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"The Bill will achieve a better system for making prompt and fair decisions when we receive applications to settle in this country."[Official Report, 2 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 22.]
"The Bill will provide the United Kingdom with a modern, flexible and streamlined system capable of dealing with the ever-growing pressures and demands placed upon it."[Official Report, 22 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 50.]
"Our race relations are as good asif not better thanthose of any other country in Europe. Firm but fair immigration control is a necessary condition for such a society. That is the context in which this Bill should be seen."[Official Report, 11 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 699.]
The point that I am making is that this is the fourth piece of legislation on these issues in 10 years. Every one of them has been introduced by a Home Secretary saying that it will solve all the problems. Hearing that for the fourth time in 10 years tends to make one a bit cynical. I think that I am the only Member of the House who served on the Standing Committees that considered all three of those Acts. I am also one of a handful of Members who voted against Third Reading of all three, and it is tempting for me to say, "I told you so." In fact, I think I will say, "I told you so; I told you those Bills would not work."
In one sense, it almost does not matter what we do in terms of legislation, if the Home Office does not get its act together to make decisions within a reasonable time scale. That applies to immigration decisions as well as to those on asylum. It does not matter what legislation we have if decisions are not made in reasonable time, if they are not acted on, or if people whose passports have been lost, or who have waited two years for a decision when they want to go to visit a sick relative, are treated with complete indifference to what is happening in their lives. Someone might turn up at my advice surgery, four or five years after their asylum claim has been turned down, and when I ask them what has happened in the meantime, the answer is, "Well, nothing." The system will fail when such things happen, no matter what legislation is in place.
It is critical that efforts be made to address these problems, because there is still systematic failure in the Home Office's administrative systems. My staff and I are sick and tired of spending time in my constituency office having to deal with call after call about these problems. People get fed up with us because we are not getting answers from the Home Office.
Ms Abbott: May I confirm what my hon. Friend has just said? I have been a Member of the House for 14 years, and I know that, while the text of any legislation is one thing, the systemic administrative failures in the Home Office are the cause of more misery and unhappiness to my constituents than anything else.
A further point in relation to the legislation of the past 10 years is that we ought to have learned that, if we try to put in place systems that are cumbersome, expensive to set up and fundamentally unfair, we will fail. That was the problem with each of the last three Acts. This Bill is very different in some ways. It is the first Bill of its kind for 10 years that contains measures that I can say that I positively welcome. Parts of the Bill, however, may still present problems, and we might risk falling into exactly the same traps as we fell into before.
I welcome the fact that this is the first time in many years that we have had a sensible debatein relation not only to the Bill but to the White Paperin the House and in the country about immigration policy, about providing
I recognise that some of the proposals in the Bill to deal with trafficking are only stopgap measures, and that we shall need to come back and do more on that in terms of criminal justice legislation. Those provisions are, none the less, very welcome. There is a lot in the Bill that everyone in the House will support. I have a few areas of concern, however, and I hope that I will be forgiven if I concentrate on those for the rest of the time available to me.
The section on nationality and citizenship is, in the main, positive, but I have a few problems with it. The one major issue that concerns me is whether we really need to have compulsory language testing. What is that going to achieve? That is a question that I have not seen answered. I know one thing that it will achieve: discrimination against certain types of peopleagainst elderly people, against women in certain communities and against people who, for instance, have learning difficulties. That is what will happen. Why do we need to include that in what is otherwise a positive package?
I agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) about doing something about British overseas citizenspeople who are often, effectively, stateless. We could have used the opportunity presented by a piece of nationality legislation to do something about that.
On accommodation centres, I am convinced that if we go down the road of setting up four large accommodation centres with 750 or so people in each of them, it will not work. It will turn into a disaster. Some of the problems flow from the size. Because of their size, they will be located outside the main urban areas, which draws us into the question of withdrawing children from mainstream education. That flows directly from the decision about size and location, because local schools in such areas would be overwhelmed if children were allowed into mainstream education. I do not see how we can justify saying to any child in this country that they will be out of mainstream education for months on end. How does that sit alongside the proposals in the White Paper and in other parts of the Bill about integration? It is completely contradictory.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only an issue of quality of education but of the personal and social development of the child? That is why it is so important that children should be in mainstream education and not educated separately.
Mr. Gerrard: Absolutely. Of course, not all the people in these centres will be children, and the majority of asylum seekers do not have children. What is the likely impact of having 750 people, mainly young men, who have very little to do in some of the areas that are being suggested? If they do not have much to do, and they are there for months on end, that will be a recipe for disaster.
We ought to consider what has been working in the present system of dispersal. Some projects have worked and some good work has been done. There are already places that are almost accommodation centresthe hostels and hotels that are being usedand I have no problem with the idea of groups of people living together; it is happening now. Why do we not put effort into making those places work, and into examining what they need in terms of support, medical help and legal advice? We have such groupings now, and the majority of people will remain in the dispersal system. We are in great danger of spending a lot of time, energy and effort on something that will cost a fortune, that will probably be delayed much longer than it is supposed to be, and that, in the end, will not work. Instead, we could concentrate on dealing with problems in the dispersal system, and we could use some of the ideas about accommodation centres to develop existing places.
On support, one clause of the Bill gives the Government the power to remove the option for people to have support onlynot vouchers any more, which we very much welcome, but cash. What is the justification for that? I would like to hear it. Given that 40 per cent. of applicants choose that option, what do we expect them to do and where do we expect them to go? Are we going to say, "If you do not go into an accommodation centre, you will be cut off from all support"? That is my suspicion about why that power is included in the Billto be used against people who say that they will not go into an accommodation centre.
On detention, will the Government say, once and for all, that they are not going to detain children? Children and families are still being detained and all the signs are that the numbers will increase over the next few years if there is a move to increase the rate of removal. Why are figures no longer available on what has happened to people who are in detention? Until four or five years ago, it was possible to find out whether people who were in detention had had a decision made on their case, were still waiting for a decision or were still waiting to appeal. When I ask those questions now, I am told that the information is too expensive to obtain and is not held centrally. It used to be available, and I want to know why it is not any more. If we are expected to accept that detention centres become removal centres, and that that is their purpose, we ought to be able to establish clearly that the people in those centres are waiting for removal, not for an initial decision on their claims.
The resettlement programme and the UNHCR gateway constitute a positive move, which I very much welcome. We need to get that right, because I do not want a view to develop that people who come in by that route are legitimate, whereas people who claim asylum by any other route are not. That is one of the dangers of which we must beware.
We all want a system that works. We can make the system workalthough the Bill contains deficiencies, which I hope will be dealt with in Committeebut, this time, please let us have a system that delivers.