Enforced Removal (Families with Young Children)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 10th January 2006.

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Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South 11:00 am, 10th January 2006

First, and with all due respect to the Minister present, may I say that I regret the absence of the Minister of State? I know that government is seamless, but over the years I have noticed that some Departments are more seamless than others. Secondly, I commend the debate pack prepared by the Library. It is relevant to the debate and contains a lot of information that hon. Members with an interest in this subject might find useful.

I have taken an interest in asylum and immigration policy for some time, both during my four years as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and in my two years as entry clearance Minister, among other things, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wish to make it clear from the outset that I am generally supportive of the Government's tougher stand. It cannot be right to leave decisions about who enters the country to people traffickers and other criminal networks. I support the measures that have been taken over the years to speed up the process, to reduce the number of fraudulent claims and, when practically possible, to remove those whose claims have failed. I welcome the fact that in the past few years, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister and successive Home Secretaries, we have begun to get to grips with what once seemed an intractable problem.

I have said that to demonstrate that I am not a soft touch on asylum policy. However, I believe in combining a robust approach towards asylum with basic human decency, especially when young children are involved; that is the point of the debate. For some years I have been worried about the fact that we are removing, to countries where they could face destitution, families with young children who, because of past failures in the processing system, have lived here for many years. I am referring not to children from countries where, although living standards might be low, there is a degree of stability, but to children from places such as Congo, Angola or southern Sudan, large parts of which have seen their social fabric disintegrate entirely.

I am not talking about recent arrivals, either. I am talking about children who know no other life than ours—children who, in some cases, were born here and have grown up alongside our children, played with them and shared the same classrooms. Whatever the sins of their parents, those children are entirely innocent and have no inkling of the fate that awaits them. They disappear from class without even a chance to say goodbye to their teachers and friends, and in many cases they are never heard of again. Sometimes the children reappear because of a hiccup in the removal system, only to disappear again a few months later. Who knows what becomes of them? On rare occasions there is a letter or a phone call about what happened next. Sometimes the news is good; at other times it is not. Usually, however, there is only silence.

To those of us who are—or were—members of the Government, the children tend to be only numbers. In a previous incarnation, I attended meetings at No. 10 and the Home Office where there was talk of targets and tipping points. When it is sensible to do so, I have no problem with setting targets. Indeed, given the failures of the past, I am sure that it is necessary. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings. Members of Parliament, especially those who represent areas such as mine, to which asylum seekers have been dispersed, have to look such people and their children in the eye, and to us they are not statistics.

I recall, as I expect we all can, some moving cases. Let us consider the little boy who was plucked from school in mid-term and who, in the hour that was left to him while his parents were hastily packing their meagre belongings and immigration officers were waiting to take them away, made out a will in which he wrote, "I leave my Pokémon cards to so and so, and my Lego to so and so." It was found on his bed a few days later when friends came to find out why he had disappeared.

I once successfully intervened on behalf of a young woman who was from southern Sudan originally, but who had come from a refugee camp in northern Kenya. She faced removal despite having been in the UK for some years and having given birth to a boy who was two years old by the time she was threatened with removal. As it correctly says on the Foreign Office website, the war in southern Sudan is over. However, anyone who has seen at first hand, as I have, the state of refugees returning to the south of Sudan, and the absence of facilities to cope with them, will know that to send there people who have tasted our lives here would be an act of great cruelty. I dread to think what would have become of that woman and her child had she been returned.

I am currently doing what I can to help a family who came from Angola in April 2001. The case prompted me to ask for this debate. The family have two boys. One is now aged eight, but he was three and a half when he came here. He is blind in one eye; according to his mother, that happened while she was being beaten with the buckle end of a belt by soldiers who were searching for his father. The boy was said by his teachers to be traumatised when first enrolled at a local school. The other son, who is now aged four, was born in the UK and knows no other life but ours.

After years of delay, the parents' claim for asylum has failed and they may now be returned to Angola at any time. They are well aware of the fate that awaits them there and are unlikely to be persuaded to return voluntarily. So far as I can see, the intention is just to drop them off at Luanda airport and wish them good luck. We are talking about people with few, if any, resources. The woman and the older boy were camped in a church when they were last in Angola, and the father was in hiding. What will become of them? Presumably they will join the millions of anonymous, displaced people in that tragic country.

I know that it says on the Foreign Office website that the civil war in Angola is over, but it lasted for 27 years and much of the country is in ruins. The Angolan Government are unwilling or unable to provide even the most basic services for their citizens. Where such services do exist, they are mainly provided by foreign NGOs or United Nations agencies. Only about half of Angolan children receive any form of education, and the country is ranked third in the world for infant mortality. Much of the population, including many people in the capital, is destitute or living on the edge of destitution. Violence and lawlessness are rampant, and justice is non-existent or arbitrary. The few functioning institutions are riddled with corruption.

Sending there young children who have tasted our life and who, as in the case of the younger boy, know of no other life than ours, is an act of unpardonable cruelty. Needless to say, I have put all this to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality—and he is unmoved. In a letter dated 22 November he wrote:

"It would frustrate the proper and necessary object of immigration control in the more advanced states if people could not, save in the most exceptional circumstances, be returned to the less developed countries of the world."

That is not, of course, what I am arguing, and I agree with what he says; I accept that just about all failed asylum seekers come from countries poorer than ours, and that it would be nonsense to argue that no one should be returned to such a country.

My point is a narrower one. First, I am talking about families with young children who have lived in the UK for years and who, in some cases, have been born here and know no other life. Secondly, I am talking about removals to a handful of the world's most dysfunctional countries, where living standards are not merely lower but catastrophically so, and where hunger and destitution awaits those children. As I have mentioned, child mortality in Angola is the third highest in the world.

Thirdly, I am arguing that if we must return families to such countries, we should take some interest in what happens to them after they have disembarked. That might involve putting some money in their pockets, employing an NGO to see them safely through the airport and back to where they came from, and perhaps a little help with reintegrating. I do not argue that that should happen in every case, but only when young children are involved, and are at risk.

The Minister of State rejects that idea too. He wrote:

"We do not normally give returnees money, nor do we arrange for their reception in their country of nationality, or liaise with Non-Governmental Organisations as regards their future welfare."

My question is: why not?

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mp chris mullin. believe me in this case of so called asylum seekers l find it so unbelievable that some ministers who have all the commfort in their houses would believe that people should be returned to a country like zimbabwe. why is it all abaut the number or proctecting human rights for an individual how can one prove that a case has failed how does one became a faied asylumseeker. l wish to be invitted to the house of commons with all respsect and face all the minister who are in favour of failed asylum sekeers to be returned. l think its crueality thatas all.

Submitted by sibanda shyleen

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Does my hon. Friend recall that people who came to this country from Kosovo under the humanitarian evacuation programme were offered the opportunity to return to see what conditions were like? In many cases, that helped them decide that they could return.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

Yes, that was the case, and I am about to refer to one or two other exceptions. Perhaps they should form a model for what should be done in other cases. Is it really too much to ask that we should take some responsibility for the consequences of our actions, at least when young children are involved? It always strikes me as disingenuous that we go to enormous lengths to ensure that children are well treated in the distressing circumstances of immigration detention centres, yet do not take the slightest interest in what happens to them immediately afterwards.

In any case, it would be misleading to suggest that we never help returned asylum seekers. We do when it suits us. My hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard gave one example, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the first batch of failed asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan received help with reintegration—and rightly so. Those were all single males. The same was true of the first batch of failed asylum seekers returned to northern Iraq; again, they were all single males.

Let no one say that the Government have no powers: they do have powers. I draw the attention of the House to sections 58 and 59 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which were inserted partly at my suggestion—at least, that is what the then Home Secretary told me in those far-off days when I had influence in the Home Office. Section 58 gives the Secretary of State power to provide assistance to those who leave voluntarily after they have exhausted their rights. Section 59 gives him power to provide funding to non-governmental organisations that assist with or ensure the return of migrants. In other words, there is no reason why the Home Office could not come to an arrangement with an NGO to help reintegrate families that are returned to countries such as Congo or Angola, whether or not they go back voluntarily. So far as I am aware, however, it has not done so, except in a handful of cases of failed asylum seekers—all single males—who were returned to Iraq and Afghanistan. Why is that?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

May I tell the hon. Gentleman of an incident that was brought to my attention on Sunday afternoon by a constituent who is seeking asylum? She was offered a cash payment and financial assistance with flights if she returned to Burma, but she was worried about receiving such an offer, as she felt that she was in some way being bought off, and that she was coming under pressure. If such offers are to be made, they must be made with greater sensitivity than appears to be the case so far.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I certainly think that such offers should be made sensitively, but I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman if he is suggesting that we should not make it clear to people that help can be given with voluntary passage home. Quite a few people opt to take that route, and others would if they were aware of it. It is a sensible approach to allow people to make up their minds about whether to take advantage of such an offer.

I come back to my question. Given the existing powers, and given that we use them in some cases, why do we not use them in cases of the sort that I have outlined? What is stopping us? I entirely understand that Ministers are anxious to create an incentive for failed asylum seekers to return voluntarily, and there well may be a case for maintaining a differential between the assistance available to those who return voluntarily and those who are forcibly removed. However, I cannot accept that we should offer no help whatever to families who are forcibly removed to some of the world's most dysfunctional countries. My view is that in cases involving such countries, we should not remove children who have lived here for years and who are, for all practical purposes, British in all but name.

I draw the Minister's attention to the recent remarks of Professor Aynsley-Green, the Government-appointed Children's Commissioner for England, quoted in The Times on 5 January, who described what is happening as outrageous in a civilised society. I stress again that the Professor is Government-appointed. He continued, saying that many of the children regarded themselves as English and could not understand why they were being treated as criminals.

I put it to the Minister that where children are concerned, there is a case for tempering our new-found rigour towards asylum removals with a little basic humanity. Again, there is a precedent. In October 2003, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, announced an amnesty for families who had been in this country for three years or more and

"had suffered from historical delays in the system."

The Angolan family to whom I referred earlier had the bad luck to fall six months short of that deadline. I do not argue that we should go as far as we did two years ago. I would be content for an amnesty on a case-by-case basis, applying only to long-staying families from the most dysfunctional countries—and if the word "amnesty" offends the Minister, he need not even call it that. Far from being a sign of weakness, it would be evidence of a common humanity that would enjoy support across the political system. I look forward to hearing what hon. Members who speak for the other main parties have to say on that point. As we all know, it is much easier to make progress on asylum if there is cross-party consensus. We should not get ourselves into a position where one party is seeking to outbid the other for the favour of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express or whatever.

Finally, for the avoidance of doubt, I repeat what I said at the outset. I am generally supportive of the Government's tough stand on asylum. Over the years I have supported, in and out of government, all measures to speed up the process and eliminate abuses. As a Foreign Office Minister, I was involved in discussions about returns at the highest level to countries that are the source of many of our failed asylum seekers. I do not resile from that for one minute. All that I seek today is a little basic compassion when we are contemplating the return of families with young children to a handful of the world's most dysfunctional countries. We should not be returning to destitution children who have lived here so long that they know no other life than ours. Surely that is not too much to ask.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 11:17 am, 10th January 2006

I welcome the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin on securing it. The House spends far too little time discussing the effects on families and the human cost of our refugee policy.

My hon. Friend spoke about Angola. I am chair of the all-party group on Angola, and last year I visited it with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. What he says about the breakdown of civil society is correct. The problem is that, for whatever reasons, Angola has been through 30 years of the most appalling war, and there are an enormous number of orphan children. It is wrong to deport children back to that situation when there is no adequate follow-up, and no means by which the British embassy could find out what was happening to those children, even if it wanted to. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to that important point.

I represent an inner-London constituency with a large number of asylum seekers—a place from which many people from all parts of the world have traditionally sought asylum over decades, stretching back for most of the last century. People have traditionally sought asylum from inner-London areas. Indeed, many later leaders of African countries have lived in that part of London.

My constituency asylum and immigration case load, like that of my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and a number of other Members, is enormous. One is faced with families who have sought asylum in this country and have been here for a considerable time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South correctly said, the children have grown up in this society and know nothing other than the multicultural society of inner London. For them suddenly to be told that they have got to go, and to be taken almost forcibly away and deported to a society that they have only heard about from their parents, is cruel in the extreme, heartless and damaging—and they are then often placed in enormous danger. What kind of message does it send to other children in their school about justice, and about the society in which they are growing up, if it appears that such arbitrary justice can take place?

Although people who flee from places of danger and seek a place of safety in our country using the Geneva convention do so primarily for their own security, we should also remember that they are enormous contributors to our country. Asylum seekers want to work if they can, and those of them who have gained the right to work tend to work extremely hard and make an enormous contribution. We should be positive about that, as well as just saying that they are—understandably—seeking a place of safety.

I could cite many quotes from many bodies, but I shall refer to one organisation in particular. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture is a long-standing organisation whose offices are in my constituency. It was set up to help victims of the Nazi system's brutality to the Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s, and it has now developed into a highly respected and effective organisation that provides support, care and counselling for the victims of torture. I am very pleased that its new building and counselling centre are in my constituency; I am proud that it is located there, and of the work that it does.

That organisation has put a number of points to me. It says:

"It is the Medical Foundation's position that all decisions ultimately to remove must only take place after:— full and anxious scrutiny of the asylum and human rights grounds to remain in the UK by a properly trained and competent decision-maker only after access to an in-country right of appeal to an independent appellate court with the benefit of competent legal representation."

It also says:

"Proper preparation and presentation of a family's case, whether initially as an asylum claim or against removal on human rights grounds, must in our view include an understanding of the experiences of the children of the family. Too often the dependant child's experience is ignored or overlooked."

Asylum applications are often dealt with entirely on the merits of the case for one or other—or possibly both—of the parents to remain in the country, but any understanding of the children's emotional needs, desires and wishes is completely forgotten. Some such children grow up in a frightened atmosphere. We in this House have a fairly secure existence; we know where we live and what we do, and where we will be next week and next year. All that many children of asylum-seeking families in this country hear their parents talking about is whether the Home Office will ever reply to their letter, whether they will be secure in this country, or whether their children will still be in school next month or next year. That has a debilitating effect on such children's lives; it is damaging to them.

Something should be done about the speed and competence with which the Home Office deals with issues. I hold enormous advice bureau sessions, and I have lost count of the number of people who come along and ask, "When is the Home Office ever going to reply to any letter that has been sent by anybody?" A joke goes around about the letter that states that there will be a reply within 13 weeks: is that within 13 weeks this year, next year or the year after that? Such uncertainty has a grave effect on people. I look forward to the Minister assuring me that things are improving in that respect.

The UK Government placed reservations on the UN convention on the rights of the child. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether those reservations will be withdrawn. The British Government are, understandably, determined to improve human rights around the world, and it is not good for them to keep a reservation in place in respect of that convention.

My hon. Friend's debate is labelled as being about children, but I am not sure how one defines children. I suppose that the legal definition is people up to the age of 18. However, there is a serious problem to do with older children, such as young people in their late teens, or even in their early 20s—almost adult children who, when their families are removed, may be able to stay. That too has a debilitating effect on them. I have watched the effects of family break-up in the Somali community and in others, when parents have been removed and older children have been left behind. That situation must be analysed as well, because it represents a serious problem in several cases and in several places.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Children's Commissioner's statement, and it is important to quote from it. The commissioner calls on the Government

"to make sure that asylum-seeking children and young people are treated as children by those involved at every stage of the asylum process".

The statement goes on to raise specific concerns about

"the fairness of the asylum determination process, particularly in respect of unaccompanied children", about detention, and about the way in which unannounced raids and other activities have taken place. I hope that when the Minister replies, he can provide us with some hope and reassurance about those matters.

There are many disturbing stories in the papers about the fast-tracking of asylum decisions. I have complained about the delays in responding to inquiries and dealing with ongoing cases. I do that because I want the system to be seen to be working fairly and efficiently. At present, I do not think that it is. However, to try to get round the problem by suddenly introducing a fast-track system might create more injustices and dangers.

Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, expressed her concerns, saying:

"The casework system is good in principle, but justice and speed can pull in opposite directions. To work properly, the new asylum model will need well-trained staff, legal advice on the spot and a more open mindset. Asylum seekers need to know what's happening to them and why."

Again, I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about that, because it appears that as many as one third of all asylum seekers could face detention under the fast-track procedure. That will undoubtedly have a serious effect on children.

I presume that Barnardo's has sent many Members its report about the situation facing children. That report describes confusion and concern, and it is critical of how section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 operates. If we want people to live decently in our society, children to achieve well in school and their parents to contribute, why on earth do we operate section 9, which is designed to leave numbers of people in destitution? It cannot be good for anybody.

There is a big campaign concerning the Sukula family, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who live in Bolton. That is just one case in which a campaign is ongoing. Many other cases are ongoing at the same time on the same issue.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I apologise for being late, Mrs. Humble; I went to the wrong room. I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the Sukula family, who came to Britain in early 2002 with four children and now have six children. Does he agree that in such cases it is difficult to return the family, as two of the children have not even known the Congo and the others, who came to Britain in early 2002, were probably too young to remember much about it? I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it is unfair to return such families. Does he support my view that the Minister ought to consider extending the amnesty for families with children beyond its closing date, particularly for families who have been in this country for almost four years?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree with him. There is a campaign surrounding that case, and I support the family and the campaign, as I am sure he does. They are not the only family and theirs is not the only case; there are others who unfortunately do not have the benefit of campaigns to support them. It is heartless, cruel and unfair to remove from this country, children who have known nothing other than being born and brought up here. It is damaging to them—and, as I said earlier, to other children. The scheme in the north-west is a pilot, and I would be grateful if the Minister said something about its progress and whether it will end or be extended.

My final general point—I know that other hon. Members want to speak—concerns countries to which families with children are deported. After an assertive campaign the Government finally stopped all deportations to Zimbabwe, and I understand that that is the current situation. My constituency includes people from all parts of the world, and I am particularly concerned about two countries to which removals take place. The first is Congo and the second is Somalia.

The war in Congo has had less coverage than almost any other conflict anywhere in the world, yet 3 million people have died there in the past decade. That is a level of casualties on a par with the first world war. Congo has a transitional Government, but the war is clearly continuing, particularly in the east of the country. There is a collapse of civil society and of any supportive environment, and it is impossible to follow what happens to any individual family that returns to Congo. I hope that the Minister recognises that it cannot be fair, right or just to deport anyone to Congo until there is some measure of peace there. Taking a child out of a school in Britain and dropping them in Congo with no follow-up whatever cannot be right, fair or just.

Likewise, there is continuing grave instability in Mogadishu in south Somalia. I am not clear whether there are removals to Somalia and I would be grateful if the Minister could resolve that question one way or the other. I have objected when removals have been threatened against my constituents, but I am not clear whether there is a policy on that.

My last point is about following up what happens to those who are removed from this country. The Home Office has its own in-country assessment unit, the Foreign Office makes a diplomatic assessment of the situation in any one country, and Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and a number of other organisations make their own assessments of what goes on in various countries. Except in Kosovo, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, South and for Walthamstow referred, I am not aware of any adequate follow-up in any other country when removals take place.

If someone has sought safety or asylum in this country and the application fails, for whatever reason, or a human rights application fails, for whatever reason, and a family is deported, we have at least a moral responsibility to ensure that they are in some degree of safety when they return to their society. If children who are growing up and attending school in this country are suddenly removed to a place of great danger, they deserve at least to be monitored so that we can try to help them and perhaps review deportation policy in specific cases. The way in which children are treated in many parts of the world is appalling and terrible. We contribute to much of that if we take children away from a place of safety in this country to a place of danger, and then pretend that it has nothing to do with us after that. It has everything to do with us, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South has done the House a service in securing this debate.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 11:34 am, 10th January 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin on securing this debate. The only thing that I am sorry about is the low attendance. I prepared a short contribution because I thought that many colleagues, particularly from south of the border, would want to be involved. It is a sad indictment of our colleagues that they are not here to make contributions.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

With all due respect to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Andy Burnham, who is a fine fellow, what I am most concerned about is the disappointing absence of the Minister of State responsible for policy in this area. I am sure that when my hon. Friend returns to the Home Office he will convey to him the sentiments expressed here today, but I would have liked to do that in person.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I agree, but in defence of the Minister of State, I must tell my hon. Friend that he has been to Glasgow on several occasions. On one prolonged recent visit he took considerable time to talk to Members of Parliament and the people most affected by the removals. I will commend him for doing that, while chastising him for not being here today.

It is pleasing to see the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) here today. It would be even more pleasing if those Members went back and asked their local councils to take on board the job that Glasgow city council took on in allowing asylum seekers to come to our friendly city, where I believe that they are looked after better than in any other city in the country. It would be more pleasing if the rest of Scotland, instead of getting on board the discussion on asylum, got on with trying to look after those people— giving them a home and welcoming them into society. That is my little plea for Glasgow and against the rest of Scotland.

A lot of press coverage north of the border, including the extracts in the excellent information pack that has been put together for today's debate, mentions Glasgow in particular. Yet some press statements that are emerging, by people who have been shouting the most against what has been happening to asylum seekers in the Glasgow area, are, unfortunately, from outside that area. Sad as it is, they have done very little to help alleviate the problem.

There are many points on which we can agree. We all agree that, as my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said, we have a moral obligation to look after refugees—genuine refugees, that is. We need to adjust the asylum process to establish who is entitled, and everybody undergoing that process must be treated fairly and have access to a full range of services. Everyone who meets the asylum criteria must be welcomed fully into our society. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North did not actually say those words, but I am sure that is what he meant in saying that those people offer much to the multicultural development of the UK. They add many of their cultures to ours and will make the UK a better place in the long run. It is to be hoped that parties such as the British National party will then find no place in our society.

What should happen to people who have been through the process and failed in their application? Have they no right to be in the country? How should they be returned to their country of origin? Or, as some would say, should they be allowed to remain here no matter what the circumstances? Those are the questions that we must raise in this debate. They have already been raised in certain ways, and I hope to add to that debate in my short contribution.

It is clear that the asylum system needs to be examined and improved. None the less, many people who come to this country to seek asylum make applications that are utterly unfounded. They seek to use the system to remain here, and eventually to benefit from an amnesty. I am against the amnesties that have been called for. As a result of amnesties—which have caused me many problems as an MP trying to deal with asylum cases—many people suddenly come out of the woodwork, as it were, and try to stay here when they should never have been allowed to stay in the first place. They had disappeared into the country, when they should probably have been removed at the outset.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I was not aware that there was an amnesty; I thought that 2,000 pre-existing family applications were to be reviewed, possibly with a more sympathetic approach than might be used in other cases. So far as I am aware, there is no general amnesty—although there may well be a case for one, and I might well support such a scheme.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I thank my hon. Friend; he has put that much better than I did, and he is absolutely correct. There was no general amnesty as such, but there was certainly a slackening of the rules to allow people who have been here a long time to stay.

I can understand the arguments of immigration officials. I have been to the immigration service in Glasgow with asylum seekers many times to talk to officials and try to alleviate the misunderstandings created—in some cases, maliciously—between people seeking asylum and the immigration service. Unfortunately, there are those in our society who seem to want to use the subject of asylum for their own political ends, and I find that totally abhorrent. Whenever I can, I denounce those parties. They know who they are; they are on the extreme right or extreme left of our society, and as far as I am concerned, they have no place in British politics. I hope that we shall weed them out. They do no service to people who genuinely seek asylum, and who ask their MPs to solve their problems and help them to remain in the country.

By the time the media take control, they have totally distorted the actualities of the case. By the time the case gets to the Home Office, the Home Office has been put in an intolerable position. Eventually the people concerned are removed, although in some cases I know that I could probably have saved them if they had got to me first, and had not got involved in a series of lies and stories given to them by certain people. That has to be investigated—but the Home Office and its officials, too, have to think seriously about the information that they give out.

I appreciate that many of the details that the Home Office receives are personal and should not be revealed to the general public, but if someone goes to the press and gives their whole life story, as they see it, in support of their case for remaining here, I feel that the Home Office should be entitled to give the story as it sees it, too. It is also important that it should give the hows and whens of the enforced removals. We want to know why people have been removed at a particular time, after having been four, five or six years in this country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North has described.

I commend Drumchapel high school in my constituency. The students there have won many awards, and many of them are from asylum-seeking families. They have done work to promote and campaign not just for themselves and their families but for other children from such families, and they should be commended. It is pleasant to see children taking an interest in what happens in everyday life, rather than just worrying about whether they will get the new PlayStation or Xbox or whatever, which is all that some young people care about. It is a pleasure to see that they care about each other and their fellow pupils. Long may it continue, and long may the students keep giving me a hard time. They come to my office and ask me why this happens and why that happens.

We politicians need to look at ourselves, too. I have a quote from one of my colleagues from Glasgow who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament. In a statement about a family who were allegedly thrown out of their home in a so-called dawn raid, he said:

"Police should not wear body armour".

The report adds the comment:

"despite the fact that one officer in England has been killed carrying out such duties."

Norrie Flowers of the Scottish Police Federation said:

"They don't really understand the issue. We are asked to go along in these situations in order to assist immigration officers. The bottom line is that we don't know what we are walking into. It can go from being very quiet to a frantic affair within minutes and they therefore wear protecting clothing for that."

I totally agree with him.

That is the kind of information that the Home Office should give us. They must tell us what happened when they removed a family. I want to know if the removal was easy or hard, what kind of force was needed and why, how many people were there, and what time it was. That is simple information, which any Member of Parliament would want to know about something that had happened in their constituency. If I found that something had gone wrong, that would give me the opportunity to try to do something about it. I would be grateful if the Minister would take that on board, talk to his officials and try to get something done about it.

Talk of children being handcuffed is very distressing. However, I have been to the immigration service and heard some of the horror stories from its side, of parents hurling children at officers who are there to remove them. The question would then be: should we take the children from the parents in the first place? Are those responsible parents? Sometimes such questions are addressed, and it does happen that children are removed from asylum-seeking parents. Those children are now part of our society, because the parents were incapable, or did not want to look after them in the first place.

We need to be told about such things. There are people in our society who are living and working, have been part of the system and are happy to be here. We may not want to know who they are, but we certainly want to know the numbers of such cases. The story is not always bad news.

I would be grateful if the Minister, in describing the procedures, could put some more meat on the bones of the thought behind the removals—although of course, he may not know about that. Why, after four and a half years, do we suddenly come to the decision that a family must be removed today?

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about a more responsible way of removing people. Surely there must be a more humane way. I do not think that there is a humane way of removing any family that has been here for such a long time, but there must be a better way. I understand why the early morning visits happen. They may not be dawn raids as such, but people certainly go early in the morning and, if they go back, I know that that is because they can be sure that the family is in situ in the house at the time. I understand that.

Part of the main problem is that—as many have said here today—children are the innocent bystanders. They just happen to be there, or happen to be born, yet they bear the brunt of the removals. We should show some kind of sympathy, but the parents have to take the responsibility. It is not the Government's fault that people are here illegally. They have been told, I am assured, on many occasions that they can have an assisted passage back to their country of origin or they can make their own way back. They are told almost from the moment that they arrive in the country that if they refuse to do so, at the end of the process they will be removed. It is unfair to say that those people—those parents—did not know that they would be removed. They did know.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

With all due respect to my hon. Friend, I did not say anything of the sort. I deliberately kept the focus of my remarks on removal of children who have been here a long time to a handful of the most dysfunctional countries. I readily recognise that if we get into wider territory we will open up all sorts of impossibilities. I do not want to go down that road. I want to keep the Minister and the Home Office firmly focused on why we are sending those young children back to Congo, Angola or Sudan, after they have lived here all their lives. That is my principal interest.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I was not having a go at my hon. Friend; I am talking in general. If we read the Library pack for today's debate, we find statements along those lines, and it is important to get those messages across.

I have been a Member of Parliament for more than five years, and I have dealt with hundreds of asylum cases in that time. I have noticed a change in the applications over that period, particularly in the past few years. Psychiatric reports seem to be used as a reason why people should remain in the country. More people suddenly seem to have psychiatric problems—although I have to say that that does not apply just to asylum seekers; these days it also applies to people seeking incapacity benefit.

Why has that suddenly happened? Is it just that we have better doctors and psychiatrists to examine the cases, and people are referred to them more? Or is it because the judicial system now sees such an approach as a good way of keeping people in the country, so people are schooled in how to talk to psychiatrists? I would be interested in examining the figures. Did we not have psychiatrists three or four years ago? Have they suddenly come on to the market in the past few years?

In every case that I see, somewhere along the line it is said that the person involved is ill, or is not fit to travel to another country. In some cases there are actual illnesses. In one of my cases a gentleman is, unfortunately, dying of cancer and it is pretty obvious that he could not be sent back; in another the person has just had a heart attack, and he could hardly go back. In every other case, however, the people have strong psychiatric problems, and for them to be removed and sent home would apparently do them and their family immeasurable harm. Does the Minister have the figures to hand, or could he obtain them and let hon. Members know them? I would be interested to know whether such problems had not been looked at before, or whether they are just an excuse that some families are using to remain.

Will the Minister also examine the judicial system, particularly in Scotland? My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North made a good point about how long cases can take, so that people stay in the UK for years. We tell families whose kids have been in school for five years to take them out and go home. Has the Minister examined the judicial system in Scotland, where a judicial review takes 18 months? South of the border a judicial review takes about six weeks. Is it any wonder that people who may be trying to abuse the system would like to come to Scotland? If they obtain a judicial review, it will take 18 months not to finish that review but for them to be allowed to go for it. Then they can bring new evidence, and they suddenly find another reason why they should get another judicial review. Such an approach stretches out the process to many years.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The point that I was trying to make was not so much about the judicial review—how quickly a review takes place is obviously a matter for the courts—but simply about the process of correspondence with the Home Office, which I find unbelievable. I was referring to the number of cases in which files are lost or misplaced, or the Home Office simply does not reply to correspondence from solicitors, law centres, MPs or anybody else.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My hon. Friend is correct. I come across the same problems sometimes, but not as often as cases that go to judicial review. The problem cases all seem to take for ever and a day.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about judicial review. Does he think that the judicial review situation will be improved if the Government's Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill, which is currently in the other place and which interferes substantially with the appeal rights open to asylum seekers, is finally given Royal Assent in its current form?

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which leads on to a point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North about fast-tracking and the change in the system to make it quicker. We are talking about enforced removals, and in the case that has been mentioned we would expect things to be quicker. This is why we are getting the enforced removals now: we have caught up with the backlog. We are discussing the cases of people who were left to sit in the house all day, where the kids went to school and college, and got an education but could not do anything else in terms of work. In relation to enforcement, we are talking about people who have been here for a few years.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I shall not get involved in what has been discussed in the other place, because I know that his colleagues do their utmost to butcher whatever Bill is sent there. However, when we get the measure back, we shall put it back to how it should be. The most important thing is that in the end, we have legislation that is fair.

I shall finish now, Mrs. Humble, as I am on my last page—although I must admit that the speech that I wrote in advance bears no resemblance to what I have said. Some of what we read in the newspapers is lies, and some of it is a distortion of the truth; at best, it stretches the truth. The emotional blackmail that appears in the press is not helpful. It is certainly not helpful to those of us in this place who have to work with the Home Office to defend people. It is difficult to defend a case when it has been in the press and everybody has already made up their mind about what should be done.

We need to have a reasoned debate. I wish that more hon. Members were here today. I wish that my speech had taken less time—many other people here probably wish that, too—but it is important that we have a measured discussion. We must look after the children as best we can, but we must remember that ultimately, the parents are responsible for them. I shall finish on the following questions. Should we separate children from their parents? Should we remove the whole family or let them all stay?

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 11:56 am, 10th January 2006

I am pleased that this debate was requested and granted. My worries about removals are similar to those of John Robertson. The process is causing great consternation in Scotland. One of the questions posed continually during the recent tranche of high-profile removals involving children to which reference has been made was about enhanced disclosure through Disclosure Scotland for the immigration and police officers. Obviously, enhanced disclosure is required from Disclosure Scotland for anyone who works closely with children or vulnerable adults categorised in a certain way—and, in the case of asylum seekers with children, where there are the mental and psychiatric difficulties that have been described. I hope that the Minister can tell us whether the immigration and police officers in attendance were covered by enhanced disclosure from Disclosure Scotland.

Has the Minister been advised about the guidelines for the number of uniformed immigration and police officers required in such circumstances? I shall come to what Norrie Flowers of the Scottish Police Federation said about the use of body armour, but if the reports are to be believed, the number of immigration and police officers in attendance is in the high teens, which may seem excessive for a routine removal.

We can only imagine the trauma experienced by young children when woken in their own beds by a uniformed officer, not by their parents, and finding a large number of uniformed people in the bedroom. Will the Minister explain the rationale behind the removal of different family members in separate vehicles? Children see their fathers and perhaps older siblings being removed in separate vehicles. What about the use of handcuffs? I hope that he can contradict me, but the use of handcuffs for adult men and boys in their late teens appears to be routine; if he tells me that that is not the case, I shall be delighted.

It would also be useful if the Minister could explain the procedures for the use of handcuffs in such circumstances. Has the Department done any assessment of the overall impact on children involved in the process? If so, could it be made available? The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West suggested that we needed more information from the Home Office about the procedures and protocols of the removal process—concerning the separate vehicles, the body armour, the handcuffs and so forth. That would be helpful for us all.

The processes that I have described have been well documented and well reported, although in some cases with a little hyperbole in certain quarters. I shall not repeat the more hysterical remarks that have been printed in the press. None the less, the process and the removals have upset a great many people. They have led the children's commissioner for Scotland, Kathleen Marshall, to suggest that the process terrorises children. I mention that because she is a sane, rational, intelligent professional woman doing a particular job. This is her role. I am not quoting some of the maddies on the ultra-left, but someone in a very specific position.

Dr. Marshall said:

"I've become increasingly distressed by the inhumane methods of removal of children and families from Scotland. What can happen is immigration officers and police, big groups of them, 11 to 14, go to a family's house at seven o'clock in the morning, sometimes earlier, and waken the children in their beds. The officers in bullet proof vests"—

I suspect she means stab vests, but never mind—

"waken the children, not the parents, they handcuff the parents in front of the children and then they remove them by van on long journeys down to these prisons, basically to other detention centres or to holding centres."

Those are genuine and legitimate concerns for the children's commissioner, and they led the Lib-Lab First Minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell, to seek an asylum protocol. The BBC reported that he had asked the Home Office to involve Scottish education and social services when it deports and removes the families from their homes. I would add that the children's commissioner should be involved in any discussions about the procedures and processes for the removal of families, particularly those with children.

The best description of the fear that the families face was by an Algerian lady, who in advance of the process said:

"We are scared all the time . . . every morning I get up between 5 and 6 o'clock and get . . . dressed . . . I don't want to be in my night clothes when they bring the door down. I want to be ready so that I don't get shocked and so my children don't get frightened . . . what happens to children of 7 and 3, they could not stand the shock of doors being brought down, seeing my husband being handcuffed, being separated from their mother."

To be that afraid for one's children, or to be a child oneself and consider the possibility of that happening—particularly if it has happened to one's school friends, as it has in certain parts of the country—must be quite horrendous.

I welcome this debate and am delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to it. I agree with Mr. Mullin. He said that he broadly supported the immigration and asylum system, but that the issue was about specific countries. Like him, I would support a case-by-case review of certain cases in certain circumstances. I hope that the Minister will take on board the genuine anxieties felt by many people awaiting removal and deportation. Their Members of Parliament have anxieties, and many other people feel concerns about the process. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of the questions that I have put to him.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:04 pm, 10th January 2006

As others have done, I congratulate Mr. Mullin on securing this debate. He spoke not just with tremendous knowledge but with great compassion. He gave the example of his constituent's child writing a will and leaving his Pokémon cards. As a parent whose house is littered with those cards, I found that particularly poignant. The hon. Gentleman rightly presented a tightly focused argument in relation to highly dysfunctional countries such as Congo, Angola and southern Sudan—to which I would add Burma, and other Members could add other countries. I hope that the Minister will address his specific concerns.

John Robertson made an interesting contribution about the forced removal of children, particularly young children. He rightly put forward the concerns of immigration officers and police officers, and I do not argue with what he says about the difficulties facing those public servants in such situations. However, I cannot go along with his conclusion, because in creating policy that affects children, our primary consideration must always be the best interests of the child. That is the test that we apply for our own children, and I cannot countenance a different standard or approach being adopted for the children of others.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but he obviously did not listen to my closing remarks about the children themselves. None the less, it is the parents who are the asylum seekers, and the children are the dependants of the parents. Under the system in this country, it is the parents who are investigated, not the children.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

There is an old expression about visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and that is perhaps the situation here. However, I am not in as direct a conflict with the hon. Gentleman as he might have thought from my introductory remarks, because I think that the fault lies with the system. That system was graphically described by Jeremy Corbyn. It seems not only to produce delays, but actively to encourage them, and there are often significant delays.

I remember an earlier Westminster Hall debate when the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury was the Minister of State responsible for asylum matters; it took place back in the good old days when Ministers of State used to attend such debates. He said that delay was the asylum seekers' best friend. In many ways he is right, because that can leave asylum applicants in a situation where they have an expanding family, with children who have never lived anywhere else, who feel themselves to be British in every respect, and who are well integrated with their local communities. Tackling that delay must be at the heart of addressing the problems that have been highlighted. We have so-called dawn raids, the enforced removal process and delays, and they are all products of a system that is dysfunctional and requires to be fundamentally examined.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South made a telling point about the need for what might be loosely called "after care" for those who have been returned, especially to highly dysfunctional countries such as Congo. That is an exceptionally sound suggestion; we have substantial overseas business even in those very different dysfunctional countries, and there should be no reason why the Government should not be prepared to provide that. If they have confidence in their decision-making process that has returned a person in the first place, they should be prepared to back that up by offering some sort of after care and review to ensure—for quality control, if for no other reason—that the correct decision has been taken.

Several Members have spoken about their experiences as MPs, and I shall leave the Minister with a final matter that has caused me some difficulty. My hon. Friend Paul Rowen brought to my attention a case that came up in his constituency in the course of the general election campaign. Neither he nor Lorna Fitzsimons, his predecessor, was allowed to make representations, because neither of them was a Member of Parliament at the time; during the period of Dissolution there is no such thing. Can the Minister tell me that that was a one-off aberration, and that that sort of nicety will not be used routinely by the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate to ensure that representations are not heard?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:10 pm, 10th January 2006

I echo the thoughts of other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, and congratulate Mr. Mullin on illuminating this part of the asylum debate. I part company from him on the subject of feeling in any way slighted by the presence of the Minister that the Home Office has sent to answer the debate. In starting the debate, the hon. Gentleman made the good point that in some areas progress can be made only on a cross-party basis. He will understand that I am in my early days as immigration spokesman for my party, but I can assure him, and the Chamber, that I see my role as helping to create a civilised and credible immigration and asylum policy for the Conservative party. That is what I will seek to work towards.

The debate has illuminated one corner of the tangled web that is the Government's asylum policy. To continue the metaphor, it is a corner where the web has holes through which innocent people—young children—can fall, and are falling. What has stood out in this debate, as well as in the research that I have done—as others have done, I commend the debate pack prepared by the Library—is the obvious emotive resonance of every case that comes up in this area. Every case is a hard case.

That is an observable fact from my constituency experience in east Kent, which for years has been at the sharp end of asylum cases involving people coming in to the country. A few years ago there was an overwhelming preponderance of hostility towards all kinds of asylum seekers, which over the years has been markedly tempered by the rise of cases of families who have become part of the community, and who have become liked and respected and, in particular, have put down roots with local schools. The temperature of the debate in that part of the world has significantly changed in recent years. The sort of problems that the hon. Gentleman illustrated with one family being deported to Angola apply to many families being deported to a number of countries.

The debate has been gratifyingly devoid of the emotional grandstanding that has clearly gone on in some cases in Scotland. We have heard contributions from Scottish colleagues on both sides of the Chamber. The Library debate pack makes it clear that the debate on some cases in Scotland has contributed a lot more heat than light.

It is possible coherently—although I think wrongly—to believe that no child should ever be removed. However, like the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, I do not agree with that belief—for good humane reasons. If that became the case in this country, it might, among other things, encourage the human trafficking of children and encourage families who had no right to seek asylum here to do so. The second-order effects of taking that kind of radical policy position would be counter-productive for children.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that although we all deplore human trafficking, there are occasions when parents are so desperate for the safety of their children in a war-torn society that they are prepared to do anything to get them to a place of safety, including paying bribes and giving money to traffickers to get the children to this country?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I recognise that, but it does not obviate my point that a blanket position that no child would ever be deported might do more harm than good.

So far, I have been rather sympathetic to the Government's position and the problems facing Ministers in policy making. I am indeed sympathetic to those who have to take decisions in every individual case, but there are legitimate questions to be asked and criticisms to be made of the Government's current position. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South concerning the organisation in the host countries for those who are sent back. Common humanity should dictate that some kind of decent reception is organised as a matter of course, and clearly that does not happen at present, not only in the particularly dangerous countries the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but in many other places.

I also echo a point made by Save the Children relating to the detention, rather than the removal, of children—although it applies even more strongly if a child is to be removed. Decent pastoral care of the child should be organised before the removal happens. From a child's point of view, it would be even more inhumane if such a thing were to happen out of the blue than it would if they had some knowledge and explanation beforehand. That does not happen often enough.

My third point concerns the length of time it takes the Home Office to respond to contact from families—a point that was also raised by Jeremy Corbyn. I have seen no improvement in recent months and years, but I hope that the Minister can produce some figures to show that my anecdotal experience is wrong.

My fourth and most general point concerns the time for which families are in this country before their case is decided. For a young child, every month that passes is a significant amount of time, during which normality is established. For such children, three or four years living in one town in one country is literally half a lifetime. That is why it is legitimate to criticise the Government for the administrative failures that still bedevil the asylum system, which forced them to introduce the amnesty—if we can use that word—to reduce the numbers of those here illegally to manageable proportions.

In that context, I would like to ask the Minister some questions designed to inform us about the scale of the problem that remains. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South has at times suggested extending the amnesty time beyond the three-year period. I am not sure whether I agree with the idea of individual case-by-case extensions because we need certainty in this area for the families.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

Country by country, perhaps.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman specifically suggested doing that on the basis of countries.

Will the Minister tell us how many children are covered by the amnesty in its current form? How many extra children would be covered if it were extended by one or two years? I appreciate that he may not have the exact figures to hand, but they could be provided for him.

According to the Home Office press release of 22 November, the five nationalities accounting for the most removals are Serbia and Montenegro, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan. Are those also the countries to which most children are being removed? If not, to which countries are children most likely to be removed? With which of those countries does the Minister think that we have satisfactory reception arrangements when children are returned? That is particularly important for unaccompanied children, but it applies to children as part of a family as well.

The next question relates to those not covered by the amnesty. The Government's estimate of those living here illegally is a fairly elastic figure. The central figure is 430,000, but I understand that it could be 310,000 or 570,000. How many of those are children, according to the Government's best estimate? That is perhaps the most important number for all concerned with the issue, because without it we can have no real feel for the scale of the problem. We all agree that every individual forced removal of a child is a desperately hard case in which emotions will run very high, so it is vital that we develop policy on a factual basis.

The point at which the desire to run a properly managed asylum and immigration system runs directly into the natural instincts of common humanity and generosity of spirit is precisely the issue raised by this debate. I genuinely have sympathy for the Minister and his colleagues, who have to make the decisions, but the underlying problem will be solved only if the system works efficiently. It has not worked well enough in the past few years, and as long as it does not work, there will be more hard cases. Each hard case that involves the removal of children threatens to become an individual tragedy, so simply carrying on as before is not acceptable.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 12:20 pm, 10th January 2006

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin for securing this debate and for focusing our attention on the extremely important issue of the removal of children, particularly those born in this country, to some of the most challenged and economically difficult countries in the world. It was welcome that he rightly focused our attention on that point, and I shall seek to address it directly.

Many excellent points have been raised in the debate. We have covered a broad terrain in discussing this issue, which arouses strong feelings. I fear that I shall not be able to do justice to every point, but I shall seek to do so as much as possible. However, I assure hon. Members that their comments will be heard in the Home Office. My hon. Friend said that he was disappointed that the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality is not here. The Minister of State is chairing the Ministerial Committee on Asylum and Migration—a Cabinet Committee—this morning; otherwise he certainly would have been here. I assure my hon. Friend that he is deeply engaged in the issues that have been raised this morning and has asked Ministers to consider them—and I will, of course, draw these proceedings to his attention.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend made his comments in the measured and considered way which is his hallmark. We are dealing with what I believe to be the most challenging and emotive area of public policy. For that reason the use of language, particularly by people such as ourselves—those in positions of responsibility and those who hold public positions and public office—is all important. That point was made well by my hon. Friend John Robertson. Too often, because of the emotive nature of the debate, hyperbolic language is used at both extremes, whether to demonise those who come to this country to seek asylum or, at the other end of the spectrum, in comments about the nature of enforcement operations and the staff who carry them out. Such language is wrong in both cases. What the debate needs—in this place, more than anywhere—is accuracy and temperate language that reflects the facts and deals with these most difficult issues in a considered manner. I am glad that we have been able to achieve that this morning.

I welcome Damian Green to his new position as the Conservative spokesman on immigration. I was pleased that he said at the start of his remarks that he would follow a civilised and credible immigration policy—although that begs the question of why Conservative policy was not like that before he arrived. Perhaps we can all welcome his party back to a more civilised position on these matters, and I hope that that will remain the case in the months ahead. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South said, we do justice to the people who seek asylum by conducting the debate in that manner.

Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend that Ministers—including the Minister of State—would prefer no enforced returns to any country, and particularly no enforced returns of children. We would prefer to persuade and encourage people with no basis of stay or leave to remain in the country to leave voluntarily. That would be better for all concerned. Clearly it would be better for the Home Office, but it would also allow people to leave with more dignity and at a time of their choosing. That is a preferable outcome for all concerned.

We must do more. Responding to the issues raised by the National Audit Office report on returns, we must do more to encourage people to return voluntarily. I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South the fact that later this week my hon. Friend the Minister of State will put forward more proposals on precisely that subject. His statement will deal with helping reintegration in society and providing more assistance, and will address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South.

The broader picture relates to international development concerns that go beyond the remit of the Home Office. As my hon. Friend knows, the asylum system does not deal with the economic hardship, conditions or development of some of the most deprived countries in the world. As my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said, the system must follow the terms of the 1951 convention on refugees. We do not forget about nor draw a veil over those conditions. They are important, and that is why we must work closely with the Department for International Development on these issues.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I am interested not so much in people who return voluntarily, to whom we do indeed offer some help, but in people who are sent back by enforced return to the dysfunctional countries that I mentioned, to whom we offer none.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I have taken that point in the course of the debate. As my hon. Friend probably knows from his experience in office, the numbers returning to those countries are by definition quite small, because of the dysfunctional nature of some states. We are talking about a small number of people.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

We are, indeed—which makes the situation much easier to deal with.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I have heard the points that my hon. Friend has made, and I shall reflect on them with my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I recognise that the Minister has time problems, and if he cannot answer all the points in his 10 minutes, perhaps he could write to us about them. In specific terms, I should be interested to hear his views on the Congo, Somalia and the British Government's attitude to the way in which the convention on the rights of the child is operated.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I shall seek to explain that in the short time that I have left, but first let me draw together a few points that people have made. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South talked about basic human decency. Of course, that is what we should all strive to achieve. No system is beyond improvement, and by visiting Scotland my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality is engaging in precisely that debate, to see how we can respond to the concerns that have been expressed and create a system in which we can all have confidence.

However, there is a choice. At the end of the day, if the system is based on a series of rules, at some point the rules must be enforced. If we accept that, the debate shifts to how we do that as humanely as possible, respecting the basic humanity of all citizens. I would argue that that is happening now. Much intemperate language is used about the operations of the immigration service. Some of its public servants are carrying out some of the most difficult responsibilities on our behalf. We do not have an open-door immigration system, and I have not heard that any party in this House favours such a system. If we accept that, it follows that we must support the people who in challenging circumstances implement the system on behalf of the citizens of this country.

Those public servants deserve our support. That is not to say that we should not consider the practicalities of what they are doing on the ground; of course we should. We are sensitive to the points that have been raised by Stewart Hosie; we certainly do not use handcuffs routinely, and we certainly do not use them on children. We assess the risks involved in each operation to try to ensure that the scale of the operation is proportionate to the risk presented. We balance all those issues and we seek to improve all the time, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that some of the scare stories are not backed up by the reality. I urge everyone to consider the reality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South asked for more precise information from the Home Office about the operations, how they were carried out and the numbers that were involved. That is a good suggestion, and I shall consider it. Every Member of this House should be given the information if they want particular facts about the way in which an enforcement operation was carried out, so that there can be a local debate on what actually happened, and we can debate such matters in an informed and considered way.