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Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Dublin convention is one of the obstacles to the quick removal from this country of asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected? Will he tell the House which Government signed that convention?

Mr. Straw: The Dublin convention was and is one of the major problems in removing applicants from this country. [Interruption.] As it happens, I was not dealing with immigration and asylum when the matter arose in 1990. The Opposition approach the matter as if we were responsible for a measure that they introduced. The convention was signed in 1990. Notwithstanding the fact that the previous Government, including the right hon. Lady, knew exactly what it would achieve--or not achieve--they did nothing to try to reverse it or to limit its operation. When the Labour Government came to power in May 1997, we knew that the convention would inevitably take effect in October of that year. Worst of all, in addition to establishing the convention, the previous Government were willing to tear up the gentlemen's

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agreement with Belgium and France that had previously allowed this country to send back most asylum applicants to those countries.

Mr. Fabricant: Get rid of it, then.

Mr. Straw: We would like to get rid of the Dublin convention, and quickly. The problem is that it is currently the only EU agreement that enables us to return applicants, so disowning it altogether would leave us with no agreements whatever with other European countries. I dearly wish that we could return to gentlemen's agreements; indeed, that is exactly what we are working on. However, if ever there was a single factor that helped to cause the increase in the number of asylum applicants who enter this country, and the greater difficulty in removing them, it was the Dublin convention, for which the right hon. Lady was responsible.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): How many more genuine asylum seekers would have come to this country without the military campaign to liberate Kosovo? Many Conservative Members, including many who are in the Chamber, strenuously opposed that campaign.

Mr. Straw: Thousands more would have come to this country, just as Germany had to bear the brunt of almost 500,000 applicants a year in the early 1990s because of the chaos in Bosnia.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) draws attention to another point. Fundamental pressures for asylum arise not from the circumstances in the receiving state but from disruption, civil strife and worse in countries hundreds of miles away.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to the drop in figures in 1996. I have corresponded with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary. Numbers declined early in 1996; they fell throughout Europe. However, by the end of 1996, they were rising, and they continued to rise in 1997. The right hon. Lady cannot escape the fact that the increase throughout Europe was due to growing civil strife.

Mr. Fabricant: They came to us first.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. Asylum seekers could not have come to us first. Instead of fanning his prejudices, he should examine the figures and concentrate on the fact that, notwithstanding recent increases in this and other countries, we were in the middle of the European table last year, and we remain in that position this year.

The right hon. Lady suggests that there was a dramatic change in asylum and immigration policy in May 1997.

Miss Widdecombe: You came to office.

Mr. Straw: Yes, not least because people recognised that our immigration policy would be fairer, firmer and faster. However, the legislative and administrative

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structures remained exactly as the previous Government had left them until the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 came into force last year.

The biggest difference between our two Administrations was investment. When the right hon. Lady was immigration Minister, she did not provide for an increase in resources to reduce the record delay in processing asylum applications. Instead, she agreed formal plans with the Treasury for a reduction of 1,200 people--almost half the staff--in the immigration and nationality directorate. When numbers rose from late 1996, as the previous Government knew they would, they adopted the most irresponsible policy of all: a scorched earth policy. They tried to ensure that we were unable to cope with the increase by degrading the system and staff at Croydon. At the end of 1997, there were fewer than 100 skilled case workers left. It is no wonder we faced so many problems.

Our approach was to recognise the administrative and legal chaos that the right hon. Lady had left, and the financial problems that existed. We proposed a root and branch reform, in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It was the most comprehensive reform of the system ever introduced.

Miss Widdecombe: It was a total failure.

Mr. Straw: It was not described in that way at the time. Indeed, it received substantial scrutiny in a Special Standing Committee, which was notable for two or three reasons. First, the then Opposition spokesman put on record his support for the dispersal policy because he recognised that it made more sense than secure reception centres. He realised, because he has more sense than the right hon. Lady, that they could not be afforded or introduced for many years.

Secondly, the proceedings were notable because Conservative members of the Committee opposed only one measure. It could not be described as soft; indeed, the Conservative spokesman in the other place, Lord Cope, described it as tougher than any measure that the Conservatives had devised. The right hon. Lady did not mention that policy in her opening speech; it has proved the most effective in a range of effective measures. It is the civil penalty.

The civil penalty has made a significant difference to enforcement. It has resulted in a decline in the number of clandestines who come through docks such as Dover. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) nodding. It has contributed to reducing the number of unfounded applications from places such as eastern Europe, to which it is much easier to return applicants than, for example, Iran and Afghanistan.

Applications from eastern Europe have fallen by 50 per cent. as a direct result of our measures. Our policies are working, but neither the right hon. Lady nor anyone else could have anticipated the huge increase in civil strife, disorder and violence in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka, which account for the bulk of applications not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout Europe.

The right hon. Lady implies that a policy of locking up asylum seekers--some of whose claims are unfounded--from the countries that I mentioned will enable us to get them back quickly to the countries from which they have

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come. That is incredible and wrong. Despite the best efforts, not only of the United Kingdom but of other European countries, it is difficult, whatever the system, to get rejected asylum applicants back to the countries from which they came. We work hard at the problem, but those people are often here for many months, sometimes years, after their applications have been refused.

That problem affects every country in Europe. In Germany, the Minister for the Interior, Otto Schilly, told me only three months ago that 500,000 rejected asylum applicants are on welfare. They cannot be returned to their country of origin despite the rejection of their applications.

What are the right hon. Lady's proposals for speeding up the removal of rejected applicants to Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and China?

Miss Widdecombe: Deter them from coming here in the first place.

Mr. Straw: Two replies today have revealed the bankruptcy of the right hon. Lady's policies. This is another example of the magic wand. Her policy is a zero policy. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady's answer was important. She claims that she would deter all applicants. Despite having detention centres in which to lock up applicants for ever, there will be no applicants, genuine or otherwise.

Almost all asylum applicants from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Sri Lanka, even if their applications turn out to be unfounded, are fleeing from what they regard as disruptive circumstances. They are not living in happy circumstances. Why is it that people with similar economic circumstances in, say, India do not flee to this country, while people from those other countries do? The result of the right hon. Lady's policy would be to lock out every asylum applicant.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a moment.

Earlier today, the right hon. Lady admitted, when she said that some reception and detention centres would be needed, that some people coming in would have their claims rejected. I put the question to her again. How would she return rejected asylum applicants, in a better and quicker way than we or other European countries are doing, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka?

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