Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is yet another personal contribution to the manifesto development of the Conservative party before the next general election. With only two clauses, including the short title and commencement provisions, it is a short Bill. It requires that asylum claims in the United Kingdom be lodged within three months of the claimant’s arrival in the United Kingdom, and that persons who have already entered the United Kingdom and wish to make an asylum claim must do so within three months of the passing of the Act.
The whole purpose of asylum is to provide help and a safe haven to people who are fleeing from persecution. Under the refugee convention, we quite rightly say that if somebody is fleeing for their life and they come to us, we should, all other things being equal, give them a safe haven. But what has happened is that, over a period of time, the whole concept of asylum has been distorted so that we now no longer talk about refugees—people who have been granted asylum—but asylum seekers. Often, people start off as economic migrants, but when they are brought to book, they try to translate themselves into asylum seekers, often with the advice of rather dubious firms of advisers and even lawyers.
If somebody comes to this country because they are seeking asylum—they want refuge because they come from a country where it has become impossible for them to continue to live—they should, at a reasonably early opportunity, perhaps as soon as they arrive, say, “I’m here and I wish to claim asylum.” Then they make their claim. What is happening at the moment is that people can stay here for months or years and then suddenly the authorities catch up with them and they say, “Oh, I forgot that I really wanted to claim asylum.” If someone wants to claim asylum and to fall upon the mercy and good will of the United Kingdom, they should do so in a timely fashion.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I just wondered where the three-month time limit came from. I am pretty sure that many constituents would say, “Why should it be three months?” Three days is more than enough. Surely it should be on the day that they arrive. Why should we be so tolerant as to give people three months to decide that they are fleeing persecution? Surely they must know that the moment they arrive in the United Kingdom.
I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point, but I am trying to propose a Bill that will get the support of the Government and I thought that nobody could argue that three months was not a more than reasonable time. His point is that three months is a more than reasonable time in which to decide to apply for asylum, which is why I hope that he can accept the Bill.
Once the Bill is on the statute book, the limits could be tightened further but in the first instance we must alert all those people who are already in the country and who are here illegally—we know that there could be between 500,000 and 1 million of those people at least—that if they wish to claim asylum they have three months in which to do so. That would be a reasonable time during which the word could spread on the street that if they were going to make an asylum application, they would have to get it in before the given date. Having decided that we would give a reasonable period of time to people who are already here, it seemed to me that to fit in with that I should say that the same three-month limit should apply to people who arrived after the Bill became law. That was my thinking, but I am prepared to accept the implied criticism from my hon. Friend that I have been far too reasonable and understanding on this point.
I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of being far too reasonable or understanding. I ask him to accept that many people who come to this country seeking asylum are severely traumatised and have often experienced torture. Many of them do not speak the language. That is a very good reason why he should not seek to tighten the limits in the way proposed by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Many people are afraid of approaching the authorities because of the experiences they have had in their homeland. That trauma is deep and real and needs to be taken seriously by this House.
The hon. Gentleman is now shaking his head, so I do not know whether I can expect his support.
If somebody comes here who is heavily traumatised, there must come a time within which they must face up to whether they wish to claim asylum rather than waiting months or years before doing so. Quite often, people who have not suffered trauma come here and when the authorities catch up with them and realise that they are illegal migrants coming across as economic migrants, they try to buy time by falsely claiming asylum.
I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that point.
This is a small issue, but if we put this measure on the statute book, it would generate support from the public and send out a clear message to people who wish to seek asylum and help from our country that they should do so in a timely fashion.
It is a pleasure to contribute to another debate from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). The Opposition recognise strongly that Britain has a proud history of offering asylum to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people who have come to this great country over the years seeking refuge and asylum from horrors elsewhere. For example, it is to Britain's credit that we welcomed German Jews in the 1930s and ’40s, survivors from Rwanda in the ’90s and more recently those who have suffered the horrors and atrocity being committed in Syria.
At first glance, the hon. Gentleman’s proposal might seem to have some limited attractions, but when we consider it in detail I think that even he would accept that it has some real limitations. I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I think that it is important that we look at the Bill in detail. The hon. Gentleman seems to imply that someone who applies for asylum in country rather than at port is less likely to have a credible claim. I accept that it is important that people arriving at Heathrow airport, at Gatwick or at Dover who seek to claim asylum because they are fleeing persecution, seeking political asylum, fleeing domestic abuse or whatever else declare that wish at the first port of entry.
Let me expand the debate slightly, if I may. I have discussed this matter with members of the Refugee Council, acknowledged experts in the field. They have made it clear that figures on asylum acceptance do not bear out the suggestion that simply because an application is made in country, rather than at the port of first entry, there is no validity to the application. Neither does it need to have been made within the three-month window suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Take as an example an individual studying at a university—it could be Southampton university, close to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Someone else might be working at a factory on a legitimate work visa, helping develop the British economy. People could be visiting on a visitor or tourist visa and have been here for three, four, five or six months visiting relatives. There might then be a situation such as the ISIL uprising in the middle east that makes them feel that returning home would be personally dangerous to them.
Who would have predicted in December a few years ago that the following January there would be the Arab spring in Egypt, Libya or other parts of north Africa? Individuals might be in this country for legitimate reasons for longer than the three-month window suggested by the hon. Gentleman, and they might have to seek asylum for a range of genuine political and social pressures in their home countries. Those would be considered by the Home Office in a reasonable and practical way. If they had a legitimate claim, that would be accepted; if they did not, as now, the claim would be refused and other arrangements would be made—either visas or some form of deportation. The Bill would mean that nobody who had been in this country for more than three months could have recourse to political asylum. That would be wrong-headed.
I absolutely agree with and endorse the remarks that my right hon. Friend has just made. Many asylum seekers are trafficked here; they may fall victim to the traffickers, be imprisoned or be engaged in the sex trade. There are all sorts of reasons, such as being restrained by their traffickers, why people may not be physically able to make the necessary arrangements.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the scenario, painted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), of people coming in as economic migrants, being rumbled by the authorities and then, in effect, playing the asylum system to delay an inevitable removal from the country, often using human rights laws as well to effect further delay? If he does recognise it—and I think many around the country do—what is his solution?
The asylum system needs to have integrity. There are mechanisms, which I am sure the Minister will strongly outline, that show real integrity and that if an individual falsely claims asylum they will be removed in due course. It is important to recognise that robust systems are in place and that we try to enforce them. We must not let people play the system, but we must recognise that genuine asylum claims can be made later than the proposed three-month limit.
I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). It will not have escaped your notice, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we have been dealing with the Modern Slavery Bill in this House and another place, where it currently resides. That Bill tries to ensure that we deal with the slavery and trafficking that my hon. Friend mentioned. Individuals may have believed, because of language or cultural difficulties, that they came to this country for work or other reasons, but found themselves trafficked, imprisoned or abused. The Government have recognised the issue by introducing the Modern Slavery Bill, and we have supported them on that.
Under the Asylum (Time Limit) Bill, victims of such horrendous crimes—who may have been forced to come to the UK, who may have lived the life of slaves for many months or years but have been resident in the UK—would have no means of claiming asylum because they had been brought here by traffickers. Those are important circumstances that the Bill misses because of its cut-off date of three months.
The Bill is flawed and unworkable. There is a robust system in place. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments, which I am sure will reflect the fact that such a system exists. I would welcome the hon. Member for Christchurch reflecting on the fact that situations change outside the UK, affecting people who may have been here for more than three months, and that through no fault of their own they may need to apply for asylum after that date. As a stark example, if a German Jew were at university in the UK in March 1938 and suddenly realised that they could not return to Germany because of potential difficulties with the fascist regime there, and if they had been here for longer than three months and the hon. Gentleman’s Bill was in place, they would have to be sent back to Germany and ultimately to their death. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not wish such a situation to affect future asylum claims. He should also reflect on the security provided by the Modern Slavery Bill. Whatever the Minister says, I hope the hon. Member for Christchurch will think carefully about these matters and agree to withdraw his Bill.
I fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) brought his Bill before the House today. He did so with the right intentions, but like the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), we feel that there are serious problems with its drafting. I understand that my hon. Friend is trying to address the abuse and misuse of the asylum system that this generous country has in place for those who need it.
I welcome any contributions to the forthcoming manifesto, which others will be looking for from these debates. As I said, the Bill seeks to address the abuse and misuse of our generous asylum system. The Government have already taken many steps to restore control of the asylum and immigration system that we inherited. Let me outline the situation that we inherited. Asylum applications peaked in this country in 2002 at 84,132. I fully accept on behalf of the Government that last year asylum claims went up by 2% to 24,257. If we look around the world, especially at events taking place in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east, which the right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned, we can to some extent understand that rise.
The Government are determined, and legislated in the Immigration Act 2014, to tighten our borders and our immigration laws to make sure that asylum is not used as an excuse by someone against whom we are about to take enforcement action because they do not meet the requirements to stay in this country.
Two aspects of the comments from the right hon. Member for Delyn and the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) struck a chord with me. As a new MP in Hemel Hempstead, a seat that I was not exactly expecting to win, although I was immensely proud to do so and am immensely proud to represent, I met a Tamil man aged 24. He came here to study—a very clever man—and went on to become a very good doctor. He is progressing towards becoming a consultant now. While he was here, his whole family in Sri Lanka was wiped out. Death threats against him and his brothers were displayed across the media in Sri Lanka, just because of his parents’ beliefs and birth. He had been here for 18 months. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not have wanted that young man to be sent back to Sri Lanka under his Bill. That, personally, is why I cannot support it, and why the Government will not support it either.
We do understand the need for alternative measures. That is why, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Brent North said, we introduced the Modern Slavery Bill. There are people in this country who perhaps never wanted to be here but were brought here under false pretences, bundled into the back of a lorry and abused in ways that we cannot imagine and perhaps prayed would never happen in this country in the 21st century— but the Government know that it has happened, as did the previous Administration. It was a difficult piece of legislation to bring forward, but it is the right legislation.
If someone had been forced to come to this country and, say, forced into prostitution, and we knew that if that person went back to their place of origin after three months they would not only be persecuted again but their lives would be under threat, not least if they gave evidence against the people who had committed those crimes against them, I do not think we would send them back.
I really do understand why my hon. Friend has introduced this Bill. I hear concerns about this in my constituency as well. We are right to be a generous nation, going back further than the events before and during the second world war and the persecution of the Jews—way back to times when we have assisted vulnerable people from around the world. Yes, we want people to declare that they are in a safe place long before they get to this country if that is possible. Yes, some of them are enormously vulnerable and very traumatised when they arrive. I have met such people—some, sadly, within our criminal justice system, where we have people with mental health issues, whether they are British nationals or non-British nationals who needed help long before they came here.
I accept that the Bill has every understandable intention in trying to stop bogus asylum seekers abusing our system and speed the process up, which is what the Government are trying to do as much as possible, as well as, wherever possible, encouraging asylum seekers to look elsewhere. The most recent figures show that in the rest of Europe asylum applications have reached the highest point since the peak of 2002, but our figures are still way below that. However, that is not because we are not a generous nation. I think the rest of the world is starting to realise that we are not a soft touch, but we do have a generous system. Sadly, we cannot support the Bill because it has anomalies that I personally, and the Government, find difficult.
I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and my right hon. Friend the Minister for their comments on the Bill. While I think they both accept that there is a problem with people abusing the asylum system, they identified certain cases that would potentially be caught by the Bill in its current form. However, this is precisely the sort of Bill that should go into Committee so that exceptions to the bald provisions of clause 1 can be defined.
We want to ensure that we can consider asylum claims from people who come to this country for whatever reason and whose circumstances back home change after their arrival—that is, in essence, what the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend were concerned about—irrespective of how long ago they arrived in this country. That is a specific category of exception. I think that any reasonable person will accept that such an exception should be incorporated within the Bill. I am disappointed that rather than looking at this in the context of accepting clause 1 and then saying, “Can we introduce some exceptions?”, the line seems to be, “Because it’s not perfect we’re not going to accept it and allow it to go further.”
I am also disappointed that, although my right hon. Friend the Minister accepts that there is a problem with people coming here as economic migrants and then, when they are confronted by the authorities, claiming asylum in order to play the system, irrespective of how long ago they arrived, he has not come up with a way of dealing with that. I think that my formula of placing a time limit—perhaps, following this debate, there could be some exceptions—would be a way of doing so.
The mood of the House seems to be that this Bill is not perfect—very few of my Bills ever are—so the best thing to do would be to withdraw it and build on it for a future occasion. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.