Asylum Seekers

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:02 pm on 5th September 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:02 pm, 5th September 2007

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S3M-345, in the name of Sandra White, on asylum seekers in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes discussions between the Scottish and UK governments aimed at tackling the situation of asylum seekers in Scotland and to this end supports calls for asylum seekers to be granted the right to work whilst seeking asylum, which has been backed by Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Refugee Council which comments that "It just makes absolutely no sense to have people sitting at home in enforced idleness when they could be contributing to the economy", and further believes that an amnesty for asylum seeker families who have been in Scotland since before March 2006 would be one which rightly acknowledges that in Glasgow these families have become a valued part of the local community and the vast difference between the situation in Scotland, where roughly 1,500 families would be granted asylum, compared to over 400,000 in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 5:03 pm, 5th September 2007

I begin by thanking all the members who have stayed on to discuss such important issues and those who signed my motion, which enabled me to secure the debate. I also thank the Scottish Government for setting out its position on asylum seekers, which I am happy to say echoes the changes that are called for in the motion.

I welcome the people who should be in the public gallery by now—they must have been delayed; they are travelling through from Glasgow—many of whom have first-hand knowledge of the many difficulties that asylum seekers face. I hope that other people in their position and organisations that work with them, such as the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow and other voluntary organisations, will take heart from the fact that the first members' business debate after the summer recess will highlight the fact that in Scotland the situation of asylum seekers is an issue of the utmost importance and one that is taken extremely seriously by the Parliament.

Today I will concentrate on the motion before us and, in particular, on what it says about the right to work. Simply by granting asylum seekers the right to work, we can radically change how they are perceived and the conditions in which they find themselves. It is clear that granting asylum seekers the right to work offers fundamental benefits. Rightly or wrongly, many people perceive asylum seekers to be a burden on society and think that their sole purpose in coming to Scotland is to claim benefits, to the detriment of society as a whole. As we all know, such attitudes lead to a fractured society, in which asylum seekers are viewed with distrust and, often, open hostility.

Members of the Scottish Parliament and people outside the Parliament have worked and continue to work towards creating a Scotland that is free from prejudice or hatred. To that end, let me dispel the myth that asylum seekers are simply benefit seekers. Asylum seekers want to work. Research shows that the money generated for the local economy by asylum seekers would far outweigh the cost of benefits. The message is clear: by granting asylum seekers the right to work we can help to grow the economy and, which is more profound, help to create more harmonious communities throughout our areas.

Many asylum seekers are highly skilled. Recent United Kingdom figures show that more than 900 doctors, 150 nurses and 100 dentists are unable to seek work. The current skills shortage in some professions, especially in health, has led to a bizarre situation in which recruitment schemes are run abroad. We could go some way towards solving the problem if we granted asylum seekers the right to work. The Scottish Refugee Council said that a change in policy would have a major impact on people's future integration into Scottish society. That conclusion is borne out by research that was carried out by the previous Scottish Government, which found that denying asylum seekers the right to work increases the risk that their skills will become outdated, increases isolation and makes it less easy for people to be integrated into the labour market. We cannot let a situation continue that leads to public mistrust, represents a missed opportunity to grow the economy, perpetuates the skills shortage and risks alienating people who will eventually be granted asylum.

I welcome the Scottish Government's support on such matters and I thank Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, for writing to me to outline the Scottish Government's position, which is to press for full implementation of the March 2006 agreement; to ensure that young people from asylum seeker families have the same access to full-time education as is afforded to Scottish children; to call for families with children who arrived before March 2006 to be granted leave to remain; and to press for alternatives to the much-deplored dawn raids and to the unacceptable detention of children and their families.

The motion refers to the right to work and to an amnesty for families who arrived in Scotland before 2006. I will raise wider issues, which no doubt other members will mention in more detail. As I said, by effecting change we can continue to work towards creating a Scotland that is free from prejudice or hatred. We can also work towards a Scotland in which inhuman treatment of anyone is not tolerated, by ending the barbaric treatment that many asylum seekers face at the hands of the Home Office.

I have seen at first hand the effect of Home Office policy on asylum seekers. People become depressed because they cannot work, which affects their families and communities. Some asylum seekers have been in Scotland for many years. Their children were born here and they have formed friendships and relationships. Many asylum seekers regard themselves as Scottish, yet they live in fear of dawn raids, detention and deportation. We must end those barbaric practices and ensure that an amnesty is granted to families who have become valued members of their communities.

For too long, asylum seekers have been regarded as people who arrive here with no hope. I want to give families the hope that in future they can be valued members of Scottish society. Scotland is held in high regard throughout the world, but the use of dawn raids and the detention centre at Dungavel seriously calls into question our claim to be warm and welcoming. Will the minister consider the issues that I have raised? Will he also consider the situation at Dungavel, especially in the light of the alarming reports in today's press, in which it is claimed that children are being held alongside criminals—rapists and traffickers—awaiting deportation. Even today, after such reports, the Home Office refuses to give figures on detainees.

Members of the Scottish Parliament pride themselves on fulfilling their duty to ensure that there is justice, fairness and accountability to all people in Scotland. Asylum seekers deserve no less. When the minister responds, I ask him to give further information on the legacy review that is going on. I presume that we will hear the results by the end of the month or in October, but we have received no update on the cases involved. Will the minister also tell us about the correspondence between—I think—the First Minister and members of the Westminster Government? Is there, as I believe, a perception that doors are opening for the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster?

Too often, asylum seekers do not get an opportunity to put their case. I am grateful and proud to be able to do that.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 5:10 pm, 5th September 2007

I have not had much opportunity to prepare for the debate, as I spoke in the previous one, but I want to say a few words on what is an important subject.

Sandra White should be commended for the work that she has done on the issue. She has ensured that it has been high on the agenda. In fairness, I add that my colleague Bill Butler, too, has done much to ensure that, although the issue is not the Parliament's responsibility, we do not forget people who are less fortunate than ourselves. It is right that the Parliament should debate the issues and express a viewpoint.

Apart from my human interest, my interest in the matter is that my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin has a high number of asylum seekers, in Kingsway Court—it is probably just less than the number in Paul Martin's constituency. The range of nationalities there is amazing—the asylum seekers have brought something to the community and made it a different place to be. I recently went to the Kingsway festival, at which there was a range of nationalities and an opportunity for locals to sample different food and hear different languages. That has definitely added something to the community.

Glasgow has a good record on trying to spread asylum seekers throughout the city and trying not to ghettoise but to ensure that people are integrated as far as possible into communities and schools. However, more needs to be done. I agree that we should consider removing the total ban on asylum seekers working. That is a matter for Westminster to work through, but I do not see why we cannot express a view. We must think through the details, but it is concerning that asylum seekers who have been here for five, six or seven years and who want to contribute have nothing to do when job vacancies exist that they could fill.

The Parliament has acted when it has been able to. The former First Minister Jack McConnell took the issue of dawn raids seriously and I supported him in that, although I agree with Sandra White that more needs to be done. Members will have seen the report today in The Herald about what has been happening at Dungavel. I am sure that we all agree that, however we deal with the issue, it is simply not right that children of asylum-seeking families should be held there in a place of detention alongside foreign nationals who are waiting to be deported. That is wrong and I urge the Home Office to act on the matter.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I am just finishing, but I will give way if there is time.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am grateful to Pauline McNeill and I endorse much of what she says. I apologise to members for being unable to stay for the whole of this important debate.

Does Pauline McNeill agree that we need strong cross-party support behind a call for the Government to take seriously the child protection issues that are raised in the report that she mentioned? Child protection is a devolved responsibility and it would be in keeping with the approach of the previous Administration if we explored the devolved aspects, which we should all take seriously. Would Pauline McNeill welcome cross-party support for that?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I have no difficulty with that. Where there is a clear devolved responsibility, there should be—and I think that there is—cross-party consensus that we should do what we can. That is particularly true with child protection. However, we must also work with those in Westminster who have responsibility for the wider issue.

I thank Sandra White for bringing the debate to the Parliament and I look forward to hearing the other speakers.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 5:14 pm, 5th September 2007

I, too, congratulate and thank Sandra White for bringing the matter before the Parliament. She has a particular interest in the subject and has worked hard on it.

The right to asylum is enshrined as a basic human right. I like to think that this country will always provide refuge for those who find themselves persecuted because of their religion, political beliefs or race and I do not think that any of us would ever have it any other way. When we accept people into this country, we must do everything possible to assimilate them into the wider community as quickly as possible. One of the easiest ways of doing so is through work.

When people are working they are able to contribute, make a bigger circle of friends and settle down much more speedily. The existing system is wrong in respect of the right to work. I remember being on a committee visit some years ago that Sandra White may have been on too. One of the organisations that we visited had a chap working with it as an interpreter whom it could not pay; there was even a legal difficulty about buying him a sandwich and a can of Coke for his lunch as that would have breached the rules. That is foolish and we—or rather, the UK Government—need to look at the issue.

I have no great difficulty with that aspect of the motion. However, I have to say that it is important that we separate in our own minds what is an asylum seeker from what is an economic migrant. Many of the people who come here come for the best of possible human motives in that they wish to make progress and to achieve a higher standard of living, in many instances not only for themselves but for their families. We must have sympathy for such people. Nevertheless, they are clearly not asylum seekers. If they wish to come here—we would certainly welcome them—there is a laid-down procedure for doing so through the embassy or high commission of their country of origin. That is what we have to look at.

The one part of the motion that I find a little bit difficult to accept is the suggestion of an amnesty, particularly for people who have been here for less than 18 months. If the UK Government were to enact that, it would be a matter of people coming here, registering, lying low for 18 months and then being allowed to stay. That would make a negative contribution to social cohesion and would not be acceptable.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

I think that Mr Aitken has misunderstood the motion as it refers to asylum seekers who were here before March 2006. I hope that that clarification is of help to him.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

It is of some help, but it still leaves us with the issue that someone could have a right to stay here once they had been here for a comparatively short time—as I say, a couple of years or so. That is not acceptable.

Of course, the UK Government must take considerable blame for what has happened. There is intolerable delay in resolving asylum applications. There is also the issue of repatriation, sometimes by very harsh methods, which have been criticised by members throughout the chamber. The news that we have heard today about Dungavel is totally unacceptable.

I say to Sandra White once again that it is entirely appropriate that the matter has come before the chamber. Parts of the motion have considerable merit, but I urge great caution in respect of the amnesty.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 5:18 pm, 5th September 2007

I commend the work that Sandra White has done over a number of years for asylum seekers, their families and groups and individuals who support asylum seekers. One of the reasons why I am here for the debate is to show my support for the good work that she has done. As a new MSP in Glasgow, I have seen at first hand the work that she has done. I am now coming into contact with individuals who are asylum seekers and can for the first time put a human face to asylum seekers. That is another reason why I wanted to speak in the debate.

I met a young man called Abdirahman Mohamed. When he first came to Scotland from Somalia, he was 16 years old. He will not go back to Somalia as his mother is one of the legacy cases. Indeed, he cannot go back to Somalia as he has no home there; another family stays there and he most certainly would not be made welcome if he were to return. He now stays in Sighthill in Glasgow.

Over the past month or so, Abdi has been telling me about his case. When he came to Scotland as a 16-year-old, the decision had to be made as to whether it was more suitable for him to go to the local secondary school or to a further education college. It was decided that he should go to the local FE college to improve his core English skills, which he did. After that, he had a desire for higher education, so he took an access course at the FE college. Very quickly—in just under a year—he got the access equivalent of highers in computing and maths. At that point, he had no route into higher education so, rather than stay idle, he did the maximum amount of highers that an FE college would let him do. The next year, he took two highers and got fantastic grades. This year, he did another two highers and got fantastic grades. He had a thirst to learn, despite the fact that there was no obvious funding access into higher education. Learning was a privilege for him. Until recently, the only option open to him was to find roughly £11,000 a year to fund himself through university as an international student. Of course, the irony of it was that neither he nor his family was even allowed to work.

There was light at the end of the tunnel for Abdi, and I was delighted to be able to confirm with the Scottish Government and with the University of Glasgow that he will be starting a full-time course at the university at the end of this month. The University of Glasgow has shown discretion in this case. Fees cannot be paid for young asylum seekers in higher education until next year, but the university has shown a fantastic willingness to accept year 1 fees in year 2. That flexibility shows that our academic institutions are willing to give such young people access to higher education. However, I should mention the situation in which Abdi now finds himself. Normally, young students can find a part-time job to fund themselves through university, but that is denied to Abdi, which is a travesty and a tragedy. It is part of the human experience. A further difficulty is that in three or four years' time, Abdi could be a highly skilled graduate who would not be entitled to use the skills that our taxpayers have invested in him to work in Scotland. That would be appalling.

To me, Abdi is not an asylum seeker but a friend whom I have helped out on a constituency matter. I am keen to have Abdi as an intern, either at the Parliament or at my constituency office. We heard stories about whether buying someone a can of Coke and a sandwich counts as payment for work. There are real issues there that we must consider again. This is a reserved matter, but a positive dialogue can be built up between the Scottish Government and the UK Government to bring about a positive resolution.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour 5:22 pm, 5th September 2007

I congratulate Sandra White on securing the first members' business debate since the recess, on an issue of serious concern to members and to people throughout Scotland.

Given that the serious matter of the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland has had a direct impact on a number of people in my constituency, over the years I have been involved in a continuing debate, within and outwith the Parliament, and indeed between Holyrood and Westminster. I echo Sandra White's welcome for the continuing discussions between ministers here and our counterparts in Westminster, which build on the work of the previous Executive in discussing ways and means of acknowledging the overlapping nature of devolved and reserved responsibilities in this area.

I acknowledge Jack McConnell's support, without which the agreement of March 2006 would have been much more difficult to reach. That agreement remains significant, as it forms the backdrop for continuing negotiations between the two Administrations. That is good because co-operation, not confrontation, is key to progress in that area.

I shall deal with the two specific areas raised by Sandra White in her motion. First, there is the question whether asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision on their asylum claims should be permitted to work during that period. In my view, there is an overwhelming case to be made in favour of such a development. There is no evidence to suggest that giving asylum seekers such permission leads inexorably to more asylum applications. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest public support for the idea, while cost reductions would result if such a course of action were to be adopted. It would also be of benefit to the future smooth integration of those who are allowed to stay. Even for those who eventually return to their country of origin, work presents an opportunity to build up a source of capital or training, thus making voluntary return more sustainable. I believe that there is support within Scottish society for such a development, and I wish to record my backing for the request from the Scottish Refugee Council and Glasgow City Council to Holyrood ministers to raise the issue with their opposite numbers at Westminster in the continuing dialogue between the two Administrations. The granting of access to the labour market for asylum seekers over a period not exceeding six months is sensible, and it carries potential benefit to all concerned.

The second part of Ms White's motion relates to so-called legacy cases. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Ms Hyslop, was kind enough to write to me last month to update me on developments regarding the further steps that are being taken to ensure that

"asylum families in Scotland are treated fairly and humanely, especially when children are involved."

One of the ways in which Ms Hyslop promised to

"work with the Home Office and the Border and Immigration Agency to make progress on the key issues that affect the welfare of children" was by exploring

"the detail of the forthcoming legacy review."

I welcome that. I hope that an agreement can be reached that recognises that many asylum-seeking families have been here for a significant length of time, have laid down roots in the community and have proved to be an asset to our society. On that basis, I hope that agreement can be reached that allows families with children who were here before March 2006 to be granted leave to remain. I support that unequivocally. I hope that progress can continue to be made on an intergovernmental basis, with both Administrations recognising the reserved responsibility of Westminster for asylum and immigration and accepting the overlapping devolved responsibilities with which Holyrood is charged.

You will remember, Presiding Officer, that when we were both Glasgow City councillors, we were party to the decision to welcome asylum-seeker families and offer them refuge in our city of Glasgow. That was the correct decision to make, and I am proud to this day that my city took it. Asylum seekers and their families are an asset, not a liability. They are our friends, not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 5:27 pm, 5th September 2007

I, too, congratulate Ms White on securing the debate—regardless of how often the Parliament has discussed the issue previously. As a new member, I readily acknowledge the work that Ms White has done as well as the knowledge and expertise that other members have in relation to this issue.

It is timeous that the Parliament is raising the issue again now, and not only because of the recent revelations about Dungavel detention centre. I have detected a worrying trend in the UK, which all of Scotland should stand up against. Some might call it xenophobia, in its extreme form. Although the situation has not reached that pitch yet, in my view, it is clear that some sections of our society, being so obsessed by their fear of strangers, are prepared to turn these islands of ours into something of a police state.

Members might regard those remarks as somewhat provocative. I concede that they might be. However, I ask members to pause and think about where we are going. There are dawn raids, prison for families, identity cards for all and, now, a call for DNA retention for everybody who crosses our borders. What message does that send out? The measures are becoming draconian. If we continue in that way in our relationship with the mysterious other, the terrorists and the gangsters will have won without making another attack.

We need to consider the long-term implications for a society that labels every different emerging group that exists within it or that seeks to become part of it as a threat—whether that threat is perceived as economic, political or religious. Just over 150 years ago, some of my family, together with thousands like them, came to Scotland to escape starvation, destitution and ignorance. There is no doubt that they were economic migrants. They came to a strange country with a different language, a different religion and a different culture. However, they were let in—although there were fewer border controls then.

Those migrants fended for themselves when they got in. They worked, they worshipped in their fashion and they were schooled, married and died. Mostly, they kept to themselves—a community within the wider community. They were viewed with suspicion, physically attacked and discriminated against. Sadly, in some instances, they were imprisoned and killed. They in their turn were suspicious and discriminatory; they physically attacked—and, just as sadly, they killed. Those were two communities that were both suspicious, discriminatory and fearful of the mysterious other.

Today, we in Scotland still deal with the consequences of that approach. I congratulate the previous Administration on beginning to tackle sectarianism and welcome the cross-party support that there has been for that throughout Scotland.

I realise that the situation is more complicated than my simple analogy implies, but we need to be careful that we do not replicate past mistakes in our attitude to those who come to our country.

I am pleased to hear—I was not aware of this previously—that the dialogue between Westminster and the Scottish Government on this matter has been reopened. We in the chamber and people throughout the country must stand up and be counted.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 5:30 pm, 5th September 2007

I commend Sandra White for securing the debate and Bill Butler for his work on the issue.

Although asylum and immigration remain on the political agenda, I do not think that enough attention is paid to the reasons why people leave their homes in the first place. It is important to acknowledge that few people leave their country willingly and that most are forced to flee because of repression or poverty. Many asylum seekers have fled from persecution that has been induced by western actions, such as wars. They then face a double insult: not only are they forced to flee their country but when they arrive in Britain they are vilified by some people as welfare scroungers who are sponging off the state and flooding Britain. The reality is that Britain takes less than 2 per cent of the world's refugees and ranks ninth among 15 European countries in the number of asylum applications received.

I turn to the issue of detention. The beautiful Lanarkshire countryside is the setting for Dungavel house, but the house is certainly not beautiful, because there children and their families are locked up behind barbed and razor wire fences. They have committed no crime. All they have done is seek asylum, having fled circumstances in their country that we would find it hard to imagine. Who would want to flee their own country, leaving behind jobs, homes, friends and family, unless the circumstances were dire?

One of the saddest things that I saw at Dungavel house was when, during a rally, a window opened and a hand came out waving a white handkerchief. I felt powerless when I saw that happen.

If children were being incarcerated in that manner abroad, we would hear a lot more shouting about human rights abuses, instead of attempts to justify it, ranging from people being silent and thinking, "It's not our responsibility," to people arguing about conditions. We have heard today that children are being housed alongside criminals, which is completely unacceptable.

I ask the minister to tell us in his summing up what discussions the Scottish Government has had, or will be having, with the Border and Immigration Agency about the code of practice for immigration staff in order to safeguard children in the asylum process. How will that code of practice apply in Scotland?

Should people awaiting a decision on their asylum claim be permitted to work? Yes. Asylum is of course primarily about human rights and protection, but work is a vital component of helping people to integrate into the society in which they are seeking sanctuary. It gives people a sense of purpose and aids the well-being of individuals and communities. Excluding people from work forces them into poverty and isolation and allows vital skills to remain unused. It also allows asylum seekers to be branded scroungers, which is completely unacceptable.

Skills shortages could be tackled immediately if we allowed asylum seekers to work, but, instead, we turn willing people who offer a wide range of skills into welfare dependents. We allow them to be maligned and hated as scroungers and the cause of all social ills. They are branded as such by people who believe the bad press publicity and rhetoric.

We need to remember that immigrants have enhanced Scotland over many centuries and demand that the right-wing press stops attacking refugees and asylum seekers. We need to give asylum seekers the right to work, and to grant an amnesty, as Sandra White says in her motion. We must stop the imprisonment of children and families at Dungavel, because we should be welcoming people from overseas who are fleeing wars, poverty, oppression and torture, not only because it is right and humane to do so, but because those people can and do enrich our nation.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 5:34 pm, 5th September 2007

I believe that it was William McIlvanney who described Scotland, with pride, as a mongrel nation. His valid point is that we are all descendants of people who have arrived here from all over the world and we can be justifiably proud of our internationalism.

As Scots, we like to believe that we have a world view that chimes with Burns's lines

"That man to man, the world o'er

Shall brithers be for a' that", or with Martin Luther King's dream, if we are looking for a modern equivalent. That is why so many of us find the treatment of asylum seekers in Scotland so abhorrent.

This morning's Herald carried a report into Dungavel and the claims made by staff working there about the conditions in which they find themselves and the detainees whom they have in their custody. I am aware that the Border and Immigration Agency will deny the story all the way down the line, and will insist that the staff have all the training and support that they need and that Dungavel is suitable for holding criminals as well as innocent families. I am sure that the agency will also claim that no sex offenders or violent criminals are held there. I find the staff at Dungavel to be, overwhelmingly, good people who do their job conscientiously and well, and who care about the people who are detained there. They are not the ones who set the objectionable policies and rules that govern asylum cases, but they are the ones who have to enforce the policies and rules while trying to inject a little humanity and dignity into the proceedings. If the staff at Dungavel tell me one thing and the Border and Immigration Agency tells me another, I know who I will believe.

I am led to believe that the Border and Immigration Agency does not know how many foreign criminals are held in Dungavel, so we cannot even be made aware of the balance of prisoners and asylum seekers in that institution. The idea of keeping children on the same premises as prisoners, no matter what their crime, is shameful and should not be countenanced. We would not lock up children alongside prisoners in Barlinnie or Peterhead. Why is it thought acceptable to have children locked up alongside prisoners in Dungavel?

I welcome the commitment that the SNP Government has already made to act as if the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is in force in relation to asylum-seeker children. I would expect nothing less from nationalist politicians and it is nothing more than those children deserve. The state of political affairs in the home country of such families can in no way be described as the responsibility of the children, and the children should not be punished for where they were born.

We can debate the rights and wrongs of individual points of asylum-seeker policy—I would be on the side of people who seek to welcome those who are in need rather than rejecting them as someone else's problem—but surely there can be no debate about whether we protect asylum-seeker children, just as we would not debate whether to protect our own children.

I appreciate that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice—with his hinterland of fighting and campaigning for social justice—will consider what he can do to address the issues that arise every time asylum seekers are discussed. I also appreciate that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning will continue her hard work to ensure that the protection of asylum-seeker children is maintained.

However, it is not enough for us to leave action to the Scottish Government, no matter how good it is. As has been said repeatedly in the past, morality cannot be reserved and decency cannot be apportioned according to law. That means that pressure in support of those who are in need has to be applied by all those who care. We should all be intent on removing the blights that we see in our society. One of those blights is the treatment that is meted out to asylum seekers who come here seeking succour but instead find themselves being treated with suspicion and distrust. As a wealthy nation, it could be said that we owe a debt to the world and that we should be seeking to improve the world's peace, security and prosperity. It is regrettable indeed that the cheque that asylum seekers who come here are trying to cash is being returned as if there are insufficient funds to cover it. I refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt or that the vaults of human decency are empty.

There is no acceptable alternative for Scotland—or indeed for any decent modern nation—but to welcome those who are in need into our country when we are asked, as set out in the 1951 UN convention on refugees. Scotland is a nation that is proud of its internationalism. Scotland should be a nation that works to be an example of how a modern state should treat asylum seekers and refugees.

I thank Sandra White for bringing the matter to the chamber and I urge all Scotland's politicians to join Scotland's people in calling for decent and humane treatment for asylum seekers in this country.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 5:39 pm, 5th September 2007

As other members have done, I begin by congratulating Sandra White for bringing this extremely important debate to the chamber and for securing the members' business debate on our first day back after the recess. I also welcome the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments that she made in opening the debate and—of course—the others contributions by members from throughout the chamber. They confirm once again that Parliament is concerned about the current United Kingdom asylum policy and that we have a shared desire to improve things.

The Scottish Government supports the motion. We are committed to improving the situation of asylum seekers in Scotland, particularly the many children and families who have made Scotland their home. We support the right for asylum seekers to work and we believe that all families that have been here for some time, other than those that are involved in criminal or fraudulent activity, should be granted leave to remain.

By way of background, it is important to acknowledge that Scotland has a different cohort of refugees and asylum seekers to other parts of the United Kingdom: they are mainly families, rather than single people. Some have children who were born in Scotland or who have spent many years in Scottish schools. That has led inevitably to greater integration for the young people and their parents. We in Scotland can be justly proud of our record on integrating asylum seekers and refugees, and of the excellent services that they receive in education, health, social work and the assistance of the police. However, there is always room for improvement, as everyone who has spoken recognises.

We must continue to ensure that people who come to our country feel welcomed into our communities, that they see the best that Scotland has to offer and that they are willing to share their culture, their lives and their futures with us. We want Scotland to be at ease with its diversity and to be a place where people want to live and work and feel welcome.

Many of our asylum-seeking young people are high achievers academically as well as in sports and the arts, and have helped to drive up results in our schools by displaying a positive work ethic and a strong desire to learn. They are exactly the kind of young people we need in Scotland. Many of the adults are also highly motivated and skilled, and are keen to contribute to their new country and communities. At present, however, they do not have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, economic or otherwise, while they are waiting for decisions on their claims.

Scotland needs bright, talented and hard-working individuals to live, work and study in Scotland to help to ensure the long-term economic and cultural growth of our Scotland so that we can achieve our goal of a wealthier and fairer Scotland.

The Scottish Government agrees whole-heartedly with the statement from the Scottish Refugee Council in the motion that

"It just makes absolutely no sense to have people sitting at home in enforced idleness when they could be contributing to the economy".

I also want to reaffirm the Government's commitment to ensuring that, regardless of where they come from and why they have come to this country, any child living in Scotland receives the care, protection and education that they need. We recognise our responsibility for all children in Scotland and our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and we are clear that the welfare and rights of all children are paramount.

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has already announced plans to deliver fairer access to education for asylum-seeking children. Those children currently go to school and, by giving them the same access to higher and further education and to nursery education as have Scottish children, we will ensure equity of opportunity.

At the same time as we make those changes, we will continue our discussions with the United Kingdom Government on issues that are outwith our direct control. We have already made it clear to the UK Government that we are fundamentally opposed to dawn raids and to the detention of children in Dungavel and elsewhere.

As many members have pointed out, the story in today's Herald highlights yet again why the detention of children is wrong. I share many of the concerns that were raised by colleagues during the debate. As things stand, I am not in a position to say how much of that story reflects the reality of the situation in Dungavel, but the Border and Immigration Agency claims that most of the story is inaccurate. However, it is clear that we need to find out the truth of what is happening at Dungavel. I can tell Parliament that, in the light of that story, we will write to the Border and Immigration Agency in the next few days to seek reassurances about, and information on, the situation in Dungavel. However, to put it simply, if children were not detained, there would be no story to discuss and no reassurance to be sought.

I understand that the Border and Immigration Agency is currently exploring alternatives to detention for families. We welcome and support those initiatives. We have also urged the agency to move quickly to conclude the legacy review that affects 1,400 families in Scotland, and we have called for all of those who arrived here prior to the March 2006 agreement with the previous Administration to be given leave to remain.

In terms of legacy review cases, there are a number of issues that are of some concern. I hope that we can rapidly come to conclusions on them.

We will hold Home Office ministers and the Border and Immigration Agency to account for each and every element of the March 2006 agreement and we will press for further progress where that is in the interests of children, families and communities in Scotland. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has had an initial discussion with the immigration minister and is seeking another early meeting with him to explore those matters further. She will also raise the right to work. Many asylum seekers who have been here for some time are highly motivated and highly skilled and could contribute significantly to their communities: not allowing them to work is a missed opportunity.

I am encouraged by many of the speeches, and particularly by the unanimity on the right to work, which was mentioned by many members, including Bill Butler, Elaine Smith, Bob Doris, Bill Aitken and Pauline McNeill—in fact, by everybody. However, as Bill Butler said, I think that Bill Aitken misunderstood the point in the motion about March 2006. That is not a rolling 18-month deadline that moves forward, but a cut-off date.

I welcome Bob Doris's speech, which brought home the reality of the situation and its effect on individuals.

Elaine Smith asked a specific question about discussions. The Border and Immigration Agency is drafting a statutory code of practice. Scottish Government officials have been involved in that and have worked to ensure that the code takes account of child protection procedures, of legislation and of all the possible effects on Scotland. The code will apply to BIA staff who work throughout the UK.

The draft code will go to the House of Lords. One matter that we are most concerned about is to ensure that Home Office ministers understand that the code will have an impact on Scotland, and that they are sure of and aware of our position on the issues that affect people in Scotland. We will pursue those matters with ministers in the near future.

At the beginning of the debate, Sandra White talked about a letter that the First Minister wrote. After meeting the Glasgow girls in Bill Butler's constituency, the First Minister took up issues that had been raised and wrote to Jacqui Smith in the UK Government. I have just received the reply from her and I will be more than happy to make copies of both letters available to Sandra White. In fairness, I will put copies of the letters in the Scottish Parliament information centre, so that other members can see them.

Asylum is a key issue for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. In the previous session, many members raised the need to treat asylum seekers fairly and humanely, particularly when children are involved. One of the Cabinet's earliest discussions was on asylum. The Government has moved quickly to make positive changes and to explore key concerns with our counterparts in Whitehall.

We are committed to helping and supporting the asylum-seeking community in Scotland now and in the future. That is a continuing and lasting commitment to make a continuing and lasting change for the betterment of all people in Scotland.

Meeting closed at 17:48.