Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). I recall the great contribution that he made when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and we jointly worked to help the victims of BCCI?the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. I agree with a great deal of what he said today.

    We are discussing important and sensitive issues, made all the more sensitive by the events in France, by the forthcoming local elections in this country and by the disturbing?albeit isolated?successes of the British National party at the last general election when, for the first time in a general election, it got double figure votes in Oldham and neighbouring seats.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and his colleague on the Front Bench today, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), on the tone that they have taken in this and preceding debates and on the leadership that they have given on the issue. It is important that we all adopt a similar tone and I shall endeavour to do so.

    When we speak about the problem of asylum and immigration, we must recognise what the problem is and is not. The problem is not asylum seekers as individuals. We owe sympathy and have an obligation to offer a safe haven to those who are genuinely fleeing from persecution abroad. We should sympathise even with those who are essentially economic migrants, as they often come from poor, disturbed and distressed countries. We should admire them because they have shown considerable enterprise and endeavour to get here, and we should recognise that they can make a major contribution to this country and often do.

    The problem is not individuals. There are as many and as few bad eggs in every group of people, whatever their race or ethnic origin. The problem is simply one of numbers. There is clearly some limit?here I disagree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East?to the number of people we can absorb, the speed with which we can absorb them and the concentration in different parts of the country with which we can cope.

    There is a limit and there are perfectly legitimate concerns about those problems and about the impact that large numbers of people can have on the fabric of society, the environment, housing and so on. If there were no such problems resulting from numbers and speed of inflow, there would be no rationale for the Bill, so implicitly we all recognise that those are the intrinsic problems.

    The numbers are substantial. About 180,000 net immigrants were received by this country in the past couple of years for which we have figures. Probably less than half were asylum seekers. The other half were?

    Mr. Vaz: May I clarify what I said? I did not say that there was no limit. I said that an immigration policy must be firm but fair. I did not say that we could have unlimited immigration to this country.

    Mr. Lilley: I am sorry; I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he was against firmness and just in favour of fairness. I am glad that his remarks did not have the implications that I thought they had.

    There is a large net inflow of immigrants into this country, perhaps half of whom are asylum seekers. The others are from the rest of the European Community and the rest of the world. After declining for many decades, in little more than the past decade the population of London has increased dramatically by 600,000 people net?more than the entire population of Frankfurt. Many of those people are, of course, bankers from Germany, oil magnates from America, Greek shipping magnates from Athens or whatever, and contribute enormously to the wealth and prosperity of London?the point that I made last night at the Mansion House.

    Mr. Dhanda: The right hon. Gentleman is making a rather misleading point, in the first instance by speaking of the net number of immigrants, and then by speaking about population. Population is not on the increase nationally. The right hon. Gentleman cites the example of London specifically. Population may be increasing in London, but there are various reasons for that. It is not all down to immigration.

    Mr. Lilley: The population of London has increased by more than 600,000 in little more than a decade and is expected to go on increasing at that rate. We must recognise that there are strains and stresses arising from an increase in population, and we must accept that there can be legitimate concerns about that, which must be taken on board.

    We can learn some lessons from the French experience. I have a house over there and was there just before the elections. I was surprised by the outcome, but I should not have been. Every extended conversation that I have had with people at every level of society in recent years has inevitably got on to the subject of immigration and crime. The French are obsessed by it; they positively bore me with it.

    I should have realised that although immigration dominates private discussion, it is largely excluded from public debate. As a result of that, and because the moderates have been silenced by accusations of racism whenever they raise those issues, the voters have been driven into the arms of the thugs and people like Le Pen?extremists of that ilk. We must make sure that the same thing does not happen in Britain. I entirely agree with the Home Secretary when he says that it is very important to discuss these issues and to articulate the concerns.

    For all but two years of the past three decades I have lived in areas of London surrounded almost entirely by neighbours living in social housing. I have listened to them, and their conversations tend to be dominated by issues which most politicians are reluctant to discuss. That can have dangers. It is important that we undertake the delicate task of articulating concerns without inflaming fears or arousing hatred.

    It is odious for anyone to try to play the race card, but there is a balance to be struck. It is equally odious for anyone to play the racism card and try to silence those who express the concerns of their constituents by labelling them as racism, or to try to stir up the fears of a minority against an element of the majority, as has been done before elections in this country.

    Just before I came into the Chamber today, I was goaded by an interviewer on a television programme to attack the Home Secretary for using the word “swamped” and to accuse him of racism. I would not use that word myself, but it is ludicrous to accuse the Home Secretary of racism?as ludicrous as it was to accuse my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) of racism or to accuse, as one of the speakers did, the noble Lady, Baroness Thatcher, of racism. We must distinguish between moderate, sensible politicians discussing important issues, and attempts to silence our political opponents by playing the racism card.

    Dual standards also provoke resentment. We rightly condemn and should continue to condemn anyone or any party, such as the BNP, that appeals to the concerns of, or claims to speak for, the white majority, yet we seem to patronise people who claim to speak for ethnic and racial minorities.

    Many years ago when I was a candidate for Tottenham, a House of Commons Select Committee that was considering immigration was carrying out a study of the West Indian community. It came to Tottenham and, with great publicity, met the leaders of various insignificant black power groups?self-appointed, self-proclaimed leaders of the West Indian community. I was incensed by that and afterwards telephoned the Chairman to ask why the Committee had met people who were unelected who claimed to represent a racial group, yet did not meet me who represented the Conservative West Indians, of whom there were a considerable number. He said, “I am terribly sorry, Mr. Lilley. I didn‘t realise you were black.” There is often the view in the race relations industry that only black people can represent black people.

    I am happy that although I fought Tottenham and Tottenham fought back, the present representative of the people of Tottenham is there manifestly on his extremely considerable abilities and his willingness to represent all the people of Tottenham. That is the attitude that all of us must try to reflect in the House. We represent everybody, of all the ethnic groups in our constituencies, not just those who share our own colour.

    There are genuine concerns about numbers and I want to be sure that the Home Secretary thinks that the Bill, which I largely support, will deal with the problems sufficiently effectively. In particular, I want to raise one issue that came to my attention when I was Secretary of State for Social Security, and that is the difference in the treatment of those who were subject to removal proceedings and those who were subject to deportation proceedings.

    Those who come to Britain and declare at the point of entry that they are here to seek asylum are technically subsequently, if they are found not to have a valid claim, liable only to removal proceedings, which are much easier for the authorities and subject to fewer appeal processes. If they enter Britain saying that they are here for some other purpose and once in the country claim asylum, they can subsequently be removed only by deportation processes, which are infinitely more complex and can be dragged out almost indefinitely.

    Has the Home Secretary considered whether that duality is right or sensible and whether the procedures that those who are knowledgeable enough to delay a claim for asylum until they are in the country can then take advantage of are sensible and wise? If he thinks that efforts are needed to change that, I hope that he will amend the Bill correspondingly.

    Whatever one‘s views, the most important factor, to achieve both sensible limitation on numbers and the most humane outcome for those who are subject to the asylum procedures, is expedition. Anything that can speed up the process must be in the interests of genuine asylum seekers as much as it is of the indigenous population and those already settled here.

    24 April 2002 c378-81