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9.31 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): It is common ground that, too often in the past, the debate on asylum has been characterised by provocative and emotive language and a certain harshness of approach, but it deserves and demands good sense. It demands an understanding of the world as it is, and it demands humanity. Today's debate has demonstrated all those qualities. In general, the atmosphere has been supportive, constructive and thoughtful—a point made strongly by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) in his moving and effective speech.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for his thoughtful contribution. He rightly pointed out that the lesson of France is that, if moderates who try to respond to concerns about the scale of immigration are silenced by allegations of racism, voters will be driven into the arms of the extremist.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North–East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who paid proper tribute to the many people in his constituency who worked so hard after the fire at Yarl's Wood. He spoke of the lessons that we should learn from that awful event, and I pay tribute to his hard work on his constituents' behalf in that connection.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), both of whom made sensible and helpful speeches. In doing so, they may have talked themselves on to the Committee. Had they known that earlier, how different things might have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle rightly referred to the absolute need to grant refugee status where it is merited. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster pointed out that the current asylum system is unmanageable—a point made by other contributors—and that we need greater speed, as well as fairness.

Several Labour Members made interesting and well-argued speeches, some of which did not exactly shower praise on the Home Secretary. I doubt whether

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that surprised him, however. The hon. Members for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) drew on personal experience in their constituencies and as members of the Home Affairs Committee. Good contributions were made by many other Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who said truthfully that it matters not what we do in this House if the Home Office fails to get its act together.

As the Select Committee on Home Affairs reported two years ago, there are now up to 30 million displaced people in the world. They have been displaced by conflict, famine, or disease. They are all either genuine refugees, or economic migrants. They seek no more than a decent life for themselves and for their families. Large numbers of them are on the move. Many undertake horrific journeys. Thousands are children, as many speakers have noted. They pay extortionate prices to criminal gangs who will smuggle them into countries of their choice.

Among those desperate people were the 58 Chinese found suffocated in the back of a lorry in Dover on 19 June 2000. It matters not whether they were genuine refugees, but it matters a very great deal that they were decent, vulnerable people who simply wanted to improve their lot.

Asylum seekers and economic migrants alike are drawn to the west by various push and pull factors. Many cross a number of safe countries in Europe, failing—to our amazement—to make an asylum application in any of them. Many arrive in France, which is itself a safe country, and do not apply for asylum there. Instead, they use the Red Cross centre at Sangatte as a springboard for entry into this country.

Three years ago, the then Home Secretary—the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is now Foreign Secretary—sought to achieve a great deal with his flagship Bill on asylum. He told us that he wanted a faster and fairer system. He wanted stronger controls at ports, and effective enforcement against those not entitled to stay. He introduced the voucher system, saying that there was much evidence to suggest that cash benefits acted as a pull factor.

We know that the then Home Secretary was wrong in that respect. Vouchers stigmatised asylum seekers and did not reduce the number of applications, which rose from 46,000 in 1998 to more than 80,000 two years later. Many hon. Members have congratulated the present Home Secretary on his rapid reversal of his predecessor's policy.

With 19,000 applications for asylum being made in the final quarter of 2001, we must ask whether the system is working. I believe that it has not been working for years. More than 43,000 asylum applicants were still awaiting an initial decision in the middle of last year. Even today, the time from application to initial decision can be as long as 12 months, and the period between decision and completion of appeal can last as long as another 12 months, or more.

Appeals mount up. In the last quarter of 2001, 5,500 more appeals were received than were determined. The problem is either that we have too few case workers and adjudicators, or that the system does not work effectively. Perhaps the problem is a combination of both factors.

Fiona Mactaggart: I have made similar complaints, but does not the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that

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the number of appeals has doubled? For the first time that I can recall, nearly half as many decisions again have been made as applications have been made. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that we are beginning to sort matters out?

Mr. Malins: I would be the first to say that the Home Secretary and his team have done a great deal of very good work in the past few months and that progress has been made towards getting more appeals heard more quickly. However, the Home Secretary would be the first to agree that asylum seekers are the losers when there are such considerable delays, as it is probable that they and their families have had time to put down roots in this country.

What about the strong controls at ports that we were promised three years ago? At Dover, the position remains patchy. Only one lorry in 100 are checked. The best piece of technology available is the heartbeat machine, but I believe that, astonishingly, there is only one available at Dover. An efficient system there would demand at least five such machines.

Meanwhile, the exit points at Calais and Coquelles are not secure. Is it in the interests of the French to make them secure? Until we have large numbers of our own immigration officials and police on French soil, with first-rate equipment, the problem will continue.

If the Government's purpose three years ago was to cut the number of asylum seekers, they have not succeeded. If they aimed for a faster and fairer system, they did not succeed. If they intended to tighten border controls, they did not succeed. If they intended to remove a high proportion of failed asylum seekers, they have not succeeded.

Part 1 of the Bill covers citizenship ceremonies, pledges and a requirement for naturalisation that the applicant has sufficient knowledge about life in the UK and its language. We offer a broad welcome to the proposals but ask the Government to administer them with a light touch and ensure that they do not discriminate against the elderly and those with learning difficulties.

Part 2 provides for the trialling of accommodation centres, four in total. Presumably asylum applicants will remain in those for the whole of the asylum process. Each will hold 750, making a total of 3,000. That is a minute proportion of the 80,000 annual applicants, most of whom will still be dispersed around the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, 750 is too high a number of applicants to house in one centre. Such numbers invite discipline problems and concerns within the local community. It would be better still to have more such centres, with a maximum number of say, 250 in each, preferably in urban areas.

The Bill gives the Home Secretary the power but not the duty to provide certain services at these centres. If they are to work well, there must be a duty on the Home Secretary to provide services, top quality legal advice and help on site, as is the case at Oakington. I was glad to hear the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), say that such advice would be available. Can she confirm that it will be available on site at the accommodation centres? Given that it is so important that an asylum seeker receives competent advice early, will legal advice and assistance also be available at the induction centres?

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Does the Minister accept that if the previous Home Secretary's words are to mean anything, the process from initial application to decision and from decision to appeal must be speedy? Although we welcome measures to streamline appeals, will the Minister tell us the anticipated time frame? How long will a person stay at an accommodation centre? Will it be six weeks, six months, or could it be longer? Does the Minister anticipate that the whole process will be completed within a certain time frame? I ask that because if asylum seekers and their children are expected to live at an accommodation centre throughout the process, the longer the process takes the more compelling becomes the argument to allow children to receive education in mainstream schools rather than on site, and to allow asylum seekers to work.

Does the Minister accept that the best way to avoid delay is to have a one-stop shop with all facilities on site? Those should include better trained decision makers. Many of us believe, as the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, that the quality of initial decision making must improve. Most importantly, the presence of adjudicators on site would mean that current delays were avoided. When will the centres be ready? Will it take one year, two years or more?

Many of us have concerns about the detention, particularly in prison, of asylum applicants who do not commit a crime. Surely the appropriate time for detention is in a removal centre at the end of the asylum process prior to removal from this country and only when there is a serious risk of absconding. [Interruption.] I am getting more support from the Labour Benches than I had anticipated. I am extremely pleased, and am tempted to carry on even longer, but my colleagues say no.

The introduction of automatic bail hearings in part 3 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was welcomed at the time and it is a great shame that that procedure has never been implemented and is to be repealed by the Bill.

Let the Government do all that they can to renegotiate the bilateral agreement. Let them place an even greater emphasis on working with our European partners and those elsewhere to break up the criminal gangs who smuggle people for profit. Finally, let our Government and others tackle head-on the causes of economic migration and persecution in the troubled regions of the world. How much money spent in this country could be more usefully spent elsewhere?

A little while ago, the Home Secretary said that he was painfully aware that, if he was still in the job after three years, it would be for him and no one else to answer for the competence, effectiveness and activity of the immigration service. He was a little hard on himself: all of us have a duty to contribute to that extremely important debate. When the time comes, we shall ask the Home Secretary two questions: first, is our asylum system humane and decent; secondly, does it work well? If the answer to both questions is yes, he will have succeeded. We wish him well.

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