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Miss Widdecombe: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We considered seriously whether we could extend the debate, but as I am sure the House will appreciate, there is an equally important debate to follow. The reason why time has been so short is that a whole hour was taken up by, admittedly, a very important statement. As a Front-Bench Member, I regret that. I tried to gallop through, but those on the Government Benches were not entirely appreciative of that, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) will recall.
Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair. I know that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 10 minutes. In the brief time that is left, perhaps hon. Members will impose an even shorter time limit on themselves.
We have a responsibility in the House, as does anyone in public life, to be very careful about the language that we use when describing asylum seekers and the problems faced by them. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) mentioned, the topic even gets into soap operas. Hon. Members should think about the language that they use, and the racist abuse that is meted out against asylum seekers on the streets of our big cities every night of the week. I think of the stabbing of Cumali Sinangali that took place over the Christmas weekend, and going back some years, I think of a Kurdish man, Shiho Iyuguven, whose family I got to know well, who took his life because of the way in which he had been treated in this country, and the family's fear.
We should remember that most asylum seekers have come to Britain to seek a place of refuge and a place of safety because of the abuse of their human rights in the society from which they came. The abusive language used towards asylum seekers encourages racist attacks, xenophobic attitudes, and very bad attitudes, right down to the school playground, in respect of asylum seekers' children. We should remember that and be extremely careful.
If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has any doubts about the reasons why people seek asylum, I urge her to take a few hours to read the Human Rights Watch report 2000. The opening pages are dedicated to a series of maps showing countries where there are major abuses of human rights, lesser abuses of human rights and very few abuses. The right hon. Lady will see that in the majority of countries of the world, people suffer major abuses of human rights.
Nobody willingly, lightly or easily goes into exile and seeks asylum from his own society. Many people have sought and received asylum in the area in which I live. I know them well and I talk to them. It brings tears to my eyes when I hear the abuse that they have been through in prison systems in various parts of the world, and their
I hold the principles laid down in the Geneva conventions and the UN convention on human rights to be extremely important. They lay down the right of asylum for people seeking to flee from persecution and personal danger. We should be careful that the way in which we deal with asylum seekers in Britain does not, to some extent, perpetuate that abuse of human rights.
I refer anyone who is concerned about that to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report dated 8 August last year, which contained the concluding observations of the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination. I shall quote briefly from the report. It states:
I am sorry to have to mention that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is keen to ensure that all asylum seekers are imprisoned as soon as they arrive in this country, so that their applications can be processed.
According to the latest information that I have, there are 1,195 asylum seekers held in various establishments around the country. I do not believe that it is necessary to hold those people in detention. I do not believe that it is right to put them in prisons. We should beware of abusing human rights, as those people have not committed any crime; they have merely applied for asylum in this country. The immigration service has an overwhelming power to detain people.
Many asylum seekers are facing poverty. Under the Social Security Act 1986, income support was reduced to 90 per cent. for people seeking asylum. The Government of the day offered no explanation. That has been followed up by the voucher system and the small amount of cash that goes with it, with the result that many asylum seekers and their children are living in desperate poverty.
Many of those people's asylum applications will ultimately be granted. Their children will grow up in this country and will become citizens of this country; they will live here for evermore. What right have we to punish the children of asylum seekers? What right have we to make them live on less than what we know to be the poverty level? Teachers in local primary schools tell me what life is like for asylum-seeking children who do not even get enough to eat.
The Shelter report on the housing of asylum seekers is a welcome document. I have not time to go through all of it, but I shall give the headline facts. Nearly a fifth of all dwellings examined by Shelter were unfit for human habitation; 19 per cent. of occupied dwellings were infested with cockroaches, fleas and bedbugs; nearly half the bedsits were unfit for human habitation; and 83 per cent. of houses in multiple occupation that were visited were exposed to unacceptable fire risks.
Those landlords are making millions out of the asylum system and the misery that goes with it, as they are through the housing benefit system. It is time we got a grip. It is time we imposed rent control on these people, and imposed tough regulation on the conditions in which they make their tenants live. It is outrageous that profits should be made from such conditions in this day and age.
As for the voucher system, it is divisive, inefficient, expensive and entirely ineffective. The other week, a man who had been a prominent professional member of his community told me, with tears in his eyes, that he had been forced to flee his country because of the way he had been treated there. He told me how, having been burnt out of his house at 3 am, he had eventually made his way to this country. Once a week he must walk a long way to a supermarket with his vouchers, because he has not the cash to pay for a bus ticket and he cannot get change. In any event, he cannot get change when he uses the voucher in the supermarket.
I hope the Minister will tell us that the report of the examination of the system will appear soon. I hope she will also say that we will return to a system of cash benefits. That system is more efficient: it often means that children are fed more, and are given more appropriate food.
Finally, let me say something about the economic contribution made by asylum seekers here. Two weeks ago, along with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and a number of others, I attended a meeting of the Tamil community in the House. I knew many of those people: I had known them when they were seeking asylum here in the mid-1980s. The contribution that they have made to this country--the professional work they have done, the way in which they have brought up their families and all the efforts they have made--is a credit to them and their community. Why does the Conservative party consistently denigrate people who seek asylum, and seek to make a contribution to our society?
Many have written much about asylum. I am sorry to say, however, that when the history of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is written, many others will say, "Yes, you rightly remember the victims of the Holocaust and all the horrors that went with it, but what about the people who are now routinely abused and deprived of their human rights? What about those who are forced to flee and to seek a place of safety elsewhere? What about those who are badly treated by racist groups all over Europe, as a matter of routine?"
Can we please have a sense of humanity, and understand just what the abuse of human rights is like for so many people in so many places around the world? Can we put the emphasis on a foreign policy initiative, an economic initiative, to give people better rights and a better standard of living, rather than the constant condemnation of those who merely seek what we all want for ourselves--a decent home, a decent job, enough to eat, and some hope for our children?
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Let me say at the outset that I have genuine sympathy for real asylum seekers. I have been to Kosovo and Bosnia, and I helped to organise a conference in Beirut while bombing was going on there. I have no doubt--and figures show this again and again--that a proportion, albeit a minority, of the many people who make asylum claims in this country are genuine cases.
It is, however, difficult to exaggerate the way in which the current tide of refugees claiming asylum status is affecting the country, and will affect the country if the torrent of people with unfounded claims continues. In my east Kent constituency, we are already beginning to run out of options for planning decisions. We have no brownfield sites left; I know of three housing estates that are, at this moment, being built on flood plains. It is absurd to see new houses being built with, in one instance, up to 6 in of water lapping around the doors. Our infrastructure in southern England is overloaded: 100,000 people in a single year will mean 1.5 million over the 15-year planning cycle. Those are not racist considerations; they are the considerations of a country--Britain as a whole--that now has a higher population density than China.