Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions (100-119)



  100. That comes back to my earlier question. We do not measure those voluntary returns that are not included in the official figures?
  (Beverley Hughes) No.
  (Mr Blunkett) We measured the 6,000 that were returned to France last year voluntarily, but we do not count those as voluntary removals because we have not got to the final stage of removal, if you take my point. So you are right in saying that we do not have accurate figures on everybody who goes, but we have estimates, which I will ensure are supplied, in terms of those we know actually have gone but have not reached the point of removal and therefore are not described as formal voluntary removals.
  (Beverley Hughes) The other point to make, if I may put this in the pot, is that you are only—I understand why, and it is very important—talking about people within the asylum system. There are, of course, about 50,000 people, in the last year for which we have complete figures, removed, if you look at non-asylum cases as well.

  101. Where I am going towards is if you take a figure of 97,000, or if you shave it a bit for those who have had their appeals rejected who then leave—if you take that figure—that is a large number of people, and it would imply that aiming for something like 30,000 would still leave a large amount every year still here who should not be here. So are you not lacking now in ambition by saying, "We can't have a 2,500 a month target, we can't have a 30,000 target"? Does it not show the system is collapsing?
  (Mr Blunkett) On that same Queen's Speech day—because I did try to lay a few parameters on that day a year last June—I did actually indicate that any effort whatsoever to step up removals would end up with tears, that people would demand that we removed more and at the same time demand that we do not remove specific families or individuals in which either they have an interest in their constituency or there has been a major campaign around. We are really in all this together. I am telling you that Parliament as a whole has to decide what it wants to do and how it intends to do it, which is why I am prioritising getting the system right, rather than ending up all the time with the agonies of removal.
  (Beverley Hughes) Also, if I can add to that, I think it underpins the point that the Home Secretary was making earlier about the real focus, because of the difficulties of removal. We need to do better, but there are some general difficulties—the report of the Committee identified some of them—around travel documentation, lack of routes, willingness of countries to accept that people are their nationals sometimes, as well as some of the difficulties we get in this country through the courts, through many people, not least colleagues as MPs of all parties who want removals increased, but actually when it is somebody that they have met in their advice surgery, it is a family they know, are willing to support campaigns to keep people here. So there are all those difficulties around removals. That is why the focus has to be as well on reducing intake, because removals are always going to be difficult. The priority has to be on reducing the number of people who get in and try to use the asylum system to stay here for economic reasons.


  102. That brings us rather nicely to the last issue relating to asylum that I want to address. That is, that we must never lose sight of the fact, must we, in all this talk about targets and, I was going to say, "bogus" asylum seekers, that we are dealing with human beings, and that many of these cases are personal tragedies? Can I just check with the Home Secretary that he can agree about that?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I do, which is why I have opened negotiations with the UNHCR to provide gateways for those who are facing death and persecution to be able to get agreement for their asylum claim to be dealt with without them having to become clandestines and get into the country illegally.

  103. Not only that, but where people do have to be removed, especially in cases involving children, children who in some cases may have been here all their conscious lives, develop friendships and set down roots, who are suddenly plucked from school and transferred to another country that they, though not their parents, know nothing of, we have to be a bit sensitive to this, have we not?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, which is why speed of delivery of the system is crucial. The longer that people are in the system—and it has to be said that this is a two-way process, we have to speed it up—there is some responsibility for those who, knowing that their claims have been rejected by the appeals process, do have some responsibility to those working with them not to prolong the agony still further. Between those two lies a solution in getting a system that is workable, where youngsters do not find themselves, in your description, taken out of the roots that they have developed, and I have every sympathy with that.

  104. Also in cases where clearly the refugees are economic migrants, but are being sent back, we are talking about people who have burned a lot of bridges, are we not, who may have run up a lot of debt at home, who may have not a penny to their name any longer, and we are sometimes going to put them down at an airport in a country they left some years previously, and leave them to get on with it?
  (Mr Blunkett) You and I have had, I think, friendly exchanges in the Chamber about this, because I do not disagree with you. Firstly, we have to appreciate that many of the people who have come here clandestinely have done so because of the outrageous organised criminal gangs who charge either themselves or their family very large sums of money, and who presumably will seek some form of retribution on those families if people do not pay. One way of looking at this is to ensure that people who are in a situation of removal, but want to come and work here—they must go back, I must stress that—can have some opportunity to apply for their country of origin, which is why I was saying earlier, we reject the view that all economic migration is bad and that we should close our borders.

  105. Yes, where we are sending people back, economic migrants, should we put a few pounds in their pocket to make sure that when they land at this airport on the other side of the world they have the means to get home and perhaps to keep themselves for a week or two?
  (Mr Blunkett) For those who go voluntarily I think the scheme we have with Afghanistan is important. It is a very important signal for those who have refused to go who are here illegally. We cannot pay people for breaking our laws. We can only encourage and incentivise where people are prepared to play ball with us. Other European countries, including the new French Government, are looking urgently at replicating the current pilot that we are engaged in in terms of Afghanistan.

  106. May I say that I think the pilot that you have launched is an extremely heartening way forward and a very sensible one. That relates, as you say, to Afghanistan. What I am looking for is a way of humanising what is, let us face it, a very brutal process at the end of the day, which is distressing not only for those on the receiving end, but those who have to carry out the removals. I am looking for a few more ways of humanising that system.
  (Mr Blunkett) One way very strongly must be to get return agreements with the country of origin and try to work out with the country, either at the community or regional level, a way of facilitating and helping.
  (Beverley Hughes) I was just going to add that the voluntary assisted return programme which has been going since February 1999, of which the Afghanistan programme is a variant, does actually provide assistance to people—not cash assistance, but assistance in kind—by the International Organization for Migration that, in a sense, conducts this whole programme on our behalf and provides assistance in kind to people when they land to help them with housing, with training particularly. I do think there is an issue about giving people cash routinely, outside of the Afghanistan programme, because of the perceived incentive that could provide for people to try to get here in the first place. I wanted to assure you that there is assistance, there are resources in that programme to provide people with assistance in kind to help them resettle.
  (Mr Blunkett) I ought to add, just because other people have a different take on this, that if people are prepared to go, it is a damned sight cheaper than their remaining here. I ought to make that point, because I have read one or two very interesting comments. There are those who write on one thing one day, and by the end of the week they are writing the exact opposite, purely to make a point against you.

  107. Yes. I am not one of those, Home Secretary!
  (Mr Blunkett) No, you are not. I am very glad you are not a journalist, because I fear you much more than I do those who write!

  108. I want to press a point that Mrs Hughes made a moment ago. What would be wrong in putting £100 in the pocket of everybody who was deported or removed from here, so that when they get out at Kinshasa or whatever, they have the means to get home and to buy a meal or two there? There is no way everybody is going to come back in the hope of getting £100, when it costs over £1,000 to get here in the first place.
  (Mr Blunkett) I think you would have to weigh the politics of giving people pocket money on their way out. We have enough problems persuading the British people to accept that we are robust but fair already. In other words, you keep a system in balance that does not allow the immigration and asylum issue to become a very dangerous political football.

  109. With respect, Home Secretary, the politics are not very complicated. People want to see these people removed as decently and as swiftly as possible, and so no one is going to resent this, apart from a few recalcitrants who could easily be dealt with, I would have said. It does not require much political courage to do what I have just suggested.
  (Mr Blunkett) Let me say that I paid you a compliment just a moment ago about your journalistic skills from the past. Let me be robust with you. £100 is not going to make the difference between whether they do or they do not go back or whether they pay the traffickers. What it would do would be a humanitarian gesture, and it is that that I am talking about, because it would be in addition to the costs we are already incurring in processing the system.

  110. It would, but it is a rather modest cost, and it is far less than keeping them in detention or indeed maintaining them here not in detention?
  (Mr Blunkett) Indeed, but it is not an alternative to that. It is a straight humanitarian gesture. It would not make a difference to their willingness to come or go.

  111. No, so why not pay it?
  (Mr Blunkett) £1,500 or £2,000 would, but the cost is substantial. Even on our current removals, what you are asking is substantial.

  112. Yes, but what is wrong with the humanitarian gesture?

  (Mr Blunkett) Nothing. There is nothing wrong with humanitarian gestures. I remember the Interior Minister of Germany telling me that the Prime Minister of Schleswig-Holstein had said to him that he thought his asylum policy was far too tough, and he said to him, "Fine, we'll direct all our asylum seekers to Schleswig-Holstein and you can pay for them out of the state budget."

  113. Never mind the Schleswig-Holstein question.
  (Mr Blunkett) I put that one in the air specially for you!

  114. I do not want to push you into ruling all this out. May I leave that with you?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, let us leave it, like the Schleswig-Holstein question, hanging in the air!

  115. I am very serious about this point that we do need to humanise what at the end of the day is a very brutal process, and it is especially brutal where children are involved. Those of us who have seen it with our own eyes know that. It depends sometimes which country you are sending them back to. There is quite a bit of difference between putting people down at Prague airport or putting them down in Kinshasa, is there not?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I agree with that. There is a difference, and there is a humanitarian issue, particularly with children.

  116. So may I urge you to think about that. May I put it to you finally that Hong Kong, with the Vietnamese boat people, operated one of the world's most ruthless repatriation processes, and also with the refugees from mainland China, but they still put a few dollars in their pockets so that when they got out—they delivered them, bound hand and feet, onto the planes at Hong Kong, but when they got out—at Hanoi they had the means to get home and to live for a week or two.
  (Mr Blunkett) I am very interested in that. They obviously traded a few dollars for the European Convention on Human Rights, and I would never dream of advocating that, Chairman.

  117. No, but my only point is—
  (Mr Blunkett) Sorry, I was being ironic.

  118. You were indeed, but I am being absolutely straight with you. My only point is that if a system of repatriation as ruthless as the one Hong Kong ran could manage to do that, surely we could?
  (Mr Blunkett) I have agreed not to dismiss it out of hand.

  119. I am most grateful. I shall be coming back to that subject in due course.
  (Mr Blunkett) I thought you would!

  Chairman: Home Secretary, we have finished two minutes ahead of target, you will be pleased to know, so I am a man who delivers on what I promise. Please bear that in mind for the future. Can I thank Mrs Hughes and the Home Secretary for coming. The session is closed.

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