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Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in the borough of Hillingdon? It has the biggest port of entry into the United Kingdom, through which a quarter of the total number of people seeking asylum in the UK come. The number of asylum seekers recorded in the final quarter of last year was larger than in previous quarters, which shows that the dispersal policy is simply not working. Our local authority cannot cope.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes the point about Hillingdon well, and I could support it by saying that Kent is talking about having a backlog of 1,000 asylum seekers in temporary bed-and-breakfast hotels. Moreover, Northamptonshire county council has stated that

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Before I conclude, I want to make one further point of detail, to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond. It has to do with the Government's much-vaunted figures on the number of initial decisions. What is striking about the figures for 2000 is the number of refusals for what is termed "non-compliance". In practice, that term refers to an applicant's failure to fill in the form correctly.

As I understand it, an applicant has 10 working days to complete and submit a 19-page statement of evidence form, which must be completed in English. Dispersal and the general shambles affecting the administration of the system mean that access to interpreters, translators and legal advisers may be interrupted or even rendered impossible. In 1999, 1,085 claims were rejected on grounds of non-compliance, but the total rose to 26,635 in 2000.

My fear is that perhaps the statistics are being pumped up and made to look good--to look as though many people were having their cases considered and determined and refused--but that in practice the refusal is purely technical. If that is so, there has been no gain, as it means that the substantive consideration of a case has to be dealt with further down the line by the adjudicator at the appeal hearing. That would not be a sensible way to run the system, and I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) rightly reminded the House of the importance of the central principles of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. It is the one point on which I agree with him. Our asylum system has degenerated into a shambolic state, which reduces our ability to deliver the promises that we signed up to when we acceded to that convention. It also undermines public support for the principle that we should give succour to people who are genuinely fleeing persecution, which the hon. Gentleman was right to argue that we should seek to uphold.

The policies of the present Administration are neither fast, nor firm, nor fair. It is time that we had fresh policies, and a new start.

3.53 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I shall begin by picking up some themes developed earlier in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He was right to say that asylum poses some of the most acutely difficult ethical problems that he has had to deal with. I am sure that many other hon. Members could say the same. The polarised nature of the debate in our country does us no good at all.

It is appropriate to refer to the 1951 convention in this debate, given last weekend's commemoration of the holocaust. The convention came into being because, after the horrific events of the holocaust and the second world war, people said, "Never, ever again will we turn our backs on those fleeing persecution." I salute the people who drew up the 1951 convention, which we mark and commemorate this year. Our guiding principle must be that we should not turn our backs.

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However, the asylum debate is difficult, and it stirs strong emotions. I feel very emotional, and very strongly, about it. That is because the people who framed the 1951 convention and the principles on which it was founded could not have imagined the situation that exists today. Today, we are faced with smuggling, trafficking in human beings and the exploitation of mass travel. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred to that.

The traffic in human beings is a despicable activity. Women are taken for prostitution and children are taken to be used in criminal activity. People make billions of pounds a year from the traffic in human beings.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): Is my hon. Friend aware that Northampton is a major destination for the traffic in human beings, and in particular for people from the former Republic of Yugoslavia? Will she agree to look at the situation, and ensure that the national asylum support service reinstates registration for asylum seekers in Northampton? Registration is due to end tomorrow, but the service is essential if we are to deal with the 15 to 20 people who come into Northampton every week.

Mrs. Roche: I know that my hon. Friend has made representations about that matter before. We have spoken about it, and I shall certainly look at the matter again and take very seriously what she has to say.

For those people who make well founded cases under the convention, we must have a proper process of refugee integration. I am delighted that we now have a national strategy. I chair the working group on that, and it had its first meeting yesterday. However, we must also recognise the difficulties associated with return--difficulties that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) could not resolve. When one turns down a person's application, one must decide how to remove that person.

I cannot say that my aim, when I came into politics, was to remove people from the United Kingdom. It certainly was not my aim, but removal must happen when a person who has made an unfounded application reaches the end of the process. It can be very difficult. For some countries in eastern Europe, there is no problem at all but, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, we are now dealing with some of the most difficult countries in the world. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said about the need for moderation in this area. However, I must tell him that that is why we need increased detention space at the end of the process.

I turn now to some of the other points made in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), who, speaking on asylum for the first time from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, made a very good speech. She was right to refer to the Shelter report. Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald would not allow me to intervene to point out that the report was compiled before the Government's system came into operation. Of course people have to be housed properly, and we need high standards to ensure that the housing is available.

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The hon. Member for Taunton asked me a very important question about cases involving Afghanistan. The problem that she raised highlights how right the Home Secretary was to talk, in his Lisbon speech, about the need to view the 1951 convention in the modern context.

I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said about his constituency, which borders my own. In both our constituencies, many people from all over the world are seeking asylum. It is important that we look after people properly while their claims are being processed, and that is our aim.

I very much welcomed the speech by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and what he had to say about his support for the civil penalty. I thought that his remarks about returns and the need to see the problem in the context of international development were very well made. I understand completely what the hon. Gentleman said; he demonstrated his understanding of this complex procedure.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She heard the quote that I gave from the Select Committee's recommendations about dealing with the victims of persecution in the region where they suffer persecution, a point that the Home Secretary mentioned. Do the Government propose to take that recommendation forward, as it would unquestionably help to alleviate some of the pressure on the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The whole debate, which is being addressed by the European Union, and by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in its worldwide consultation on the convention, has been taken forward as a result of the Home Secretary's speech in Lisbon. In the developed world, we spend a fantastic sum of money on considering and processing applications for asylum. In the developing world, which has the majority of asylum seekers and refugees, we spend comparatively little. Of course there is an imbalance, but many other factors apply.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury spoke about dispersal. The national asylum support service replaces the shambolic arrangements previously in place, under which many boroughs in London and the south-east could not cope. We think that the system is working reasonably well. That does not mean to say that there are no teething difficulties, as there are with any new organisation. However, what Shelter has to say about standards shows that NASS officials should be congratulated on their very hard work.

As far as the backlog is concerned, the hon. Gentleman talked about non-compliance refusals--but before we put standards in place, there were none. Under the previous Administration, files were simply left to gather dust on the shelves of the immigration and nationality directorate. There was no processing whatsoever. That is why we have made 110,000 decisions in the past year--the largest number of decisions that the Home Office has ever taken.

The House will probably debate no more important moral issue than how we treat asylum seekers and deal with the problem of refugees. We must ensure not only that we get the statistics right, but that we place the issue in an international context. We are determined to deal with the problem and are putting measures in place to do so.

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I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:--

The House divided: Ayes 126, Noes 304.

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