to get a Zimbabwe passport and I doubt whether those who need asylum would have the faintest hope of getting one. I believe that a number of Kosovo citizens were allowed to come to this country on condition that they returned home once it became safe. I can see no reason why that option should not be offered also to refugees from Zimbabwe.

I have two final points. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. In the days when refugees came here from Nazi Germany—and later from Stalin's Russia—I do not think we would have dreamt of sending them back, small as this island was then and is now. Secondly, like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I too remember our honourable behaviour in admitting the Ugandan Asians. One of them—now a father himself and, I think, even a grandfather—told me that when his family arrived he, as a small boy of five, was told by his father that he and the whole family must work hard to give back what they could to this country. That is what true asylum seekers feel and we should give them that opportunity. It is dishonourable not to do so.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench

My Lords, as we have heard, asylum seekers are again becoming the cannon fodder of an election campaign. In some ways, Labour and Tory thinking in another place has converged into a more aggressive stance which can only damage the chances of future applicants. The Government's new strategy has been greeted with dismay by those who work with asylum seekers. Its robust language—of crackdowns and rooting out abuse—amounts to an obvious manifesto. Its five-year approach is bound to alarm legitimate asylum seekers still further.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, himself warned us of an ominously changing landscape. However, I am grateful to him for the opportunity that he has given, and the balanced way in which he introduced his remarks. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, about initial decisions. I also accept that over time there have been important volte-faces and changes of policy—and that there has been some fruitful common ground between the Home Office and leading refugee agencies. I hope to concentrate today not on the numbers game, but on a more positive aspect; namely, so-called voluntary returns.

Voluntary repatriation is the durable solution that everyone wants to see for countries that have apparently reached a degree of stability. The Home Office makes much of this as part of its strategy of detention and removal. In fact, it is even called a "removals initiative". We are easily deceived about the nature of a post-conflict country such as Afghanistan or Sudan as it reaches the same point in the process. The turmoil in Iraq has made Afghanistan appear to be a land of comparative peace and plenty, or so the FCO would have us believe. The reality is that while 3 million or so refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran, Afghans in this country, even after the elections, are as fearful as ever; so we must beware of our own propaganda. Kabul may be peaceful, but it has become an international fortress, and its shanty towns are magnets for the poor, displaced and homeless. Outside the main cities of the north, the shield of NATO and coalition troops is no protection for refugees returning to homes that are still devastated. The general idea that Afghans can be safely returned if their application fails is pie in the sky. However, some hundreds have already been removed to an unknown fate.

For the minority who must contemplate a return, there is a range of opportunities, including voluntary assisted returns with the help of the International Organisation for Migration, including an ingenious scheme, "Explore and Prepare", which enables returnees to go out and see for themselves. Some of these schemes are based on the success of the UK voluntary return programme in Kosovo. By the end of June 2000, after 11 months, some 55 per cent of those refugees had returned home. The package included air transport, a cash grant, advice from voluntary agencies and further assistance from the IOM.

However, Afghanistan is a different story. A thorough review of the main voluntary returns to Afghanistan programme last year, undertaken by Refugee Action and the Refugee Council, showed how little take-up there has been. Afghans in the UK are wary of false dawns after 23 years of civil war. Concerns about security, as in Iraq, have grown rather than receded. Among other things, they mention the continuing ethnic strife, revenge killings, the slow pace of reconstruction, poor housing, lack of jobs, restrictions on women, human rights abuses and the threat from mines.

How far are the Government willing to extend their assistance to refused asylum seekers who are not apparently in need of international protection? Will the Home Office and the FCO leave this problem entirely to the voluntary agencies and the UN? In the context of the UK's commitment to Afghanistan, does he agree that those Afghans who may have had a legitimate initial claim, but who failed the test, have fallen into a black hole as far as the Home Office is concerned? Once a person is to be removed from the UK, it seems that our famous sense of decency and much-advertised belief in human dignity are removed at the same time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, mentioned detention. I notice from Section 5 of the five-year plan that the detention capacity is to be expanded. Speaking as a patron of the Haslar visitors' group, will the Home Office look at the group's annual report, which has just been published, and which has a number of modest proposals for assisting those who are being removed? For instance, those proposals include making more effort to keep in contact after the dreaded refusal letter, sending out a positive reminder letter encouraging people to approach the IOM, improving the clothing allowance under the detention centre rules, or providing small amounts of cash for internal travel in the home country.

A government who claim fairness in their asylum policy should be ready to make those small improvements. This debate is about public services and maintaining standards. Some may think that the Home Office should be congratulated on attempting to reduce the number of assaults in removal vans, but that was only because of pressure from Haslar visitors and after a report from the Medical Foundation recording a dozen assaults in those vans in a period of three months. That prompted the Home Office to install CCTV in the vans. Unlike in Her Majesty's prisons, there is still no welfare officer at Haslar after months of requests. Many detainees are being treated worse than criminals.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge today that the efforts of the churches and charities are not only to serve the oppressed, but to show up and point out the continuing mistakes and inadequacy of our system of government.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, as ever it is a privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and his delicate dissection of a highly-focused element of today's landscape. Your Lordships' House owes a considerable debt to my noble friend Lord Waddington, not only for securing this debate, but for his masterly exposition of the subject and the scene. He has placed some of us in his particular debt by obviating the need to essay a comprehensive survey of the data ourselves. My observations will be subjective, but will seek to illumine some incidental corners of the scene.

In 1968, when the Conservative Party won control of the London borough of Camden for the first and only time, I was appointed chairman of the Camden Committee for Community Relations by the late Lord Finsberg. I accepted the post, provided that there was a significant increase in financial resources from that which the previous Labour council had used, though I also gave a commitment that unlike Oliver Twist I would not ask for any more over the three-year period. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year of the late Enoch Powell's river Tiber speech. It was a sharp baptism, but I have retained an interest in the subject ever since.

The Conservative Party, even at the height of its majorities in 1983 and 1987, was necessarily short of inner-city seats. I myself thought that this was an incidental disadvantage for us in formulating immigration policy. I personally regretted that the Treasury did not afford more resources to the immigration service when the refugee pressure began to build up 15 years ago, although I acknowledge that the pressures on public expenditure in the early 1990s were extreme. I join my noble friend Lord Waddington in recognising the immense contribution to this country, referred to by others in this debate, both by refugees and by those who arrived here in less traumatic circumstances. The country has been the richer for their contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, once opined in one of his Monday morning articles in the Times that I was the only member of the then-Major Cabinet whose family had come over with the Conqueror. I am grateful to my forebears for having cast our lot in these remarkable islands.

These virtues cannot blind us to the fact that, as some of my colleagues have said, all is not well in the world that we are debating today. After the 1997 general election, I was one of only two Conservative MPs representing inner-city seats, the other being the late Alan Clark in Kensington and Chelsea. Despite our multiple decimation at the general election, I had thought that it might be an Indian summer of parliamentary life. That it was not, was because the decision of the Home Office not to reply to asylum seekers' letters, and then in due course to request MPs to cease writing to Ministers while the immigration records were computerised, meant that my correspondence with the Home Office at official level rose forty-fold in that Parliament.

Labour London inner-city colleagues with better access to the actualities of Lunar House during the computerisation period told lurid stories of the Health and Safety Executive shutting down properties into which paper records had been moved for months on end for decontamination and fumigation. Individual papers eaten by rats were also reported. Without ministerial emphasis, it was inevitable that MPs' mail became separated from the files to which they referred. Home Office officials were commendably civil and sought to help, but it was clear that they were vastly overstretched.

If I may make a personal comment, I thought that Ministers who could no longer answer mail from MPs—and I did not blame them for that—were foolish in not informing MPs, who were after all regardless of party now their main line of representative contact with applicants, of some of the detailed data about benefits policy that could have saved all of us writing a mass of unnecessary letters. I can make that comment because, inadvertently, I was sent an instruction from Lunar House on its way to the Benefits Agency in Leeds. I told Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, that I thought that the information being in the public domain would save all of us a great deal of trouble, with which—in answer to a planted question by myself—he concurred.

On the negative side, the crux of the problem in terms of the community at large is—to borrow an emotive word from Latin America—the "disappeared", those liable to deportation who have never been deported. We British are a tolerant race, but the existence of an estimated 250,000 people in our midst who should not be here strikes the indigenous Briton as unfair, to use a particularly British criterion. It is made worse when a minority of them run prostitution rackets, or settle arguments with a knife.

The delays in deportation likewise provoke that reaction of unfairness. Two Nigerians who had been working as resident club servants in a West End club in my constituency, undisturbed for 10 years, were suddenly arrested at dead of night and immediately deported. I was flooded with correspondence from the highest names in the land who were members of the club in question. If I may say so, those who disappear after MPs have invested much time and trouble in their cases do their whole communities harm by that ingratitude.

I shall not dwell on my party's policies for those matters save in one regard, which is my party's recent announcements on health policies, particularly in relation to TB and HIV/AIDS among immigrants. Since 2002, I have been pro-chancellor of the University of London. My noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey—no mean witness herself in these matters, and chairman of the governing body of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine—made it possible for me to have an informal briefing over lunch with the school's leading academics. Unprompted by myself and long before my party's recent announcement, they volunteered that health controls would in fact be a very sensible development.

Let me conclude with topical issues. For two years, the panel set up with the ALG, the Home Office and the London Asylum Seekers Consortium—it considers the special pleading of councils with a shortfall on Home Office grant funding for local authorities for their part in support of asylum seekers—has worked well. However, in the third and current year, the Home Office cut down the amount reclaimable under the special pleading arrangements without substantiating why. It would be helpful if the Minister would say a word about that.

Secondly, Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 is currently being piloted by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at three of its local enforcement offices across the UK, covering 120 families of which 32 belong to 11 London local authorities. The legislation may lead to the Home Office support being withdrawn from families who have no right to remain in the UK. That is likely to result in families presenting to local authorities as destitute. Social services departments will be required to assess their needs, and may have to support the children of failed asylum seekers or support whole families. There has been no written assurance from the Home Office that the costs associated with the Section 9 pilot will be reimbursed. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

Thirdly, since the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, there has been a real increase of destitution in the UK. The Act denied any access to benefits for those EU citizens residing in the UK. That meant that those EU citizens or failed asylum seekers with special needs or community care packages had to be supported by local government, without any means of reimbursement. Westminster's current spend—I take Westminster simply because it was my constituency—in support of failed habitual residents who cannot be moved out of the country is just under £500,000 a year. Such council tax accretions are not good for community relations.

Finally, in an area of the Minister's current responsibilities, there are consequences as well from these matters on inner-city affordable housing stocks that run the risk of exacerbating community relations among the indigenous population. You have to represent an inner-city seat, as the noble Lord did, to know what those reactions are from families who have lived in the same neighbourhood for four generations.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Other Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for initiating the debate—if only it helps to lay to rest the myths and more extreme ideas that have been brought forward. In declaring my interest, I must advise your Lordships that for four happy years I chaired the European Union Committee's Sub-Committee F, which dealt of course with these very issues. Indeed, some of your Lordships taking part in the debate were members of that committee when we discussed at length proposals involving illegal immigration, border guards, the role of Europol, asylum and so on.

The European Union has been moving steadily towards a common and comprehensive policy on all those matters, because it is self-evident that we cannot tackle the serious nature of illegal immigration, terrorism and national security on our own. We are all reliant on each other to secure the safety of our borders. Legal migration brings many benefits, but is undermined if illegal immigration is allowed to flourish. Illegal immigration creates insecurity in host countries and attracts organised crime. It places illegal immigrants at risk of exploitation. We all know the horror stories of the Chinese who were found dead in the lorry in Dover, and the young women trafficked from Eastern Europe. Worst of all, we heard some terrible stories of children-trafficking when we took evidence from London airport's Immigration Crime Team. The image of that visit and the stories that we were told will stay with me always.

Perhaps it might be helpful to make sure that we understand what we mean by the frequently—and wrongly—used words describing the people who wish to come here. In part 2 of our report, A Common Policy on Illegal Immigration, we gave these definitions on page 9:

"A refugee is a person who is recognised as having a well-founded fear of persecution under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. An asylum seeker is someone who is applying for refugee status but whose application has not yet been determined. If the application is successful (whether it leads to recognition as a refugee or the grant of 'exceptional leave to remain', a subsidiary status) the person concerned will not be an illegal immigrant. But if the application is refused outright, the presumption will be that he or she is an illegal immigrant, and must leave the country unless there is a successful appeal".

The finding of the committee was that illegal immigration is largely fuelled by opportunities to work. We found little evidence, however, of enforcement of existing controls on illegal working. We felt that that was a powerful "pull" factor for people wishing to get into this country without proper documentation.

As the lead article in the Spectator of 29 January this year found,

"of the 91,000 Eastern Europeans who arrived in Britain to work during the first five months following EU enlargement last May, fewer than 15 have claimed benefits. They are coming to work: on our building sites, in our hospitals, in our restaurants. Without this external supply of labour, wage inflation would have soared and interest rates would be markedly higher than they are. Not only that; it would be all but impossible to find a cleaner or a tradesman in London".

Of course there is a clear need for co-operation between member states on external border controls. The strength of the external frontier is only as strong as its weakest link. As we say in paragraph 50 of our report, Proposals for a European Border Guard:

"Effective controls at the EU's external border protect all the Member States, including the United Kingdom and Ireland despite their non-participation in Schengen".

We welcomed the Government's active participation in external border issues, but it is unfortunate that that is limited by our increasing isolation in terms of practical co-operation, particularly our exclusion from the European border management agency as a result of our not being a full member of Schengen.

Remembering the words which defined the various categories of applicant, it is futile to look for quick fixes—whether withdrawal from the 1951 convention, quotas or transfer to a faraway island—to reduce the asylum caseload. Extraterritorial processing is not the answer, for legal, constitutional and practical reasons. The key is a robust and speedy initial determination system. The quality of that initial decision-making, which must include a proper appeals system, is the single most important component of an effective asylum system, backed up by prompt removal or voluntary departure of failed asylum seekers.

If the Government are unable or unwilling to remove failed asylum seekers, they must not leave them in a state of limbo with no legal status. There can hardly be a more distressing sight than the pleading eyes of a young mother who may not fit the exact requirements of an asylum seeker but who knows that a return to her country of origin spells hopelessness and suffering. And she may of course have paid a small fortune, in her terms, in order to get here in the first place.

We desperately need talented and professional people to come to work and live in this country. We need to make it a welcoming and positive place for them to come to, perhaps initially as students and then to apply for jobs here once their studies are completed or, perhaps more importantly, so that they can take their skills back to their own countries and have an enduringly happy memory of their time here. So I was, of course, delighted to read that the Home Secretary said when speaking in a House of Commons debate on the Government's five-year asylum strategy on 7 February this year:

"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".—[Hansard, Commons, 7/2/05; col. 1181.]

How incongruous, then, that the Government are proposing to implement substantial increases on the charges that overseas students have to pay to extend their leave to remain in this country to complete their studies.

I declare my interest as a member of Court at the University of York, where the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian Cantor, informed me of his deep concern about this matter. He advises me that the former proposals, introduced in 2003 without any consultation whatever, were received by students, as may be supposed, with great negativity. Those proposals—to raise the level of fee from £250 to £500—will truly be a double whammy. The University of York has worked extremely hard to help the Home Office to ameliorate its processes in order that students should perceive some improvement in services in return. Those are not evident.

So, in the light of the Prime Minister's initiative to increase the number of international students studying in the UK, I ask the Minister: what assessment has been made of the impact of the increased charges on universities' recruitment efforts; what justification do the Government suggest universities should give students for the increased charges; and when will they be brought in? International students at York and other institutions make an enormous contribution, as the Home Secretary recognises, and this is a poor way indeed to encourage them to come here in the first place.

Finally, there is no real knowledge yet of how many illegal immigrants we have in this country. Many are economic migrants coming here for a better life. They do not become a drain on services because they cannot: they cannot access benefits as they are not legally here. They keep hidden from the state as much as possible. They work in the lowest paid and often dangerous jobs. They are therefore often forced into the hands of criminals, who take full advantage of their fearful status.

In order to ensure that we have fewer illegal immigrants in the future, we would do better by providing help in the countries of origin of these economic migrants, giving them better information on just what they can expect when they come here. And we would do better by supporting those countries in whatever way we can to give their own people the hope and security of a sustainable future in their own land. That is the challenge that we face and that is what we must work together to achieve.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, I admit that I have a great interest in migration but not very much interest in immigration. I suppose that I have been a migrant all my life. At the start of the war I was migrated—it was not a positive decision of my own—to the United States. Then I migrated to Canada, then back to London and then to some sort of institution called a prep school. I should declare an interest in that I am a director of one of the construction companies that built the immigration centre at Gatwick—not that there is any relation between the two institutions. I then migrated to another place and then to the Mediterranean as a member of the Navy. Then I migrated back to work in the north-east of England. I suddenly realised that I had never been in one place for more than two years at a time.

Then, one day, I met what became a mentor. I was visiting my mother in Sussex and there in the vegetable garden, which was pretty ropy, was a Worzel Gummidge-like creature—animal or man—picking vegetables. I asked him, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm picking vegetables for my dinner". I said, "Why are you here?". "Oh", he said, "I come every year". I asked my mother about him and she said, "He's a gentleman of the road". I got to know him quite well and he told me that he made marks on trees and he taught me about insects and other things. I then became fascinated with the migration of toads, butterflies, geese and all God's creatures. I find that migration is healthy and, if I could have my way, everyone would travel free without let or hindrance, wherever it might be on the face of the Earth.

But one day, when my mother had come to London and was trying terribly hard to get Conservatives elected in Westminster, I found a white plastic table and some very ropy chairs outside her house in Tufton Street, which served as a form of Conservative headquarters. I said, "What are you doing?" "Oh", she replied, "the gentlemen are arriving tomorrow". I asked, "What do you mean?", and she said, "The gentlemen of the road". Four or five of them had followed her when she came to London. We discussed, first, whether my noble friend Lord Tugendhat would be a suitable candidate to be elected as Conservative MP for Westminster and then, later, whether the suitable candidate would be my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville.

The gentlemen of the road explained to me that they migrated down the Old Kent Road every year to visit the cinque ports in Sussex, where the anti-Papists burnt effigies of the Pope. Then they migrated back to London and went to see their girlfriend Sally. The girlfriend was the Sally Ann—the Salvation Army. I then asked myself what the problem was. Surely people should be allowed to migrate wherever they want. Ultimately, immigration is the problem—that is the let and hindrance.

Perhaps I may refer the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to a Question that I asked in this House:

"What documentation is acceptable as proof of identity to permit British subjects to travel without let or hindrance within the European Union".

The noble Lord replied that it had to be a passport. I asked whether we could use our parliamentary passes and the noble Lord replied:

"I think that that is a preposterous suggestion because the photo-identity pass does not identify the person concerned. It might state that it is an official document, and the notice to turn it in to a police station if lost is helpful, but what on earth does that really tell anyone? I therefore [cannot] take the suggestion seriously".—[Hansard, 16/5/02; cols. 419–20.]

A year later, I asked the Government whether they would let me know what documentation issued by which government department was proof of identify for what purpose. After about three months, the Government wrote me a nice letter advising me that a passport was acceptable everywhere in the world. However, the Department for Work and Pensions listed 22 separate documents as providing help with proof of identify. I then realised that the problem we have in this country is one of information and recognition.

The passport is, of course, the only true proof of identity and at present our British passports have on the bottom approximately 24 numbers and six letters. That should be enough coding for anything without having to go into biometric details. I then said to myself, "Let's assume that anyone who doesn't have a British passport might be a suspect in the United Kingdom". The Government say that between 72 and 81 per cent of British subjects have passports in the United Kingdom. Effectively that means that over the past 10 years approximately 51 million passports were issued, and passports last for only 10 years. So the difference must be accounted for by foreigners, illegal immigrants or someone else.

Then I wanted to know how many British people there were on the face of the Earth outside the United Kingdom. That, of course, is impossible to determine and so we do not seem to know where our people are. Therefore, surely we should say that everyone is welcome in this country, provided they conform to certain requirements.

When I migrated to Germany to work for a while, I found to my horror that I required a number of documents. First, I had to have an Aufenthaltserlaubnis—that is, a permission to stay—then an Arbeitserlaubnis, which was a permission to work, and then a Gesundheitserlaubnis, which involved stripping naked in front of a rather attractive woman doctor who examined you thoroughly, including taking your blood, and said whether you were healthy and fit. I thought that those principles were fairly simple.

What do you do at a party or gathering where you do not know somebody? You talk to him for a moment, and then you usually say, "I'm terribly sorry, what did you say your name was?". If you are trying to make conversation, the next question you ask is, "Are you married?", "Do you have children?" or, "Where do you live?". In general, those are the only questions that we need to ask people who are entering this country.

I totally object to the whole idea of identity cards. I totally object to driving licences with the extra piece of paper. When I tried to hire a car the other day and found I had not got the extra bit of paper, I could not hire one.

I say to the Minister, who is a pragmatic man, that the simplest thing to do these days is to get rid of all the other documentation and say that a photocopy of the colour page of a passport is all that is needed for proof of identity for British people. We then come to those people who are not British. That is difficult because we have the problem of the Schengen states and who can come in and who cannot. But it would surely be a very simple activity at customs, or whenever, to say to someone who has a passport—they will all carry them—that we do not accept, "Here is a piece of paper that is adequate proof of identity for your stay".

The problem with immigration is that we worry too much. The problem with migration is how long people migrate for. In general, we want people who can be economically helpful to migrate for a while. We know that many of those who come here from some of the poorer countries and work are benefiting their own countries because they export substantial quantities of moneys back home. So the economic argument is obvious: anybody who comes to this country and works is fine.

But then we get to Lunar House. One receives a copy of a letter from a Minister about a friend that states, "We regret to advise you that your great friend, who you have known for many years, is slightly suspect and his presence in the United Kingdom might be prejudicial to good order and public discipline"—I am not sure whether that might be "public discipline and good order". That is what we are concerned about: it is how we identify and keep out those people who may be dangerous to us in one way or another. But if, in trying to concentrate on that tiny minority, we remove the freedom of the great majority, then we have a problem.

It is interesting that we are a multicultural society but approximately 87 per cent of people outside London and 50 per cent of people in London are white. I am always conscious that one cannot use the words "black" or "white", but when I chaired a government body for sport and recreation, we used to have wonderful discussions about the ethnic differences. One of our black sprinters said, "You know, you never see a black man swimming". I asked why, and he said, "We've got different specific gravity. We've also got longer hamstrings and are thus good at explosive sports".

Over my life, both in this country and around the world, I have learnt more from local people than I have from my own kind. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been an international migrant.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for giving us the chance to debate this important subject, which is of concern to so many people. The Motion rightly differentiates between immigration, in the sense of economic immigration, and asylum, even though the demarcation line between the two is inevitably sometimes blurred.

I shall start with immigration. Apart from ultra-purist freemarketeers such as Milton Friedman—and, I suspect, the noble Lord, Lord Desai—who believe that anybody should be able to settle anywhere without hindrance, most of us would agree that every country has the legal and moral right to determine its own immigration policy, whether it be relaxed or restrictive, or somewhere in between the two.

The prime example at one extreme is the United States, which permits substantial legal immigration—and winks at large-scale illegal immigration across the Rio Grande, which provides a valuable source of cheap labour—asking only that immigrants embrace the American way of life as quickly as possible. That undoubtedly helps America's economic growth, and is facilitated by a low population density—less than one-seventh of that of Great Britain—that ensures that house prices and rents remain affordable.

At the other extreme is Japan, which, while reluctantly allowing in temporary workers, does everything possible to prevent immigration for permanent settlement. The electorate is prepared to sacrifice some economic growth for the sake of racial and cultural homogeneity. I predict that when China eventually becomes so prosperous that its supply of indigenous cheap labour dries up, which it will at some point, it too will adopt a very restrictive immigration policy, allowing in only those of Han Chinese descent. A similar policy can be found in some smaller countries, with Iceland, for example, discouraging immigrants who are not of northern European origin and Ghana positively banning those who are not of black African origin.

There are other countries which would have banned immigration, had they been allowed the democratic right to do so: Tibet is a prime example—the Tibetans certainly do not feel culturally enriched by the Chinese influx—as well as Estonia, Latvia and, to a lesser extent, Lithuania prior to 1989.

The immigration policies of other countries range between these two extremes. For example, Germany favours the Volksdeutsche and France fluent French speakers, wherever they may come from in the world. Of course, both Germany and France are much more lightly populated than we are.

As for our overcrowded island, the Government are at long last aiming in the right direction, albeit seven years too late. Of course immigration brings many economic benefits, but there is also a downside. Some years ago, the Observer—and I do not think that anybody would argue that the Observer is a Right-wing newspaper—concluded that the pros and cons of large-scale immigration were very finely balanced, with the short-term productivity benefits being almost outweighed by the need for massive investment in extra schools and hospitals and, I suggest, eventually in old people's homes. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, made somewhat the same point.

Tens of thousands of Britons spend two, three or five years working in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Los Angeles, New York and so on, and return home at the end of their contracts with bulging wallets and broadened minds. How much better for all concerned if more of the immigration into this country had followed a similar pattern, with returning immigrants investing their savings and their know-how in their countries of origin.

This point is still relevant today, as the Government declare their intention to go on admitting highly skilled immigrants. Is it morally acceptable to lure doctors and nurses from Third World countries to our shores for good? Of course we need them, but their own countries need them even more. It would surely be more ethical and correct to offer them short-term contracts in the hope that after a few years they will return to minister to their compatriots.

Let me re-emphasise that the population of the United Kingdom in 1951 was 50.225 million. It is expected to grow to 64.18 million by 2026, which is an increase of almost 28 per cent in 75 years and is unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. Our desperately congested roads and railways, the imminent concreting over of much of southern England and the driving up of house prices to way beyond the reach of first-time buyers are testimony to this.

This overcrowding also has a bearing on asylum to which I now turn. There are those in different parts of the political spectrum who now agree that economic immigration must be almost totally stopped but who say that there must never been any cap on the granting of political asylum. Really? Suppose that, heaven forbid, a new Pol Pot were to come to power, this time not in Cambodia, but in China, causing a quarter of the population—remembering Cambodia, and, indeed, East Timor—to fear for their lives and to flee westward en masse. Would we really be able to accommodate 8 million people—in other words, 2.5 per cent of the exodus—which is a realistic proportion in the circumstances? Thank God, this is an extremely unlikely scenario, but not a totally impossible one, which is why one should never use the word "never" in politics.

In parenthesis, I remind the House that in April 1977 a previous Labour government refused point blank my plea that they should admit a mere 750 Vietnamese boat people, arguing that we were not technically responsible for them under the 1951 convention, which was indeed true. In fairness, the two opposition parties were equally unenthusiastic. It was left to Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, five years later to admit 20 times as many as had been turned down in 1977.

Now, in response to a Starred Question on 7 February, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, defended the 1951 convention as it stands, even though the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, put it to him that four years earlier the Prime Minister had written in the Times that the convention needed reforming.

Clearly, the Government must have changed their mind since 2001. But I suggest that the Prime Minister was right then and must be wrong now. After all, in 1951 the world population was approximately 2.5 billion; today it is two-and-a-half times higher at 6.3 billion and is expected to rise to 8.9 billion by 2050. In 1951, there were no jumbo jets carrying passengers for as little as 2½ pence per mile on some routes across continents—equivalent to just over a farthing a mile in 1951 prices—not least because jumbo jets had not yet been invented.

In 1951, only a small proportion of the world's population had access to radio or telephone, almost none to television and nobody at all to the Internet. Few in the Third World believed that the streets of London were paved with gold; not least because hardly any of them had a clue where London was. What a contrast to today.

In 1951, though there was virtually no democracy anywhere in Africa, almost everyone on the continent had enough to eat and there was no mass slaughter. Today, the standard of living in much of sub-Saharan Africa is appreciably lower than it was in 1951; hence the thousands of Africans who drown each year trying to reach Fuerteventura, Lanzarote or Tarifa, hoping to claim refugee status.

The point is that none of this could possibly have been foreseen in 1951. The convention therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, stressed, is most certainly ripe for reform, and the gold-plating of its provisions by our judiciary should be reversed.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for giving us this opportunity for the debate, which has aroused recent widespread publicity. The noble Lord was once the Home Secretary. In those days I did not agree with many of the things he said; today I stand in the same position.

Immigration and asylum issues are fairly emotive. Despite the nature and effects of various pieces of immigration and asylum legislation, the circumstances surrounding them remain contentious.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that every country has a right to determine its immigration policy, and the United Kingdom is no exception. However, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is also right in that the matter is not helped by the way the issue is covered by the press and politicians. The barometer of xenophobia can best be understood by the effect of hostile pronouncement in some tabloids accompanied by tough government measures to curb immigration and asylum to this country.

I do not question the right to free speech and expression, but I hope that equally understood is the fear it generates in minorities in this country. Too often we seem to be playing the numbers game. I believe that immigration policy should be based on the country's need. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Let me go back to 1951, some 54 years ago. The then Labour government set up an interdepartmental committee to consider the possibility of legislation and administrative methods to deal with immigration. So pre-occupied were the Ministers with the numbers entering the United Kingdom, that the welfare and integration of newcomers was not even discussed. In fact, the key policy recommendation was—and remember I am talking of 1951—that,

"any solution depending on an apparent or concealed colour test would be so invidious as to be impossible of adoption. Nevertheless it has to be recognised that the use of any powers taken to restrict the free entry of British subjects to this country would, as a general rule, be more or less confined to coloured persons".

That is before systematic migration from the Commonwealth began. It was also the precursor to almost all Commonwealth Immigration Acts introduced since 1962.

Such attitudes have not only shaped our immigration policies, but have also done much harm in the way we have conducted our race relation policies. In the past we have seen race and immigration issues being exploited during election campaigns—in 1964, Peter Griffiths fighting Patrick Gordon Walker in the Smethwick election, and in 1968 Enoch Powell in the "Rivers of Blood" speech. Those are good examples to quote.

I suspect that with the proximity of the general election in the coming months, the same pattern as in previous years will emerge; and we have been proved right. It is important that we take great care in the way such issues are debated. Rational debates are part of our political process, but it carries with it responsibility to ensure that it has no damaging effect on those who provide much needed services to our country and those who need our protection.

There is evidence that emotive pronouncements have resulted in violence and harassment. It will be a shame, indeed a tragedy, if refugees who have fled from persecution were to find themselves victims of harassment in this country.

Britain has a rich tradition and history based on a nation of migrants. They have made, and continue to make, unique contributions to the prosperity of this nation. In arts, science, technology and now even in politics, they have made important contributions.

Consider the last major intake of refugees in the 1970s. We had a Conservative government who accepted over 28,000 Ugandan Asians. No one would dispute that they have contributed so well towards our economy. We are indeed grateful to the then Home Secretary the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, for the way he handled the issue. It was a political decision of courage and a lesson for politicians to learn.

The noble Lord, Lord Carr, told me that the Heath Cabinet took fewer than five minutes to reach the conclusion. That was the acceptable face of the Tory Party then. We are now seeing major political parties competing with each other in readiness to curtail the arrival of newcomers.

No one disputes the need to take into account the national interest, but, with the increasing development of a global economy, the pressure to migrate is immense. Western nations require the skills now available in many parts of the world. The drop in the birth rate signals a dilemma for countries like Germany and Britain. Who is going to pay for the welfare and pensions in a declining working population? It is here that we need to balance the rhetoric with reality.

We shall have to look at immigration and the arrival of newcomers as an ongoing process. No longer can we slam the door in the face of those who make a substantial contribution to the prosperity of our nation. A debate about what a modern and effective immigration policy should look like needs to be defined. It should not be a reaction to emotional outpourings of tabloid newspapers or a knee-jerk reaction to political point scoring.

We need to draw on many complex and interrelated issues. Immigration should be looked at on the basis of huge economic benefits for the United Kingdom if we are to adapt to the new environment of global economy. The cost of mismanaging immigration could have dire economic consequences for generations to come.

The stark reality is that if we fail to produce wealth, and it is people who produce wealth, this country cannot sustain health, education, pensions and service provision for future generations. Countries like the USA, Canada and Germany have realised that.

Migration is not simply about economics. We all benefit by the enrichment of our social and cultural lives. The whole area of immigration cries out for more research. What brings people here? What are their skills? How do they settle in this environment? Does immigration react with social stability? How do we raise the level of political debate? How do we challenge many of the assumptions that are made? The contribution that migrants make to our economy does not seem to receive much prominence.

The Government statistics confirm that non-EU visitors spend over £6 billion a year; overseas students spend £2.7 billion on goods and services and £2.3 billion on tuition fees.

Would we be able to maintain our health service if overseas doctors and nurses were not recruited? Would we be able to maintain our financial standing in the City of London without the help of IT and finance professionals from abroad? Would our transport infrastructure survive without the labour from Third World countries? The level of migration to Britain is less than to many other countries in the world.

Britain is a tolerant nation, and we can all be proud of our record on race and community relations. The old days of the 1950s and 1960s, when we relied on unskilled workers to provide labour for our industries, have gone. We now have a technological revolution in many parts of the world, and in particular on the Indian subcontinent. They have the skills which we need. The demand is universal. They will go elsewhere if our immigration policy is seen to be hostile.

Let us also look at the other aspects of movement of people from one country to another. The post-war efforts culminated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to seek asylum. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees gave that right a legal expression. Today, in the 54th year of that convention, we celebrate the proud history of offering shelter to those fleeing persecution. Unfortunately, the recent pronouncements from Michael Howard are a matter of serious concern. May I say what a delight it was to hear the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, say that it would be tragic if this were to happen. He and I come from the same county of Sussex, and I have always appreciated his particular concern on the serious issues of immigration and asylum.

It would be a tragedy if the United Kingdom failed to meet its basic obligations under the 1951 convention. This obviously includes giving sanctuary to convention refugees who arrive on our shores.

In conclusion, we need to enlarge and not reduce the scope of the convention on the rights of refugees. There are also issues concerning unaccompanied children and their rights as asylum seekers. Immigration must not simply be regarded as a matter of numbers. It is about human beings desperately searching to improve their lives from those of poverty, persecution and despair. We, in turn, enhance our civilised values by helping them. That is the acceptable face of Britain that I want to see.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Home Affairs, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, with his great experience of this subject and his deep commitment to it.

May I start, however, by echoing the sentiment of the House and thanking my noble friend Lord Waddington for bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House? It seems that hardly a day goes by without an article in one of the daily newspapers or an item on the television evening news regarding immigration and asylum. Yet it seems that this Government have still not found a solution to what many feel is a growing problem in society.

My noble friend Lord Waddington, if I may say so, articulated the sentiments of my right honourable friend Michael Howard, who had the courage to raise this issue and which excited a suspiciously immediate reaction from the government. My right honourable friend's attitude has not been so much about the principle of immigration and asylum but about improving the management of what is a clearly imperfect system at the moment—a point which has possibly been overlooked in some speeches today.

We on these Benches believe that Britain is a great country; that we have a proud tradition of giving refuge to those fleeing persecution, and have always offered a home to families who want to come to this country and work hard.

As so many of your Lordships have noted, Britain would not be the diverse and successful country it is today if such policies had not been in place. This debate has been greatly enhanced by the speeches of several noble Lords who are themselves recent descendants of asylum seekers or, indeed, who have at some stage been refugees themselves. However, as this debate has highlighted, it is time that we looked at the facts and the pressures that Britain is currently facing—this year, this month, today.

The current statistics make alarming reading. Britain has seen an unprecedented increase in immigration since this Government came to power. As has been noted, it has more than doubled to 150,000. My noble friend Lord Waddington has graphically illustrated the problem by comparing English cities.

The cost of the asylum system, both at local and national level, must also be taken into account. Let us take the county of Kent. It receives many asylum seekers through the major port of Dover, and many who arrive at the Eurostar terminal at Ashford or further down the line. In 1996, Kent County Council's asylum budget was less than a quarter of a million pounds; last year it was £53 million. In fact, since this Government took office local authorities have spent £3 billion on asylum. I am sure that this figure would be more acceptable if the asylum system was working. However, the system is in chaos, from top to bottom.

The mice may have been cleared from Lunar House, but the Public Accounts Committee stated earlier this year that it took nine hours' work to process an average application, and that £150 million had been wasted by the Government in moving employees from clearing claim backlogs to removing asylum seekers.

The process of removing failed asylum seekers is another failure. There are currently over 250,000 failed asylum seekers living in Britain today, and the Government have allowed the immigration system to fall into disarray. May I give three examples? Work permits have been given to people whose claims government officials knew to be fraudulent. Companies are rarely, if ever, successfully prosecuted for employing illegal immigrants. In the last three years there have been only nine prosecutions and three convictions. Although it does not refer to the ethics of the subject under debate today, in an age of global terrorism, the Government have no idea who is coming into or leaving the country. This poses a serious risk to Britain's security. Failed asylum seekers are rarely removed. Fewer than one in four failed asylum seekers are recorded as being removed or departing voluntarily.

I turn to the rights of appeal for overseas students, to which my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry drew attention. In the House of Commons on 7 February this year, the Home Secretary introduced his five-year strategy, stating:

"Overseas students make a major contribution, economic and intellectual, to our education institutions and many as a result develop lifelong ties with this country".

He went on to say:

""We will abolish the right of appeal against refusal of leave to enter the UK for work or study".—[Hansard, Commons, 7/2/05; cols. 1181–83.]

That leaves the expensive and time-consuming process of judicial review. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, took the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill through this House last year, and I should be particularly interested to hear his comments on that.

It has to be said, however, that the blanket removal of appeal rights for students flies in the face of those assurances given by the Government. Applications by students are often refused on a variety of grounds, such as inability to follow the course, lack of funds to maintain the student, lack of intention to leave the UK at the end of study, and so on. These are subjective, not objective, criteria and are often found to have been wrong decisions by entry clearance officers when examined by an independent adjudicator on appeal.

The need for an appeals system is exemplified in the report of the National Audit Office, Visa Entry to the UK, published on 17 June last year. Paragraph 19 on page 9 states:

"Over the last three years, 50 per cent of appeals by applicants intending to visit family members in the United Kingdom have led to the initial decision being overturned. The provision of additional evidence which was not available to the entry clearance officer and the support of the sponsor were often influential in the decision being overturned. But, in some cases, adjudicators raised concerns over the robustness of the original decision. The refusal decision is reviewed again by an entry clearance manager when the appeal is received, and both the initial and adjudicator's decision are based on the balance of probabilities. However, a more rigorous quality review and enhanced staff training would help to prevent borderline cases reaching appeal".

That is a comment on the first stage of the interview process. Removal of appeals will send the wrong message to overseas students coming to the United Kingdom.

It is no wonder that the Prime Minister has stated that people are right to be concerned about immigration and asylum. Clearly, something must be done. Immigration must be brought under control. We believe in firm but fair immigration controls. They are essential for good community relations, the maintenance of national security and the management of public services. It is now time to act.

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, commented on the statistic that in 30 years' time, immigration will have amounted to five times the population of Birmingham. Surely it is reasonable to expect that that huge figure needs to be controlled efficiently and humanely, which is the object of my party.

For Britain to continue to be a rich, successful, strong and creative country for the people who currently live here and those whom we will welcome in future, changes need to be made to the current asylum system. We believe that there should be an annual limit to immigration, 24-hour security at ports to prevent illegal immigration and an Australian-style points system for work permits, which would give priority to people with the skills that Britain needs. Such measures will ensure that Britain will not have the current asylum crisis that we are experiencing and will mean a better quality of life for the asylum seekers themselves who want to come to live and work here—a sentiment so appropriately echoed by my noble friend Lord Waddington, to whom I once again express my thanks.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development)

My Lords, with 19 speakers and 20 minutes allocated, I cannot begin to respond. A minute for each speaker would be an insult. I have been asked many specific questions. Although I shall make some general remarks to start with as quickly as I can to put some issues on record and cover some points, I will ensure—I normally try not to do this, but in this case, as with the prisons debate, I must—that we give specific replies to the specific questions, because they are important. As I say, I shall try to deal with as many as possible.

I missed the final point made by the noble Viscount. His last sentence led me to say, "Here we go", because he talked about an asylum crisis, whereas the quarter's figures published today for 2004 show that there has been a 67 per cent reduction in intake since the peak of October 2002. We can use words like crisis, but they are emotive. Although I do not deny that there has been a big increase, that does us no good. Whatever may be the situation in Lunar House today, it is far better than it was four or five years ago.

I will step out of bounds to say that when the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, referred to receiving that letter when he was a Member of the other place, I was in the other place. I have never had any trouble separating my role as a Member of Parliament, a constituency Member, from being a member of the Government. When I received that letter, I wrote more letters to the Home Office as a result, because I did not want my constituents thinking that I was easing off because we had been asked to help with the pressure. I did that only because I was chasing cases. I was trying to help.

I did not say, "Let sleeping dogs lie. It is so chaotic. Time will take its toll and, by and large, we will get a successful result". I cannot even count the number of letters that I sent. The noble Lord mentioned a 40 per cent increase. I certainly wrote more letters as a result of getting a letter asking me not to write. That may be counter-productive, but in that position, you are the only conduit for your constituents who are worried sick about the lack of reply to their cases which, I must say, were taking 20 months to get a first decision, compared to today, when it is two months. So there has been a substantial increase in the flow of decisions. I mention that point because I thought, "That is exactly what happened to me".

The opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has given the House has been very useful. Most colleagues congratulated him on giving the House the opportunity to have the debate, even though they went on to say that they did not agree with everything he said. This is a debate; that is what it is all about; we do not expect to agree. However, the tone of the debate has been positive and helpful. It has made clear that the vast majority of people come to this country perfectly legitimately and lawfully.

Every year, about 90 million people come to this country and the vast majority are visitors, students or returning residents. Clearly, 90 million people are not staying in this country each year, but that is the flow of people coming to this country. We need to maintain the security of our borders and we have radically improved the robustness of controls. Where there are abuses, we seek to tackle them. We always feel as though we are one step behind the crooks and spivs because, as I have made clear before, the profits from people-trafficking world-wide are greater than from traffic in drugs. Let us make no bones about it: this is big business. It involves people's lives, it is true, but it is big business. Therefore, it is not as though we are simply dealing with individual claimants.

In some ways, we have gone a lot further. It is not generally known, but we have moved UK border controls out of the UK into continental Europe—into France and Belgium. For some years, the French have allowed British immigration officers to travel on French internal train journeys with the right to ask people about their tickets and passport arrangements. And yet all we hear is carping criticism of the French over Sangatte. The French allowed us to do that and we have similar arrangements elsewhere.

We have also embraced new technology, such as heartbeat and carbon dioxide monitors, especially at ports. We have tried to put effective managed migration programmes into place in a robust way against abuse.

As an aside, because it has been legitimately raised two or three times, I pay tribute to the decision of the Conservative government led by Sir Edward Heath about Ugandan Asians. I was not even in the other place at the time, but I must say that we cannot compare that with what has happened now. We knew that 32,000 people were going to come here. We knew that they were going to come. It was managed. Recently, it was unmanaged when we reached 70,000 or 80,000 asylum cases a year. We did not know who was coming, when they were coming or where they were coming from. The Ugandan Asian situation was totally different from that. I pay tribute to that Government, because many of those people were massively successful and made a massive contribution to our economy.

I must refer to one other point, which is that controls coming in are one thing but there is a lack of embarkation controls. That has been commented on by many people. The fact is that after 1997, we continued the previous Government's policy of scrapping what embarkation controls there were for the good reason that they were not working. They did not actually tell us anything. We need some kind of embarkation control to know who is leaving the country, but the only way we can do that is with modern technology: e-borders and biometric ID cards. There is no other solution. We are stepping up that process and the old system of embarkation controls did not work.

In respect of public services, we do not look on immigration as a burden. In fact, we think that the opposite is the case, generally speaking. Immigration provides more nurses, teachers, doctors and builders who can help deliver public services. I know that there are sometimes pressures relating to the countries from which those people have come. We do not deliberately go trawling in Third World countries to damage their services; we have a policy in respect of that.

We have dramatically cut unfounded asylum claims. That is important. People are entitled to claim asylum, but people who are refused their claim have no right to remain. The latest figures, published today, show that from the peak in October 2002 numbers are down by 70 per cent. We have made the system better and more efficient. Four out of five claims are decided in under two months rather than the 20-month average before 1997. Cases awaiting an initial decision are at the lowest level for a decade. We have removed more of those whose claims have been refused. The removal rate is nowhere near the targets we set but it is twice the level of about 1996-97. It is not the easiest task in the world to remove a group of, let us say, young single men in a block of flats who have no justified claim. There are serious issues. It has to be done with great care and sensitivity.

As regards the dispersal of destitute asylum seekers away from those local authorities which traditionally face greater responsibility, one cannot compare what happens now with what happened in the past. I do not want to bandy figures because that does not get us anywhere. The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) did not exist. Therefore, the situation is different. We reimburse local authorities for the vast majority of their expenditure. I shall give specific answers on some issues relating to that because it is a burden on the local authorities: there should not be an additional charge on their council tax payers.

Other issues have been touched on in passing: that does not mean they are not important. As regards good community relations, if people have confidence that our system is as robust as it can be, fair, open and transparent, they are more likely to be welcoming and tolerant of those who have a right to be here. The point is that people have the right to be here. We seek to ensure more confidence that that is the situation.

On the other hand, issues will come before the House in due course to ensure that we use the law where we have to. They make clear that we will not tolerate hatred of people based on their race or religious beliefs. There is a strong case for that. That is why we need that new protection. That is why we have expanded the existing criminal offences in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. I shall not go into great detail. The House is aware of the arguments.

Immigration and asylum is an issue of our time. I suppose it always is. We are an island nation. It would be vulgar to claim that the subject is switched on and off just before a general election; and I do not do so. There have been a number of pieces of legislation before your Lordships' House on this matter in the past few years. It is not an issue that the Government have saved up. We have sought to meet situations as they arise. Sometimes it can feel as though the authorities are always seeking to close loopholes that the spivs and people-traffickers have exploited. We shall always face that situation in a modern age but we have to use new technology.

Many noble Lords mentioned the economy. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, took apart the Home Office report published in about 2001—just before I went to the Home Office—on the effects of managed migration and the benefits to the economy. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, we have at present 600,000 vacancies. We do not have rampant wage inflation. We are still short of people. It is true that we have a big increase in work permits. I think that that is managed well. There have been more prosecutions of people employing illegal labour. There is definitely a benefit. In terms of the Treasury's view, there is a contribution. I shall come to the figures when responding to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. But even the Treasury's current figures demonstrate that there is greater benefit to the country than disbenefit.

Several noble Lords referred to the 1951 UN convention. I have nothing to say other than to repeat the government policy which I stated in this House on 7 February. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, asked Her Majesty's Government:

"Whether they intend to renegotiate or opt out of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees".

My reply was:

"The answer is no. We have no plans to withdraw from or renegotiate the 1951 refugee convention. It is part of the legal and ethical framework that enshrines basic principles of human decency through which all countries meet their obligations. A better and more realistic way of addressing today's protection issues is to adopt effective domestic asylum procedures and to work with other governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees".—[Hansard, 7/2/05; col. 540.]

In supplementary answers, I made the point that the convention had been written for another age but the fact remains that we have no plans to pull out of it.

We published the five-year strategy on the same day, 7 February, as I recall. My noble friend Lady Scotland repeated the Statement which had been made in another place about the strategy which gives a clearer, tighter system. It gives greater clarification about whom we admit to the UK and why; and who is allowed to stay in the UK, and why. It also details how we police the system and how we ensure that people leave when they are no longer entitled to be here.

I realise from what has been said that some of the issues—they will come before noble Lords in due course—are somewhat controversial. I have no doubt that they will be fully debated. The strategy in the five-year plan is the result of a top-to-bottom analysis of what has happened in the past few years with regard to asylum and immigration that the Prime Minister announced in April 2004. It looked at how the system operates to develop an approach which is simpler, more straightforward and more robust.

We are not interested in "fortress Britain". Neither are we interested in an open house. It has to be in the middle—

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point raised by myself, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Bridgeman, there is great concern about the suggestion in the five-year strategy that no appeals will be allowed for students coming here to attend college or university. There is a genuine belief that that will turn off a lot of overseas students from trying to come here at just the time the universities need them. Will the Minister please ensure that this point is taken up with the Home Secretary?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development)

My Lords, I shall give a response because the point has been raised previously. The noble Viscount referred to the orders that I took through the House last summer with the House's support. If I can get to that matter, I shall certainly do so. If not, I shall write to everyone who has participated in the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, raised the issue of sham marriages and bogus colleges. It is true that there have been both in the past and that there are probably both today. We are dealing with it. We have brought in new regulations. In the first two quarters of 2004, registrars reported almost 2,300 suspicious marriages. However, with the new enforcement system, that has fallen to around 1,200 in the past two quarters. Legislation introducing the certificate of entitlement to marry, which was much debated in this House, came into force on 1 February 2005.

Action has been taken over visits to colleges. Some 25 per cent were found to be non-genuine. We have carried out visits when adverse information is received. There are some issues relating to students and colleges which we ignore at our peril. That is not an answer to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, but the issues are being raised.

I shall not repeat all the figures. The overall immigration level is low compared with other countries. A speaker quoted from a letter from the United Nations High Commissioner. The figures were very similar. In this country, our net migration is about two migrants per 1,000 natives. That is about the same level as Germany, which is about 1.7. In 2003, the figure was 2.66. The figure is lower than the USA and Australia, with 4.5 migrants per 1,000 natives.

It is also worth pointing out that almost 2 million people of working age move between European countries each year—and rightly so. We are an international community for people moving round. The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, gave a graphic description of the situation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, asked about Lindholme. We put together action plans on both reports from the Inspector of Prison. In particular, refurbishment programmes currently under way will be completed by April. We remain committed to pulling out of Lindholme when alternative accommodation is identified. We are putting into place a service level agreement between the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to sharpen accountability for operation of the centre.

On TB, the noble Baroness asked about testing and health checks. In 2003-04 some 400 people were diagnosed with TB at Heathrow and Gatwick making it the highest imported infection risk faced by this country. All we are doing is looking to have those checks carried out before people enter the country. The fact that that system provides an incentive for people to be checked for TB and, where necessary, to be treated will be of benefit to countries with high rates of TB. We are not damaging the countries which people come from. However, it is an issue that we ignore at our peril.

The right reverend Prelate and many other noble Lords raised the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It is a very sensitive issue, and I cannot do justice to it. We take our responsibility for children extremely seriously. I think that I have told the House that, when I visited ports of entry as a Home Office Minister, I came across cases in which children had clearly travelled on a plane with an adult and had then been abandoned and the paperwork destroyed at the airport. The children were left wandering around. It is an incredibly difficult situation. We think that it is in the best interests of such children to reunite them with their family, if we can, and find acceptable reception arrangements in their own country. By and large, it is not in their interests to be separated from their parents or their country.

I may have read the wrong figure out: I gave a figure of 400 cases of TB. I apologise: it looks like it is 100. I had better get that checked before I am on the receiving end of a lot of correspondence. It is still a high number.

I was asked whether the Government would reimburse local authorities for costs incurred as a result of ending support for the failed asylum-seeking family. We have always made it clear that the Government will reimburse local authorities for costs incurred in taking a child into care as a result of the withdrawal of support. However, as was made clear lots of times in both Houses, we do not expect that to happen in many cases, as the intention of the policy is to encourage families with no right here to return but not to render them destitute. We do not want to split families up.

The noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, made several points. I doubt that I will be able to deal with all of them. The current situation is that the Treasury estimates that forecast migration accounts for about 15 per cent of the trend growth forecasts. On average, migrants—I was surprised at this, but these are the figures that I got from the Treasury—have higher average wages than the native population. In fact, they are about 19 per cent higher than those for UK-born workers. I was unaware of that. That is a benefit. We think that we can improve productivity in any case and fill the labour shortages.

Several speakers raised the issue that is constantly raised of allowing asylum seekers to work. There is no possible change of policy on that; it would simply send all the wrong signals down the line. A large number of asylum seekers make unfounded claims: we know that. I accept what has been said: we have to improve the initial decision. There is no question about that, and we are conscious of it. However, we do not want to create an incentive. We want people who want to come to the country to work to use one of several managed migration routes, not the asylum process. If they do not, they gum up the system for the genuine asylum seekers whose cases are being considered. I do not say that they slip through the net, but they get in the way of dealing with those who are fleeing persecution under the terms of the 1951 convention. They are coming here for economic activity, and we want them to come in for that.

I shall finish on this point, which, I hope, will deal with the issue of students and appeals. We do not take the view that appeals in all areas are a right. Those refused can, of course, apply again. Under the new proposals, we will improve and extend independent monitoring of our entry clearance process. The efficiency and quality of the first decisions must be vastly improved. There will be other measures to improve performance. However, some issues—I have not got a note here, so I will make sure that it is in the letters—can be issues of fact; they are not all subjective. If you do not have the money or if the college is not registered, the position is clear. Why would there be a right of appeal? If a college is not registered, that is a matter of fact. We do not want spurious appeals gumming up the system. People have the right to reapply, if they want, but there are some areas in which there is no basic, intrinsic right of appeal.

We want to stop the three levels of appeal that were inherited. The system was played with, and people remained longer than they would have otherwise, creating families and doing other things that, on humanitarian grounds, made them more difficult to remove. I shall cover that point in the letter that I shall write.

I was asked many other specific questions. I shall make sure that they are properly answered. They deserve to be, if only because of the quality of the debate that we have had today. I am grateful to everyone for it, including the noble Lord, Lord Waddington.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 6:25 pm, 23rd February 2005

My Lords, we have had a most interesting debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords and noble Baronesses who took part and to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his robust and spirited reply.

I have had my say, and I know that the House would not welcome it if I were to say any more. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.