Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on selecting this important issue for debate. It is a sensitive, emotive and serious issue–in short, precisely the sort of issue that the House ought to debate. It is right that the Opposition should make time for it if the Government do not.

    We have to deal with the issue sensitively. Every Member of Parliament will have had to deal with asylum seekers who, at worst–albeit rarely–have suffered torture or persecution, and, at least, come from impoverished and distressed countries. It is an emotive issue because the scale of the problem causes concern in this country. Many people recognise that a great proportion of asylum seekers are not genuine refugees. That concern leads to resentment, which is easily turned against the asylum seekers. I emphatically believe that that is wrong. Even those who are what the Prime Minister today called bogus asylum seekers–economic migrants–deserve our sympathy. They come from miserably poor and insecure countries. Many of themare enterprising and talented people responding to opportunities in our law and our system.

    The real targets of public resentment and blame should be those in the media, politics and the law who, perhaps inadvertently, have created a system that generates incentives and opportunities for people to cross the world in large numbers and drive a coach and horses through our original immigration laws. Most pernicious of all are those who try to suppress debate on the subject by pretending that there is no serious problem, saying that all asylum seekers are genuine political refugees or trying to silence critics of the present system by accusing them of being the friends of torturers or racists. We have heard disgraceful accusations that the Conservatives are playing the race card. We have made no attempt to do that. I object strongly to people who play the racism card and try to smear those who enter into debate on this serious issue.

    The issue is serious because of its scale and growth. Last year there were 71,000 applications for asylum in this country. That understates the problem, because the Government do not include the dependants of asylum seekers in that figure. It is time that they did. The scale of the problem is so great that they should collect and report that information. On UNHCR figures, that means that there are more than 90,000 people applying, including dependants. Even that understates the true picture, because it does not include other dependants who will be brought over by those who are given the right to remain.

    Nearly 100,000 people is a huge number. The Government try to give the impression that large numbers are being returned at the end of the process. The Home Secretary came up with some extraordinary figures that either were wrong or which contradict the figures published by the Government. His most recent document for December shows that there were 6,845 removals and voluntary departures of asylum applicants from this country in 1998, which is the last full year for which figures are available. That compares with the very large number of applications and the total of 67,000 people against whom deportation or illegal entry action had been initiated by 4 January 1999. That information comes from a former Minister of State at the Home Office in the excellent House of Commons review on the subject.

    A high proportion of the people concerned are staying in this country. That is more than the population of Hitchin and Harpenden, the two main towns in my constituency. I am not suggesting that my constituents are suddenly going to be swamped by nearly 100,000 people. For the most part, they will stay in city centres, perhaps in squalid properties. However, they have to be housed and the effects will ripple out. We have to provide extra housing for the extra people in the country. The housing growth projections assume a net 5,000 asylum seekers staying in this country every year. That was obviously a fallacious figure when it was fed into the system in 1996 or 1997. I suspect that it was chosen for politically correct reasons to diminish the apparent size of the problem, offsetting it with some equally bogus figures elsewhere in the calculation. The Government must come clean on whether they are acknowledging the scale of the problem and its implications for housing in this country.

    Mr. Gale: Will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister to confirm the information given in a briefing earlier this week that local authorities will be expected to provide 40 per cent. of the necessary housing from their stock?

    Mr. Lilley: I hope that the Minister will answer that point, as well as putting right the figures on deportations, removals and voluntary departures that her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave.

    The numbers fell by 30 per cent. in the last full year of the previous Conservative Government, but they doubled in the first full year of this Government, at a time when the increase in the whole of the rest of Europe for which we have figures was less than one fifth. It is absurd for the Government to suggest that we are simply experiencing an inflow felt by all other countries. The figures fell under the Conservatives because we were prepared to take tough action on benefits, entry procedures and employment rules. All those measures were opposed by Labour. The figures have risen under this Government because of their actions, their incompetence–the Home Secretary cannot even get his amendment to our motion right, so he is unlikely to be able to organise a system as complex as the asylum procedures–and their failure to respond to changed circumstances.

    My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary, pointed out the change in circumstances since the liberation of Kosovo. It is now policed by NATO, but in December the largest number of asylum applications–more than 1,000–still came from the former Yugoslavia. There are also large numbers who have been given temporary exceptional leave to remain in the past. In response to parliamentary questions, Ministers have said that only 2,000 have returned to Kosovo. We risked our armed forces to ensure that those refugees could return. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Home Secretary should now help them to do so.

    The Government have failed to tackle the worst bottlenecks and to increase the number of departures and removals rather than increasing the flow of approvals earlier in the production line, where it has no effect on the final number of people leaving the country. However, I agree that whatever is done by any Government, there remains a major problem. It has resulted from the growing ease of travel across the world colliding with the well-meaning gradual transformation of what was a limited discretionary power to grant access to refugees to a universal legal right.

    The 1951 convention applied only to Europe and to events before 1951 and gave a strict definition of a refugee. We signed the convention in 1954 and in 1967 the protocol removed the limitations on time and place. In 1993, the convention entered into United Kingdom law. All that was well meaning, but the consequence has been to extend to every inhabitant on the globe who can find their way to this country the right to enter, to claim asylum, to receive benefits, to appeal when their application is turned down, to receive legal aid, to take their case to judicial review, if they are lucky, and, if they can string out the process for long enough, to stay indefinitely.

    My personal view, which I do not think is shared by many of my hon. Friends, is that ultimately that system is untenable. I would ask the Home Secretary at least to look with an open mind at whether we can give some legalised right to everybody on the globe that can then be litigated in our courts. If he says that it is a matter of principle that they should have that legal right, how is it that we do not extend such a right to those who, within a country where persecution exists, find their way to the British embassy or high commission and ask whether they can come to Britain to claim asylum? They will be told, “Good Lord, no. That is not a criterion for coming to Britain. First, you have to convince us that you have a legitimate reason to come here, that you have the means to support yourself when you are here and that you have a return ticket. Just wanting to claim asylum is not allowed.” Discretion is used and only in very extreme cases would such people be allowed to come here. We use discretion elsewhere, but we have created a legal, litigable right in this country which is the basis of the problem.

    Ms Oona King: Looking at the global context, would it not be right to increase our spending on international development assistance to reduce the flow of refugees? That would be in marked contrast to what the previous Government did.

    Mr. Lilley: We should certainly do all we can to improve the economic situation in those countries. I spent eight years of my life dealing with aid programmes. I have many criticisms of them, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that we should do all we can through trade, aid, investment and other means to remove the need for people to come here. However, at the end of the day we have a problem of enormous dimensions that the Government are trying to disguise, that their incompetence is aggravating and that has resulted in the United Kingdom ending up as a soft touch for people–with whom I have a great deal of sympathy–trying to get into this country, rather than providing a safe haven for the small number of genuine political refugees who we would all like to let in and who in the best circumstances would be let in by a much simpler procedure than we have at present.