WEDNESDAY 18 SEPTEMBER 2002
Mr Chris Mullin, in the Chair
RT HON DAVID BLUNKETT, a Member of the House, Home Secretary, and BEVERLEY HUGHES, a Member of the House, Minister of State for Citizenship, Immigration and Social Cohesion, Home Office, examined.
(Mr Blunkett) I am very grateful. I hope I can make the same commitment on targets in the department.
(Mr Blunkett) Because I have not determined the allocation within the overall figures that were announced in July. I am in the process of doing that. I will have to give notification in relation to the police budget because of the revenue grant and the associated standard spending assessment for the announcement by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in November, and I will do that shortly. However, we are undertaking a root and branch efficiency review within the department in terms of the allocation of both baseline resource and the new allocation, and I want to be able to reconfigure the way in which we do our budget. We have some very new senior staff on the finance side in the department. Margaret Eldred came across from the Treasury at the end of last year and she has been working with us on both the application through the spending review process and now on the key issue of not simply providing incrementalism where we simply add to what we have already got, irrespective of how well we are performing on the baseline and whether or not we are actually delivering the resources in the right area. So forgive me for that, it is a genuine exercise in reconfiguring the Home Office's budget to meet the new priorities.
(Mr Blunkett) On the police budget I will endeavour to do so within the next three or four weeks. The issue of the reconfiguration I hope to have been able to make some progress on by the end of the calendar year and certainly into the beginning of next year because people will want to know the three-year picture at least in broad terms, and I accept and understand that.
(Mr Blunkett) On asylum we have a ring-fenced amount for this coming year, an additional amount to the totals that were agreed in the previous review. I choose my words carefully because I seem to remember the last time I was with you I did point out that we were in a situation, not of my making, where we had an interim allocation in the 2000 review which then had to be topped up immediately because the year-on-year outturns for 2000/01 and 2001/02 were considerably higher than the original allocation of £400 million for asylum purposes, added to the existing broader IND activity. That has been at least substantially rectified in this current spending review, so the £641 million (if my memory serves me correctly) for the coming year is ring-fenced. We still, obviously, have to decide whether there are other areas in terms of what we are doing in strengthening our border controls or our bilateral relationship with other countries which would require an approach demanding additional resources, and I need to look at that.
(Mr Blunkett) "The next few days" has extended into a substantial review of correctional services, so I do not want to allocate the budget purely to the Prison Service over and above what they have already been allocated, not least in the April 17 budget - because I think you should, if you would, Chair, take the April 17 budget together with the spending review, because unlike other departments we did have a substantial uplift both on the street crime initiative and on prison places; the 2,300 additional places for correctional places were announced and are being implemented. I have said to the Head of the Prison Service that clearly he will need to know very rapidly how we fund the immediate requirement for those on-going places and we will do that, but we have set up a review with independent members now joining the Correctional Board that we have established and that review will take a look at both the pressures and, also, the opportunities for reconfiguring the balance between the parts of the correctional service - community sentencing, long-term sentences for dangerous, sexual, violent offenders - and we want to ensure that we have got a picture that is robust enough to convince others that we have a case for substantial additional resources, which of course come at a price, because the money you spend on additional prison places is money you cannot spend on interventions which avoid re-offending.
(Mr Blunkett) We have been in the forefront of suggesting that we need fewer, more robust targets, and I believe that very strongly. I think that the emphasis that I am placing for the three years ahead is on delivery, and to be able to deliver you need targets that are within reasonable bounds and understandable to both the public and Parliament and, therefore, to allow you, as the Committee here, and Parliament as a whole, to genuinely scrutinise whether we are making progress rather than merely scoring points.
(Mr Blunkett) No, I do not need to have the argument because the discussions have been extremely friendly, as you would expect.
(Mr Blunkett) I knew there were major challenges when I visited the Criminal Records Bureau on 1 March. I was aware that what had been expected of them was extending the capability of any organisation to deliver. You will recall, because you will have the history, that it was this Committee which recommended that there was something like the Criminal Records Bureau established in their report of 1990 and there was then legislation just before the 1997 General Election. That was then carried into effect, starting in the August of 1997 and eventually the contract was let in August 2000. Consequent to that, the Office of Government Commerce had two separate what are called "Gateway Reviews" on the progress. On each occasion the recommendations made on substantial improvement were acted upon. When I visited the Bureau on 1 March it was patently clear that what was happening in terms of the pressure of clients, including wanting paper-based applications, was going to be a challenge. I do not think what had been foreseen at the time was the enormity of the volume, nor that there would be the particular concerns that arose this summer and were acted upon by the Department for Education and Skills. There is no question whatsoever that the way in which the administration and operation of the Records Bureau has proceeded is unacceptable, which is why just under ten days ago I set up an independent review with independent scrutiny, under the chairmanship of Pat Carter - acting as a senior non-executive chair, in effect - to come forward with not only a picture of the immediate steps that are required but, also, some of the broader issues that affect, I think, the relationship between Government and arm's length agencies (those agencies and their private sector partners) on the level of accountability and responsibility that should be taken at each layer, including ministerial level, and also of course the question of risk and who carried that risk and for what purpose.
(Mr Blunkett) Consequent on the concerns that arose in May - and this is all on record, of course, so there is no difficulty about access to the decisions that were taken - on 21 May in agreement with the Secretary of State for Education it was decided that given the concerns that we had we would use List 99. Members will recall that there was an amendment moved to the 1996 Education Act, just before the General Election and agreed by all parties, to introduce List 99 to provide the kind of protection that did not exist before. List 99 is robust. The work of the Criminal Records Bureau underpins that even further and, obviously, extends it to non-teaching staff. The decision in May was overturned, as Members will be aware, on 20/21 August with a direct approach from that department to the Criminal Records Bureau and, as a consequence, the Criminal Records Bureau switched its effort and staff, including the work of Capita, to the full checks again that had been undertaken prior to 21 May. The consequence of that you are aware of. It was then a decision taken by the Secretary of State when she returned from Australia that put us back on track to be able to ensure that schools were able to operate properly. That is the situation we are now in, it is part of the review that Pat Carter's group are undertaking and I hope we can resolve it very quickly.
(Mr Blunkett) The issue is at what stage those applications were put in, because those that applied at the point when notice has to be given by teachers of leaving have all been cleared; those that have been put in very recently - within the last three weeks - remain outstanding. So what I would like to do, as the accountable minister, with Charlie Falconer, is to ensure that we get a timescale for clearance which is acceptable. At the moment we are working to get that to six weeks. The original target was three weeks. Given the volume, that was extremely ambitious. It is better to tell people what they can expect and allow them to plan for it in the short term while we get this right than it is to mislead them and then create the frustrations and, in some cases, the genuine worry that they are not having their key staff cleared. I have to emphasise, however, because I think this is very important and I have not spoken about this publicly, that we are at least in a better position than we were on 31 March, because prior to 31 March we did not have a Criminal Records Bureau. So the processing of staff, albeit it has not been competent, actually is a plus not a minus, and I think that did get lost at the end of August in the concerns about whether teaching staff were being cleared.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, there have been a great many rumours. I hold no remit for what has taken place. It seems to me the reassurances that have been given to officials and, consequently, to ministers have led us to be extremely sceptical of anything that we are told, and that is why the review group will be looking at the information trail and the robustness of what is available to us, so that we can make logical decisions from their review. What is absolutely clear is that the use of paper-based applications and the sheer incapability of people filling in those forms properly has undoubtedly contributed to the chaos that existed a few weeks ago - no question about that. From the interim report I was given by the review group two days ago that became patently clear.
(Mr Blunkett) One final question, Secretary of State. Have you paid any extra money to Capita to deal with this problem?
(Mr Blunkett) No.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, there are, and part of the review group's remit will be to assess the culpability and to ensure that we get independent advice on that. I am very clear, as I said a moment ago, that we, as a Government - and this is not a party issue - need to be clear about levels of accountability and of risk in contracts of this sort.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes.
(Mr Blunkett) The decision was taken in the following winter, on the pressure that was brought to bear by those wishing to use the service and who believed that it would be difficult for them. The decision was made through the recommendations to the Home Office. This was part of the Office of Government Commerce Gateway appraisals on both occasions, and it was still believed that this was possible to achieve.
(Mr Blunkett) I think, as part of the review, we would like the group to tell us, both in terms of telephone and Internet contact, how we could establish a more effective way of making those applications in a way that allows them to follow through and check the validity of them, because that is of course the crucial issue here. How can you be sure who you are dealing with and on whose behalf? The police were worried about the checking of telephone applications and the relationship with the Police National Computer. You will recall that in the immediate aftermath of letting the contract the Police National Compuer required updating substantially. That did take time and it was part of the concerns in the run-up to the full launch of the CRB on 1 April. Looking back now, it would have been sensible to have made sure that they were happy with an alternative system but nobody at the time raised this, including those who were doing the professional appraisal.
(Mr Blunkett) I do not wish to comment on anything that an education minister may or may not have said. I do know that the Secretary of State on her return from holiday took that view, and I share it.
Bob Russell: Thank you.
Chairman: Can we turn briefly to air weapons. Mr Watson.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, and we have responded to questions in Parliament by indicating that we do think there is a real issue. There is an issue about their purchase by those under the age of 17; there is an issue about the present regulation in terms of velocity (and there is other phraseology which escapes me at the moment) in terms of both rifles and hand pistols. I think there is a very crucial question as to when we pass the line of danger here, and we should appraise this afresh.
(Mr Blunkett) I cannot promise that we can include a change in the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Bill but I am quite keen to get this resolved because I realise it has been a concern for some time. I ought to stress, however, that we need a proportionate approach here because there are real issues of enforcement, so we want to ensure that in relation to any restriction on purchase and on, if you like, the dangerousness of air pistols - their capacity - we need to be sure that we are doing something that is enforceable and which the police can check and manage. I happen to be someone who believes that we rush into legislation very often only to find that what we have done is then discredited by a lack of application and rigour in the way in which it is followed through. I think the Home Office has been bedevilled by that over the years.
(Mr Blunkett) I think it would be simpler than some of the other measures, and given that most people claim that they are doing this for leisure, target practice, yet we find on our estates there is the danger that it is being used to take people's windows - or worse - out, then we need to be rigorous in looking at how we can reduce that danger.
(Mr Blunkett) It is expensive, and it raises the broader issue of the enormity of the anti-social behaviour that accompanies it. The American research Broken Windows is a bit too appropriate here, in terms of what actually happens as well as physical danger to people. Of course, in your neck of the woods, Chair, you have had an incident not too far away from your constituency of this sort, which is a terrific tragedy and of tremendous regret. However, a lot of it is associated with nuisance - very substantial and frightening nuisance - particularly for older people. We do need to be quite robust, I think, in protecting the police from the misuse of their time and, at the same time, being able to enforce what I was describing a moment ago as a tighter and tougher role.
(Mr Blunkett) I have asked Bob Ainsworth, who is a junior minister, to come back with recommendations to me during the course of the autumn, and I think if we can get all-party agreement on a sensible package - if we can - then we could persuade the offices of the House that we would not inconvenience people by being able to act sooner rather than later.
Chairman: Thank you, that is very helpful. Can we turn now to street crime.
(Mr Blunkett) The answer to the first question is not yet and the answer to the second is yes, they can be less fearful than they were in January, February, March, because the incidence of robbery and snatch theft (as we know it) - muggings - has actually reduced to the level of around 70 a day. So there is optimism that we are making progress, but we have still got a long way to go.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, I am optimistic. I want to publish the full figures, and we will publish totally comprehensive data dealing with the six-month period in October as soon as it is collated, to build on the interim figures I published, which I did in order to try and get some balance into the discussion. If we fail we should be big enough to say so. If we are not meeting targets we should admit it and we should look collaboratively with the partners - not just the police but partners such as the Crown Prosecution Service, Court Services, Youth Justice Board, probation, prison and preventative services - at how we can do that, but when we are making some progress I think it is important for the motivation and morale of the police and their partners to be able to say so. That is why we published the interim figures through to the end of August. The two key indicators are a direct comparison with the same period last year and a comparison with the period immediately before the initiative began. In London it began two months earlier, and the figures for London reflect the downward pressure and the learning curve which means that the longer you do this in this particular intensive period the more successful you are.
(Mr Blunkett) First and foremost, to actually send the right signals. So the introduction immediately earlier this summer of Section 1(30) to ensure that 12-16-year-olds could be dealt with in that rigorous fashion, in terms of when they are picked up and secured when they have been repeat offenders, is I think very important. There is an issue, which I have raised myself, about 10-12-year-olds and the way in which we need to operate with social services on being able to provide not just secure placements but actually intervention at a time when both the child is at risk because they are children and the public is at risk. We need both in balance. Incidents that are widely reported, as earlier in the year, about multiple low-level offending by 10-11-year olds, give rise to a real concern - which the Secretary of State for Health and I are dealing with - that intervention has not been forthcoming, and there is no excuse for it not happening.
(Mr Blunkett) I remember that that was exactly the question you asked me when I made a statement on 17 July.
(Mr Blunkett) It is a very fair question. I think it has to be dealt with by ensuring that not only the parameters of the Law Commission but any legislation that builds on that actually makes sure that in the admissibility of that evidence we are clear as to what it is we are trying to achieve. I will give you an example. The way in which a defendant seeks to discredit a witness in relation to his or her own past would lead us to believe that the disclosure of previous relevant convictions and activity would help the jury make a better decision than finding out afterwards and failing therefore to take into account that balanced approach in terms of who was telling the truth. It is just getting to the truth and, therefore, to justice that we seek, not to simply seek to get more convictions; it is to convict the guilty whilst protecting the innocent.
(Mr Blunkett) I have an open mind on the parameters. I am strongly in favour of getting common sense into the system in terms of previous convictions being extended because there are circumstances now - very limited ones - where that happens.
(Mr Blunkett) None at all. If anything is put in place to overcome the failure of providing not only the evidence but in a form that is robust enough to stand up to scrutiny then we will have failed within the system. My enthusiasm for reform in the criminal justice system is not to find more innocent people guilty, it is to try and ensure - relative to everything we have seen in the past and building on the safeguards, including the 1984 codes - that we do not allow more guilty people to go from the courts without a conviction and, therefore, to put the community at risk. We do in our adversarial system have a situation where if we are not careful it is a contest between clever lawyers and not a seeking of the truth.
(Mr Blunkett) No, I agree entirely with that.
Chairman: Prison overcrowding. We are leaping about here, Home Secretary, but once we come to rest on asylum and immigration we shall not move.
(Mr Blunkett) A thousand of those places should be on stream by October. I expect that by the spring we will have got all those places operational. I believe that there is enormous pressure on the Prison Service; the figures today are 71,844. These are very substantially higher than any estimates that existed previously, and this is despite the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and I being clear about greater consistency, reducing variation in sentencing across the country, proportionality in terms of non-violent first offences and the need to understand that the objective is to prevent re-offending as well as to provide punishment and rehabilitation. So we are undoubtedly facing an enormous challenge. In talking to my equivalent ministers in other European countries the trend is also upwards there, albeit from a much lower base. As Members of this Committee who have been around for some time will know, we have risen from around 40,000 prison places in the mid-90s to this figure today of over 71,000, which is an exponential rise. Unfortunately it has not been matched by a reduction in offending. So we might draw some lessons from that.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, I am. I am very keen indeed that we should place emphasis on the offending behaviour programmes, on adult learning and on the work-based programmes leading to the job opportunities that I took part, with the Department of Work and Pensions, in launching at Lewes Prison in August - excellent initiatives undermined by what might be described euphemistically as "musical cells" where the pressure at local level displaces longer term prisoners from the local facility and, thereby, disrupts the programmes which are crucial to avoiding re-offending and, therefore, to protecting the public. It is quite difficult to have a rational debate about prisons, regrettably, because if you are not consistently in favour of extremely long sentences for everything from shoplifting all the way through to dangerousness, then you are judged to be either irrational or inconsistent. It would help if people just took a deep breath and were able to see this proportionately.
Mrs Dean: Thank you.
(Mr Blunkett) We are expanding it by 600 and we are also expanding the use and facility of social services secure accommodation which is intensively supervised. I would like us to look with the Department of Health at how to deal with adolescents with mental health problems. There is a very real issue here about the behaviour of those in their teenage years who, if we do not get a grip of it then, become highly dangerous and ill adults who re-offend for the rest of their lives. I know that the Secretary of State is keen on this. We are in intensive discussions with the Department of Health - very helpful discussions - as I was when I was Education and Employment Secretary about adult literacy and the adult education programmes in prison, about stepping up the investment in and the relevance of our health programmes, in both the prison and juvenile estate. I think we can do a much better job than has been done in the past on this.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, we do. That is why the introduction of Section 1(30) was important. It was intended to bring it in in 2004. We have strange time scales, I discovered, in my department, which I am doing something about. We also need intensive supervision to work effectively, and the Youth Justice Board with our department has been working very well on the development of intensive supervision, including the way in which police can now check on whether someone is actually where they say they are and have access to the home. We had interesting discussions with those engaged in this at court level, about ensuring the legality of the police being able to check when a member of the family declared that the person could not show themselves because they were in the bath or they had suddenly fallen asleep in bed. We have overcome that, so the supervision programmes with tagging can actually be made to work effectively. I was amused when I first came in to find that there had been a case of a man who had had a tag placed on his wooden leg and, as a consequence, he was able to leave the leg at home and go out enjoying himself. I hope we have got over that era.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes. I was with him yesterday evening at an Inside Out Trust reception and know that he has. I have got a great deal of respect for the Prison Reform Trust; they act in a very responsible and rational way and, as a consequence, what they say is taken a great deal more seriously than those who never come up with solutions.
(Mr Blunkett) No, there certainly is not.
David Winnick: Thank you.
(Mr Blunkett) I am addressing the issue from the angle of developing a whole range of options - a menu - for magistrates and district judges to be able to choose, within community sentencing, what to do. The White Paper, as you are aware, actually suggests a range of measures, from custody minus (?), which would actually hold the offer of further action over the heads of those who are placed on community sentences, and the way in which we want to mix community and custodial sentences more effectively with part-week sentencing programmes, particularly reducing the number of women prisoners, which has risen exponentially and keeping the family together to try and keep people in their job when they have committed minor offences and having greater consistency. I accepted very little of the rhetoric around the IPPR report, which seemed to me to be both ill-founded and out-of-date.
(Mr Blunkett) I could not have put it better myself. That is how it was put to me in my surgeries, which is why it is so good to hold surgeries because you see the real world.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, it is, but it needs to be containment with rehabilitation, where necessary, with mental health and drug treatment. I would just conclude by saying that the issue of drug treatment and consequent rehabilitation is a critical issue in terms of those who originally offend and the arrest referral programmes are proving to be at least successful enough to be able to bottle our problems (?). The treatment programmes within prison have been massively extended and there is the important follow-through in terms of release. I think that we have got a long way to go but at least there is an understanding now of how crucial this is.
(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 Blunkett) I promised on 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.
(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.
(Mr Blunkett) I think it is a reasonable estimate of the situation.
(Mr Blunkett) We have a longer term piece of work in train at the moment between the Home Office and the Forward 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.
(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, even when they are looking to secure this in the United States on anti-terrorism grounds, the ability to actually be able to follow through even on those who carry visas and, therefore, have got a timescale to check on. 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.
(Mr Blunkett) I am happy to hear from people as to their commitment and input into that work, including Migrationwatch.
(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.
(Mr Blunkett) I will ask Beverley Hughes to comment on the position at the moment. It was never my intention that we simply said "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, 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 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 abscondees. 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 an alternative measure, 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 by 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 - when 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Beverley Hughes) I am sorry, I did not say that.
(Beverley Hughes) I am not waiting for the outcome of these planning inquiries on two sites before we look at what alternatives and additions in the trial 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 and the double security fencing, internal lighting and trailing is now in place. There is agreement at Calais with metameric (?) 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.
(Mr Blunkett) In association with a non-suspensive appeals programme on unfounded cases, which is within the Bill, together with a much more robust border control it would, but the honest truth is that it is stopping people getting in who would be legitimately here. Having a system of allowing people who should and want to here legitimately, rather than seeking a way of dealing with this by sending people back, albeit on an agreed basis, is crucial, not least because the view that is taken by the judiciary in our country prolongs their stay through the appeals and judicial review process in a way that is not the case in other European countries.
(Mr Blunkett) I have set out in the Bill a very considerable and robust picture. Since we published the Bill, I have continued to look at what else needs to be done in the climate that has been created and with the changes in migration policy, not least in relation to the ten accession countries that intend to join the European Union in 18 months' time. The idea that people are at risk in these particular countries is, in my view, untenable and we still need to look at what more we can do.
Bridget Prentice: Thank you.
(Mr Blunkett) The problem is that the signal and the message is very clear: if you get here and you remain here, you will be able to work here. As a consequence, any managed economic migration routes become irrelevant. If these people are dynamic and they are well-qualified - and I do not dispute your description - they should get back home and re-create their countries which we freed from tyranny, whether it is in Kosovo and related countries from which we still have a very large number of people outstanding removal, or in Afghanistan. We are freeing countries of different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and we are making it possible for them to get back home and re-build their country. I have no sympathy whatsoever for young men in their twenties who do not go back and re-build their country and their families.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes and I am doing it. I mentioned the Eurodac system of finger-printing and in future of more robust identification which would enable us to share automatically with our European countries, and they share with us, where someone has already claimed asylum. You are aware, and myself and Bev Hughes are painfully aware how difficult it is, of course, even within the parameters of Dublin I, to stop hysteria about removing people back to the country where they first claimed asylum. We have had it up to here with the Ahmadi case and the way in which our system of judicial review works, but let me be clear, as far as I am concerned, anyone who leaves the country who is claiming or has claimed asylum and seeks to re-enter it should automatically be presumed to be unfounded and should be refused a further asylum claim. I have ruled to that measure and I expect it to be carried out.
(Mr Blunkett) There is no point in them sending them back because if they have claimed asylum or their asylum claim is being processed and they re-present themselves at our borders, I consider, unless there has been a change in circumstance of a substantial nature in the intervening time, that they have already exercised their right to claim, they have forfeited it by leaving the country and they are no longer entitled to an asylum claim.
(Mr Blunkett) If they have claimed asylum here, as far as I am concerned, if they leave they have forfeited that right. If they have not claimed asylum here and they have been picked up in France, then we have to deal with it in terms of whether they have broken a particular national law.
(Mr Blunkett) No, it would not. They do not have a Fascist government in the Czech Republic, they have a Social Democratic government.
(Mr Blunkett) If I said Chechnya I intended to say Kosovo, my apologies.
Chairman: You did say Kosovo.
(Mr Blunkett) I gave the example of countries which we freed, which I gave as Kosovo and Afghanistan. I am not referring to Chechnya and nor have I referred to it. You had me for a minute there. I thought I had dropped one, but I have not. I am very grateful to you, Chairman.
(Mr Blunkett) No.
Bob Russell: I am much obliged, thank you.
Chairman: You have another question?
Bob Russell: That was my second question.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, the current rate of successful appeal is just over 20 per cent, is it not?
(Beverley Hughes) Yes.
(Mr Blunkett) And we have set in train both a robust retraining programme but also a robust training programme for the larger number of decision takers that we are now putting in place, together with the speeding up of the process. We did reach our target by 31 March of a turnround time within two months of an initial decision. That is now up to 75 per cent on the last month's figures, which is very encouraging. We can do better, but it is so much better than it has ever been before. Given that I am literally demanding a dramatic step change in terms of the administration and efficiency of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, we should accord those who have managed to do that an accolade because I have got to provide motivation and morale where they are succeeding and we need to make sure that the initial decision taking is of such a quality that it reduces the pressure on the adjudication service.
(Mr Blunkett) They have substantial access from induction onwards now. We have funded it, of course, through a variety of agencies, rather than trying to do it all ourselves, other than in the focused, very expensive provision of Oakington for fast track for the very reasons that the fast track exists. We also provide massive, expensive and extensive support through the Lord Chancellor's Department through legal aid. Frankly, if we do any more --- I will leave it at that!
(Mr Blunkett) With the development of coherent induction, it is possible for people to have someone on hand to help them do it. The issue is one of translation of course, not least finding out precisely which dialect people genuinely speak from the region from which they come. I place quite a lot of emphasis on this. You need to be aware if you are producing a detailed report that very many people claim to be from a part of a region, for reasons of claiming asylum, from which they do not come.
(Beverley Hughes) I have been down to Dover and talked to people there and seen the induction centre and screening centre. There are extensive interpretation facilities available. As the Home Secretary said, it is sometimes difficult to be clear about exactly what languages are being claimed to be spoken and what languages are actually being spoken. I accept there are some problems around that, but generally I think the interpretation services that are provided are good.
(Beverley Hughes) I certainly accept that the quality of decision making is crucially important, not only from the point of view of the applicant but also in terms of the process. No-one wants to put resources into a case going to appeal only to have it overturned because the initial decision may not have been as good as it could be. We have got a fairly robust process in place at the moment to review on a sampling basis initial decisions. Around 240 are chosen at random each month and are reviewed by senior caseworkers who review the decision against ten criteria. They are finding at the moment a high level of either satisfactory or excellent decisions - about 85 per cent I think. So I accept that this is something we need to continue to drill down on. I would make one other point and that is that I do not think necessarily that the extent to which initial decisions are currently overturned is only to be explained by the need to improve the quality of initial decisions. We also need to take account of the fact that we have to look at the quality of the adjudicators' decisions. We have quite a lot of new adjudicators who are still in the early stages of getting to grips with their job. There is a great deal of assimilation they have to do in terms of in-country information and so on, and that is another strand in the process that we have to look at.
(Mr Blunkett) I think it is an interesting point, not least from the point of view of the administrative waste within the Immigration and Nationality Directive of having to reassess when somebody has sent the form but it had not arrived on time within the period, and it could be shown later that for a variety of reasons it had not been possible to do so or they had done so. So I am amenable to looking with Bev Hughes at whether that is the case, whilst still having a tight and robust system that does not allow people to play games with the situation. I think it is a fair point and well worth looking at.
Chairman: The key point is that their claim be properly considered as quickly as possible, not whether they got the form in on time or whether the solicitor passed them the relevant information or it got lost in the system. One still gets drawn to one's attention cases of people tearing their hair out with the frustration at communicating with the Home Office on asylum cases. I plucked out of my own constituency file a couple of letters that illustrate the problem. This is from a local solicitor - a very reputable one - who is dealing with the case of a Rumanian asylum seeker. "We have now written to the Home Office on no less than 18 occasions to try and obtain a copy of our client's interview record." I got him a reply eventually and they sent him back the one relating to his brother. That was April 12 and even now after 18 tries we are still trying to get the correct documentation.
(Mr Blunkett) I will make sure! I would like Bev to comment. Since she took over at the beginning of June she has specifically targeted how best to improve this. There is not a single example or anecdote that Members round this table could bring that would not be matched by examples that I have. I am absolutely determined that not only can we do a lot better, but we can have a step change in performance in terms of the basic administrative functioning of that Directorate. We have just appointed a new Director, Bill Jeffrey. He started two weeks ago and he is in no doubt whatsoever what is expected of him.
(Beverley Hughes) As the Home Secretary says, it is extremely important, for a number of reasons, that we improve our performance on that. I have been focusing on it particularly over the last six weeks or so. Members will appreciate that there is a very high volume of correspondence. I do not say that by way of excuse. Also we are in a situation at the moment where there is an extent to which - and if I can just explain this because it is important - there is a need to locate a file, get that file to the person needing to reply to the letter, and then put it back in the system where it was so it does not interrupt too much the process of assessment (whether it is an asylum or immigration matter) that person is concerned with is very difficult logistically. Files are all around the country. They are not just in Croydon, they are in ports, Glasgow, all over the place. Having said that, and I do not say that by way of excuse, I would say simply that it is not straightforward. The Home Secretary mentioned and I have cases too whereby the quality and the extent to which people are getting a reply within a reasonable period of time is simply not acceptable. I can say to Members at the moment - and perhaps next time I am here I will be able to report progress - we are instituting some new procedures to deal initially with MPs' official cases, official cases and then public correspondence cases. I am instituting a monthly performance report for every division of IND so that I see the extent to which targets are being reached on replies to correspondence from September and, as I say, I have got a time limit on clearing the backlog, initially of MPs' cases and then other cases, and through those measures I am determined that we will achieve a much higher level of performance than we have at the moment.
(Beverley Hughes) I accept that completely and that is exactly the kind of good practice, together with meeting more reasonable timescales, that we are interested in.
(Mr Blunkett) It makes you feel better when you say it, does it not!
(Beverley Hughes) If I can just say to you, Chairman, on day two of my time in this post I had to do an adjournment debate to a Member of Parliament that she had secured because she had written to IND four times in the previous six months and I had to get my head round an adjournment debate on her case and also explain why she had not had a reply. So you can take it from me that from day two I have been highly exercised with this issue and I am determined that we will do much much better and reach an acceptable standard of performance.
(Beverley Hughes) It will be continuing, yes.
(Beverley Hughes) It is beginning to work.
(Beverley Hughes) It is beginning to bed down. Members of Parliament and others in the community are beginning to say that, which is very gratifying. With the other changes we are bringing in, particularly strengthening the regional processes and strengthening the regional structures, we can get better communication and relationships between NASS officials, local authorities, voluntary organisations and accommodation providers - because I think that has been an issue - and if we will get those relationships much better then the support for asylum seekers is better and we will get further improvements.
(Mr Blunkett) It does so long as we can manage them in a way that is commensurate with the nature of the area, the pressures on local services, and a proper and robust system within the community that allows that welcome to take place. That is being done in very different ways across the country, with both NASS and the local authorities having variable practice. What we are doing at the moment is to display across the country the best practice in term of the information given not just to those entering the community about the nature of the community, what is expected of them, acceptable conduct and behaviour, but also information to the communities about who is coming so there can be greater understanding and awareness of who is entering their neighbourhood.
(Beverley Hughes) Yes.
(Mr Blunkett) It is gradually taking place now.
(Beverley Hughes) March next year.
(Mr Blunkett) The Lord Chancellor and myself have agreed, and it has now been put into operation, that we need a substantial change in the supervision by the Legal Services Commission of what is on offer and how it is being offered and a greater degree both of self-scrutiny and self-review within the profession and those working with them. I think we need to be much more proactive in terms of where we provide high-quality help where it is not currently on offer in order to avoid both exploitation, the misuse of very large sums of public money, and an industry - because that is what in parts of the country it is - that has very little to do with actually getting an efficient and robust system in place.
Chairman: Can we now turn to removal. Mr Winnick?
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, I would.
(Mr Blunkett) I think it was massively over-ambitious.
(Mr Blunkett) Let's just draw breath for a moment. Contrary to everything that gets reported in a public service agreement, it was however an underpinning service target and we should not set targets that are not achieveable. I thought I had made that clear earlier this morning and I make it clear again.
(Mr Blunkett) I made a mistake because when I came into office I realised immediately that the 30,000 was not achieveable within the financial year and I said so in the House in the Queen's Speech Debate. What I should have said on that point, if I was going to go back with hindsight and do it again, was that it was not achievable. It was not achievable in terms of any other country in the world at our current (at that time) rate of processing. I should have indicated then that far from being able reach it in this financial year, because that is what I indicated we were going to attempt to do and we were going to attempt to get up to 2,500 a month, I should have drawn stumps at that point. Let's just get that on the record. Secondly, removals is, in my view, second place to preventing people reaching the country. I have reassessed the priority, as I have indicated earlier, in terms of our bilateral and European-wide negotiations and our more robust approach to border control in stopping people getting in in the first place and then fast tracking them in a new end-to-end more robust system and then attempting to remove them through the massive expansion of removal places. Given the number of removal places that were available, it was not realistic. Given the burning down of Yarlswood which took out almost a quarter of the removal places that we were intending to have in place now, it is no longer a feasible proposition. As I say, I will need with Bev Hughes to set a new target that is realistic over and above the 12,000 we expect to remove this year. It is still the largest removals programme of any country, but it is not acceptably high enough.
(Mr Blunkett) It is necessary to ensure that someone who has gone through what is the most prolonged - and we are cutting this back to more reasonable proportions in the Bill - the longest, most provaricating process that anyone has ever devised in terms of people getting to the point where we can remove them is removed. Even when they have gone through the four judicial reviews they can still at the very last minute get someone to take their case, especially if they manage to persuade someone that they are still entitled to legal aid. As the Chairman was describing a moment ago, although in slightly gentler language, there are always people prepared to earn a bob or two in that way. We have to find a way of ensuring that firstly we can pick them up, we know where they are, which brings us back to the points we were making earlier on accommodation centres and reporting and proper registration, all of which are important, and the entitlement to services for those who should not be here. You are back full circle to where we started earlier this morning on the question of a legal precedence and a legal working. I am not going to over-egg it, because you and I do not agree on the solution here. I do not want anyone to be able to access services if they are not entitled to do so, because that is the basis of a discreet, civilised society where you put something in and you get something out..
(Mr Blunkett) We do not have such a thing as refuge in religious institutions in our democracy. I just want to make that clear. Secondly, yes, there are sensitivities around. I have every faith in the appeal court process.
David Winnick: Thank you very much.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes.
(Mr Blunkett) I was putting the 2,500 ----- No, they are both entirely compatible. The 2,500 target to be achieved by the spring of 2002 - because that is what I said - would lead to 30,000 by the spring of 2003, ie 12 two-and-a-halves.
(Mr Blunkett) No, I put back the 2,500 a month, because the target that we were debating in the House on that day was the 30,000 target to be achieved within that current financial year, namely through to 31 March 2002, and of course 30,000 by March 2002 was 2,500 a month on average, was it not? Either way, either dis-aggregated 30,000 in 12 months or taking a month and aggregating it up, reaches the same figure of 30,000. Or am I losing my numeracy?
(Mr Blunkett) No, I was not at all. I was putting back the 30,000, because I did not believe it was feasible and I wanted to be straight with the Commons about it, to achieve it within that financial year. I have said already, my mistake was to believe that it was going to be possible to achieve it in the following financial year, starting with the 2,500 a month target, 2,500 each month for 12 months, 30,000.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, I am.
(Mr Blunkett) I am doing so on honesty grounds, practical grounds and realism, and the burning down of Yarlswood would finish any chance of doing that.
(Beverley Hughes) I would need to go back and look at the figures you are looking at, but on the basis of what you said, that may well be correct, yes.
(Beverley Hughes) I am not sure that the 1 in 10, which of course is what Migrationwatch UK quoted, is right, because I do not think, from what I have seen of their figures, that they are taking into account the people who have been granted refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. Our estimate of that figure is that it should be 5 out of 10, not 1 out of 10.
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, I know, but they do not include 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.
(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 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 communication, lack of roots, 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 Organisation 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.
(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!
(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.
(Mr Blunkett) 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.
(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.
(Mr Blunkett) £1,500 or £2,000 would, but the cost is substantial. Even on our current removals, what you are asking is substantial.
(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."
(Mr Blunkett) I put that one in the air specially for you!
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, let us leave it, like the Schleswig-Holstein question, hanging in the air!
(Mr Blunkett) Yes, I agree with that. There is a difference, and there is a humanitarian issue, particularly with children.
(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.
(Mr Blunkett) Sorry, I was being ironic.
(Mr Blunkett) I have agreed not to dismiss it out of hand.
(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.