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Illegal Immigrants

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2001

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2.48 p.m.

What steps they intend to take to remove illegal economic migrants.

My Lords, last year we removed a record number of immigration offenders. We established a dedicated arrest team to trace and remove illegal entrants. We are expanding the number of detention places available. We are recruiting extra immigration officers for enforcement work. We can prosecute employers who exploit illegal immigrants. We introduced a new automated fingerprint system, which has led to the prosecution of many multiple applicants. We have increased the number of operations undertaken by the Immigration Service.

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

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

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

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

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

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is no exaggeration to say that thousands come here from Sri Lanka? Among those thousands are probably several hundred who are supporters of the LTTE, the terrorist group which imposes extortionate demands on legitimate Sri Lankans living in this country. Will the Minister encourage his department to redouble its efforts to ensure that those Sri Lankans staying here illegally are returned to Sri Lanka, not least because welcome progress is now being made towards peace in that country?

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a problem peculiar to the United Kingdom. If the noble Baroness had studied the statistics, she would have seen that we are placed in the middle of the European table for receiving people from abroad seeking asylum. We must be both robust and effective, but we must also behave fairly and properly. I appeal to the noble Baroness to approach this particular and sensitive issue in that fair-minded manner.

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

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

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

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

That is not our view only. It was also the view held by certain former Tory Ministers. In the Sunday People of 29th August 1999, David Mellor said:
"The Tories have nothing to be proud of. This crisis has been brewing a long time. When I was in the Cabinet it was raised. Two of us expressed concern".
It is a great shame that more members of that Cabinet did not express concern, because then we would not have been left with the problem that we have had to resolve.

My Lords, further to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie of Framwellgate, is the Minister satisfied that firm and effective measures are being taken by the police against the particular menace posed by women being trafficked into the sex industry in this country? In that connection, did he read the remarks made last week by Inspector Paul Holmes, following a raid on a number of brothels in London? Thirty-two women were arrested. We are in danger of encountering a situation which already exists in Germany, where criminal gangs bring into Europe women from the Balkans and the Far East. They have now occupied all the turf and have started to shoot at each other. Can the noble Lord give an assurance that vice squads will be attached to all police services in England and Wales and that apprehending the people responsible for these crimes will be made a key performance indicator for chief constables?

My Lords, the noble Lord has touched on an important issue here. The trafficking in human beings for profit is appalling. We would all condemn that. I am grateful for the hard work being undertaken by the police in this sphere. The National Criminal Intelligence Service is acutely aware of the problem and ACPO is addressing it closely. We need rigorous enforcement here. A great deal of work is being done, but even more needs to be done. The work being undertaken at ports to attempt to head off the problem as it arrives on our shores is also urgently needed. However, I believe that we are doing extremely well and our enforcement is becoming increasingly effective.