It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee, Mr. Illsley, and for the first time under your chairmanship. I am sure that we will have a lively and interesting debate.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): On behalf of the official Opposition, may I also say that it is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and your colleague, Mr. Hurst. I am sure that, under your chairmanship, we shall have a smooth and constructive Committee.
I welcome both Ministers. I feel slightly outnumbered, but I am comforted by the reassuring presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), and for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker). I welcome other hon. Members to the Committee. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) remarked that it was the fourth time that he had debated an immigration Bill—there have been four major immigration Bills over the past 10 years. He said:
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''it almost does not matter what we do in terms of legislation, if the Home Office does not get its act together to make decisions within a reasonable time scale.''—[Official Report, 24 April 2002; Vol. 384 c. 387.]
I was impressed by that statement.
The official Opposition will vote against the motion. We do not believe that the programme permits us to do justice to scrutinising and amending the Bill. The Committee has been assembled with almost indecent haste. We should remember that the Bill had its Second Reading only last Wednesday night. Amendments to clauses 1 to 13 had to be tabled with the House authorities not later than the rise of the House on Friday, which effectively gave those who wished to draft amendments approximately a day to do so, especially because it is always difficult to speculate what time the House will rise on Fridays, given that business may fold and the Adjournment Minister may or may not turn up. That does not give the many organisations seeking to contribute constructively to the debate much time to prepare amendments.
Several organisations have taken an interest in the Bill and are undoubtedly lobbying each member of the Committee with their proposed amendments. The Law Society, the Immigration Advisory Service—which I had the honour of founding in 1992—the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the Commission for Racial Equality and many others are under the same pressure. The question of time will be especially relevant when we discuss accommodation centres. My colleagues and I believe that we are proceeding with indecent haste within a very tight time scale to discuss accommodation centres that, by any reckoning—the Minister will correct me if am wrong—cannot possibly be up and running for months, or even a year or more from now. That is another reason why we object to the motion.
In a speech to the Special Standing Committee on the Immigration and Asylum Bill , the then Minister, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) said:
''In many ways the Bill represents the most comprehensive and radical reform of immigration law for decades''.
''The Bill is good news for genuine asylum seekers in terms of the speed with which it will deliver changes to the asylum process; it is bad news for those who seek to abuse the system.''
Describing the Government's target, he said:
''On average, the initial decision on asylum will be dealt with within two months and appeals within a further four months. We aim to reach that ambitious target by April 2001.''
He went on:
''We must also deal with the removal on which previous Governments have not effectively delivered''.
''We are strengthening the carrier's liability regime.''——[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 30 March 1999; c. 495.]
I mention those matters because it must be plain to hon. Members that the Government failed utterly in the targets set out in that speech. On the matter of speed, it is currently the case that the time between application and decision can be as much as a year or
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more, and in August last year 43,000 applicants were awaiting an initial decision.
The Bill did not succeed in terms of the carrier's liability regime as the then Minister said that it would: for example, in the case of Roth and others the regime employed to impose penalties on lorry drivers and haulage companies was incompatible with European Community law.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I share some of the hon. Gentleman's views about the fact that we did not get things right in 1999. I should be grateful if he would quote some of what was said by his predecessors in 1993 and 1996, when his party introduced proposals that they claimed would solve all the problems.
Mr. Malins: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's expertise on the matter. When the last Conservative Government left office there were about 40,000 asylum applications a year, and a bilateral agreement with France was in force, whereby illegal entrants were sent back within 24 hours.
The thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks has real merit, because for many years we have faced difficulties in producing an asylum system that has the twin qualities of humanity, which is essential, and efficiency. During the course of the slimmed-down debates in the next week or two, I hope that we make some progress towards a system that works. I accept the spirit of what he said in respect of successive Governments, although I draw attention to some successes of the last Conservative Government.
The House, and outsiders, should be aware that the Home Secretary himself described the system as ''in chaos'' when he took over from his predecessor. There are tremendous strains and stresses and some unfairnesses in the system. It is unfair to ask the Committee to consider what the Government regard as a flagship Bill in the time available. We shall make our points in Committee as best we can. As hon. Members will know, we did not vote against the Bill the other night. We believe that it has good points, although certain aspects must be improved. When we reach the discussion on accommodation centres, in particular, we shall press very hard for changes, and we shall need time to discuss our proposals.
In addition, the time between application and decision, and decision and conclusion of appeal, is far too long. There are many important reasons for that, but a principal one is that the longer one is allowed to remain in a country, the more likely one is to put down roots. It therefore becomes harder, and in a sense more unfair, to tell someone at the end of the day that they must go. Justice delayed is justice denied. That phrase has often been used before, but it is very relevant to asylum proceedings.
We shall argue our case on accommodation centres, and I hope that the Government will listen. Our view is that the centres should provide a one-stop shop. Applicants should spend a short time in the centre, with the fullest possible legal and medical advice available on the spot. Immigration and Home Office officials should reach decisions within a week or two, and appeals should be concluded within a few weeks.
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It is nonsensical to have the adjudicators miles away, when by being on site they could provide a one-stop shop. Instead of putting 6,000 asylum applicants through an accommodation centre in a year, they could put the same number through more quickly. I say that just to show that we shall need time to debate the issue.
For all those reasons, I oppose the motion.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I do not think that I have served on a Standing Committee under your chairmanship before, but I look forward to it, and to serving under the chairmanship of your colleague, Mr. Hurst.
I also welcome the Under-Secretary, with whom I have had a few debates since she took over her brief after the general election. As I have said publicly before, I recognise her straightforwardness, which will help the Committee both when she argues her case and, we hope, with regard to her accepting the arguments that are advanced.
I look forward to working with the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, and with the Government Whip, who has been very helpful so far and is becoming used to home affairs business and having to deal with Opposition colleagues.
It is an asset to have the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) on the Committee. His significant experience of, and commitment to, these issues will be a great advantage to us. A considerable number of colleagues from London who have huge immigration, nationality and asylum case loads are also on the Committee. The hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), among others, will know what I am talking about. Such business constitutes a third of my constituency work and has done for a significant time. The same will be true in other parts of the country, particularly more urban areas, which colleagues here represent.
I am glad to have the support and assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). We have not served together on a Committee before, but he led for the Liberal Democrats on the last such Committee, and the particular relevance of his presence is that he sat through the proceedings on the Labour Government's last Immigration and Asylum Bill—the great Bill that was meant to solve all the problems. He said that some of the measures in that legislation were flawed and advised us to vote against it on Second and Third Reading. The party did so, and he was in many ways proved right. I hope that his experience of that set of debates will be useful to this Committee.
My hon. Friend said to me that the failure of Government—this was not meant in a party political way—is that we often try to sort problems out by legislation rather than administration, and that if we had got the administration right three, six or nine years ago, we might not have had to return to the legislation.
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We too shall vote against the motion, for reasons that I gave on the Floor of the House and privately yesterday in the Programming Sub-Committee. The timetable is unnecessarily speedy and cannot allow us to do justice to the Bill, or allow those outside with an interest to have a useful input. We have maintained from the beginning that the minimum deadline before which we could consider the Bill under the usual timetable is 23 May—the end of the week before the late spring bank holiday and the recess. Unless there is a need for further delay, we are now committed to finishing a week before, on 16 May.
Given the restricted timetable, I am grateful for the Government Whip's willingness to accommodate our request that there should be no sitting this Thursday, as there are local elections in England, in which many of us are rightly involved. She also granted our request that there should be no sitting next Tuesday afternoon or evening, as the Police Reform Bill is having its Second Reading, and many of us with an interest in home affairs want and ought to be there. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woking and his colleagues for supporting our proposition. In spite of the pressure of the timetable, we now have the advantage that after today's sitting we will have a little time to prepare for the remaining sittings, which will come in a rush in the remaining two weeks.
Like the hon. Member for Woking, I regard the Bill as sufficiently important for there to be no time to waste on any of its aspects, which I do not propose to do. The timetable is tight, and the issues are important. We all need to ensure that our points are dealt with. As part of the general modernisation of our democracy—the obligation lies first with Government—we should try to have a procedure that produces a White Paper, as was done here, and allows people to see the responses to it before Second Reading, unless there is a good reason against that. The Home Secretary accepted that that had not been done in this case. We should then have a draft Bill so that we can get advice from the outside world, followed by a Special Standing Committee. There were four sittings of such a Committee on the last Bill on this subject, which allowed us to do a better job. I do not see why that is not the norm, although there are times when one can argue the case for a deadline. During consideration of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in the autumn, the Government argued that there was an imminent threat and that we had to have a deadline. Although we did not entirely agree, we understood. However, that does not apply to this Bill, as the hon. Member for Woking said. The curtailed procedure is unnecessary.
After the Committee has concluded, I hope that there will be time to reflect on the debates, the advice given to us and the other views expressed. I also hope that there will be time on Report for all three parties to agree, as far as possible, on what is needed. I have no interest in having a row on the Floor of the House for the sake of it. We should be able to agree on many issues, as long as we do not arrive with stubbornly
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fixed views. That would be in no one's interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam and I intend to listen. If we are persuaded, we will change our view. We are not dogmatic. We need legislation that is clear and has a better chance of working. That will need time after Committee.
Although the amount of time that we will spend on Report and on Third Reading is already provided for, I flag up to the Minister and the Government Whip that we should give ourselves the time between the two stages to try to get it right. The Home Secretary said on Second Reading, and the Minister confirmed yesterday, that the Government intend to introduce amendments to the appeals provisions. Those are complicated already, and it will not be easy to amend them to get the speedier and clearer system that the hon. Member for Woking rightly said that we need. I hope that we will be intelligent in dealing with Government amendments—working out when to deal with them and ensuring that if we need more time, we take it.
I am encouraged by the fact that the contribution that my party makes to these Committees is ever growing. I note that we are only one fewer than the Conservatives, and even if they were at full strength, we would still be half their size. We are aiming to be not only the same as them, but bigger in British politics. However, for the time being we content ourselves with being one of the two Opposition parties. We will be constructive and look forward to the debates, and we hope that we can end up with legislation that is more successful in sorting out the difficult issues than the past three major Acts on this subject have been.