[Relevant documents: Government Response to the Tenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Seventeenth Report, Session 2006-07, the Treatment of Asylum Seekers, HC 790; and the memoranda received by the Committee from the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, Citizens Advice, the Asylum Support Programme Inter-Agency Partnership and the Asylum Appeals Project.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Alison Seabeck.]
I should make it clear at the outset that our report did not deal with the question of who should or should not be entitled to claim asylum in the United Kingdom. Our sole concern was the treatment of asylum seekers, whether or not their applications were successful. We focused in particular on access to financial support and accommodation, the provision of health care, the treatment of children, and detention and removal. We also looked at press coverage.
In recent years, asylum seekers have been demonised. Failed asylum seekers are regarded as little more than criminals, but the overwhelming majority of them, including those whose applications fail, are seeking to escape from countries affected by conflict, violence and human rights abuses. China, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Somalia were the main applicant nationalities in the third quarter of this year.
Asylum seekers deserve to be treated with dignity, whether or not they are entitled to remain in the UK, and the European convention on human rights applies to everyone within the UK’s jurisdiction. Human rights cannot be denied to people who happen not to be British citizens. The Minister might want to confirm that human rights are universal.
It is worth looking briefly at the scale of the problem. Most asylum seekers stay in their region of origin and only a small minority ever reach the UK. The number varies and depends, for example, on the incidence of armed conflict in different parts of the world. The number of applications in the UK peaked at just over 84,000 in 2002, and fell to below 26,000 in 2006. Most applications—70 to 75 per cent.—are refused, and in 2006 some 18,000 asylum seekers and their dependants were removed. Compare that with South Africa, whose population is about the same as England, and which is now home to 3 million refugees from Zimbabwe alone. As far as I am aware, none has been returned.
The number of our asylum seekers is relatively small, yet the issue remains high on the political agenda. Stories of poor administration of applications have been the rule, not the exception, and the public believe that the system is spiralling out of control. A new casework system for managing asylum seekers has been introduced, and perhaps the Minister will tell us how well that is working.
The Government seem to start from the assumption that most asylum seekers who arrive here are economic migrants, and not genuinely fleeing persecution. Policies have been designed to deter would-be asylum seekers from coming to the UK, and to make life as tough as possible for those who do get here. The tabloid press add lurid colour by using individual examples to brand all asylum seekers as freeloaders who demand council houses and welfare benefits, to the detriment of the indigenous population. They paint the UK as a soft touch.
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s view, and that of the Committee, that the Government’s policies are designed to deter asylum seekers from applying to this country? I happen to share that view, but the Government contest it. I was not sure whether he was saying that that is the Committee’s view.
The hon. Gentleman is a member of my Committee, and knows its views. He must wait for me to build up the argument, but he will find that I fairly reflect the Committee’s views.
The tabloid press have created a climate in which the human rights of asylum seekers are routinely abused, pretty well with impunity. As a civilised, democratic country, we are both legally and morally bound to protect the human rights of asylum seekers. Refusing an application—and consequent removal if necessary—and respect for human rights are not mutually exclusive.
Does my hon. Friend concede that among the many barriers facing asylum seekers or applicants to this country is the poor or appalling standard of legal representation that many are given? Lack of access to proper justice at the initial stage of an application means that unfair decisions are often made against genuine and legitimate applications.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I shall develop it later.
Our report was published in March this year, and we received the Government’s reply in mid-June. To put it mildly, my Committee was underwhelmed by the Home Office’s response. The Government failed to engage with the vast swathes of wide-ranging and compelling evidence demonstrating that the significant failings of the system are due not just to procedural inadequacies and incompetence, but to deep-seated prejudice towards asylum seekers, whose needs and rights are viewed as nothing more than an inconvenient hindrance to effective immigration controls. The Government’s sole, scratched-record response was to repeat their existing policy. Our concerns were compounded because, all too frequently, we found a yawning gap between stated official policy and its implementation on the ground. That view was more than supported by responses to the Government’s reply from a number of non-governmental organisations, which we have published on our website.
A good example of the problems associated with support is the Government’s approach to section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. At present, asylum seekers aged over 18 and their dependants are entitled to support under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 if their case has not been finally determined and they would otherwise be destitute or be likely to become destitute. Section 9 of the 2004 Act provides for even that very limited support to be withdrawn as a so-called incentive to encourage asylum seekers to leave the UK. When the Committee scrutinised the original Bill, it warned that that was likely to lead to severe hardship and violation of human rights, particularly if children were taken into care because their parents had become destitute.
Nevertheless, the Government pressed on with a series of pilots. In the June 2007 evaluation, the Minister concluded that section 9 had led to
“no significant increase in the number of voluntary returns or removals of unsuccessful asylum seeking families”.
In other words, the Government’s policy had failed, but at the price of causing appalling hardship and serious human rights abuse. We heard of families dependent on food parcels from charities, and that at least four children were placed in local authority care as a consequence of that policy, no doubt at much greater expense to the public purse than if they had been given proper support. I am astounded to have to tell the Chamber that the Government have decided to retain section 9 on the statute book for use on a case-by-case basis.
Section 9 simply does not work, so how can the Minister possibly contend that it should not be repealed? How can he square his position with the Government’s claim in their response that
“the development of asylum policy should proceed on the basis of evidence.”
Does that doctrine apply only when the weight of the evidence supports the Government’s view and is not diametrically opposed to it?
My concern is women who leave abusive husbands or partners and seek accommodation in refuges. There is such a refuge in Birkenhead, but no funds are forthcoming locally to protect those women and their children. Does the report comment on that, and does it deal with the Government’s line that there is a moral hazard, and that if help is offered the number of people claiming that they are in that category will rise?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We did not specifically consider such cases, which is probably a failure on our part, but we considered the position of children and I shall refer to that later.
Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 enables asylum support to be withdrawn if the claim is not made as soon as is reasonably practicable. By October 2003—the year in which the Act came into force—that rule was responsible for 25 per cent. of all judicial review cases lodged with the High Court. In the 2005 Limbuela judgment, the Law Lords ruled that an asylum seeker’s rights against inhuman treatment could be seen to be broken if they had insufficient access to shelter, food or washing facilities. Yet the Home Office continues to use section 55 to deny support to those asylum seekers with accommodation, leaving many reliant solely on ad hoc charitable support.
In the third quarter of 2007, 207 asylum seekers were refused all support under section 55. My Committee believes that that policy does not comply with the House of Lords judgment and we have called for section 55 to be repealed, so I again ask the Minister to justify the use of section 55, if he can. Will he review the draconian impact of section 55 and publish the findings?
We have many other concerns about the rules for accommodation and support for asylum seekers and their implications. If asylum is not claimed at the port of entry, claimants must travel to offices in Liverpool or Croydon, which are possibly huge journeys for penniless people. The offices are open only from 9 am to 1 pm on working days. That is plainly unacceptable. The Government told us that they were considering changes, so will the Minister bring us up to date on what he has in mind?
We heard evidence of such delays in the processing of applications for support, and that people with a valid entitlement were left with neither money nor housing. We mentioned the case of an Afghan who waited five weeks for his due. The Government told us of improvements. They say that 40 per cent. of the most urgent cases are decided within two days, but that leaves 60 per cent. undecided for a longer period, leaving claimants with no financial support. That is morally unacceptable, inhumane and potentially breaks the right not to suffer inhumane treatment. How can the Minister reassure the House that steps are being taken to resolve that? When will all or at least most cases be dealt with within two days?
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised the question of legal support. The Government rejected our recommendation that legal aid should be available for representation before the Asylum Support Tribunal. There is plainly inequality of arms when the Home Office is routinely represented but the asylum seeker is not, despite probably speaking little or no English and having little or no understanding of the process.
Citizens Advice has subsequently advised us that a represented applicant is twice as likely to succeed at their appeal. The Government told us that the Lord Chancellor—presumably now the Secretary of State for Justice—could authorise exceptional funding for representation under the Access to Justice Act 1999 on the basis of a recommendation from the Legal Services Commission. I therefore tabled a question about the number of such requests authorised since 2004. Surprise, surprise, the answer was a big round number—zero. I urge the Minister to re-examine whether legal aid support could be offered to help people present their cases. Just how much would that cost when there are only 2,500 or so cases a year?
I am sorry to detain my hon. Friend, but he has made a very valuable point. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that because of this system, many asylum seekers end up being the victims of the burgeoning industry of incompetent representation by unqualified people who often charge as much as £2,000 to represent somebody at a tribunal, knowing that the success rate is likely to be very low because they are unaware of the laws involved.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Committee expressed concern about the shortage of competent immigration advice. The Government acknowledged that the number of contracts had decreased significantly, from 644 in 2003 to 367 in 2006. Perhaps the Minister can give us the most up-to-date figures. We have received further representations from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, so will he say what the Government are doing to ensure that asylum seekers have the legal advice that they need?
Failed asylum seekers who are unable to leave the UK through no fault of their own can claim accommodation and vouchers for food and other essential living needs under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Citizens Advice estimates that the average time spent on section 4 support is nine months. The voucher system is inhumane, inefficient and does not adequately provide for basic living needs.
As an example, we reported the story of a Chinese lady forced to walk 3 miles across town to seek help from a charity, carrying her one-week-old newborn baby wrapped in a towel, because she could not even afford the bus fare, let alone the cost of a pram. We heard of a woman in Leeds who tried to use section 4 vouchers to buy nappies and toiletries for her baby; those vouchers were refused at Morrisons, Asda and Tesco. We recommended that the voucher system should be scrapped and that the appallingly poor standard of section 4 accommodation should be improved.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the corollary of the use of section 4 is often, as in the case of my Sudanese asylum seeker constituents Ahmed Kamal and Adam Jamal-Edeen, frequent moves throughout the country, which are very disruptive for the individuals and show an obvious lack of administrative control on the part of the Departments involved?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention to illustrate the point. The fact remains that it is an inefficient system and inevitably far more expensive to operate than a more sensible, cash-based scheme would be. On the question of accommodation, we were told of a mother, father and three-week-old baby who were placed in a filthy, bug-infested room in Leicester. They were dousing their bedding with Dettol and sleeping on wet beds as a result, because of the large bed bugs—they took some to the charity involved to show people how big they were. Action has now been promised to improve accommodation standards, but our recommendation about vouchers was not accepted.
Improved support for the most vulnerable failed asylum seekers is promised. Can the Minister tell us what is going on after the conclusion of the heavily delayed consultation about introducing the necessary regulations? Can he also attempt to justify the assertion that the use of vouchers does not breach articles 3, 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights?
Asylum seekers may apply for permission to work after they have waited a year for their initial decision, but delayed appeals attract no corresponding right. We recommended that permission should be granted if an asylum seeker has not been able to leave the UK for 12 months or more due to factors beyond their control. The Government’s response was to suggest that that would be an incentive for people to come to work in the UK illegally, but apparently there is not an incentive to ensure that the appeals are dealt with more promptly by the Government. Can the Minister justify his assertion that that would be such an incentive?
We found health care for asylum seekers, which has been featuring in the news recently, to be woefully inadequate. Although at present asylum seekers can register with a GP, the registration rules can be difficult to meet, particularly for people in temporary accommodation or sleeping rough. GPs are officially deterred from registering refused asylum seekers as patients. We heard of a Rwandan living destitute on the street. He had bowel cancer and a colostomy bag from a previous operation. The hospital trust refused to provide care without payment in advance, and the local GP refused to register him.
Refused asylum seekers are charged for hospital treatment to deter so-called health tourism by foreign nationals, but we found no evidence of health tourism. What we did find was that the systems were not in place to assess how many asylum seekers had actually been charged for health care and how many had actually paid the bills. Our suspicions were that the game was not worth the candle. We also found evidence of inconsistent application of the charging regulations: some people who were entitled to free treatment had been charged in error.
We were particularly concerned about the misapplication of the rules for hospital maternity services. Maternity care is classed by the Department of Health as “immediately necessary treatment”. It should be provided to asylum seekers without payment having to be made in advance. Too often, however, that guidance is not followed and pregnant women are deterred from seeking the health care that both they and their babies need.
Let us consider maternity risks. Newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees are seven times more likely to die than women in the indigenous population, and more than half the migrant women who died had major problems accessing maternity care. We heard of a young Chinese woman turned away by her NHS trust. She was told that unless she could pay several thousand pounds up front, it would not support her through the birth of her baby. She therefore gave birth at home with no medical care, and then both she and her baby were admitted to hospital as an emergency with serious health problems related to the traumatic birth. Once discharged, the hospital continued to send her bills, which frightened her so much that she left home. Her and her baby’s whereabouts are not known.
Problems in accessing GPs and secondary hospital treatment inevitably lead to asylum seekers using often hard-pressed accident and emergency departments as their only form of health care, by which time their illness may have become far worse and more demanding and costly to treat. That is unacceptable for the asylum seeker and a burden on the NHS, but there is also a potential impact on public health if asylum seekers with infectious illnesses are not treated expeditiously. We heard of one asylum seeker who collapsed and was taken to accident and emergency. He was diagnosed with HIV and treated for a number of diseases, including tuberculosis. He was then given a bill for £5,000. He was discharged and then, not surprisingly, vanished and did not receive ongoing treatment. The outcome of his TB treatment is unknown.The policy of forcing asylum seekers into A and E also breeds prejudice against them if others in the A and E department believe that they are having to wait longer because the queue is full of asylum seekers as a result of that policy.
We concluded that the justification offered for making refused asylum seekers pay for health care was weak and that the UK could be breaching its article 14 obligations not to discriminate on grounds of nationality. We recommended that primary and secondary health care should be free to all those who have made a claim for asylum while they remain within our borders.
The Government response acknowledged that there are problems in health care provision for asylum seekers. A review is in progress, but recent press reports suggest that the Government seek to go even further and prohibit asylum seekers any access to GPs or other primary care or hospital services apart from accident and emergency. That is exactly the opposite of what we recommended. It fails to meet our country’s human rights obligations, puts public health at risk and is unjustifiable due to its impact on overstretched A and E services, which would inevitably receive more asylum seeker patients, again feeding prejudice against them. Can the Minister point to any hard evidence to support the case that failed asylum seekers will leave the UK if they cannot get access to health care? More importantly, can he reassure us that the recent press reports of what would be an absurdly foolish direction for the policy review are wide of the mark?
On a perhaps tangential point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that prejudice against asylum seekers would have been ameliorated somewhat if, several years ago, the National Asylum Support Service procedures respecting the dispersal of asylum seekers had been undertaken with more local consultation and more transparency, both here in the House of Commons and with local authorities?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s point matches the points that I am making. There were certainly problems with the dispersal procedures at the beginning, and a lot of asylum seekers still gravitate towards London anyway, but I am not entirely sure that the matter meets my points about health care.
We also recommended specifically that the Government should provide free treatment for HIV/AIDS to asylum claimants while they remain in the UK, and that no person in the final stages of a terminal illness should be deported if they would not have access to medical care to prevent acute suffering while they were dying. We were told of a 38-year-old Chinese man whose refugee status had been denied, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia and who needed treatment urgently, but whom no GP in his area would register.
Our recommended course of action may be necessary to meet our duties under the European convention, but it should also be implemented on grounds of common humanity. The Government have agreed that they would not seek to deport someone in such circumstances as I have described, and I welcome that, but no special concessions were made for asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS. What does the Minister see as the implications of that stance for the nation’s public health?
I also suggest that if an HIV/AIDS sufferer is deported, chances are that in his home country he could well become dependent on treatment, if it is available, provided by non-governmental organisations supported by international development aid, including aid from our own Department for International Development—in other words, treatment paid for by the UK taxpayer anyway. Government policy shows a lack of joined-up thinking and undermines our otherwise impressive international commitment to help to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS in the developing world.
On a number of occasions, as in our report, the Committee has called on the Government to withdraw their reservation in respect of immigration and nationality matters to the UN convention on the rights of the child. The convention is intended to ensure that the rights of the child are always paramount. The UK’s reservation undermines that key protection and is plainly wrong. We reject the Government’s claim that full application of the UN convention would undermine our immigration control. The reservation leaves asylum-seeking children with less protection of rights unrelated to their immigration status, and we believe that it must be withdrawn.
Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a duty on public bodies in discharging their normal functions to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and to ensure that services are provided with regard to that need. Among the bodies excluded from that duty, however, are the Border and Immigration Agency, the National Asylum Support Service and immigration removal centres. We recommend that section 11 should apply to those bodies. The Government plan to develop for them a code of practice for safeguarding children, but can the Minister explain why the protection of children by the BIA and related organisations should not be put on a statutory footing?
We criticised the inadequate support and accommodation available to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and the strain on local authorities. Authorities whose areas contain major ports of entry experience disproportionate demand. The Government have acknowledged that, and proposals for improvement have been subject to consultation. Will the Minister report on progress?
We recommended that a formal system of guardianship be required for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to meet the requirements of the EU reception directive, but the Government rejected our view, claiming that separated children are provided with appropriate support by local authorities. I urge the Minister to reconsider. A more formal system would be more appropriate and cost-effective in ensuring that children get the support they need. Our recommendations concerning children could be taken up by the Children and Young Persons Bill. Although the Bill requires that an independent person should visit all looked-after children, the requirement excludes asylum-seeking looked-after children. Why are those children to be excluded from measures that the Government believe are necessary to help other looked-after children?
Where a child asylum seeker’s age was in dispute, we took issue with the use of X-rays and other medical evidence in reaching a decision. The view of the Children’s Commissioner is that X-rays are not helpful in assessing a child’s age. The Government acknowledged that more work was needed on the matter, particularly following detailed research by the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. Will the Minister provide us with an update?
During our inquiry, we visited Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. Subsequently, we have received disturbing letters from a women’s group there about conditions at the centre, especially since the contractors managing it changed at the start of the financial year. If that is the case, how have the recent problems at Yarl’s Wood been resolved?
We identified a clear gap between Government policy and practice on the ground. In general, the Government’s view is that their policies and procedures comply with the European convention on human rights, but we found plenty of evidence of potential human rights abuses. For example, vulnerable adults should be detained only in exceptional circumstances, but we found evidence of detention without any assessment of vulnerability.
The detention system often makes little or no assessment of the welfare of children, whose detention can last for lengthy periods. When we visited Yarl’s Wood, there were 32 children at the centre, seven of whom had been there for more than 28 days. Although the Government state that every effort is made to minimise the disruption and distress caused to children, there is strong evidence that that does not happen in practice. We heard of a family subjected to a raid in which officials barged into their home at 6 am. The 11-year-old son was asleep, but his parents were not allowed to wake him up—the officials did so, which proved very traumatic for the child. At the detention centre, the boy was so frightened that he locked himself in the toilet, refused to come out and would communicate only by notes under the door. The family were eventually released, but any knock on the door now terrifies the boy.
Only asylum seekers who are readily removable should be detained, but we found that, when the decision to detain an asylum seeker is being made, insufficient attention is given to considering whether that person can be removed. We heard at Yarl’s Wood that one woman was released in December 2006, after 23 months—almost two years—in detention.
We found problems with the health care and legal advice available to detainees. We were even told of two cases in which breastfeeding mothers were detained separately from their babies. We were also concerned about inadequate judicial oversight, particularly in relation to the duration of detention. We were told of an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who spent 10 months in detention and was twice threatened with illegal removal. Once he was even taken to Heathrow in handcuffs, despite the fact that his case was still before the court. Luckily, he borrowed an immigration official’s mobile phone and called his solicitor, who obtained an injunction to secure his return, but he was then classed as a difficult case and certain sanctions followed.
Our criticisms about the speed with which detention is effected and the dawn raids on families with which we are all familiar have been made by others and are well known. At Yarl’s Wood, we met a Pakistani man, his wife and their eight and 10-year-old children who were detained at 6 am. They were moved around between detention centres, involving an eight-hour journey from Scotland to Yarl’s Wood in a freezing van with only one stop at an airport on the way. We spoke to a Jamaican woman who had been in the UK since 2000 and was detained with her eight and 10-year-old children—30 police officers had arrived to detain them.
There are far too many reports of excessive force and lack of sensitivity in removals. At Yarl’s Wood, I talked to a woman with a seven-month-old baby. She and the child were taken to the airport at no notice—she was given no chance to get a jumper for the child, change its nappy or collect any baby milk. After a night at Heathrow, she was not removed, but returned to Yarl’s Wood.
Although the Government’s response explains that immigration officers are trained in conflict management, it makes no mention of the private contractors who are often responsible for removals. Perhaps the Minister will explain what is being done to ensure that they do not use excessive force and that performance targets do not lead to unnecessary or poorly planned removals. Will he also explain what the Home Office is doing to ensure that its detention and removal policies are implemented?
The main and overarching conclusion of our report is extremely disturbing—even, I would say, shaming. We found that the result of Government policy towards asylum seekers is widespread destitution. All too frequently, the circumstances are so bad that they breach the article 3 convention threshold for inhuman and degrading treatment. That applies at all stages of the asylum process, from when individuals make a claim to consideration of the claim—and the period after refusal, should they be unable to return to their country of origin.
Many witnesses told us that they were convinced that destitution is a deliberate tool in the operation of immigration policy. I regret to say that we were persuaded, on the overwhelming weight of evidence, that the Government have indeed been practising a deliberate policy of making that highly vulnerable group destitute. Such deliberate use of inhuman treatment is utterly unacceptable. We have seen and heard of far too many cases in which the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers and those refused asylum falls well below the requirements not only of international law, but of our traditional British common-law values and legal principles of humanity.
That is a serious charge, and it is not made lightly. We reached that view only after hearing many witnesses, reading volumes of evidence and visiting Yarl’s Wood, where we could talk freely with detainees, including their detained children. The accounts of their treatment were deeply depressing. Such things should not happen in a civilised society.
The Government rebut our conclusion, claiming that
“genuine asylum seekers are welcome”.
However, that assertion cannot stand against the evidence given to our inquiry. I urge the Minister to reflect on our findings, the array of evidence and the transcripts that we published, as well as the arguments that I advanced in the report and repeated today.
I plead with the Minister to reconsider his view that that we respect the human rights of asylum seekers in this country. Any civilised society should be able to treat asylum seekers with respect and dignity, even if they are refused leave to remain and are to be removed.
The final issue that we considered was the role of some of the press in demonising asylum seekers. We are very concerned at the negative impact of such relentlessly hostile reporting. We recommended that the Press Complaints Commission should provide practical guidance to the media on the reporting of asylum issues, and that the Home Office should encourage newspapers to act more responsibly. We also recommended that Ministers should use measured language when discussing asylum matters. The Government response dwelled on the positive impact expected from the restructuring of the Home Office and the creating of an overarching communications strategy for the Department. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he thinks that that has worked out in practice. From my reading of the tabloids, it seems somewhat unlikely.
In conclusion, asylum seekers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the UK. Victims of abuse and ill treatment in the country of origin, they come to the UK in search of sanctuary and a better life. We fully accept that many may not have a genuine claim to asylum and ought properly to be denied a permanent home here. However, that does not permit us to treat them so poorly or to abuse their human rights.
Our inquiry’s findings were stark but clear: our country routinely abuses the human rights of asylum seekers. In our view, asylum seekers are sometimes treated so appallingly that we fail to meet our obligation under article 3 of the European convention to protect them from inhuman treatment. Worse, that is the inevitable consequence of asylum policies developed over recent years.
Self-evidently, treating asylum seekers humanely may not be a popular cause, but meeting our human rights obligations does not mean accepting more asylum seekers into the country. Human rights are universal; they apply equally to us all. Who knows when we might need those rights ourselves? Observing that principle is not only the law, but the right thing to do.
Whether the Minister likes it or not, an asylum seeker, failed or otherwise, is not a file of papers or a Home Office reference number. The asylum seeker is a human being, possibly even an orphan child whose parents have died from AIDS or were killed in one of the many conflicts in the developing world. That human being’s only fault is to take at face value the Government’s assurance that those fleeing death, torture and persecution are welcome. Contrasting the meanness and nastiness of our current record with the more generous historic tradition of decency and fair play shows that asylum seekers are clearly not welcome at all.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, the debate is not about who is or is not given refugee status; it is not about the decision-making process. We may have very different views on how efficient that process is, whether decisions are fair and how many people should or should not be given refugee status, but irrespective of those, I hope that we would agree that while such people are in the United Kingdom, whether they are given asylum or refugee status or whether it is decided that their claims are not justified and that they should be removed—whatever the conclusion—we should ensure that they are treated humanely and that their human rights are upheld.
Parts of various Acts specifically relate to destitution—section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, and section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Section 55 of the 2002 Act allows support to be refused to someone who has claimed late. The Government’s view in their response is that support is not refused to anyone who does not have alternative support, but that does not match the evidence that I have seen of people refused under that provision. Although the numbers involved are relatively small, as my hon. Friend said, it is one of the decision-making areas that is most challenged—and often successfully challenged—through judicial review.
Section 9 of the 2004 Act has so far been applied only as a pilot. The review undertaken by the Border and Immigration Agency said that it was not effective as a stand-alone measure, but it then said that reforms or enhancements to the arrangements for voluntary return might suggest that it should be retained. The Government have not yet given a real decision on that, and they have the power under a later Act to repeal section 9. The very fact that that power was given indicates that they had doubts about whether it is effective. Otherwise, why take the power to repeal it?
The BIA review did not seem to conclude that section 9 was not effective on a stand-alone basis. It suggested that the provision did not have much effect, and that when it did it was probably negative. The review compared a cohort of people being dealt with under section 9 with a similarly sized cohort who were not. It found little difference in the number who applied for voluntary return; it found little difference in the number who were removed; but it found a significant difference in the number of people who disappeared. Of the 116 cases in the cohort being dealt with under section 9, who should have been reporting to the immigration service or making contact with asylum support officials, 39 per cent. were no longer in contact at the end of the pilot, whereas in the control group it was just over half that number.
It seems that section 9 has a negative effect, encouraging people to disappear. On that basis, it is difficult to see why section 9, which is very clear and simple in providing for the withdrawal of all support, would be any better in an enhanced system of voluntary removal. Indeed, I think that its effect will be exactly the same as in the pilot. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us when we might expect a decision on the future of section 9. If it is not going to be used, let us use the powers that are in place to remove it from the statute book.
I have heard the argument that there is no policy of enforced destitution, but there is no question but that destitution has been the consequence—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Although the Government say that there is not a policy of enforced destitution, destitution is the result of what has been happening. That is not new. Over a long period, under successive Governments, the view has been taken that making things tough will deter people from coming here and making false asylum claims.
I recall the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, when the Tory Government put forward their proposals to remove all financial support from anyone who claimed asylum inside the country, as opposed to the port of entry. That was clearly intended to deter people from coming to make claims. An unexpected consequence was that, following court cases, local authorities had to start supporting asylum seekers. Each successive Act since then—the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004—has contained sections clearly intended to deter people from making claims, or from remaining in the country after refusal of a claim, by removing financial support. In the late ’90s the policy of voucher support in place of any cash at all for all asylum seekers was introduced. I remember the arguments. Lord Morris of Handsworth, who is now a member of the Joint Committee, was centrally involved in getting that scheme scrapped.
The rationale behind all those provisions—section 4 of the 1999 Act, section 9 of the 2004 Act, section 55 of the 2002 Act, and voucher support in place of cash—is that it will deter people from making false claims. It will keep the application numbers down. I do not believe that there is evidence to support that view.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he uses the term “false claims.” Part of the problem, of course, is that that term can cover unsuccessful claims made in good faith, as well as those made in bad faith that turn out to be unfounded. Neither type of claimant seems likely to be deterred, because someone making a claim in good faith does not know that it will be considered unfounded, and false claims are often made on behalf of the people concerned. It cannot be right to punish children for claims made on their behalf by those with responsibility for them.
That is absolutely right. If we consider the matter just in terms of numbers of applications, which has been the tendency, a graph of those numbers going back several years makes it easy to say, “Ah yes. That year was Bosnia, and that one was Kosovo.” That is what really affects the number of applications. The argument that being tough and removing financial support will deter someone from coming here does not work.
The same applies to the argument, which is dealt with in the report, about permission to work—the suggestion that if we were to give permission to work, particularly to people whose asylum claims have failed but who have been here, and are likely to be here, for a considerable time, it would act as a pull factor. We used, of course, to give people permission to work when their asylum cases had not been decided after six months. The period is now a year. Given that the vast majority of asylum claims are now dealt with in less time, and we have speeded up the decision-making process considerably compared with 10, 12 or 15 years ago when people waited years for a decision, the number of people affected, who are making claims, will be fairly small. However, there are real concerns about the people whose asylum claims have failed and who remain here.
There are several thousand people on section 4 support, and many of them will be people whom the Home Office and the Government accept cannot safely be returned, at the moment, to their country of origin. That is why they are given section 4 support—it has generally been accepted that they cannot, for the time being, be safely removed. Of course, to get section 4 support, people must sign a paper indicating that they are willing to return when it becomes possible. The vast majority of failed asylum seekers are not on section 4 support, and they get nothing. Those are often the people who end up destitute.
When we know that someone is likely to be here for a considerable time, because there is no obvious prospect of returning them to their country of origin, why on earth do we not give them temporary permission to work, as the Committee suggested? That would give them something useful to do with their lives, and even if they are going to return at some point, acquiring skills and work experience while they are here could be of significant benefit to them when they return to their country of origin. In the queue of what the Home Office now describes as “legacy cases” there are many failed asylum seekers, and it is estimated that it will take five years to work through that queue. Are we simply going to leave these people in limbo for five years?
The answer is not to say that people can work voluntarily. How do they get to the place where they are supposed to be volunteering if they do not have any cash—if they are on section 4 and on vouchers or if they are not on section 4 and have absolutely nothing? It is a matter of treating people with dignity while they are here, even if they are going to be removed. I lose count of the number of people I see in constituency surgeries who have reached the point of having their claim rejected and losing their appeal, by which time they may have been here for months and years, although nothing has been done about removing them back to their country of origin and they are relying on family, friends and relatives for support.
On health care, which my hon. Friend mentioned, there is a review of access to the NHS. That joint review by the Home Office and the Department of Health was supposed to be published in October, but we are still waiting for it. He referred to the effects of the current restrictions and said that it is not just the people who should be subject to those restrictions who are affected by them, but that sometimes people who should not have restricted access to health care are also being denied it. That is not really surprising. It is pretty obvious that a health care worker, particularly someone sitting on the front desk, will not know the immigration rules in sufficient detail to be able to identify whether a person’s immigration status should prevent them from accessing certain treatments, and wrong decisions will be made.
I understand perfectly well that we cannot act as the national health service for the world. We cannot operate the NHS on the basis that anybody can come here at any time they like and obtain free treatment. However, the evidence that people come here to claim asylum for health tourism reasons is virtually non-existent. I have never seen any evidence that supports that case. There has not been a great deal of work done on that, but one piece of work I am familiar with is a survey of patients by the Terrence Higgins Trust, which looked at people who had come here from overseas and had been diagnosed with HIV after they had arrived. The survey showed that, in virtually all cases, people diagnosed with HIV had been here for a considerable time before being tested and diagnosed. They went for testing when they became ill. The logic of someone being a health tourist is that they would ask for an HIV test within a fairly short time of being in the country, but that is not what happens.
We have reached the point at which we are saying that someone infected with HIV who is a failed asylum seeker or is here without proper immigration status will be denied treatment. That raises serious questions, including serious ethical questions for clinicians, who do not want to be in the position of denying treatment to someone who is ill. We know from work that has been done—from what clinicians tell us—that that leads to people not coming forward for testing and giving up on treatment because they think that they will be charged. That leads to their getting much more seriously ill and then going to an accident and emergency department, by which time they are far more expensive to treat than they would have been in the first place. There are pragmatic cost-benefit reasons for not denying people treatment in those circumstances.
There are also some clear public health arguments. On HIV, for example, which I am quite familiar with and on which I do a lot of work, we know that if somebody is infected and is undiagnosed they are much more likely to pass on that infection to someone else. That someone else is not necessarily a failed asylum seeker; it could be anybody. When looking at the cost of treatment, it is nonsense, on public health grounds, to leave people with serious medical problems undiagnosed and untreated. Although the report is about asylum seekers, it is not just about failed asylum seekers, but about other people who have not got legal immigration status. If, as is intended, the new systems of immigration control come in, there will be much tighter crackdowns on illegal employment and more and more people in such a situation will be thrown up.
I echo what my hon. Friend said: it would be a disaster to extend this measure to primary care, because it would compound the problems for the individuals and for public health and would put a lot more pressure on accident and emergency departments, because that is where people will eventually turn up when they have become seriously ill and much more expensive to treat.
Finally, I should like to say something about children. I know that you are familiar with the detention of children, Mr. Bercow. A report was produced by the all-party groups on children and on refugees that suggested to the Home Office and the Government that they ought to be looking for alternatives. That report made some practical suggestions about alternatives to detention that could be considered, and it mentioned the sort of systems that have been used in other countries, which appear to work successfully, particularly in keeping families who may be subject to removal, in touch with the Home Office and immigration officers. A pilot, which has been started in Kent, is looking at some alternatives. I hope that the Government will pursue that and consider expanding it because, as my hon. Friend said, the numbers of children in detention and the length of time that they are kept there is unacceptable.
We all understand that it can be difficult to remove a family with children. I accept that there may be circumstances in which some pretty tough, nasty decisions have to be made by Ministers. However, we do not need to keep children in detention for long periods. On 30 June, 35 children were in detention—mainly in Yarl’s Wood—10 of whom had been in detention for more than a month. Save the Children came up with cases of families with children that have been in detention for more than six months. I do not think that any of us should find that acceptable.
This valuable report has looked in some depth at difficult areas and has produced recommendations. However, I am disappointed in the Government response because, having read it, it is difficult to find any of the recommendations that have been fully accepted and will be implemented. I hope that Ministers will think again about some of their views on the report’s recommendations.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), whose passion and sincerity will be sorely missed when he retires at the next election.
A report produced in June by the Peterborough and Whittlesey Amnesty International group contains a foreword by Cardinal Basil Hume, who said:
“The reception given to those applying for asylum is an illuminating indicator of the state of a nation’s health.”
I think that that is certainly the case. With the indulgence of the Chamber, I shall focus on my experiences with constituents of mine to whom I alluded earlier—Ahmed Kamal and Adam Jamal Eedeem—who are Darfuri asylum seekers. Many of the points made by hon. Members resonate with my experiences in dealing with those constituents’ issues. Tragically, they were subjected to one of the most appalling acts of genocide that the world has ever seen—in Darfur. You will be familiar with that, Mr. Bercow. It was one of the worst events in Africa’s history. They have been in the United Kingdom for four years, having been dispersed to my constituency of Peterborough.
It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to those who have assisted my constituents so ably over the years, such Andy Hewett of Peterborough Red Cross group, Jo Erskine, a constituent of mine and a member of an Amnesty International group, the Aegis Trust, with which hon. Members will be familiar, the Red Cross nationally and New Link. Members might know that in 2000, Peterborough was designated an asylum seeker dispersal centre. The New Link centre was set up in 2003, for which I give the Government credit, in order to bring together nine discrete projects concentrating on asylum seekers and refugees. We have had funding difficulties, but those involved have focused on asylum and tried their best to deal with legal representation, assimilation, language skills and other such issues. I am pleased to report to the Chamber that funding for that organisation will continue over the next year or so, under the leadership of Leonie McCarthy, who is a member of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.
I agree with much of the report. I am pleased that we are not getting into a debate on global immigration and asylum matters—about the numbers and about who is right and wrong. Those are different issues, on which I have robust views. I would not describe myself as an archetypal lily-livered liberal on this issue. However, this debate is about competence and efficiency. It seems to be a strange system whereby Amazon can deliver books more efficiently than we can deliver, look after and administer sentient human beings from all over the world. Whatever party is governing this country, we must get that right. I do not believe—I take issue with the Committee Chairman on this—that there is a systematic and deliberate policy to cause destitution under section 4. I do not think that any Government could be responsible for such a thing. The Government have tried to do their best in difficult circumstances, although I think that their response to our report was insufficient.
I shall focus on the cases of the two gentlemen whom I mentioned earlier. It cannot be a sensible system that throws people on the mercy of sometimes second-rate legal representation. People are trundled around the country and often receive very poor representation. They are not in a position as stakeholders to have any real influence with many legal firms, and are put to the bottom of the pile. That means huge delays and inadequate representation, which cannot be good for the public purse and certainly is not good for expediting their cases with alacrity. The Government need to look very carefully at such legal representation, particularly in the cases of my constituents, who are of Sudanese extraction.
On the collation of medical evidence, it should not just be about someone’s ability to travel to London to be assessed by, in the case of my constituents, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. There must be a more systematic way in which to provide adequate medical checks and collate the medical evidence, which is an intrinsic part of asylum claims for refugee status.
Housing is another issue. The Amnesty International group’s report, “Asylum Seekers in Peterborough” states:
“Due to the type of housing stock many single asylum seekers are dispersed to Peterborough. Individuals are required to share houses and sometimes share bedrooms. Typically people mentioned five people sharing houses provided by NASS and also providing shelter for destitute friends who have had their support cut.”
That is really important, as is the problem of people having to move houses constantly. It cannot be good for the provision of social housing for local authorities constantly to have to move people at the behest of the appropriate Government Department.
I shall touch on English as a second language, which is a key issue. If we want to receive people who are legally entitled to refugee status, and who wish to make a proper contribution to the Exchequer and to be good, decent, hard-working citizens of this country, it does not seem sensible to handicap them by not offering them any assistance in learning English as a second language. I know that that is a bigger issue. No doubt the Minister will say that his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are looking into it. However, this seems to be an example where joined-up government does not exist.
I shall touch on an Appeal Court decision in April of this year. I received a comprehensive and well-argued—one might say—letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on the case in question, which dealt with whether it is appropriate for Darfuri asylum seekers to be repatriated internally to Khartoum and whether that would protect their human rights under the 1951 convention. I contend that the Government have interpreted that decision very narrowly when considering what those people were doing when they applied for asylum—that they were farmers, but they could have gone to a city such as Khartoum internally. That seems fundamentally to disregard the main issue, which is that they were the subjects of torture, surveillance and other manifest human rights abuses. I believe that the over-interpretation of that legal ruling needs to be reconsidered, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.
We need to look at this important issue and the everyday experiences of my constituents. They remain in this country and have not been arbitrarily deported, but they are suffering a miserable existence. It is incumbent upon a compassionate and—dare I say it? Perhaps the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) should cover his ears— Christian country to focus on people’s human rights and to treat them decently. I hope that the Government will look specifically at my constituents’ cases. The Minister has been helpful in the past and written to me on a number of occasions. I might trouble him for a meeting in the near future.
I am pleased to follow what I thought was a thoughtful and nuanced approach by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). More specifically, I am pleased also to follow the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who covered most of the issues that I wanted to cover, and from a position of professional rigor and deep understanding. I confess my amateur status on some of these things, but as a confessed generalist, I shall make a couple of points from my perspective as a constituency MP—a localised perspective on suffering experienced by some people. I will suggest that there is a demand for an alternative public policy response to remedy the profound difficulties experienced by some people.
Two points in particular struck me about the report. There is the acknowledgement, which has been mentioned by some colleagues, that the threat and use of destitution is a tool of Government policy. Paragraph 120 of the report states:
“We consider that by refusing permission for most asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases breaches the Article 3 ECHR threshold of inhuman and degrading treatment. This applies at all stages of the asylum claim process: when an individual is attempting to claim asylum, during the period of consideration of their claim and during the period after their claim is refused if they are unable to return to their country of origin. Many witnesses have told us that they are convinced that destitution is a deliberate tool in the operation of immigration policy. We have been persuaded by the evidence that the Government has indeed been practising a deliberate policy of destitution of this highly vulnerable group.”
I also want to focus on recommendation 15, which has been alluded to in previous contributions. It states that
“asylum seekers should be able to apply for permission to work when their appeal is outstanding for 12 months or more and delay is due to factors beyond their control. Also, where he or she would not be able to leave they should be granted limited leave to remain with permission to work.”
I stand here as a supporter of the Still Human Still Here campaign, which wants to end the process of destitution of failed asylum seekers. The organisation includes a group of refugee, migration and human rights organisations, faith groups, anti-poverty campaigners, charities and many individuals. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and I were very fortunate last week to be involved in a debate following the parliamentary screening of a new film, which can be viewed on the Amnesty International website. The film focuses brilliantly on the plight of failed asylum seekers in this country. Referring to both personal testimonies and stories, it is a way-in to analysing a group that is quantified to be in the order of 283,000 cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon emphasised the preponderance of failed asylum seekers in London, which is where I come from. My involvement in the campaign is a direct product of my own experiences as a local MP. Since I was elected in 2001, there has been an extraordinary growth in the casework that surrounds failed asylum seekers. I see a whole series of different elements. I have had many cases in which people have come to me with accounts of extraordinary abuses at the hands of unscrupulous employers. Destitution forces them into the hands of such people. I have also heard of extraordinary cases of appalling landlordism, which I thought we had removed from this country. Thanks to issues of demography, migration and the plight of failed asylum seekers, we are witnessing forms of landlordism that I thought we would not see in London in 2007.
The problem is interlinked with forms of criminality and organised criminality in which the most vulnerable are abused by gangs in an organised and systematic way. At the same time, many of those individuals have experienced quite shocking bureaucratic systemic failures by the Home Office over many years. They have often been prey to appalling legal advice and modern forms of banditry in the legal profession. More often than not such individuals come from war-torn, or very unstable, countries and quite often their cases are interlinked with physiological problems and a lack of access to decent quality secondary health services.
Amnesty and the Still Human Still Here campaign have emphasised the profound problems of mental health that go with the whole package. Many MPs—I have hundreds and hundreds of cases—hear of quite appalling compound abuses. It is incumbent on public policy makers to come up with a response that tries to relieve, for simple purposes of humanitarianism, those appalling situations. That is why the Government’s policy has been described as a form of “formal destitution.” It forces people into that situation as a remedy for the political debates on asylum and immigration. I am extremely uncomfortable with that, especially as a member of the party that is in government. That is why I think that the report’s contribution is so important. It tries to provide an alternative analysis that goes against the grain of some of the orthodoxies and political debates around asylum, immigration and demography. If it is a systematic policy to use destitution as a key element of public policy, the situation is likely to get worse if we are to believe some of the things that we read in the newspapers.
On Sunday 2 October, The Observer carried a front page story, according to which the Home Office was allegedly pushing for further restrictions on health care provision to cover primary care. We see the image of queues of migrants with no status, and failed asylum seekers at accident and emergency, often in the most abject physiological condition, and that is supposed to remedy problems of community cohesion. I do not understand how that will relieve some of them in communities such as mine, especially in terms of the work of the far right and the deep problems that exist. I do not see how a further reduction in access to primary care will help to increase immunity levels across the country. It is self-evident that quite threatening conditions are likely to remain unchecked among many people in the community.
The other week, I was at a debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow talked about the stated Government objective of universal access to antiretroviral drugs internationally. At the same time, however, the consequence of their position is to deny such drugs to failed asylum seekers in this country. I think that is worth thinking through. That is why the report is so important. I do not want to get caught up in a numbers game with regard to the estimates of failed asylum seekers. I deal with literally hundreds and hundreds of cases all the time, and the appalling situation that such people face demands an alternative series of remedies.
The report can be seen alongside growing evidence of the plight of destitute asylum seekers. Evidence has been compiled by organisations such as Amnesty International, Refugee Action and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. To date, the Government response has focused solely on removals. A rate of removal of some 26 minutes implies a 14-year span to deal with the consensus estimate of 283,000 cases. The unit cost of an enforced removal is around £11,000.
My departure point is that the Government have a moral responsibility to ensure that no one in the UK is destitute. As such, refused asylum seekers should be supported up to the point of removal. The counter- argument in the Government’s response is to do with pull factors. As far as I can see, very little evidence emerges of the pull factors, such as welfare provision or health care. In the response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Minister was unable to provide any empirical evidence that such pull factors existed. He said that he had arrived at his decision on the basis of logic. The Home Office has reported that over the past decade
“while there was a disparity in the reception and welfare support provided for asylum seekers in the EU, the level of benefits varied only slightly between comparable welfare assistance regimes. Yet application rates varied considerably, suggesting that other factors”
than welfare provision
“were more likely to account for variations in asylum applications.”
The Institute for Public Policy Research referred to
“the absence of any evidence that access to welfare benefits or employment are significant ‘pull’ factors influencing the decisions of asylum seekers.”
My concern is about community cohesion. A Government adviser, who does not work for them anymore, once described the strategy to me: it was to choke off the space for the right to operate by providing a tough regime for failed asylum seekers. We should deal with the far right not by compromising our basic humanitarian disposition in dealing with the most vulnerable, but by dealing with the far right organisationally. Witness what has happened to it over the past few hours—as we have been speaking. The British National party is collapsing internally, and we have called for a police inquiry into internal criminality, which I think will undermine its capacity to feed on such issues. We should not provide oxygen for it to thrive by moving the terms of the debate further to the right and demonising the most vulnerable in society. Therefore, I welcome the report. It is a profoundly important contribution to public debate.
We have had an excellent debate on an excellent report. I confess an interest, in that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I was a member when it conducted its investigation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on how he handled the inquiry and on how he introduced the report today. He gave a clear exposition and held nothing back in criticising Government policy where the Committee had agreed that that was appropriate. It is important that all hon. Members speak home truths to the Government on the issue: let us face the facts—there are very few votes in a humane, reasonable and evidence-based policy on asylum seekers.
A Select Committee can play an important role by taking the issue outside party politics, considering it in depth, and, in the case of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, using the expertise in the House of Lords, giving the Government plenty of time to provide written and oral evidence, and then coming up with a unanimous and considered view. It is important that we use these debates to ensure that the Government are held further to account—beyond simply the report’s publication—through questioning. I hope that there will be time for the Minister to give a detailed response, and indeed, time for us to question him on it.
We have heard useful contributions from other hon. Members. I shall make a few points, comment on their observations and end with a few questions for the Minister. I must declare a further interest. I am a member of the British Medical Association ethics committee, which has considered the issue and made representations to the Government on some of their health care proposals.
One must start by commenting on the Government’s response to the report. We will come on to discuss their policy, but their response was deeply disappointing. When there are severe criticisms of the Government, one would expect their response to the recommendations to be longer than the paragraphs that make up those recommendations, but in many areas it was shorter.
The Government indicated their failure to engage with the specific issues by lumping together a series of recommendations. For example, from page 15 onwards, their response on health care lumped together recommendations from paragraphs 16 to 20 and 22 to 25, which all deal with different issues—otherwise, they would have been in the same paragraph. The Government responded to them, except with an additional paragraph—paragraph 19—in seven short paragraphs. It should not be necessary to get out a ruler: a one-page response to almost two pages of recommendations is deeply depressing.
It would have been an incredible feat of draftsmanship if such a short response to such a long series of recommendations had engaged with the issues, and it was not a well-crafted response anyway. It showed a complete failure to engage not only with the arguments, but with the evidence. The report cited significant amounts of evidence and raised several questions, and it is deeply depressing that the Government failed to engage in detail with our recommendations or with the evidence.
The Government simply repeated their existing policy. The Committee considered their policy when making its recommendations, so repeating the policy does not take the issue any further forward. The Select Committee reports process is rather undermined when such an unsatisfactory response is made. That accounts for the tone and content of the introductory speech by the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hendon. The other members of the Committee share his concerns, because we know how frustrating it has been to receive an almost peremptory response to many of our recommendations. That is not to say that what little there was to welcome is not welcome, but the Chairman was right to spend so little time identifying the welcome responses to the report, because identifying them was very hard.
The Minister is engaging and capable of mounting an argument. He accounted for himself very well during the oral evidence session, and it is hard to believe that he would have signed off something that did not include more argument, because we know that he is capable of doing so, and we look forward to hearing whether he can add more to the report shortly.
One of the report’s first recommendations was that asylum policy should be based on evidence, and several Members have already said that on just one Government policy—the section 9 pilot—the Government have turned against their own evidence-gathering procedures. The report on the section 9 pilot, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, made it clear that it was not working and might even be counter-productive, but the Government’s response was that they will continue to implement it case by case—as if it was not done case by case previously, or as if case by case is anything different.
The Select Committee on Science and Technology, on which I serve, issued a report on evidence-based policy-making congratulating the Government on talking the language of, and sometimes delivering on the plea for, evidence-based policy. The Government then argued that they will pilot initiatives, and that if they are unsuccessful, the policy will be changed. I believe, and the report set out, that Opposition parties should not then attack the Government for U-turning.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division, I was discussing evidence-based policy making and saying that Opposition parties need to ensure that, when pilots are carried out—or, even better, when trials are carried out, as the word “trial” implies some thought having been given to the design of the research in a research context—they do not criticise the Government for performing a U-turn if, as a result of the pilot or the trial, they change their view. However, the first thing to say is that the Government must not bother piloting something if they are not going to accept the results of that pilot.
I do not understand how the Home Office, which now has a chief scientific adviser, can have that chief scientific adviser holding his head high and saying that Home Office policy will be based on evidence when we have an example of this kind. Perhaps the Government can explain further why they continued with the policy in the face of the evidence that they themselves gathered. It is probably even worse to collect evidence about a subject, find that it does not match the policy and then continue the policy, than to implement a policy without checking for the evidence. That just undermines the process and the faith that everyone involved in evaluating the pilot has in the evaluation.
A number of other issues were raised by the Select Committee, including that of destitution. I do not want simply to repeat what has been said by the hon. Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Members for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) and for Walthamstow, who spoke so clearly on this subject. However, as the hon. Member for Dagenham said, the report was quite clear in paragraph 120, stating that our view is that the Government are using those policies to create destitution deliberately, which is wrong in itself, and, furthermore, they are doing so in an attempt to dissuade people from applying for asylum in this country.
As has already been said, there does not seem to be any evidence linking an understanding of the policies of the target country to the number of asylum applicants who come here. Those issues are outside the control of our Government: this is a question of the behaviour of regimes in other countries, of war and, often, of the economic circumstances that prevail in other countries. There is no evidence that it is a function of the particular arrangements that we have here and the Government need to provide evidence that there is a pull factor in those practices—which the Committee and I would consider humane practices—before they even make the case that those practices should be discontinued.
After all, the vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are looked after in the southern hemisphere in countries adjacent to war zones—in some of the poorest countries in the world and in dreadful circumstances. Therefore, it seems almost an insult for us to argue about whether a certain level of support is a pull factor when the overwhelming majority of refugees find themselves in terrible circumstances in countries that have very little of our ability to provide decent circumstances. Furthermore, the pull factor is not a calculation for those countries, which are under huge pressure from their own populations, let alone the refugee population.
I apologise for missing part of the debate, Mr. Bercow. I was at a meeting with the Department for International Development.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Is he aware that, for example, Syria is accommodating probably 1.5 million or more Iraqi refugees, that Jordan is accommodating a large number and that the story goes on among all the poorer and poorest countries in the world? He is making an extremely valuable point in that respect. The burden does not by any means fall on Europe or the rich countries; the burden of the poor falls on the poor.
Indeed. I certainly accept that point. Foremost in my mind was Chad. The issue of Sudan and Darfur has been raised. Our press and media do superb work in highlighting some refugee issues around the world, yet the very same media and some politicians do not understand that the same factors drive people to seek refuge in this country as drive people to seek refuge in those refugee camps in very poor conditions.
Much has been said about the section 9 pilot, and I endorse what has been said by hon. Members. I certainly would like to see that scheme repealed, and I hope that during the passage of what will be yet another immigration Bill there will be an opportunity to request that the Government repeal it.
The issue of section 4 support and the use of vouchers has also been raised. We must remember that section 4 is reserved for those people who cannot be removed, so they are trapped in this country and trapped on a scheme that is discriminatory and stigmatising. If the Government do not think that that scheme is stigmatising, I would ask them a question: what research have they done to back up that assertion? It is hard to believe that having to pay for provisions with vouchers—provisions that those people can pay for—is satisfactory.
As I understand it, the Government said that they had plans to have regulations to provide
“improved support to the most vulnerable…and those who may require support for longer than six months”
to meet exceptional needs. The Government also told us in paragraph 10 of their response:
“We plan to consult on a second draft of the regulations before the summer recess.”
Before the debate, I looked online for a copy of the second draft of those regulations and they were not obviously apparent. I do not believe that they were published by September, so can the Government explain what has happened to even the limited steps that they had taken to deal with additional support for those people on section 4 support who have been here a long time? Much has also been said about the issues relating to section 55 support, and I endorse the comments made by the hon. Members for Hendon and for Walthamstow.
The report was not as radical as it could have been, because it did not call for—perhaps it was not in its remit to do so—permission to work to be given to asylum seekers, which would be a win-win situation. It would obviously be a benefit to the asylum seekers themselves, many of whom have skills. In fact, it is often the most skilled and the most educated people who are able to escape the persecution and to apply for asylum in countries such as Britain. It would also benefit us in two ways: they would be contributing in sectors where we may have skill shortages, and indeed paying taxes, and they would not be reliant on support.
It is extremely disappointing that working is not permitted within the first 12 months. Liberal Democrats would wish to change that for what is, as I said, a win-win situation, unless the Government can provide evidence that people are prepared to risk the destitution and difficulties that come their way—and, indeed, the inevitable targeting by the immigration and removal system—to play the system. I do not think that that evidence exists, although I know from an exchange that I had with the Minister in the Select Committee that he feels it most definitely does.
The Government’s policy is inhumane. I understand the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) saying that he thinks this matter is about competence and efficiency rather than inhumanity. I certainly agree that there are problems in the Home Office, but now is not the time to dwell on them. It would be inappropriate to use our time to do that.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Christian view of these things. My experience of working in my constituency with faith-based organisations is that they share my view. In fact, every faith-based organisation shares my view, not his, that this is an inhumane policy and not simply a matter of running the system and policies a little better. We ought to pay tribute to the work that those organisations do, but also recognise that if one is going to suggest that we run the country and our policies on Christian lines—I understand his point—we ought to seek the view of the voluntary organisations on the policies, as many of them have to pick up the pieces of the destitution.
Health has been mentioned again by hon. Members. It is the clearest example of how the system is not only inhumane, but counter-productive. The report goes on at great length, with plenty of evidence—albeit in many cases anecdotal—on the effect of the health care rules. I wish to discuss a couple of examples.
The first example is the assertion that there is health tourism in the UK. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, there is not good evidence that there is a significant amount of health tourism. In any event, that description is insulting, and I am sorry that some of the mainstream media use it. If we are going to talk about people coming from outside the country to access our health service, we need to take a balanced view and net off the impact that poaching our health service has on the health care resources of other countries.
Despite the Government’s recognition of the problem and attempts to limit it, we still take health care professionals from countries that have far fewer health care professionals per head of population than we do and far greater burdens of ill health. Because of the way international labour flows, whether deliberately or not—I hope the Government accept that I am not claiming that they seek to do this deliberately—we are responsible for undermining the health care systems of many countries from which migrants and asylum seekers, some of whom are unsuccessful in their claims, come.
For us to argue that people coming here from a health care system that is worse because the doctors and nurses whom it has trained up and whose training we may have contributed to are now working in this country are in some way stealing our health service resources, when they may well be being treated by people from their own country who have come to work here, is a bit of a cheek at least, and an extremely unfair and unfortunate allegation at worst.
I do not think that it does a debate on transparency in immigration and asylum a lot of good to disregard, in effect, the real stresses and strains on the delivery of public services that EU migration, for instance, has caused. Such migration is not pertinent to this debate, but we are not talking about necessarily sophisticated media. There is a strain, and the by-product of that strain is that genuine asylum seekers and refugees are held accountable for the fact that there has not been planning for EU migration, for instance, which may not be health tourism, but which certainly involves accessing local facilities that are not adequately resourced to cope.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that interesting question, because it is important to discuss it. Any group of people coming to this country may have higher than average health problems and lower than average wealth-generating potential than others, but we know that the EU migrants, who are generally younger and here for work purposes, are usually net contributors in terms of tax versus welfare, and that they use the health care system much less than average because of their age. Therefore, even if they were not filling health care posts, which they have done for a considerable period, it is extremely difficult to make a logical case that EU migration is a net drain on our resources for that reason.
The people who are a net drain, although I would not use that term, on our resources are the elderly people in this country, but they are entitled to health care resources that are far greater than what they contribute now—not only because they contributed in the past through their working lives, but because that is the right and proper thing to do.
If the NHS is stressed, it is wrong to try to blame any group of people. It is an emotive thing to do, and the real risk of talking the language of migrants being a drain on the health service is that people think that their grandmother cannot get a hip replacement because of the foreigners—they might say “foreign-looking people”—who are somehow ahead in the queue. It is extremely difficult to access health care services if one is not permanently resident in this country, so the argument that migrants jump the queue in any way is absolutely wrong. It is incumbent on all politicians in all parties, in local government and central Government, to ensure that we argue the case for a civilised debate on the matter and do not seek, to coin a phrase, to blame the scapegoat.
On HIV/AIDS, it is bizarre that the Government—in particular, the Prime Minister—have a long-standing commitment to ensuring universal treatment in the developing world but not in this country. That defies belief. It is not a rational approach, particularly given the fact that it is not sensible in economic terms not to invest in HIV treatment to keep viral load down. There are dangers of infection if the viral load goes up and, therefore, more cases present as an emergency, and also because people are more infectious—usually through sexual contact, of course—when they are not under treatment for HIV/AIDS. The policy does not make sense in terms of health care either.
It seems wrong that we have shifted the question of whether people should be treated on to health care workers who find it ethically difficult to deny treatment to people who need it, even though it is not immediately necessary in the language of the regulations. As the hon. Member for Hendon said, infectious diseases have real public health implications. If the idea is that people will now not be allowed primary care but will have to rely on presenting to accident and emergency, that will undermine completely any pretence the Government have to running a rational health care system. Yes, a good way of generating accident and emergency admissions is by not treating diabetics until they present as emergencies, but the suggestion is ridiculous even in terms of health care economics.
I hope that the Department of Health view prevails if, as we believe, there is an argument between the Department of Health and the Home Office. It will be difficult for the Government to escape criticism from health care professionals and human rights groups if it does not.
There is a responsibility on Opposition politicians to ensure that if the Government produce a sensible policy on asylum seekers that is not draconian, it is not criticised. I hope that the Opposition will accept that.
It is important to recognise the impact of Government policy on children. Whatever one says about the motives of people who claim asylum—I do not accept that a large number make applications in bad faith—children should not be victims of decisions and processes initiated by other people. The report makes lengthy recommendations on how children should be looked after, but the Government responded positively to only a few. It would be extremely useful if they at least made a statement, even if they are not prepared to drop their reservation about the convention on the rights of the child and asylum-seeking children having the same rights as other children under domestic legislation. I hope that that is not too much for the Government to say yes to.
I hope that the Joint Committee returns to the matter, because there have been a number of responses to the Government’s response, and the Government gave a number of commitments on more consultation, more regulations and returning to some of these matters. I fear that there will always be an immigration Bill, although the Government will be asked to change their policy and the law. I hope that the Committee presses the Government on these issues.
The Government should be ashamed of their policy and their inadequate response to the criticism of it. I have spoken without commenting on Home Office efficiency and the Border and Immigration Agency, because the Government have at least recognised that reform is necessary. They have a new asylum model—I am not criticising that—but their performance on the recommendations of the report of the all-party Committee of both Houses has been dreadful, and their response inadequate. I hope that the Minister, who is more than capable of providing a better response to the report, gives us the answers we want.
This has been a fascinating debate on an important report, but I want to make a procedural point. In an era when the subject of welcome topical debates is decided each week in the main Chamber, it is faintly absurd that an interesting and controversial report is published in March, the Government publish their response in June and the Chamber debates it in December Surely we can do better than that in procedural terms, so that such reports can have more impact than even this one. It is absurd that it takes so long for such a report to be debated.
I am sure that is so, but the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) will understand that there are many important matters that we want to debate, especially concerning the Home Office, but we have only a limited number of Opposition days on which to do so. Sadly, this matter has fallen through the net so far.
Turning to the substance of the report, during my 10 years in this place, I have not heard a more devastating attack on the Government in a Select Committee report than that made by the hon. Gentleman. He said—I do not think I am paraphrasing him unfairly—that current Government policy is not just illegal because it breaks our international treaty conventions, but is immoral because it reduces some of the most vulnerable people in this country to destitution, and achieves that not because of incompetence in the delivery of policy, but as the specific aim of the policy. I cannot imagine a more devastating critique of any Government policy. I noted carefully what he said in his cogent introduction, and that seemed to be the thrust of his comments and of the report. It is clear that times are slightly out of joint for the Government when the most supportive remark to the Minister comes from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) about a detail of the policy as it has affected his constituents.
I am grateful for that clarification, but I suspect that the Minister may not be. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I do not ascribe malign motives to the Government in this area. It is just one more area in which things are going badly wrong. I have some sympathy for the Minister because, as several hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have said, the tone of the debate is important. I agree, and Conservative Members seek always to deal with asylum and wider immigration matters in a measured and reasonable tone. In pursuing a proper balance, it is important not to assume that the Government have evil motives or that everyone involved in the asylum process is necessarily a victim.
We can and do have arguments about individual cases on behalf of our constituents, but there is a danger that as the tabloid press tend to sensationalise in one direction, we tend to tip over in the other direction and assume that everyone who applies for asylum is genuine and that they are all victims. My modicum of sympathy for the Minister is that anyone operating the system must do so fairly, and allow genuine refugees to lead a reasonable life in this country, but they must also decide that some people are not genuine refugees and try to run a system that does not attract to this country people who are not genuine refugees. To that extent, I have some sympathy with him, but such sympathy has not been expressed by any Labour Member.
That is a reasonable point, and I was about to say that one indictment of the current system is that it is not effective, efficient or quick. The human effects of that incompetence are, as the hon. Gentleman said and as all reasonable people admit, to have destitution as the effect of public policy, even if it is not the cause, and that is clearly unacceptable.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but support under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 applies to people who cannot be removed, so it is not a question of Home Office delay in dealing with their cases or removing them. Does he believe that current policies on section 4, and specifically the use of vouchers, which are probably not the most efficient way of delivering support, are appropriate in such circumstances, given that that cannot be blamed on slowness or inefficiency, because people are trapped here?
I do not object in principle to the use of vouchers although, having spoken to many of the organisations that work in this area, I agree that the application of the system under section 4 is clearly unsatisfactory.
The issue of children is clearly one of the most sensitive subsets of the many sensitive areas dealt with in the report. The Minister will be aware, as he and I enjoyed many debates during the passage of the Bill that became the UK Borders Act 2007, that Opposition Members feel that the Government are not doing enough to protect asylum-seeking children. I was interested in paragraph 190 of the report, in which the Committee states:
“We are concerned about the detrimental consequences of providing inadequate and inappropriate support and accommodation to separated asylum seeking children.”
The Minister will know that we welcomed the concessions that the Government made during the passage of the 2007 Act. A good deal of useful work was done by the Refugee Children’s Consortium. However, one question that I shall put to him to add to the enormous pile of questions that he has to deal with when he responds is whether he will look again at applying section 11 of the Children Act 2004 to the Border and Immigration Agency.
In paragraph 191 of the report, the Committee noted
“the difficulties local authorities face in providing an appropriate package of accommodation and support to separated asylum seeking children”
and talked about
“the lack of additional resources”.
That is an important point. It is more than just a standard local authority battle with central Government about funding, because this particular financial and organisational burden falls disproportionately on a relatively small number of local authorities. As it happens, my local authority in Kent is one of them, but it goes much wider than that to include, obviously, Hillingdon, Slough and so on. Indeed, local authorities across the political spectrum in terms of control have joined together to make the point to the Minister that that is a genuine area of concern. Will he therefore address the grant formula and say whether he believes that the authorities that need most support so that they can provide adequate facilities and support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are now receiving it?
There was much discussion, notably by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), about the effect on the health service of the various problems in this sphere. Again, the Committee said that the Government had not produced any evidence to show the extent of health tourism. That is a genuinely interesting debate in which evidence is all-important. The concept of health tourism is now out there and frequently appears in the media, and no doubt many people in this country take it as a given. If health tourism is not happening, it is clearly in everyone’s interest for that to be shown, and if it is happening on any large scale, the Government need to take effective action on it.
This is an important point and one that the Committee raised. It is very difficult to prove that something is not happening, but if there is evidence that it is, surely it is the Government’s responsibility to prove that there is such a thing as health tourism. When we investigated that with Health Ministers, we found no evidence to support the assertion that it is happening. No statistics at all were available to give any indication one way or the other. On that question, the Government have not made their case. Moreover, in relation to charging asylum seekers, there was no evidence at all about how much was being charged, how many were being charged or how much had been recovered from those who had been sent the bills.
Those are all cogent questions and I look forward to the Minister addressing them.
One issue that has not been discussed in the health sphere is screening of those coming to this country. I know that this slightly stretches the terms of this debate on the Committee’s report, Mr. Bercow, but given the recent very important report by charities involved with hepatitis B and their criticism of the lack of screening, will the Minister address that issue as well?
Another key area is obviously detention and removal—again, particularly in relation to children. Many hon. Members expressed their unease about the detention of families and children, particularly at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Like many others, I have visited Yarl’s Wood. I thought that the authorities there were doing their best. I do not think that the centre is badly run, but clearly the sight of children being locked up behind what looked like prison doors made me extremely uncomfortable, as it would everyone.
I know particularly well that the Minister is about to experiment with different models, because he is going to do so in my constituency. I obviously hope that that succeeds, but it would be interesting to know whether he thinks that, without compromising the ability of the authorities to remove families, it is possible to move to a situation in which detention of families is not regarded as the norm. We heard examples of cases in which it is fairly routine for children to be detained for more than 28 days, and in some cases children have been detained for three months and more. As long as there are the current delays in the system, I am sure that the Minister will feel as uneasy as many of the rest of us do about the humanitarian effects of that type of policy.
I conclude by pondering why we have reached a situation in which reports such as this are produced that are devastating in their criticism of the Government. The underlying problem seems to be that, because the wider immigration system has been out of control for so long, the Government, in an attempt to pull back the situation, for whatever motives—the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) ascribed fairly cynical motives to them—have decided that they have to be seen to be ultra tough in absolutely every area, including asylum and, in particular, asylum-seeking families and children. I think that it is that kind of instinctive move towards ultra-tough policies, or at least ultra-tough rhetoric, that has excited the Committee to that criticism.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was coming to a conclusion. It would be very interesting if, before he does that, he could tell us whether he and his party would specifically accept some of the recommendations that have been made, such as repealing section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 and section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and allowing failed asylum seekers to work.
It no doubt would be very interesting for the hon. Gentleman if I announced Conservative asylum policy for the next election in this debate, but I will not do so, for the perfectly sensible reason that this is a fast-moving situation and an asylum policy that might have been appropriate five years ago would not be appropriate now. The Minister will recognise that he is changing his own policy as the years go on. What a Conservative Government would do in every detail will obviously be decided and announced before the next general election, but given that it now appears that that election is some time away, it is simply impossible to predict what the conditions will be and what changes we will want to make. I can, however, guarantee to the hon. Member for Walthamstow that we will want to make changes, because I do not suppose that there will be a solution to what the report describes as the absolutely appalling and inhumane situation that we currently face.
I can assure the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that my party supports his suggestions, but I want to give the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is speaking very moderately, of which I approve entirely, the opportunity to reject something that he was quoted as saying in respect of health care. He may be aware that just the other day an article in the Daily Express, under the headline “Illegal Immigrants’ GP ban”, stated:
“Tory Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green said the way to reduce pressure on the NHS was to expel those who should not be here.”
The Daily Mirror quoted him as saying:
“The only real solution is to remove people who have no right to live in this country.”
I think that he has accepted that the situation is far more complex than that, and I give him this opportunity to say on the record that that is not his position.
It is my position that people who have no right to be here should not be here. That is not just my position but, I imagine, the Minister’s and that of all sensible people. That is what I mean about balance. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon thinks that I am embarrassed to be quoted as saying that people who have no right to be here should not be here, he is wrong, and he is lowering the tone of the debate by assuming that I would be.
I do not disagree. I was making the point that the hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying:
“The only real solution”—
that is, to the problems in the NHS—
“is to remove people who have no right to live in this country.”
One can separate the question of whether it is appropriate to remove people who do not have the right to be in this country from the question of whether they are to blame for pressures on the NHS. I was seeking to help him by making a reasonable and civilised point that I thought he made earlier.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am making a reasonable and civilised point. I shall continue to make it. People who have no right to be here should not be in this country.
The root of the problem is the wider failure of immigration policy. That is a melancholy conclusion, because it means that unless and until the Government get to grips with wider immigration policy, we can expect further stresses and strains in matters relating to the treatment of asylum seekers. Sadly, I suspect that this will not be the last time that the Committee must consider the issue or come to similar conclusions.
As others have observed, it is a policy issue that should not excite huge partisan difference. We ought to be able to agree, broadly speaking, about how those seeking asylum should be treated. One can honourably hold different views about levels and systems, but the treatment of individuals should not be a matter of division between us. It is a matter of genuine regret to me that such an influential and well-researched report should come to such a damning conclusion about the effects of current policy.
I have not spoken in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so this afternoon. I realise that that shows I need to get out more; I shall certainly seek to do so with hon. Members’ help.
I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) at the beginning of his very effective speech. In particular, he underlined this country’s proud tradition of providing humanitarian protection to those in need of it. I very much associate myself with those sentiments. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) say that this is a policy area on which we should be seeking consensus among all parties in the House. He in particular has done a great deal to move debate in his party on from the manifesto commitment of 2005 proposing a cap on the number of refugees entering this country. That would have required a withdrawal from the 1951 refugee convention, if not a renegotiation of it. I am pleased to see that he and his colleagues have decided to put that policy in the bin.
There is much in the report that I found welcome. I found parts of the analysis to be deeply dispiriting and lacking any attempt at balance; I shall describe my criticisms of them in more detail in a few moments. I said in my evidence to the Select Committee that I particularly welcomed something that it was doing extremely effectively—providing a number of case studies and examples and interrogating the evidence where it felt that policy was not being translated into practice. In a complex system such as immigration, that is a risk we always run. It is enormously important that the Committee did such a thorough job in seeking to reveal those areas, and I hope that it will return to the subject.
My analysis of the Border and Immigration Agency when I first took on this job was that it had suffered from being opaque. It was not sufficiently open, and it needed to benefit from much greater and more effective scrutiny. For that reason, I drafted amendments regarding a smaller number of inspectors holding the agency to account in future. Today, the BIA has 11 different inspectorates. There are too many, they are too small, they do not punch enough weight and they cannot in themselves hold the BIA to account. That is why we changed the law. The advert is out for the job of chief inspector. It is a good job, it is well paid and if hon. Members know good candidates, they should encourage them to apply.
I have listened to what the Committee and hon. Members in this debate have said about the Committee’s disappointment in the Government response. That partly reflects my own disappointment in some of the Committee’s analyses, which I shall explain, as I said, in more detail in a moment. Committee members should not err in underselling their contribution to the reform of Government policy in at least three areas. The Committee can be proud that it has influenced, if not inspired, the direction of Government reform in some important ways.
What has been said in this debate and in the report will be enormously important to the proposed review of how health care is provided for foreign nationals. There have been enormous changes to Government policy and legislation on how the BIA detains and removes children who we do not think have a right to be here, and the Committee’s work has contributed to that in no small part. The Committee will also be able to consider the new regulations changing how section 4 is administered when they are published in the new year, and I think that it will be quite pleased with the changes. I hope that it will take some pride in the fact that it helped to inspire and influence the changes that I asked for.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon started in the right place by explaining that this debate takes place in quite a different context than did our debates in this country 10 years ago about asylum and immigration. The number of people seeking asylum in the UK fell again in 2006, by 2,000; it is now at its lowest level since not 1997 but 1993. He was also right to say that many patterns of change in the asylum system reflect what is going on in the real world. Four countries—Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Somalia—accounted in the last quarter for about 30 per cent. of applications in the countries of the EU, and 33 per cent. in the UK. Those changes reflect what is going on in the world, and there is no doubt that the different border security structure that the UK is implementing—some of the changes are already in place—has accounted in part for the reduction in the number of asylum seekers coming to this country.
However, that creates new obligations, too—for example, extending programmes such as the gateway programme, through which British Crown civil servants go to some of the most desperate refugee camps in the world to find those who would benefit from protection and a new life in the UK. It is enormously expensive to administer, but it is an enormously important part of the reforms that we are seeking to make.
This is a dramatically different situation from that of the late 1990s, by which time something like 374,000 people had claimed asylum in the UK—an enormous number. Asylum applications snowballed from about 25,000 a year in 1992 to some 70,000 a year seven years later. Unfortunately, by 1998 there was a backlog of about 50,000 applications; and, as many hon. Members will know, it could take a year just to hear an appeal.
One of the most important changes that we have made in the last 18 months, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon pointed out, is completely to reorganise the way in which we administer the asylum system. We now have fast-track asylum teams in every part of the country. Crucially, every case now has an individual owner, who deals with cases from beginning to end. The previous administration system—it involved one team making one part of a decision, which passed the file to another team, which then passed it to someone else, perhaps losing it a couple of times on the way—has been swept away.
It has been a dramatic programme of change. We now have 25 asylum teams around the country and about 300 case-owners are now involved. Many have been brought into the civil service directly from university, and they are already beginning to make quite an impact in the work of the Border and Immigration Agency—indeed, even in my private office. Some four in 10 cases are now resolved from the beginning to the very end—to the individual being granted humanitarian protection or being removed from the UK.
Forty per cent. of cases are now dealt with within six months from beginning to end, but that is not an ambitious enough target. My goal is that by this time next year, six out of 10 cases should be processed within six months, and my aspiration is that 90 per cent. of cases should be processed within six months by 2011. That is a considerable difference from the world of 1997, when getting an initial decision on some of the older cases could take two years. Although change has been a little time in coming, it has speeded up in the past year or so. These are dramatic changes.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said about the administration of benefits was important. Ensuring that the teams who look after single individuals also administer and process applications for benefits has been an enormous help in ensuring that the system is much slicker. Because the system is that much faster, the BIA can begin dealing with many of the problems of the past.
We have created a new department in the agency; it has about 900 staff, who have just completed training. In five days’ time, all 400,000 case files will be allocated to individual case-owners. Lin Homer will write before Christmas to the Home Affairs Committee providing news about the number of cases already processed from that backlog, but I can tell the House that the number of resolutions is already in the tens of thousands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made an important point about the administration of justice. I do not want to dwell on it, other than to say that the tests are set out by the Legal Services Commission in the funding code, which I believe is approved by both Houses of Parliament. It was last updated in October 2007.
Like many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), much of my experience in this debate comes from the enormous number of immigration cases that I deal with in my constituency. Constituents are often badly let down by their representatives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, they will often have been stung for thousands of pounds, yet they are some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies. They have simply been fleeced. It is important that we continue the debate and if there is an opportunity to revise the funding code, hon. Members should not hesitate in bringing forward their ideas.
I acknowledge what the Minister says. There is a serious problem, and it is caused partly by the lack of legal aid for representation. Having no representation means that people are either unrepresented or forced to go to fly-by-night organisations. I do not suggest that we curtail the right to representation in appeal tribunals—far from it—but I ask the Minister to reflect a little more on whether we can do something to ensure a degree of equity and justice. Like him, I know of many strong asylum and immigration cases that were lost at the first hurdle because of some complete nonsense written by an inadequate legal representative.
I share many such experiences. We are now testing whether the process can be made easier by having more substantial legal representation at the beginning. A pilot is up and running at the Solihull centre for the BIA, and I may find an opportunity to update the House on it in the new year. BIA needs to undertake further work, particularly in its detention and removal centres, to ensure that adequate legal representation is available.
Much of the debate turned on section 9(2) of the 2004 Act, but I slightly disagree with the Committee’s recommendations. It was right for the Home Office to be open and candid about what we saw as shortcomings in the pilot scheme. However, I am less confident about my own omniscience, in that I believe that it would be difficult for me to rule out situations in which it might be necessary to use the provisions in section 9. As I said in the written ministerial statement published with the pilot report, the policy should not be used in an indiscriminate and blanket way, but at this stage I do not want to remove it. My view of epistemology may differ from that of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), but I recognise that there may be cases when it is required.
If the result is that a child has to go into care, or if families are separated and the costs are moved on to local authorities, it would be extremely unfortunate. The situation would indeed need to be avoided.
What was said about section 4 of the 1999 Act, too, is important. About 9,500 people are in receipt of section 4 support. New regulations are required, and they will be submitted to me next week. I listened hard to what was said about the need to provide different kinds of support for pregnant women and children, and to enable people to communicate with each other and, indeed, with the BIA. I hope to finalise those regulations next week, before their publication in the new year.
What was said about health care was important. Again, I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon with the brevity of my response to a number of recommendations; I hope that he will be satisfied with what I have to say now. We thought that what the Committee said was important enough for us to commission an entire review of Government policy in that area, and future recommendations will be subject to consultation. The brevity of my response may have disappointed the Committee, but I hope that the promise of a bigger debate is satisfactory. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell me now.
I want not to respond to that point but to take the Minister back briefly to section 9 and section 4. First, can he explain why there was such a significant delay between the completion of the evaluation of section 9 and the publication of what was quite a brief summary report of that evaluation? Secondly, has there been a slippage—I think that there has—in the publication of the draft regulations improving the section 4 issues that I mentioned? The Minister told us that they would be out before the recess, but I think that he is saying that they are still in the process of coming out. Is that because they have been revised in the light of our report, or was there another reason?
Before my hon. Friend the Minister leaves the question of introducing new regulations, will those regulations cover women seeking the protection of refuges, so that their and their children’s costs are covered in those circumstances? If he cannot reply now, might we get a reply on that point later?
The regulations will come to me next week, so I will be in a position to write to my right hon. Friend then with a fuller answer to his question.
I will not detain this debate with a long, drawn-out discussion about health care, because I do not want to pre-empt the review’s conclusions. However, I undertake to ensure that the comments and contributions that have been made this afternoon will be reflected on. That will be slightly disappointing for Members. The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) are rooted in an enormous amount of thought and experience, so I will genuinely make sure that the review, when it is published, addresses them—particularly those about public health and HIV, which have been uppermost in the minds of Department of Health Ministers when asking their officials to consider this question.
First, I should still like the Minister to respond—perhaps he has received a note now—about why there was such a delay between receiving the report completing the evaluation of section 9, and its publication more than a year later. Secondly, if the review is the one mentioned in the response, that was a review instigated—it was welcomed—on 7 March, before the Committee reported. So the Government response cannot be a response to our report. Thirdly, we were told by the Government in their response that the joint Home Office and Department of Health review of access to the NHS by foreign nationals was to be completed by October—if we are talking about the same review—so on that basis, it is not unreasonable for us to be a little disappointed that a review that was already planned, and which is not a response to our report, is overdue.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about three things. First, the section 9 pilot review was delayed because I was not satisfied with the initial report and wanted it rewritten. Indeed, I ended up rewriting big chunks of it personally. Secondly, the review that we are undertaking jointly with the Department of Health is complicated for many of the reasons that Members have discussed this afternoon. I do not want to rush out a report that is premature or ill-considered, so I make no apology for what may appear to the hon. Gentleman to be a slight delay in our seeking to publish it in January. Thirdly, I am happy to send him a copy of the letter that I sent to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on the revision of regulations in respect of section 4.
I want to make some points before concluding that touch on an important sentiment that inspired many of the contributions to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned destitution. If I am candid, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of analysis of this issue in the report. As the hon. Member for Ashford knows and as he said, people come to this country and claim asylum without any basis whatsoever. It is not an accident that three quarters of asylum claims are rejected. That happens because individuals are seeking to abuse the asylum system. If we are going to be honest and to try to have a balanced debate, that needs to be stated up front. It is then necessary to have a much more realistic engagement with some of the challenges and difficulties involved in removing people from Britain when they have no legal right to be here.
One of the most important barriers to removing somebody back to where they came from is travel documentation. We often need to detain people for extended periods to establish their identity, during which time we work with their embassy or consulate to prove to it that the individual whom we have in detention comes from that country and needs to be issued with a travel document to go back home. The truth is that many individuals do not want to comply with that process because they do not want to go back home: they want to stay in the United Kingdom.
The BIA can force the issue and seek to remove a person from this country in an enforced manner. That is expensive—according to the National Audit Office, it costs about £11,000 a time—but we are committed to doing more of that, which is why I have said that I will double the resources for enforcement in the agency over the next couple of years. That is also why we have sought to bend over backwards to help people go home voluntarily.
To those people who say that the Home Office is trying to run immigration policy in a way that appeals to the tabloids, let me say this: every time that we have sought to strengthen and reinforce the arrangements for voluntary returns, that is not a tabloid-friendly story. That is a story that is deeply unpopular with the tabloids, but it happens to be the most humane and efficient way of encouraging people to go back home voluntarily. I wish that more people would take it up, but the fact is that they do not. That means that we often have to enforce removal.
The difficulty with enabling people to work is that it creates a new incentive for them not to comply with that documentation process. For example, it is not untypical for us to succeed in detaining somebody and to open negotiations with their embassy or consulate about where they came from and why they need a new passport to go back home, whereupon that individual will then lie about who they are and where they are from and the embassy and consulate, after protracted negotiation in common, will come back and say, “We’ve never heard of them. I don’t think they’re one of ours.”
Therefore, we have a difficulty, in that we need to encourage the individual to comply with us, and multiplying the incentives not to comply with that process hampers the enforcement of effective immigration control. I shall give a simple example, just by way of anecdote. A large number of people who claim asylum and claim to be from Eritrea are going through a linguistic analysis pilot at the moment. Unfortunately, many of the people who claim to be Eritrean are actually from Kenya. One of the difficulties with running an effective immigration system is that people are not necessarily straightforward with the BIA about their background.
The debate about the right to work and other incentives is important and difficult. It would be tremendously fruitful if the Committee collaborated in designing a way out of a very difficult situation, to which the Home Office genuinely does not have all the answers. That is one area in which further work could be done.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I have come across individuals who have not been honest about their country of origin and I understand the difficulties of getting papers. However, on work, the people who perhaps concern me the most are those whom we have identified and whom we know will not be returned to their countries of origin. We provide them with section 4 support if they agree to return when they can, but they might be here for a long time. We should consider them.
That area of concern would benefit from a great deal more debate in the House and elsewhere. Section 4 allows people to claim support when there are so-called barriers to removal. However, one of those issues is outstanding legal representations, such as judicial review. The Home Office wins more than 95 per cent. of judicial review applications, so we know that that process is possibly being abused. My hon. Friend said that we know that they cannot go home. I have some difficulty with that. Only 9,500 people are on that kind of support. However, there is a genuine difficulty—this is not straightforward—because some of the barriers to returning home are created by the individual in question when they lodge a judicial review application.
For example, there about 16,000 failed asylum seekers from China—by far and away the largest number from any one country. In many of those cases, an independent tribunal will have decided that there is no human rights barrier to an individual returning home. As far as I know, there are pretty regular flights to China. However, by creating the opportunity to work we might well encourage more people not to co-operate with the redocumentation process, which is particularly problematic with China. That is a difficult problem, which should be debated further.
I want to thank the Committee for its work and advice on children. There has been considerable change in the Government’s policy towards children over the past 18 months. I have to sign the authorisation for every child held in detention for longer than 28 days. I have never signed that authorisation without thinking of my three children at home. It is a difficult thing to do. Very often, those cases involve individuals who have filed judicial review applications, been disruptive or sought to abscond. Those are genuinely difficult decisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made a point about the UN convention and the UK reservation. I continue to look at how the Committee’s ambitions can be met, but I have not yet found a way to do so. However, I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), continue to pursue that. In the new year, we will propose new policies to deal with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and present our conclusions on whether X-rays should be used. That is another difficult policy area. We have listened very hard to advice from medical practitioners and others. My concern remains about how we ensure that there are not adults in the children’s care system or children in the adult system.
As the hon. Member for Ashford noted as well, I am concerned that we look at how the burden centres on particular authorities, such as in Hillingdon, which the Committee quoted in its report, and how we can create a network of specialist authorities better able to share that burden. The duty to keep children safe is a new legal obligation under the responsibility of the Border and Immigration Agency and we will publish the code of practice, again in the new year. Crucially, those obligations will apply to contractors—an idea put to me not only by children’s charities, but by the Opposition in the House of Lords. I was happy to accept it.
The alternatives to detention pilot in Kent is dear to my heart. We have not made a big song and dance about it, but it is important. My ambition is that kids are not held in detention centres and that we find workable alternatives. I wish that people would check in voluntarily, but unfortunately those pilots have all failed. We concluded, therefore, that an element of restraint is important. However, we need a more humane approach.
I want to make a final point about balance. This has been a very important debate and I welcome the Committee’s report for keeping the subject alive. I hope that that debate continues. My one plea is that we conduct the debate with more balance. In the future, it would be helpful for there to be more engagement, analysis and constructive criticism of the processes involved in enforcing immigration laws. I should like there to be interviews with the immigration officers whom I have met, who talk about how difficult it is to arrest and detain somebody who has covered themselves with excreta in order to frustrate removal. I should like there to be interviews with young, often female immigration officers who have young kids of their own and who, at 6.30 am, have had to arrest and detain a non-compliant family, who have been abusive and are potentially violent, and to help get young children safely away. When we talk to immigration officers in that way, we can see how emotionally drained and gutted they are, and how difficult the job that they do for the British Government is.
I should like there to be interviews with those who run detention centres. The House would benefit from hearing on the record what it is like to keep order in a detention centre with people who, frankly, would rather be in a British immigration removal centre than on the back streets of the communities that they came from. The debate is difficult, and those are the realities of running an immigration system and enforcing the laws that Parliament has passed and that have been delegated to the Border and Immigration Agency to enforce. The subject is difficult, emotional and does not benefit from one-sided arguments. I hope that in the future, as with many arguments in the immigration debate, we can conduct it with a degree more balance.
I have one or two brief comments to make in response to the debate, which has been helpful. As has been said, it is some time since we published our report and since the Government response, and we have moved on.
To pick up the Minister’s point about balance, it is important that somebody speaks up for those without a voice, such as asylum seekers. When we visited Yarl’s Wood, we spoke not only in private to detainees and their children, but to the staff—the ordinary guards who deal with the asylum seekers from day to day, locking the doors and so on, and to the management. I was very impressed with the professionalism of the two guards—I am not sure whether that is the correct term for them—who showed us around. They were sympathetic in dealing with people in their charge, but the fact remains that they were dealing with people who were detained, and I still question whether it is appropriate for children to be in those circumstances. I was pleased, therefore, to hear what my hon. Friend said about considering other ways to deal with the problem.
The Minister takes exception to our views on destitution, and suggested that they lacked analysis. However, we did not come to our conclusions lightly, but by analysing the evidence before us, which came from both sides of the House. The Home Office took the opportunity to present its evidence, too, but we were impressed by the enormous volume of evidence received from a plethora of non-governmental organisations and in our discussions with individuals in places such as Yarl’s Wood. That was why we came to our conclusions. The basic thrust of our argument is that although we accept that people come here who should not, and that they should be required to leave, the question is whether we can do that humanely. Are dawn raids to detain families with small children really the only way to go about it?
Obviously, some officers have very difficult stories, and we sympathise with them. However, we have to come back to the basic principle of trying to deal with people properly and fairly. We can remove people from Yarl’s Wood in a humane way, unlike the case that I mentioned in which a woman and her baby were put in a van at a moment’s notice. She had no time to change the baby’s nappy, get its milk or even a jumper to keep it warm. That is not humane. That woman could have been given 15 minutes’ notice so that she could change the baby and collect the items that she required. It cannot be humane to separate a breast-feeding mother from her baby. Those were the sorts of cases that we came across. That is why we come back to the point about how we deal with them.
On a more positive note, my hon. Friend the Minister talked about developments in areas such as health care and about section 4, and he asked us to keep an eye on them. I can assure him that our Committee has a policy of following up inquiries. Once Select Committees publish a report, they tend to look at the Government’s response, have a debate, and then forget about it. I can assure him that that is not our policy. We will follow up issues. For example, we are holding our own mini-conference on the Yarl’s Wood case in January. We followed up our inquiry on people trafficking. I am sure that my Committee will want to return to those issues, particularly to analyse his proposed new policy statements. I can assure him that we will keep an extremely close eye on those troubling issues relating to section 4 and health care.
It has been a very helpful debate. Although I may disagree with my hon. Friend on some of his conclusions, I am grateful to him for his co-operation and measured response. He has approached the issues sympathetically, even if he has concluded that we need to use the mail fist rather than the velvet glove when we deal with some of these people. I hope that he will reflect on some of the examples that we have given. The problem is that policy may say one thing at the top, but at the grass roots, where it is implemented, we see a very different picture. That is what drove us to our conclusions.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Six o’clock.