HC Deb 11 January 1993 vol 216 cc637-45

'. During the period beginning when a person makes a claim for asylum and ending when the Secretary of State gives him notice of the decision on the claim, he may not be removed from, or required to leave, the United Kingdom.'—[Mr. Kenneth Clarke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.3 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time, and trust, in response to the plea of the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) that I shall be able to do so expeditiously.

I am very pleased to introduce the clause, which follows an undertaking given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in Standing Committee. The new clause provides that a person who has made a claim for asylum may not be removed from, or required to leave, this country until he has been notified of the decision on that claim. It complements the provisions already contained in schedule 2 of the Bill, which affords the same protection during the period when an asylum appeal is pending. The new clause does not represent any change of policy or practice on our part; but in response to hon. Members who spoke in Committee, may I say that it puts into statutory form the practice which exists. I can assure the House that nobody who claims asylum will be removed from this country until a decision has been taken on his or her claim.

I am pleased to be able to move the new clause because it emphasises that the Bill does not in any way weaken the Government's commitment to meeting their international obligations towards the protection of genuine refugees. We accept our obligations under the Geneva convention and intend to honour them in full. The purpose of the Bill is to enable us to discharge those obligations as efficiently and speedily as possible, first, in order to ensure that genuine refugees are not returned to countries where they may face persecution and, secondly, to curb misuse of the asylum process by people who are not genuine refugees.

Our aim is to establish a system that works in everyone's interests. When applications are made, the key element will continue to be the full and fair examination of individual applications, arriving quickly and efficiently at the right solution for each of the cases we consider. It is not our intention to bundle applicants out of the country before they have had a proper opportunity to make their case. New clause 6 makes that unequivocally clear.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I am sure that everybody would be deeply upset if people were bundled out of the country, but when dealing with manifestly bogus asylum seekers, particularly those who make trouble while they are seeking asylum—like the wretched individual who made bogus claims about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—will my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary ensure that they are kicked out of the country with utmost speed?

Mr. Clarke

The Bill is introducing new procedures to deal with such cases, which are normally described in legal terms as manifestly unfounded claims for asylum. We shall discuss that matter under later new clauses and amendments. It is extremely important—

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Clarke

No—the hon. Gentleman must let me deal with one intervention at a time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said, it is extremely important that bogus claimants are turned round speedily and sent back, first, because they are not entitled to be here and, secondly, because they get in the way of the full hearing of genuine applications which new clause 6 is partly designed to ensure.

I cannot go into the case that my hon. Friend has mentioned except to say that, although it has received a great deal of publicity, I assure him that it was being dealt with in the ordinary way well before the recent newspaper allegations. The gentleman in question had been told in August last year that he had no right to remain in this country and he had been asked to take steps to leave. This will continue to be dealt with as an ordinary case regardless of the man's involvement in matters of public controversy concerning my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. He will be dealt with on the same basis as everyone else: allowed to stay, if there are compelling reasons why he should be, or removed if he has no reason to be here and has abused the immigration process.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take this opportunity to confirm that when a person arrives at an air or sea port in this country and wishes to seek political asylum he will not be prevented or restrained in any way from leaving the aircraft or ship in order to approach an immigration officer, and that no airline will be allowed—because of the way the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 operates—to prevent such people from approaching immigration officers while in transit at any airport in the country?

Furthermore, will the Secretary of State investigate past cases when it has been alleged that people have been prevented from leaving aircraft at Heathrow because they were likely to seek political asylum here?

Mr. Clarke

I know that the hon. Gentleman has sought to raise this matter before. I think that I am right in saying that a later new clause or amendment will enable us to discuss the matter again. I assure the hon. Gentleman that anyone who has set foot on these shores and who makes a claim for asylum will have the application considered in the way in which the Bill envisages the process. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that any immigration officer has ever been involved in removing someone without the application first being properly considered. This new clause ensures that no one will be removed until his application has been determined.

I know that there have been allegations about airline staff and others and one such case at least is still under investigation. The Government have made it absolutely clear that if someone reaches these shores and applies for asylum the application will be properly considered. No one will be removed without his case having been properly determined in the light of the rules.

It is important to have proper methods of dealing with these matters because of the pressure that we are under with the number of new asylum applications in modern circumstances, following the sudden and dramatic increase in popularity of asylum applications a few years ago. We now know that the total number of new asylum applications received in 1992 was 24,500. That means that the previous year's total was nearly halved, largely, we think, as a result of new screening arrangements introduced in November 1991 to detect and deter multiple applications.

We took 35,000 decisions in 1992—six times the number we were able to take in 1991. Leaving aside applications that were refused because of failure to attend interviews or to provide information, just over 5 per cent. of the decisions actually recognised refugee status and granted political asylum. We have not changed the criteria; we continue to apply the same criteria as always in deciding these cases: the criteria of the 1951 United Nations convention.

The simple fact is that very few of the applications that we now receive are from refugees as the international community has always defined them. Nineteen out of 20 of those who apply for refugee status turn out on investigation not to come within the terms of the Geneva convention. That is why we need a system that deals properly and quickly with these applications.

Mr. Marlow

So 5 per cent. of these claims are valid claims, and the other 95 per cent., by definition, are not. What proportion of those 95 per cent. have been removed from the country or are in the process of being removed?

Mr. Clarke

Comparatively few at the moment, as my hon. Friend knows and fears. That is another underlying purpose of the Bill, since 19 out of 20 applications eventually prove not to be well founded under the 1951 convention. Many such applications have been made by people arriving in this country as a means of getting around other immigration controls. We must have a good and expeditious system of removing clearly unfounded cases so that we can deal more promptly with genuine ones. Delays in dealing with such cases lead to many people eventually being given leave to remain even though they have no right to be here when they first entered the country. That is why we must press on with the Bill.

We still have a backlog of more than 49,000 undecided applications and new applications continue to arrive at five times the rate they did just over four years ago—another reason why we need this Bill.

5.15 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Will the Secretary of State concede that one reason why the number of applications being dealt with has increased is that the Department has finally taken the advice offered by the Labour party two years ago and employed adequate numbers of staff to deal with the applications received? The right hon. and learned Gentleman is being somewhat disingenous when he quotes figures from four years ago. Comparing last year's backlog with the current year's backlog shows that the latter has not only stopped growing but is diminishing. In other words, the two reasons why the Secretary of State's predecessor introduced the Bill have now been eliminated.

Mr. Clarke

We have increased the number of staff because there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people applying for asylum. It is the hon. Gentleman who is being disingenuous by claiming that this is entirely the result of the Labour party's advice. The fact that the Labour party agrees with the Government that it is right to increase the number of staff is a happy event. We should not have this backlog and it is important to get down to ensuring that we can deal quickly with the large number of unfounded applications so that we can then deal expeditiously with the rest. It is not right that people who turn out eventually to have no claim to be here should be able to rely on the process being spun out for several years so that they can make claims for leave to remain because of circumstances that have arisen since they landed.

The need remains for a system that is resilient, responsive and fair, concentrating efforts and resources on the issues that really matter. I am convinced that the Bill provides the framework for such a system. It contains time limits and safeguards to prevent abuse—I am sure that we will discuss them later—which are part of a balanced package to ensure that the significant new rights and benefits that we are giving asylum seekers are not exploited be people who are not bona fide applicants. I hope that the Bill's improvements to the position of genuine asylum seekers will be properly recognised in our debates today. The Government have tabled a number of amendments to clarify the Bill's intentions and to respond to some—usually misplaced but understandable—concerns expressed in Committee. New clause 6 is the first of those Government amendments and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

The new clause was tabled by the Government because of matters raised by Opposition Members in Committee and we welcome it. I shall deal briefly with it before moving on to some of the broader issues that the Secretary of State mentioned in what seemed at times a short rerun of the Second Reading debate.

New clause 6 affords protection to applicants for the time between a claim being made and notice of a decision, so that they cannot be removed once they have made a claim until notice of decision is given. The prohibition on removal of an applicant does not apply only for the time between the making of the application and the decision; it also applies pending an appeal—I should be grateful for confirmation of that.

Some people have asked whether the protection pending appeal applies also to the period between notice of the decision being given and an appeal being lodged. In other words, there may be a period when an appeal has not yet been lodged but notice of decision has been given. I should be grateful if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would confirm that the prohibition on removal applies also to this period. The issue has recently come up in certain cases before the courts.

Of course no one supports bogus applications, but the issue between us has concerned the method of determining whether a bogus application has been made and whether that method is fair. Because of the serious consequences that can arise, it is essential that the procedures for determining bogus applications are fair. Many people who arrive here are in appalling personal circumstances and are fleeing from tremendous distress and civil war. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the procedure for deciding whether they are entitled to stay here is fair and gives proper and adequate access to people to make their case.

The Secretary of State implies that there are two types of claims those that are obviously well founded and those that are bogus. The term bogus does not merely cover claims that are made in bad faith, which is what the word often suggests, but claims which, technically, may not comply with the terns of the United Nations convention. It is critical to realise that that convention gives refugee status only to those who personally fear persecution. Someone fleeing from civil war or from a zone in which there is great risk may be in danger, but he is not being personally persecuted. The UN convention covers the first case but not the second. It does not cover the broader definition of refugee, which is used by many countries to denote the circumstances of a person who is in danger but is not being personally persecuted by the regime in his country.

Before claims are judged to be groundless it is important carefully to examine the basis upon which the judgment is made. It is clear from reading the debates in Committee that the real dispute between us is over the process of determination. The Opposition believe that at many points in that process the appeal procedure is too quick and the ability of people to make a case is foreshortened. That may give rise to injustice against those who have genuine claims for asylum.

It is false to regard all claims that do not fall within the terms of the United Nations convention as claims in bad faith, because they are not. Many such claims are made in good faith but do not fit strictly into the United Nations convention. In such cases it is especially important that the determination and the appeals procedure are fair. We oppose the Bill not just because the removal of the right of appeal in immigration cases is wholly wrong and unfair, but because the Bill will not apply in the way that it should the rules of natural justice, which must be applied to such cases.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I can give the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) affirmative answers to all his questions. The Bill provides that someone should not he removed from this country pending the determination of an appeal. As I have explained, the new clause makes statutory our policy that no one will be required to he removed from this country until his application is determined. The combined effect will be to cover the period between a decision being taken and a possible appeal being filed. The time limit for appeals will be allowed to run before anyone is required to leave this country.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement that those who do not have a well-founded claim for asylum should be removed. It is difficult to understand how the Opposition can reconcile their assertion that people who do not have a well-founded claim should be removed with their amendments, some of which would make it extremely difficult to remove anybody or to defend ourselves against ill-founded claims. The key matter upon which the House must agree is a procedure which, with reasonable expedition and complete fairness, can determine whether someone falls within the terms of the convention or should be required to leave the country.

I agree with some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. Matters are not always in black and white: not all political refugees are obviously political; not all bogus refugees are obviously bogus. Many people have no sensible claim at all and have to be removed quickly. Some are plainly political refugees because they have been political activists in the country from which they are fleeing an unpleasant regime. In between there is a large grey area for which it is necessary to have a proper system to determine whether people fall within the terms of the convention.

We must not conjure up a vision of all refugees in harrowing and distressing circumstances. Many people who flee from imminent persecution arrive distressed and destitute and sometimes in unusual circumstances. However, most applications are from people who have travelled on international airliners and arrive at main airports. Others have been here for some time and, having exhausted all other arguments to establish a right to reside, decide to apply for political asylum because they suddenly recall that if they were returned to their country of origin they might face persecution. No doubt some hon. Members will conjure up visions of all asylum applicants being distressed and arriving hurriedly, fleeing from persecution. Many applications are made in perfectly ordinary circumstances and our procedures are fair and give everybody a proper chance to put his arguments.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the grey area that he mentioned also applies to the many asylum applicants who in the past were not able to establish their rights under the convention but whom the Home Office thought it unconscionable to return? Consequently those people were given indefinite leave to remain. It does not automatically follow that someone who fails in his formal application will he bundled out of the country.

Mr. Clarke

We are reasonably generous in giving exceptional leave to remain. Sometimes we grant it to people who do not qualify, simply because in the two, three or four years over which the case has been spun out people have acquired children, wives or other settled obligations and in all conscience we have allowed them to stay. There will always be people who, although they do not satisfy the convention, should be given exceptional leave to remain because, although they would not face personal persecution if returned, they would face demonstrable hardship. That is the most difficult area and the hon. Member for Sedgefield touched upon it.

The Geneva convention covers those who run a personal risk of persecution because of their political or religious beliefs. In the public mind that becomes tangled with the cases of people who flee here from famine or civil war. We accept our humanitarian obligation to accept some of those people. That is why we are in the process of taking about 4,000 people from Bosnia who have been referred to us by the United Nations. We shall look at individual cases from wherever they come.

There is no point in having an asylum that does not allow the return of anybody in any circumstances to a country in which there is civil war, poverty, famine or whatever. The entire population of some countries could qualify for asylum or refuge here if that definition were applied. That is why we have to look at each case and why exceptional leave to remain must be exceptional. It is a discretion of last resort.

Mr. Blair

It is right for the Secretary of State to concede that there is a grey area between UN-defined refugees and bogus applicants, because that gives a different colour to the debate. However, his remarks about those coming here were callous. He spoke of them coming here on international airlines in a way that implied that they were part of the international jet set. I have never suggested that all those who make asylum claims are in circumstances of acute distress, but many are and many Labour Members have experience of working with such people. He must justify applying the procedures to all cases, whether or not they involve people who are in a good position to make their claim quickly. We measure our system of justice by how we deal with those who are worst off, not by how to deal with those who are best off.

5.30 pm
Mr. Clarke

I accept that some arrive in considerable distress and I am satisfied that the way in which we deal with those cases is fair—indeed, our system goes to considerable lengths to be fair. However, it is wrong, for the purposes of debate, to conjure up a vision of most of those arriving doing so in great distress. Most of those who arrive do so calmly and in comfortable circumstances. Many have been in this country for some time before suddenly realising that they face persecution at home and deciding to make an application for asylum. For that reason, while we have procedures that ensure justice in the case of those in the most distressed and difficult circumstances, we must not be naive in the rules that we apply to everyone else. We shall debate other subjects later —for example, there is an Opposition amendment that would make it easier for people to apply from third countries before they have even got here. Like that proposal, many of the Opposition's suggestions would negate any serious attempts to remove promptly those who can demonstrably and rapidly be seen to have no claim at all.

Some of the arguments against the Opposition's ideas are not just technicalities, as has been suggested. Claims are often manifestly unfounded. I gave an example on Second Reading of a Sri Lankan who has been living in the United States for the past couple of years who would be returned because he has arrived from a safe third country. He cannot get asylum by saying that he would be persecuted if he went to Sri Lanka because he has not come from Sri Lanka and faces no difficulty in the country from which he has come. Many safe third country claims can now be rapidly turned round.

Mr. Marlow

Obviously, the difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we are concerned with the interests, wishes and desires of the people of this country, whereas the Opposition are concerned about foreigners. My right hon. and learned Friend has said that in the past people have used the device of extension to put down roots in the United Kingdom. Inevitably, in certain circumstances, they have been given leave to remain. Would not it be helpful if my right hon. Friend said from the Dispatch Box today that if, in future, people use such devices, it would be most unlikely that leave to remain would be granted?

Mr. Clarke

Those who are not able to demonstrate a well-founded claim will find that the British system of justice comes to a reasonably expeditious decision or a more expeditious decision than has been the custom. No system could be described as just if it takes years to reach finality, particularly with the weaker claims. We should be able to reach a fair decision reasonably quickly, which means that people will not have had a chance to put down roots. When we give exceptional leave to remain, the word "exceptional" is important and we shall deal with foreigners extremely well and fairly, I hope.

This is a civilised country and we shall allow people from overseas to settle here if there is a compelling reason to allow them to do so even when they do not comply with the rules. However, it must be compelling. With the best will in the world, we cannot open our doors to all those who think that they would have a better quality of life here than in the distressed country from which they come.

Mr. Blair

I understand that the debate has taken on a slightly different character, but I want to make one point to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He knows perfectly well—that is what is so deplorable about the way in which the Government play this issue—that when he makes his claim about open-door policy, it is reported outside as if the Opposition say that anyone who wants to come here can do so, while the Government say that that should not be the policy. Nobody is suggesting that.

When the Home Secretary uses the example of a Sri Lankan who has lived in the United States as the basis for the Bill, that is debate by caricature rather than debate by principle. He fools nobody if he thinks that he can retain any credentials as a humane Home Secretary by engaging in such debate. As he has already agreed with me, we shall judge the Bill on how it affects those who are most distressed. If we can make out our claim, as I believe we can, that it treats them poorly, it is the Home Secretary, rather than us, who has the explaining to do.

Mr. Clarke

I do not think for one moment that the Opposition can make out a case that the system treats people poorly. The delays and the difficulty in removing anyone who makes any kind of claim give rise to the circumstances that so annoy my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) and many others. The present system gets in the way of our dealing fairly and promptly with the genuine applicants for political asylum whom we want to help.

The hon. Gentleman may think that I am not being fair to his policies, hut, as the debate unfolds, we shall listen to what he says. Had we followed the advice of the Opposition throughout the passage of the Bill, we should have made no worthwhile changes or improvements in the present system. The way in which it operates leads to protracted stays in the country of people who turn out never to have had a genuine claim to be here. We have an immigration control system that is fair and effective and we need to extend it to ensure that it covers asylum properly as well.

New clause 6 is part of that. It honours an undertaking given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in Committee that in no circumstances would we remove people from the country until their applications have properly been determined. On that basis, I trust that this new clause, at least, is non-controversial and I again commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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