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Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend not feel that it is outstandingly pitiful that after 18 years of Conservative rule we still have so many people who cannot read and write?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is unfortunate that over the past 20 years more was not done to address the problem. In the announcement we shall make shortly about this matter, I very much hope that the Government can put in place a scheme that will attract large numbers of adults. But we shall be dependent on the employers' help and support in identifying those employees who have difficulty both in reading and in simple numeracy. I am afraid that that situation is true of just too many adults in this country.

Illegal Immigrants

2.48 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, last year we removed a record number of immigration offenders. We established a dedicated arrest team to trace and remove illegal entrants. We are expanding the number of detention places available. We are recruiting extra

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immigration officers for enforcement work. We can prosecute employers who exploit illegal immigrants. We introduced a new automated fingerprint system, which has led to the prosecution of many multiple applicants. We have increased the number of operations undertaken by the Immigration Service.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, in the eight years leading up to 1997 there were 59,000 illegal immigrants unaccounted for. Last year alone 76,000 illegal immigrants were refused entry. Can the Minister say what impact these illegal immigrants have on the National Health Service, the housing shortage, schools and crime? If he is unable to do so, can he say what steps he is taking to address the matter?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord hardly may be described as a liberal on these matters, but we need to adopt a careful and measured tone when addressing this issue. This Government take firm and effective action where someone comes to this country and makes an unfounded claim for asylum. It is essential to deal properly with claims, but also for us to demonstrate humanity and integrity. Members of the party opposite would be wise to recall that.

As regards the impact on health and other services, clearly we need to make provision while people's cases are being considered. We make adequate provision and it is quite proper that we do so.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that the skills of those classified as economic migrants will be analysed to see whether such skills could be used in areas where we are experiencing grave staff shortages? I am thinking in particular of the health service and the shortage of doctors and nurses, as well as teachers. Perhaps I may remind the Minister that the contribution of overseas doctors and that of people employed in the transport sector has kept those services going in this country.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord has made a sensible point. People come to this country in search of asylum. When asylum has been granted, they often go on to make a valuable contribution to the life of our great nation. Obviously, when someone has satisfied the conditions and has been granted asylum rights or exceptional leave to remain, they can then make a contribution to our workforce. We welcome and celebrate that. It adds to the diversity of our nation. However, it is wise and sensible for the Government to keep a careful eye on the situation and of course we undertake to do that.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is no exaggeration to say that thousands come here from Sri Lanka? Among those thousands are probably several hundred who are supporters of the LTTE, the terrorist group which imposes extortionate demands on legitimate Sri Lankans living in this country. Will the Minister encourage his department to redouble its efforts to ensure that those Sri Lankans staying here

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illegally are returned to Sri Lanka, not least because welcome progress is now being made towards peace in that country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we take firm and effective measures against terrorism from wherever it comes. The noble Lord will know that last year we put in place new terrorism legislation. I must rely on the points that have already been made; namely, that we have put in place firm and effective measures to deal with what might be described as illegal immigration. We shall rigorously enforce those measures, as we always have. However, if someone makes a legitimate claim for asylum, that claim falls to be dealt with properly. We must consider it fairly under the conventions which apply.

Lord Laming: My Lords, does the Minister agree that many unaccompanied refugee children who have come to this country have already proved themselves to be successful, positive and constructive members of our society?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, people who come and settle in our country, perhaps because of terrible events which have taken place in their home countries, often make an outstanding contribution to our society. No doubt certain Members of your Lordships' House came here as young people. Those Members have made outstanding contributions. We welcome that. It is something which our society generally should celebrate. This Government are determined to offer opportunities to all young people, from wherever they come, if they are living here quite properly.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, has the Minister noted that the statistics indicate that more illegal immigrants are disappearing into the woodwork in this country than in any other country? Other European countries seem to be far better at locating them and sending them back to where they should be than are we. What has the Minister to say about that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not accept that we are ineffective in dealing with people who come here illegally. I agree that there is a gap in some of the figures, but we have put in place an extremely effective raft of measures to deal with it. We are setting up reporting centres to keep track of people on temporary admission or temporary release. We are increasing the number of immigration officers after--it has to be said--their staffing levels were run down disgracefully during the early part of the 1990s. They are deployed on enforcement work and are establishing dedicated removals teams. Last year a record number of removals were recorded. It falls to us to work co-operatively with all our neighbours in the European Union. That is what we are doing.

This is not a problem peculiar to the United Kingdom. If the noble Baroness had studied the statistics, she would have seen that we are placed in the middle of the European table for receiving people from

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abroad seeking asylum. We must be both robust and effective, but we must also behave fairly and properly. I appeal to the noble Baroness to approach this particular and sensitive issue in that fair-minded manner.

Lord MacKenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, will my noble friend consider carefully the role of the police in removing illegal immigrants from this country? I make the point having spoken recently with a chief constable who strongly emphasised the importance of maintaining good community relations with refugee communities in this country. He envisaged difficulties that might be caused if officers are asked to act as community officers during the day, but then go around at night in black vans rounding up those who need to be removed from the country. Will the Minister look carefully at the role of the police when assisting immigration officers?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the recent report from the Association of Chief Police Officers on the matter was telling in this regard. ACPO rightly made the point that we need to handle this issue with great sensitivity. I pay tribute to the work of many police services up and down the country because they have done exactly that. In my early days in my current post, I had good cause to contact the Kent police force. The work of that force in community relations was among the best. Their officers were to be congratulated on dealing with an extremely difficult situation which unfortunately had become inflamed and had lost any sense of proportion. Their work and the work of other police forces across the United Kingdom provides ample evidence of the dedicated way in which they conduct themselves. They demonstrate the care and sensitivity which are required to approach what are sometimes extremely sensitive issues.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, am I right in thinking that more than half of those refused permission for asylum nevertheless remain here? Given those circumstances, does that not make rather a nonsense of the legislation providing for new tribunals, extra staff and so forth in order to try to decide who is entitled to asylum?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord will know that, last year, 78,000 refusals were made. Once a person has been refused, then of course they are entitled to pursue an appeals process. The last piece of legislation on asylum and immigration matters put in place a one-stop appeals process. Prior to that, we had an absolute mess involving multiple appeals over multiple decisions. We were left with a nonsensical situation.

That is not our view only. It was also the view held by certain former Tory Ministers. In the Sunday People of 29th August 1999, David Mellor said:

    "The Tories have nothing to be proud of. This crisis has been brewing a long time. When I was in the Cabinet it was raised. Two of us expressed concern".

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It is a great shame that more members of that Cabinet did not express concern, because then we would not have been left with the problem that we have had to resolve.

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