§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]2.32 pm
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
A young Somali girl came to see me at my most recent advice surgery in my constituency. She is just 19 years old and is a refugee. She has been in this country since 1993, having previously been in a refugee camp in Kenya. She is now caring for four brothers aged between three and 15, two sisters aged seven and eight and an elderly grandmother. In the past two years, no decision has been taken on her application for asylum. Her parents are still in a refugee camp in Kenya. It is quite possible that a number of years could pass before a decision is taken on that girl's application and, even then, there is no guarantee that her parents will ever be able to join her and her brothers and sisters in this country. Anyone who is involved with refugees and asylum seekers could repeat many similar stories.
The main issue that I wish to raise is family reunion for asylum seekers, for those who have been granted asylum and those granted exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom. The Minister will have seen early-day motion 400, which refers to this matter, and the charter produced last year by the British Refugee Council, which was sent to him just before Christmas.
First, I shall say a few general things about the asylum process, to provide relevant background to what is happening about family reunion. It is obvious that there has been a significant change in the past few years, especially since the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 came into force on 1 August 1993. The Government then argued that we needed speedier decisions, and I do not think that many of us had any quarrel with that, although we did question, and still would question, whether decisions should be taken in accordance with the time scales in the 1993 Act for fast-tracking of applications.
The Government also argued during the passage of the 1993 legislation that exceptional leave to remain was being abused, in the sense that it was being used for non-deserving cases and that exceptional leave was often granted simply because a person had been in the country for several years waiting for a decision to be made about an application. The Government argued that exceptional leave to remain was often granted, not because a case was especially strong, but because it was felt that it could be granted on compassionate or humanitarian grounds although asylum was not justified.
Since then—and to some extent before that time, but the process has accelerated since the 1993 Act came into force—refusal rates have increased sharply and are now running at slightly more than 80 per cent., exceptional leave to remain has decreased and refugee status is now granted to very few people, between 3 and 4 per cent. of those who apply.
Many of the figures that are produced in answers to parliamentary questions distort what is happening, because two separate queues are being operated in the asylum division of the Home Office. One is a queue of asylum seekers who applied before the 1993 Act came into force. A separate group of staff deals with a separate queue of people who have applied since the 1993 Act came into force. 1211 The queues are moving at very different rates. Nearly 42,000 applications were made between 1 August 1993, when the 1993 Act came into force, and 31 December 1994, of which more than 20,000 have been determined and a further approximately 2,000 withdrawn. In other words, more than half the people who have applied since 1 August 1993 have received a decision of some sort. That leaves nearly 20,000 who have not.
Of the slightly more than 40,000 cases that were outstanding at the time that the 1993 Act came into force, 35,700 remained outstanding on 31 December 1994. If that rate of progress is maintained, some of those people having already waited several years for a decision, could expect to wait perhaps six, seven or eight years more. I suspect that probably very few of those people in the "old cases" queue will be granted refugee status, but that a considerably higher proportion will obtain exceptional leave; probably a rather higher proportion of those people than of those who have applied since the 1993 Act came into force will obtain exceptional leave.
One question that the Minister may be able to answer—if he does not have the information with him, perhaps he will let us know later—is how the 150 new staff in the asylum division will be distributed and whether they will concentrate on the new cases or on the ones that were outstanding before the 1993 Act came into force.
A further consequence of the regime now being operated and of the very high rate of refusals is that the appeals system is being clogged up with ever longer waiting times for appeals. Several thousand people are already waiting and several hundred more are being added to the queue every month. That has an impact, not only on asylum seekers, but on all immigration appeals. Many of those are appeals which concern family reunion because they are cases of people who have been refused entry for husbands, wives or fiancés and are appealing against that decision.
Many people who work with refugees and have dealt with case work often find it extremely difficult to distinguish between those who are given asylum and those who are given exceptional leave to remain. I recall two people who, by chance, came to the same advice surgery that I held, one of whom was given asylum and the other exceptional leave.
The man who was given exceptional leave was a Tamil who had been arrested in Sri Lanka and had spent three years in prison. There was clear evidence of beating with lumps of wood with holes filled with concrete and of other torture. It was documented by the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Tortured.
The man, who was well educated, knew precisely what had happened to him and could explain in clear terms what had happened. He was given exceptional leave to remain. Many of us would be able to give similar examples where it is extremely difficult to see why a person was given only exceptional leave and not asylum.
There are serious consequences for family reunions. A person who is granted asylum is allowed reunion, but that is not the whole story. The reunion may be allowed, but that does not necessarily mean that there will not be delays. There may have been delays in deciding the claim for asylum and delays in decisions on family admissions. A restrictive definition of "family" is used, comprising husband, wife and children under 18. That fails to take into account other relatives such as aged parents or extended family units where people have lived together as a family in whatever country they have left.
1212 If a person is given exceptional leave to remain, the rule is that there is a four-year wait before an application for family reunion will normally be considered. There is then a wait for the decision, which may take months. That is all time on top of the time waited for the original decision on exceptional leave.
Let us consider the cumulative effect of those waits, particularly on people who applied well before the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 came into force. There are cases of people having to wait five, six, seven or eight years for a decision on their case. They then have to wait a further four years before they can apply for family reunion, and perhaps more time on top of that before they are given a decision.
The effects of such a process and what it says about respect for family life are obvious. It is not too difficult to see that people are much more likely to be happy, settled and economically productive if they feel comfortable and know that their family is secure and able to join them, than if they are worried about other family members left behind in dreadful conditions, in camps or under threat. One asylum seeker described that process as a second torture to be endured.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has declared her support for family reunion. She said:
while the family remains the basic unit of society, it is also the greatest casualty in any social upheaval. For millions of refugees who have been forced to abandon their homes, their belongings and their country, the family is all that is left.She went on to appeal for all states to be more generous in allowing admissions based on family reunion.
I have some basic questions for the Minister. Why is there not a right to family reunion when people are granted exceptional leave to remain? Why are there bureaucratic delays? Why is it not possible to make decisions on family reunion within a reasonable time scale—say, six months? Why is the existence of wider family units not recognised? Why is poverty and the inability to give clear proof that one does not need recourse to public funds a barrier to the simple reunion of a family? Why is there not more sympathetic use of Home Office discretion?
It is commonly argued that exceptional leave to remain is a privilege; it does not mean that someone is settled in this country, and therefore no decision about family reunions should be reached until that point is reached. However, those who have been granted exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom entered the country in the hope of staying here. If the political situations in their countries of origin change, they may wish to return, but it seems highly unlikely that they would not take their families with them.
Very few people who are granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK have that leave withdrawn. In answer to my parliamentary question, the Minister estimated that leave was withdrawn about 15 times per year, and in most cases it was withdrawn at the end of the first year. There is little evidence to suggest that the people who are granted exceptional leave do not wish to settle in this country.
I gave one example at the beginning of my speech, and I will conclude by examining several other cases which illustrate the current situation. An Iraqi man arrived in the United Kingdom in 1989 and sought asylum. Three years later, he was granted exceptional leave to remain in this country. He appealed against that decision and three years later, in 1995—six years after his arrival—his appeal was heard and he was granted asylum. He was therefore entitled 1213 to family reunion, but during that six-year delay two of his children had turned 18 and were no longer regarded as family under the law. That man is devastated at the thought that he will not see his children again.
A Somali woman arrived in the United Kingdom in 1990. In 1993 she was granted entry visas for her six children, who were in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Four of her children came to the United Kingdom, but the other two were too sick to travel at that time. They now want to come to the UK, but they have been told that they must have DNA tests before they will be allowed entry—even though they were granted entry visas in 1993. I could cite case after case of families who are being kept apart in similar circumstances.
At the beginning of my speech I cited the case of children who have been left unaccompanied in this country because their parents are unable to join them. Family members have been separated because they have applied for asylum in different European countries. There is no simple mechanism for allowing those people to be reunited or for dealing with their applications together, which would seem to be the obvious way of addressing the problem.
I mentioned earlier the case of a Sri Lankan man who had been tortured. In his application for asylum, he wrote:
I chose this country to seek asylum because I felt that Britain promotes and protects the human rights of the oppressed people and would consider my case sympathetically and grant me refugee status.I very much doubt whether he would say that now, four years later, and he certainly will not say it again until his family are allowed to join him.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)
I welcome very much the spirit in which the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has presented his arguments. He is extremely concerned about the issue, which I know affects many of his constituents. If I do not agree with all of his requests, it is not because I do not respect the spirit of his arguments.
The Government's policy for family reunion in asylum cases seeks to find a balance between our wider aim of keeping a firm downward pressure on immigration and our wish to avoid the unnecessary separation of families. That balance informs our policy and it encapsulates the reasons why we cannot go as far as the hon. Gentleman would like. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand also that I cannot comment on the individual cases that he has raised, which are familiar to me.
The Government fully accept and comply with the United Kingdom's obligations under the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. All asylum claims are carefully considered by specially trained staff and, under the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, all those refused asylum have an appeal to an independent adjudicator before they can be removed. However, the United Kingdom has no responsibility to encourage or to assist would-be asylum seekers around the world to come here. Such a commitment is not part of our international obligations and could not in practice be honoured, given the powerful migration pressures in the world today.
The asylum statistics provide striking confirmation of those pressures. The House will recall the dramatic surge in 1991, when the number of asylum applications in the 1214 United Kingdom rose from 8,000 to 45,000 in a single year. The numbers fell back over the next two years but are now rising again sharply. The figure for 1994—33,000—was 40 per cent. up on the previous year and the numbers are currently still rising.
I have noticed a tendency in some quarters for the terms "asylum seeker" and "refugee" to be used interchangeably. This is deeply misleading. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of applicants do not have valid claims under the terms of the 1951 United Nations convention. Over the past three years, on average only about 5 per cent. of asylum claims have been accepted by the Home Office, and about 80 per cent. of the decisions have been outright refusals.
The great majority of Home Office decisions are subsequently upheld by the independent adjudicators. In those circumstances, policy must be directed towards expedited decision—taking and minimising the factors that might attract people to the United Kingdom to make unfounded claims here. Such a policy is needed not only in the interests of immigration control but in fairness to genuine refugees, some of whom were described by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, who have to wait longer for recognition of their status because of the large number of groundless claims that have to be processed.
That is why the Government introduced the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. The purpose of the Act was to enable unfounded applications to be determined quickly and with finality while continuing to protect genuine refugees. The Act allowed us to bring down decision times for new claims from more than 18 months to around seven months. Fingerprinting has allowed us to cut out the problem of multiple applications by people seeking to claim benefit in more than one identity. More efficient procedures introduced after the Act now allow us to take more than 2,000 decisions every month.
Last year's sharp rise in asylum claims has, however, outpaced the improvements in output and productivity. Decision times have started rising, and the appeal system is failing to keep pace with its intake. If we fail to respond robustly, growing delays could themselves help to attract unmeritorious asylum claims to the disbenefit of, among others, genuine asylum applicants.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary therefore announced two further important initiatives last month. First, we are now making wider use, in appropriate cases, of the power under the 1993 Act to curtail existing leave when refusing an asylum claim. Where leave is curtailed, people who claim asylum after admission on some other basis have only one right of appeal if the claim is refused, instead of two.
Secondly, we intend to invest £l37 million over the next three years in the machinery for determining asylum claims and appeals. Those resources will enable many more claims to be finally determined. In answer to the hon. Gentleman, it is too early to say how the 150 extra staff will be deployed. No decision has yet been taken. By the end of the three years, we expect to have saved well over £100 million, which would have otherwise been spent in Department of Social Security income support and other benefits for failed asylum seekers.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor are also examining a study of asylum appeal procedures by the consultants KPMG Peat Marwick. It is clear from the consultants' report, a copy 1215 of which has been placed in the Library, that there is scope for further action to reduce delays and adjournments. The combined effect of those measures will be to speed up decisions and appeals and bring backlogs under control, but we are continuing to monitor the position closely, and will not hesitate to take further measures if the need arises.
Against that background, our policy on family reunion draws a clear distinction between asylum seekers whose applications are under consideration, people to whom we have granted refugee status and people who do not qualify for asylum but to whom exceptional leave has been granted.
Taking asylum seekers first, I have to tell the House that I see no merit in the argument that those who have applied for asylum should be entitled to bring their families to this country while their claim is being considered. Supporters of that view have not appreciated, and have failed in my view, to confront the true scale and nature of the asylum pressures that we face. Such a policy would be wholly inconsistent with the fact that the great majority of applications are unfounded, would represent a major new incentive to seek asylum in this country, and would thus run directly counter to the Government's wider asylum policy.
The immigration rules already provide that, where the asylum seeker is accompanied by a spouse and minor children, they may be included in the asylum claim. In such circumstances, they can, of course, remain with the principal applicant while the claim is considered. I do not see a case for any extension of that position.
The position is entirely different where an asylum seeker has been recognised as a refugee. The principle of family unity for refugees is contained in the final Act of the instrument that established the 1951 convention. Although family reunion does not form part of the convention itself, the United Kingdom will normally permit the reunion of the immediate family, as a concession outside the immigration rules.
Under that policy, people recognised as refugees immediately become eligible to be joined by their spouse and minor children, provided that they had lived together as a family before the sponsor travelled to seek asylum. Families of refugees are not required to satisfy the maintenance and accommodation requirements that normally apply when families seek admission to join a sponsor here. Other dependent relatives may be admitted if there are compelling compassionate circumstances.
The third category is those who are not at risk of persecution in the terms of the 1951 convention, and do not therefore qualify for asylum, but to whom exceptional leave is granted on other compelling humanitarian grounds. Exceptional leave, which is granted in about 15 per cent. of cases, is a discretionary and temporary status. It is not until a person has been in this country for a substantial period that the likelihood of his or her having a long-term future here can be assessed. We are therefore not normally prepared to entertain an application for family reunion until four years have elapsed. At that point, we expect applicants to meet the normal requirements of the immigration rules, including the requirement that relatives coming to join the sponsor should be maintained and accommodated without recourse to public funds.
I have listened carefully to the case made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow in favour of relaxing the four-year requirement. I have received similar 1216 representations in recent months from the Refugee Council and other bodies. I acknowledge that ours is a strict policy and that hard cases may arise. We are prepared to consider family reunion earlier than four years if there are compelling compassionate circumstances.
It is, however, important to emphasise that exceptional leave is a status normally granted to people to whom we have no legal or international obligation, and who often have no particular claims on this country. I therefore remain to be convinced that any change in our current policy would be justified.
At a time when, as I have already mentioned, asylum pressures on the United Kingdom are growing, it would send entirely the wrong signals. It would make the United Kingdom a more attractive destination for migrants, arid those to whom we granted exceptional leave would have less incentive to return home when conditions improve. Nor can I see any reason to treat the relatives of an asylum seeker or someone with exceptional leave who have managed to travel to another European Union country any more favourably than those remaining in their home country.
The hon. Member has raised the question of unaccompanied children. The immigration rules make special provision for unaccompanied children seeking asylum, emphasising that particular priority arid care should be given to their cases, with close attention to the welfare of the child at all times, and that children should be interviewed only if sufficient information cannot be obtained by other means. Staff considering asylum applications from unaccompanied children receive special training from the Refugee Council.
Even where children are not recognised as refugees, their cases are considered sympathetically and we would return them to their own country only where we were satisfied that there were satisfactory care arrangements there. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is routinely informed of all refusal decisions and may become a party to an appeal.
The information available suggests that the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum is growing. Not all of them will be genuine refugees. Some will have been sent by their families for economic or other reasons. In those cases, it is right for the family to accept responsibility for the children, who will be reunited with their families abroad where possible.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, although I am not able to offer him the comfort that he would like, the changes that we announced recently will have the great beneficial effect of speeding up the process of dealing with asylum applications. That speeding up will have the greatest possible benefit, particularly for genuine asylum seekers about whom the hon. Gentleman is most concerned.
I also remind the hon. Gentleman that, in respect of those on exceptional leave to remain, we are prepared to consider cases with discretion. With those words, I hope that—
§ The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Three o'clock.