Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions (40-59)



  40. Thank you. We now turn to asylum and immigration. Mr Cameron is going to start the ball rolling.
  (Mr Blunkett) If it is okay, before Mr Cameron starts, I will share some of this—purely in terms of breath—with the Minister of State.

  Chairman: We hope so, yes.

Mr Cameron

  41. Home Secretary, it is clearly very important in this debate, in order to get the right answers, to start with the right figures and statistics for both asylum and for migration flows. Are you happy that the Home Office publishes sufficient and accurate figures and forecasts?
  (Mr Blunkett) I promised in the Queen's Speech debate a year last June that we would publish more transparent figures, more properly collated, and we have been doing that, and the three-monthly—quarterly—figures that are now published are more extensive. They include dependents rather than just heads of families who have made the application. I do not believe there is any point in hiding information because it merely deludes ourselves when we need to find solutions to a very, very big problem.

  42. We had a group in front of us yesterday, Migrationwatch, who produced this figure for net non-EU immigration into the UK of around 240,000 a year. I would like you to comment on it but perhaps in two parts. The biggest number they come up with is 180,000 which is from the international passenger survey, which I understand is a Home Office figure. The other two elements, to get from 180,000 to 240,000, are estimates for undetected asylum seekers coming into the country and, also, then a figure for over-stayers. What is your comment on those figures?
  (Mr Blunkett) Firstly, I would not criticise those who indicate that the figure is larger than the 180,000 but what I would ask them to do is to be circumspect because their information and mine is subject to enormous error. I believe that until we have entitlement cards and we have a much better picture of who is in our country, who is accessing work and services, we will not know fully who is here illegally; by the very definition of having entered clandestinely, working illegally and avoiding detection it is very difficult to make a snapshot decision. So I do believe that it would be helpful if we had a clearer picture in order that we can have a balanced approach to migration which matches the expansion of the legitimate entry into this country through work permits with a much tougher approach on clandestine entry and those who seek either to work illegally or to claim asylum when they are not in danger of life and limb.

  43. You accept that the 180,000 figure should be taken as a basis?
  (Mr Blunkett) I think it is a reasonable estimate of the situation.

  44. Does the Home Office produce figures or estimates for those that over-stay—who might be visiting students—and for undetected asylum seekers who come in on lorries—for want of a better expression—but have not been found by the police? Do you make any estimates or publish any estimates?
  (Mr Blunkett) We have a longer term piece of work in train at the moment between the Home Office and the Strategy Unit, as it is now known, in order to look at both migration trends and the position in the country. I think this is essential in terms of getting the picture right, both in terms of action to be taken but, also, reassurance that we are not being flooded by people, but we do have a challenge in making sure that we get it right. Other countries have a worse situation because they often just countenance illegal presence. We do not countenance illegal presence, we do not do enough about putting it right when we know it exists.

  45. On the question of over-stayers, the point that was put to us yesterday is that we have a problem in this country because we do not check people when they leave, so figures have to be estimated for how many people come in as tourists or students, or whatever. This is non-EU. Why do we not check, at least, who has left?
  (Mr Blunkett) Of course, we used to have a system many years ago which was abandoned (I am not sure how many years ago, maybe ten years ago) in terms of embarkation. The reason it was abandoned, firstly, was because it was not robust; it was non-existent in terms of actually being able to follow through and check those who had not presented themselves—for the reasons I was talking to the Attorney General in the United States, and here even when they are looking to secure this in the United States on anti-terrorism grounds, to be able to follow through—even on those who carry visas and, therefore, have got a timescale to check on—is very difficult. I am not complacent about this. I think there is a real issue as to whether we should examine again embarkation, but it would need to be linked to a method of the individual carrying identity and of a recognition of being prepared to follow through and collect that individual from wherever they were. We have enough problems at the moment with removals of those who are not in accommodation, as we know, and the absconding rate. I think we need to examine logically and carefully how that might be achieved.

  46. I am sure we will come on to that issue of removals. One last thing: would it not make sense in the meantime, before all these investigations and decisions have been made, for the Home Office to make some estimates about undetected asylum seekers and over-stayers, so that at least the debate about numbers can have a clearer picture?
  (Mr Blunkett) I am happy to hear from people as to their commitment and input into that work, including Migrationwatch.

  47. Surely, you are the experts. You are the Home Office, you are responsible for our borders and have more chance than anyone else of having a good stab at it.
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, we are, which is why we have established, since last June, the working group set up to look at illegal working—cross-departmental work—and why I have published the paper on entitlement cards in July, because without this you can estimate whatever you like, but it is completely meaningless in terms of doing anything about it.

Bob Russell

  48. Home Secretary, you are planning to build four large centres, each of 750 places in rural areas. The Refugee Council has suggested smaller centres—100 to 200 places—in urban centres. Why have you decided to go on the path you are going with huge ones in rural areas?
  (Mr Blunkett) I will ask Beverley Hughes to comment on the position at the moment. It was never my intention that we simply say: "We will have accommodation centres in rural areas only". We are in a pilot phase to ascertain whether we can develop accommodation centres which can fast-track cases, which can develop a system which is robust in avoiding the duplication of payments or the exploitation of our system, the ability to be able to undertake fast-track processing including, as has been debated in Parliament (and I accepted), the adjudication system on site, and the ability to be able to remove people immediately they fail in their claim to removal centres and get them out of the country—for the reasons I was alluding to a moment ago in terms of absconders. We are in discussions with the Refugee Council about how we might experiment with a smaller and slightly re-shaped centre that would give us an ability to evaluate alternatives but not on the scale of 200 only—firstly because of economies of scale in terms of provision of facilities and back-up that is needed but, secondly, because some of us do have centres of the sort that the Refugee Council are describing in our constituencies. I have a NASS dispersal centre in and around 130 properties clustered together in my constituency. The local schools and GP practices service that centre, as I do in my surgery all the time. The difference is that there is not a coherent provision of those services. They impinge, as I described in slightly graphic language earlier in the year, although I did not realise I was upsetting people at the time, in terms of the pressures it brings to bear. I do not see why it should be the most disadvantaged areas of the country—where there is accommodation available by the very nature of the accommodation being empty and where there are school places because they are not oversubscribed and where GP practices have registration available—that should take asylum seekers. I do not see any reason whatsoever why it should be the most disadvantaged areas of the country that have to take that additional pressure, which is why accommodation centres properly placed in a variety of areas would, in my view, provide both for the needs of asylum seekers, and meet the requirements of a robustly managed asylum policy and good community and race relations, as it reduces the pressures which allow others to foster and fester racism.

  49. Home Secretary, the position at the moment, though, is that only four sites, as I understand it, have been identified, all of them for 750 people. The Refugee Council has suggested smaller sites in urban areas and although your lengthy answer went all round the houses, you have not explained what research the Home Office has conducted on the experience of other EU countries where I am advised such centres of a small size are located.
  (Mr Blunkett) I will ask Bev Hughes to comment. Centres in certain parts of Europe are designed for entirely different purposes. We are very specific about what we want these centres to do.
  (Beverley Hughes) I am looking at this actively in relation to the two sites that at the moment are about to go into planning inquiries. I am looking much more widely at a range of locations and options because, as the Home Secretary said, this is a trial and, subject to some non-negotiable principles, I think we are willing to look at the ideas of the Refugee Council and indeed any other variants on the criteria that have been talked about hitherto. I think the non-negotiable criteria are that we really do not want centres in areas that have a significant number of dispersed asylum seekers at the moment. I had another MP come to speak to me yesterday about his concerns about the combined impact in his area of the numbers of dispersed asylum seekers together with asylum seekers that we have had to accommodate in emergency accommodation because of large numbers of large families coming into the country for whom we had to find special accommodation. Of course it is in those places where those people who are granted refugee status tend to settle as well. So there are some areas of the country which are already providing a great deal of support to significant numbers of asylum seekers. I think it is right that other areas of the country that have not been doing that hitherto start to do so. I think the second non-negotiable point for me is that the services provided on site should cater for the needs of those asylum seekers and they should not be dependent on mainstream services within the community. That links to size in so far as we need a critical mass in terms of the size in order to make that equation work, not only from a cost point of view but in terms of the level of service compared to need in order to provide for a reasonable size of population. The 750 is not written in tablets of stone and certainly I am looking both at other locations and other variants on size, provided we can meet those two criteria.

  50. Have the Refugee Council got it wrong?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think the Refugee Council are coming to this from a point of principle, particularly around the provision of services and particularly around the provision of education services to children, and they simply do not agree. Their bottom line is that children should be educated in mainstream schools. There is a different position, for the reasons I have outlined, that we take, and therefore there is a crunch difference, but I do not think that is an unresolvable difference in that I think that we can consider a variant on the Refugee Council model that will come substantially to where they would want to be, whilst preserving our two (at least) non-negotiable criteria.

  51. Minister, in an earlier reply you said that two of these sites are now going out to planning appeal, so none has been built yet. Assuming the planning appeals are granted, and it must be your assumption that they will be granted the permission, they still will not be built until the end of next year, perhaps into 2004, so why not in the meantime take the advice of the Refugee Council and start providing small units along the lines they have suggested?
  (Beverley Hughes) I think I have answered that question in the sense that I have certainly not got my mind or ears closed to what the Refugee Council are saying. Officials are working actively with the Refugee Council. I myself have met Nick Hardwick and some of his colleagues and we have talked about this, and we will continue to talk further. I think that there is a position probably, if we can find the right location, in which we can move in the direction that they are suggesting, subject to the issues about services and size and efficiency and economy that I have outlined.

  52. But your best case scenario is that the first of these mega centres will not be opened for at least 15 months, if not longer. Is that correct?
  (Beverley Hughes) I am sorry, I did not say that.

  53. I am putting it to you that if planning applications are yet to be determined then there is a planning appeal process to go through, which you assume and hope goes the right way, and you have then got to build these centres.
  (Beverley Hughes) I am not waiting for the outcome of these planning inquiries on two sites before we look at what alternatives and additions there might be. We are looking actively at other sites. We are working with the Refugee Council and their ideas to see if in other locations we can meet their aspirations, at least in part, and have a different variant within the range on which there will be a trial. We want a range because this is a trial. We want to look at how different ways of providing this facility work best and therefore obviously we do not want all the sites we have necessarily to be exactly the same. We want to look at variables and which variables we might want to replicate in the future because they might work better.

  Bob Russell: Thank you for that last response, which I thought was very encouraging.

Bridget Prentice

  54. Given that these accommodation centres may not be ready in a year or so's time and that you have apparently done away with the dispersal policy, is the dispersal policy going to operate in the interim or have you something else in mind at that point?
  (Mr Blunkett) The dispersal policy continues. When I published last autumn the immediate review of dispersal, which I had initiated the previous June, I indicated that we firstly wanted to decentralise and regionalise a lot more so there was greater sensitivity and flexibility at regional and local level. Secondly, the dispersal centre would run alongside the trial for any accommodation centres. We are talking about years ahead if we are to move to accommodation centres. Our immigration and asylum policy does not rest on trials for accommodation centres but on preventing people entering the country illegally primarily and also dealing with them much more effectively, speedily and efficiently when they are here. So the new induction centres, the reporting regime that we are putting in place, the new ARC cards that identify who is entitled to what in a way that was not present before, the ability to be able to use that decentralised support system in a way that allows us to check whether people are being taken off support at the right time, all of these things must continue and are continuing alongside any trials.

  55. That is quite reassuring, Home Secretary, because for a constituency like mine in London the pressures are enormous and so I hope that you would maybe expand a little bit more on what you want to do in terms of setting up or improving the National Asylum Support Service regionally so, for example, some parts of London and the South East do not have the pressures, particularly within schools that are failing schools or potentially failing schools that will be made worse by a system that goes on as it presently is.
  (Mr Blunkett) The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill which will, as you know, continue its passage through the Lords shortly, actually includes measures that will help us strengthen our hand. There are controversial measures, in that, of course, where we do not have dispersal control is where people seek cash only as opposed to accommodation because then they will choose to go wherever they wish. We are trying to balance the desire not to be prescriptive and the worries that people have about the question of the withdrawal of cash only with the ability to be able to direct people away from areas of great pressure, for all the reasons you have annunciated, which are crucial to not only good community relations but also actually being able to physically cope with the number of people, often with English as an additional language or no English at all, coming into the area.

  56. Absolutely, and of course probably to the benefit of the children of asylum seekers in the end, I would hope?
  (Mr Blunkett) Being able to deal with their cases speedily and effectively, being able to find suitable accommodation and a school place quickly, which is not always the situation despite the rosy glow that comes over people when they are against accommodation centres, would be better fulfilled by an improvement in the current dispersal and reporting system, so that with reporting we know where people are and we can be more careful about where they are placed, and we can reduce the pressures that we have talked about.

  57. Can I just ask you why the concession on allowing asylum seekers to take up employment if they have been waiting six months has been withdrawn?
  (Mr Blunkett) Firstly, it was an incentive for people not to want an early decision. Secondly, it sent all the wrong signals apropos what happens in other European countries. I do not think we should under-estimate the critical importance of signals that are sent. With countries now evaluating their own policies, we can see and we can track the change in direction of particular nationalities dependent on what they think is available to them. We want to say to people, "If you want to claim asylum, then you should use the legitimate asylum route. If you want to work you should use the economic migration work permit route." That is why, contrary to those who are against any form of inward migration—and there are people now promoting this quite heavily and we will see more of it in the media through the months ahead—I believe that we need a managed economic migration policy in order to welcome people in the country. It has to be robust and managed. At the moment a very large number of people seek asylum as a route to migration and we should discourage that. Do you want to add to that?
  (Beverley Hughes) Except to say that I think this concept of managed migration is a really important one about which we have got to talk more. For me that does have three important strands. One is to make sure that we have a system in which we can identify quickly people who are fleeing persecution who do qualify internationally for refugee status, and to integrate those people better and more effectively than we do at the moment. Secondly, we have got to be very robust about illegal entry and working because that creates a chaos and an irrationality in the system which means that it is not credible, either to refugees or to the British public. Thirdly, alongside that, I support very strongly what the Home Secretary has said, that, if we can, we ought to extend the current routes we have for people to come in and get work and experience here and then go home, providing we can do so robustly. For me those are the three essential strands for trying to develop a coherent approach to immigration which has rationality, which has fairness and which has integrity.

  58. That, of course, would mean having the records and figures as accurate and as up-to-date as possible obviously?
  (Beverley Hughes) It would also, as the Home Secretary has mentioned twice now, depend on being able to identify people and being able to use that identification to deal much more robustly both with people who are working illegally because they come in illegally and also the employers that are sometimes employing them.

  59. You mentioned the European Union. Are you satisfied with the progress that is being made within the Union on asylum and immigration?
  (Mr Blunkett) I am very happy with the bilateral work that we are doing. If you think of this time last year, virtually every night on television and in very many of our national newspapers pictures of what was described as the "floods" coming through the Channel Tunnel. With the co-operation of the French, we have not only secured the depot at Coquelles where there is less than one a month coming through, but we have now got the agreement on the securing of Fréthun—the double security fencing, internal lighting and trailing is now in place. There is agreement at Calais with milimetric and heartbeat equipment that we are supporting and supplying. The ability to put in what are called juxtaposed controls, which is border, passport, immigration and Customs controls, is now under discussion with the French and, of course, there is the work we have been doing with the French on the closure of Sangatte. I shall be going next week to talk to the French and Belgians about the wider issue of securing the longer coastal border and going to Fréthun with the Interior Minister in France to see just how much progress we have made. I think in a few months we have made enormous progress. There is a different issue in terms of Europe-wide. There is a new spirit in terms of recognising that we must work together on this—I was discussing this with the Justice and Home Affairs Council only this last weekend—and a commitment to people building on what is called Eurodac, the finger-printing and biometric system which within the Schengen area and in co-operation with us will help us to be able to do a much better job Europe-wide. I am not waiting for European-wide agreement on anything. Waiting for Dublin II is a bit like "waiting for Godot", so we have to make what progress we can as quicky as we can bilaterally and trilaterally based on what we are anticipating on a Europe-wide basis.

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