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House of Commons

Monday 22 October 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Asylum Seekers

1. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): When he will publish his review of the voucher system for the support of asylum seekers. [5136]

10. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): If he will make a statement on his policy for dealing with asylum seekers. [5147]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I shall make a full statement to the House on nationality and asylum in the next fortnight. As part of that, I shall spell out the Government's approach to asylum in the years ahead, and shall publish the review of both vouchers and dispersal.

Mrs. Campbell: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on conducting that review. However, does he understand that asylum seekers find the process of making purchases

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with vouchers humiliating? In addition, they are unable to get full value for money because of shops' inability to give change on the vouchers. Will my right hon. Friend therefore make sure that any future system addresses both those problems and will he try to ensure a speedy conclusion to the review?

Mr. Blunkett: I am aware of the strong feelings—how could I not be?—about the operation of the system generally and the perception of vouchers in particular. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary initiated the voucher review, why we have taken our time to take the suggested changes on board and why I want to make any change part of a much broader package of measures.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Is the Home Secretary aware that many of us were impressed by his integrity when, shortly after taking office, he volunteered the information that the number of asylum seeker cases in the pipeline was not about 20,000, as had been stated before, but more than 40,000? However, it would help the House a great deal more if he gave us some explanation of how that massive statistical error occurred and who was responsible.

Mr. Blunkett: I am happy to do so. In 1996, the then Government put in place a computer system that soon collapsed; with it went the statistical base on which sensible calculation was made. It was not until we initiated a manual count that we discovered the complete mess-up following the collapse of the Siemens contract, entered into by Conservative Members. In those circumstances, of course we believed that transparency was the best way of proceeding, and that is how the Home Office team will proceed from now.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): In reviewing the voucher scheme, my right hon. Friend will, I am sure, take on board the humiliation and stigma which have been mentioned already. However, will he also look at the critical question of the value of vouchers or whatever system replaces them? Many people will not accept the

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replacement of the voucher system with another system that still leaves people living on significantly less than income support.

Mr. Blunkett: The full range of issues raised, not just in the review itself but in representations by Members of Parliament, voluntary organisations and those working with refugees, will be taken on board, including the importance of providing necessary support. That will all be done in the context of getting a system that has the trust of the British people and the confidence of those who have to operate it, and sends a clear signal to the rest of the world.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Does the Home Secretary agree that the asylum voucher system question involves the question of value for money for the taxpayer? To illustrate those administrative costs, can the Home Secretary give the administrative cost of each £1 of vouchers provided to asylum seekers?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I cannot, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with those details. I am aware of the calculations done about three years ago when the voucher system was first mooted. The calculation by the Department of Social Security and those administering the vouchers—the £700:£425 ratio per 1,000 claimants—did not take into account the full cost of administering the social security system. It would therefore be better if I gave the hon. Gentleman an up-to-date reply.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents sincerely hope that the conclusions of the second review will result in the abolition of the voucher system? If it does not, and an alternative system is introduced, will he ensure that it is acceptable not only in high street shops but in high street markets?

Mr. Blunkett: I am aware of the problems that people have had in accessing retail outlets that accept vouchers. On my hon. Friend's first point, the key issue is to see the survival or abolition of the voucher system not in isolation but as part of a review of the working of the structure and system. We need a system which allows those operating it to do the job efficiently and effectively, and which is sensible, rational and humane for those who experience it day in, day out.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): In his review of policy, does the Secretary of State intend to review planning policy? I refer to the proposal for an asylum seeker stop-off site in Great Gransden, which I believe is being planned with no local consultation in a rural village and which is causing considerable upset to local people. In this and future cases, will proper local consultation be undertaken?

Mr. Blunkett: As we saw at Ashford, everyone wants something done, but somewhere else, away from their own patch. If there is to be a transition arrangement in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I am keen that we should ensure that local people know what is taking place, why and how it is to be operated. That will have to be part of the review of the dispersal system, which is designed to protect the people of Kent and London, who were

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overwhelmed by the way in which the previous system operated. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary, implemented the dispersal system precisely because people wanted to ensure a more rational system of dispersing and placing people around the country.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us who supported the voucher system in the belief that it would not attract people without well-founded claims have lost their taste for the system, having experienced it almost first-hand? When he examines more closely dispersal and the wider issues, will he bear it in mind that, without dispersal, the situation in places such as Dover and the south Kent ports would be unsustainable? Whatever happens at the other end, will he ensure that for the ports of east Kent, there will be some protection and that dispersal will continue?

Mr. Blunkett: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the rational and mature way in which he has dealt with a difficult issue in and around his constituency. Thanks to the way in which he has handled himself and the issues, a great deal of difficulty has been avoided. I can give him an absolute assurance that any future dispersal system and review outcome will ensure that the people of those areas, which I recently visited, will be protected, and that a sensible way will be found, whether in the case of minors or older asylum seekers, to ensure that they are quickly, effectively and humanely found a suitable place to live which does not involve their staying around the Kent ports.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Does the Home Secretary accept that requests for asylum can be misused by men of violence? What is his response to the statement made by the Saudi ambassador and reported in the Sunday papers that

Mr. Blunkett: I welcomed the hon. Gentleman to his position last week, and I do so again. I look forward to welcoming him for a long time to come. I read the ambassador's statements a week last Sunday. I suggest that all hon. Members read the full interview in order to get the measure of what was being said and how it was being said. If any ambassador from whatever quarter suggests ways in which we might follow up those who are alleged to be terrorists, we will do so. As was made clear in the statement last Monday, we will ensure that those who come into our country and attempt to claim asylum and who are suspected of terrorism will be held and dealt with quickly and effectively.

Mr. Letwin: But is not the real problem that the Home Secretary is unable to deport people whom he regards as a threat to our national security? Given the widespread scepticism expressed in recent days, does he continue to believe that indefinite detention, otherwise known as internment, is really an adequate and sustainable solution to that problem?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): The hon. Gentleman is an expert on escaping.

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Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend's not so sotto voce sedentary remark caps it all. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there are difficulties in removing people from the country where they would face torture, death or degrading treatment. That is true. That applies and has applied since the inception of the European convention on human rights. The question that we must address is whether we would knowingly send those people to such situations, or would we prefer to hold them pending their transfer to a third safe country. As we spelled out in a statement and in answers to questions last Monday, that depends entirely on whether there is an extradition treaty. Where there is not, it is preferable to hold people than to send them back in circumstances where there is no guarantee of a fair trial.

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