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Mr. Clappison: Before the Home Secretary concludes his remarks, will he return to the unfortunate point of children being taken into care? Is he content that children should be taken into care under the circumstances that he has described, and that section 17 powers will not be available to local authorities to prevent children being taken into care? Does he know that when the Children Act was being debated a member of Labour's Front-Bench team said:


His own Front-Bench team wanted section 17 to allow children to be taken into care.

Mr. Straw: The duty on a local authority to consider the welfare of a child arises irrespective of background circumstances. No matter whether the child is an asylum seeker, or the child of a Conservative Member, or has some other grave impediment, that duty applies. I have made the point over and over to the hon. Gentleman that that duty is not affected by whether the child is an asylum seeker. If a child is at risk or lacks parental support, the local authority has a duty to consider whether to take the child into care. That duty is unaffected by the Bill.

I was dealing with the argument about vouchers versus cash. One part of the reality with which we must deal is that 30 per cent. of those who apply--9,000 people last year--were acknowledged as people fleeing persecution or otherwise facing serious danger. Those people were admitted to the UK and given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. However, more than 20,000 people had no such claim and entered the UK abusively or were already here. Those people came with the idea of gaining benefits or some other economic advantage. They entered the country unlawfully, not on grounds covered by the convention, or, having got here, they sought to evade immigration control and the provisions of their temporary permits by applying for asylum. Every hon. Member who has an immigration case load knows that such abusive asylum claimants are on the increase.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: In a moment. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Far too many private conversations are being conducted in the Chamber. Conversations should take place outside.

Mr. Straw: I have received deputations from the Chinese community and letters from leaders of the Asian community calling for such abuse to be brought under control.

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Points have been made about the incentive of cash benefits in the system.

Mr. Allan: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman a couple of times, so I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), as I said I would.

Dr. Jones: I am concerned that my right hon. Friend seems to be saying that, because people abuse the system, it is all right to make genuine refugees and asylum seekers suffer by imposing a voucher system, even though he has not addressed the arguments about whether that system deters bogus claimants at all. Will he please respond to that and also to the point, on which there is agreement, that the way to deter bogus claimants is speedily to assess their cases and to set up an effective gateway for asylum seekers?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend anticipated the point that I was about to make. She will know--this matter is generally kept private--that I have a close relationship with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). I was writing a note to say that a genuine claimant fleeing persecution in his own country would have no interest in whether the support available in this country would be supplied in the form of cash benefits or vouchers. Uncannily, as I was writing that down, I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South make that point.

It is, of course, true that anybody fleeing persecution such as that in Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries has no interest whatever in whether the support available to them in a safe country such as United Kingdom is supplied as a mixture of cash, vouchers and payment in kind, such as the provision of accommodation, or as cash only, as in our social security system. That is why I say to my hon. Friends that, as long as we get right the level of support--which I accept is their next concern--there is no way in which the provision of that mixed system instead of social security benefits will deter genuine asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution in their country from coming here and availing themselves of their rights under the 1951 convention.

We strongly believe, however, that the availability of cash benefits provides an incentive to come here for people who are not genuine claimants and who wish to enter this country not because they are fleeing persecution but because they want to claim those benefits. It is impossible to look down the list of countries from which we now accept many thousands of asylum seeker applications and not come to that conclusion.

Large numbers of applicants come from eastern European countries, where there are no longer any human rights abuses. Perhaps just three or four people out of the thousands who come here from those countries have ever been given asylum status. I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, who said that the cash and voucher system will be a disincentive to genuine claimants, that that is simply not the case. I rely very strongly on the agreement

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between my hon. Friend and myself on that point, which is that the system is intended to be a disincentive to fraudulent and abusive claimants.

Ms Abbott rose--

Audrey Wise (Preston) rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise).

Ms Abbott: I never said that the voucher system would be a disincentive to genuine refugees under the Geneva convention. I said that it is designed to be a disincentive across the board. I have spent many hundreds of hours--in Committee, on the Floor of the House and in private meetings--listening to Ministers talking about economic migrants and non-Geneva convention asylum claimants. Ministers harp on about the pull factor of benefits, but they entirely discount and never mention the tremendous push factors behind those waves of economic refugees. If Ministers were serious about checking those waves of refugees--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady knows that interventions should be brief.

Mr. Straw: Of course I understand the push factors. I have never sought to criticise individuals who seek a better life here, but the natural, logical conclusion of my hon. Friend's argument--if she pursues it, and I do not think that she will--is that we should have no immigration control. Of course there are push factors. People who seek to come to Britain, including those from eastern European countries, want, on the whole, to better themselves. I understand that entirely; that is one of the reasons why, sadly, in a rather unequal world, we must have a degree of immigration control.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Straw: I promised to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston.

Audrey Wise: There seems to be an uncomfortable element of trial by ordeal in what my right hon. Friend is saying. We are not saying that the system is a deterrent to genuine asylum seekers. He is not answering the question why genuine asylum seekers should be put through more suffering. As well as trial by ordeal, there is an element of pre-judgment. All asylum seekers, including the genuine ones, will suffer because some are not genuine or do not qualify--but we do not know which ones they will be, do we? Will he remove this rather nasty trial by ordeal and punishment?

8.45 pm

Mr. Straw: I think that we are reaching a degree of consensus--[Interruption.] One understands Opposition Members wishing to laugh about this issue. It is

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fascinating that the House has filled up considering that, for many hours of this debate, the hon. Member for Hertsmere was alone on the Opposition Benches.

There is a consensus in recognition that a mixed system of vouchers and cash, which we are intending to provide, will not of itself act as a disincentive to genuine claimants. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston suggested by implication that the nature of vouchers and the overall level of the package will penalise genuine claimants, the other points that I have made notwithstanding.

Mr. Allan: I want to tease the Home Secretary to put something on the record. He went from one extreme to the other by saying that all asylum seekers' claims are founded, and then that 70 per cent. are unfounded, and seemed to imply that they were all the type to respond to television advertisements and were setting out to be deliberately abusive. That is a dangerous characterisation, and I do not think that he has the evidence to support it. Some asylum seekers will be cynical abusers, but many others are sad and desperate people whose claims simply do not meet the 1951 convention criteria.


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