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Mike Gapes: For once, and probably for the only time in the debate, I agree with something that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has said. It is regrettable these substantive proposals were not before us in Committee. That is unfortunate, because it means that we are not able to give proper consideration to their merits.
I wish to draw attention to the reasons why we may need some of these measures. I do not know whether any other Member saw the "Dispatches" programme on Channel 4 at the weekend. It used a hidden camera to show a Romanian man who had been removed from this country. When he was at Sangatte, he made it very clear that he would return to this country with a false identity. He acquired a family and managed to return to this country after several failed attempts. The programme reported that he was living in Manchester.
If people act in that way, it is necessary to think about how we deal with the problem. I shall not betray any confidences from my advice surgery or mention individual cases but, in my 10 years in the House as a London Member of Parliament, I have dealt with hundreds if not thousands of cases involving immigration, asylum and nationality matters. We come across a significant number of cases in which we know we have not been told the full story, and we know of occasions when people have been abusing the system.
In the past few weeks, I have been dealing with the case of a Russian woman who applied for asylum and whose daughter came here as a visitor without revealing that she had any relatives in the UK. The woman, who had previously wanted to bring her husband into the country, divorced him and then married another man in this country so as to spin out her case for staying here. We have a corrupt immigration advice system in many areas that enables people to play the system and spin things out. As well as sorting out the legal system, we need to consider the way in which our social security and housing benefits systems are abused.
I have fought racism and intolerance throughout my life, and many of my constituents have parents and grandparents who came here as refugees. At Valentines mansion in my constituency, there is a plaque commemorating the Belgian refugees who lived there until 1919, after they fled Belgium in the first world war. They were sheltered in Ilford. Many Jewish people live in Ilford and many people in my constituency have fled from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
I have very many Somali constituents. It has been suggested that the introduction of the measures in the Bill will mean that people will resort to begging. I have never seen a Somali begging. Somalis do not stand at traffic lights on the north circular road with dolls or babies under their arms and intimidate motorists for money. They do not go round door to door knocking to ask for money from my constituents. That is done by organised gangs of criminals who are not asylum seekers. It is important to make that distinction, because sometimes the Daily Mail and other publications equate the issues in such a way as to create great tensions.
I want to introduce measures that will make it possible for the Iraqi Kurds who are fleeing a desperate situation and the Somalis who need our support to receive support without the system being abused by others who come from countries in central and eastern Europe and even from countries that are applying to join the European Union and claim political asylum when we know that there is absolutely no justification for it. There may be arguments about other human rights issues and about the level of law enforcement and criminality, but political asylum is not the issue in those countries.
It is time that those of us on the left who believe that we should be open, welcome immigration and have a diverse multicultural society were able to say loud and clear that we will not tolerate abuse and people exploiting our housing benefit and social security systems.
I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) about the level of competency and knowledge in council departments when it comes to making judgments about housing benefit and the habitual residence test. I want to be confident that the system will be applied properly.
Will the measures apply purely to new applications or will they apply retrospectively? I realise that we are dealing with difficult matters, but some people have been exploiting the system for years and we need to address that. If some families have been housed because they have children and we change the rules, will we face the serious problem of breaking them up? Many of my Asian constituents voice such concerns. I want to be able to tell them and others that the system will not be abused. I want to be able to reassure them that people will not take money or be housed to the detriment of those who have been waiting on housing lists and living in bad conditions for many years. However, I also want to be able to say that the measures will be applied sympathetically, carefully and, above all, accurately. I hope that the Home Office will rigorously improve the procedures within all its sections.
Mike Gapes: I suspect that I would be ruled out of order if I went into that. It would certainly take longer than the time available to give a litany of what is wrong with the way in which the immigration and nationality directorate and housing benefit departments have dealt with individual cases in the past 10 years. All of us whose casework involves many immigration and nationality problems could produce dossiers, perhaps lorry loads, of cases that have not been dealt with adequately.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), the former Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, and my right hon. Friend Lord Rooker, with whom I had the privilege to work, have done much to improve the situation, but a great deal more needs to be done to sort out the mess in those organisations.
Jeremy Corbyn: Surely one of the problems with the new schedule and the proposals is that we are making local social services authorities an extension of the Home Office immigration service. They are already overstretched and understaffed, and have great difficulty in coping with their work load.
Mike Gapes: I do not agree. The Children Act 1989 and the National Assistance Act 1948 place an obligation on local authorities to do certain things. We need to have a seamless system. The problem does not lie with the Home Office alone. All Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, operate on the same basis to achieve consistent decisions so that we have results that are not arbitrary, adverse or foolish. But I do not want to stray from the terms of the debate.
The proposal is politically necessary. It is right to question the mechanisms. I have much sympathy with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow about how Parliament should scrutinise measures. I hope that when the Bill returns from the other placeno doubt after the Tories and Liberals have ganged up to decimate it, as they do with everything that the Home Office introduces to improve thingswe will have another opportunity to discuss the merits of these measures.
Mr. Dawson: I tabled two amendments in the group, new clause 17 and amendment No. 261. The new clause would allow us to take a small but important step forward, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts it. When young unaccompanied people come to this country, they are initially assessed by a local authority's social services department and should be offered accommodation by a local authority, although not necessarily the one that carries out the assessment.
Hon. Members referred to the 6,000 unaccompanied children who are under 18 and seeking asylum. That could be considered a considerable number, but it is 10 per cent. of the 60,000 children who are looked after by local authorities and a mere fraction of the 11 million children who live in the UK. We live in the fourth richest country in the world, and we are enjoying economic success and
In the last few months of 2001, some hon. Members and I had the privilege of participating in a programme organised by UNICEFthe United Nations Children's FundSave the Children and other children's organisations, called "Journey of a refugee child". It followed a visit that some of us made to Angola, the worst country that I have been to, and which certainly fits the description of the worst country for children to grow up in.
As part of the programme, we visited some excellent projects in London. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) will recall our visit to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately, it took place on Guy Fawkes night, so rockets and bangers were going off all around us while we sat in a room with many young people who had gone through the worst experiences that any human being could