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Nationality, Immigration and Asylum

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): With permission, Mr. Speaker I wish to make a statement on nationality, immigration and asylum.

Last October I informed the House of the new strategic direction for that crucial area. Today I am publishing a White Paper to be followed by legislation in this Session.

Significant progress has already been made. The first induction centre was opened on 22 January in Dover. Registration cards were launched last week and are now being issued to new asylum seekers. We have launched the highly skilled migrant programme. New border security controls are in place, following my announcement on 19 September. As of last week, asylum seekers are no longer being held in prison. I confirm that vouchers will be replaced by cash by the autumn, together with action against fraud and the development of a more robust, faster and efficient system.

The White Paper takes forward our agenda by offering an holistic and comprehensive approach to nationality, managed immigration and asylum that recognises the inter-relationship of each element in the system. No longer will we treat asylum seekers in isolation or fail to recognise that there must be alterative routes to entry into this country.

Our policies must command trust, confidence and respect from the wider community. The British people demand coherence in policy and efficiency in administration.

Our starting point has been the development of a sense of belonging and community. Confidence in our identity and citizenship allows us to welcome those who come to the UK as refugees or legal migrants more readily.

I confirm that, to give new meaning and value to the acquisition of British nationality, we will introduce a number of key reforms: there will be new light-touch arrangements to ensure that those who take on nationality have the language skills and basic knowledge of our society that are needed to contribute fully; there will be ceremonies at which the confirmation of citizenship can be celebrated; and we will modernise the oath of allegiance to provide new wording to make clear the fundamental rights and duties of citizenship. That will be a citizenship pledge.

The White Paper sets out the routes by which men and women can work legitimately in this country. In today's global economy, that is crucial both to our competitiveness and prosperity.

My new proposals include the development of routes for seasonal or short-term casual working; consultation on reform to the working holidaymakers scheme to make it less restrictive; and enabling students graduating in the UK to switch into the work permit scheme.

This White Paper sets out an end-to-end revision of the asylum system. The new process will track and support asylum seekers from induction, through reporting and accommodation, to removal or integration.

Work has started on the new trial accommodation centres which will be mandatory for those designated asylum seekers who are claiming public support. The

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centres will offer education, health care and legal and interpreting services. Opportunities for volunteering and other purposeful activities will also be available, as will appropriate language support.

For those refused asylum, secure removal centres will enable us to protect the integrity of the system through early removal. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] It is nice to have the support of the Opposition in such large numbers. I hope that the consensus continues.

Without an agreed and legitimate route for asylum seekers to enter this country, it has been inevitable that men and women desperate to seek refuge would put their lives at risk. That is why I am announcing today that we will set up the new gateway for those seeking to settle in Britain. This will be operated under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Legitimate refugees who come via this gateway will no longer have to attempt a hazardous journey across the channel. This will be a major step in regularising legitimate entry alongside our managed economic migration programme.

In addition, to secure a robust foundation on which we can build, I intend to undertake a full comprehensive audit of existing asylum claimants. Longstanding cases will receive urgent attention.

The White Paper also sets out substantial changes to the whole asylum appeals process. Far too many appeals and judicial reviews are designed to delay and frustrate. I am therefore announcing today that we will simplify the one-stop appeals process; set closure dates for appeal hearings to stop multiple adjournments; and make the Immigration Appeal Tribunal a superior court of record.

In addition, we will increase the capacity of the adjudication system by 50 per cent., to a total of 6,000 a month, during the course of this year; and we will expand the number of removal places to 4,000.

I can also confirm that I intend to close Campsfield House. This outdated centre is no longer appropriate in the 21st century. These places will be transferred to the new high-standard removal centres.

My reforms will protect fundamental rights, stop abuse of the system, and enable more effective administration and processing of claims. Those working in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate will be able to do their job more effectively, and I expect both greater productivity and efficiency.

Let us be in no doubt. We need to reduce the pull factor by clamping down on both clandestine entry and illegal working.

The Proceeds of Crime Bill will ensure that we can seize the assets of criminals involved in smuggling and trafficking people. In addition, the maximum penalty for those facilitating illegal entry will be raised to 14 years.

I can also announce that we will legislate to tackle trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. That will be a stepping stone to more wide-ranging legislation dealing with sexual exploitation. In addition, together with our European and international partners, we will introduce tougher border controls and step up action.

A high-level steering group of business and trade union leaders will be established to take forward proposals to tackle illegal working; and, as I announced on Tuesday, we intend to launch a consultation on entitlement cards to be published in the spring or early summer. I want to

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avoid misunderstanding: should such a card be agreed, failure to carry it would not be a criminal offence. That should allay fears as regards stop and search.

Alongside those measures, we will act against the worrying practice of fraudulent marriages. We will increase the probationary period from one to two years; consult on a new non-switching provision to prevent people from applying to remain in the United Kingdom on the basis of marriage, after entering through a different category; and encourage communities with a culture of arranged marriages to look to those already resident in the United Kingdom.

Finally, I know that the rules on family visitor visas have been a cause of great concern to hon. Members. I have an open mind on how best to improve the system—not least for those seeking urgent entry on occasions such as bereavement. The Government would thus welcome ideas on how best to provide guarantees or bonds. That might be undertaken not simply by individuals or families, but by the provision of a community bond. I realise that we have to get that right, so I encourage positive suggestions on the best way to proceed.

Our future social cohesion, economic prosperity and integrity depend on how well we rise to the global challenge of mass migration, communication and flight from persecution. We have a history of trade and migration that has brought us wealth and prosperity over the centuries.

Nevertheless, building trust and confidence to secure the support of the British people is essential. By doing that, we can create a country that is open to skills and enterprise, but not to exploitation. This is a Britain with a balanced approach to nationality and migration—a country of which all of us can be proud.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I thank the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in letting us see the statement and the White Paper in advance.

Some months ago, when the Home Secretary first made a statement about his proposals for changing the UK's asylum arrangements, I responded that the aim of the Conservative party—like that of the Government—is to see the establishment of an asylum system that is humane, effective and fair; that rapidly provides a safe home for the innocent victims of persecution; and that, at the same time, prevents the asylum system being misused as a means of evading our immigration rules. I have since reiterated that position, and I re-state it today. We welcome unreservedly the fact that the Home Secretary is genuinely trying to make those joint aims a reality.

May I gently urge that, in future, when the Home Secretary has such interesting and important proposals, he restrain himself—if that is humanly possible—from using partial leaks of his White Papers to the media as a way of announcing the proposals? I recognise the temptation, but the interests of rational debate in this country will be best served in the long run if we are all able to discuss the full statement that we have all heard on the basis of a White Paper that at least some of us have had the opportunity to read.

When the Home Secretary made his initial statement, many questions were necessarily left unanswered. Some of them have been answered in the White Paper. We welcome the increase in the capacity of the adjudication system, the new UNHCR gateway—a

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massive improvement—and the news in the White Paper that there will be health care and interpretation facilities in the accommodation centres.

At least at a first reading, however, some of the questions remain unanswered. It is not clear in the White Paper whether the accommodation centres will, in practice, normally provide legal assistance on site, still less whether decision makers and adjudicators will be available on the spot. We remain uncertain whether the residence requirement set out in paragraph 4.37 of the White Paper will really be enforceable on the basis of entitlement to benefits, given the fact that many asylum seekers do not take up benefits in any case. Will the Home Secretary undertake to let us have those critical details by the time that we come to debate the Bill?

In the months since the initial statement, we—like the Home Secretary and his ministerial team—have had time to reflect on the causes of the shambles that he has gallantly admitted to having inherited from his predecessor, the current Foreign Secretary.

As the Home Secretary will recognise from our recent debates, we are persuaded that a significant part of the problem faced by hard-working officials arises from the sheer weight of numbers, which is in part generated by the disproportion between the share of the burden borne by the UK and the share of the burden borne by France.

I hope that the Home Secretary will take this further opportunity to state a commitment to achieving the closure of Sangatte; a renegotiated bilateral agreement with France when that becomes possible—to take the right hon. Gentleman's point—after the French elections; and in due course, as he says in the White Paper, the replacement of the Dublin convention with some meaningful and effective arrangement for distributing the burden fairly around the EU and other European countries. Will the Home Secretary accept that, in the absence of such changes on the international front, it is highly unlikely that he will achieve the fulfilment of his, and of our, ambitions?

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