HC Deb 21 February 1996 vol 272 cc432-44


Mr. Alton

I think that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) will refer specifically to amendment No. 21, which involves Pakistan.

The purpose of the amendments is to exclude from the scope of the designated list countries whose human rights records are deplorable or, at the very minimum, questionable. Two of the amendments deal with specific countries in order to raise first, the principle of the inclusion of a country in the list and secondly, the specifics of how such a list can affect the internal dynamics of human rights issues in countries such as Romania or Pakistan, and the messages that it can send to the regimes in those countries.

I strongly believe that we should exert downward pressure on countries that abuse human rights. That would be the best way of staunching the flow of asylum seekers and refugees. By giving succour and approbation to regimes, we do the least service to refugees, and we increase the exodus of people attempting to come from them to countries such as ours. We need to take a thorough approach to human rights. We should attempt to stop people fleeing from their oppression, persecution and torturers in the first place.

The amendments raise the subject of the designated list—which some people have called the white list—and how it can and will be used for propaganda purposes by the Governments of the countries involved. They will be able to point to a decision taken by the British Parliament—it will not be known in those countries that the decision was effectively taken by the Secretary of State, with no real decision being taken on the Floor of the House, as negative procedures will have been used.

In a Committee, a small group of hon. Members will have a chance to consider whether a country should be included or excluded from the designated list. Those hon. Members will be able merely to register their dissent; even if they were to do that and to say that a certain country should not be included, that fact would simply be reported back to the House, but it would not stop that country from being included on the list. Our procedures will be unhelpful when important decisions are taken about whether countries should be included or excluded.

As I said, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East will raise the subject of Pakistan, which is included on the designated list. He and I have shared platforms on the subject over many years. We recently went to see the Home Secretary together to raise the position in Pakistan. I entirely agree with the arguments that I have heard him advance on previous occasions. I am sure that he will set them out before the House again, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall specifically talk about Romania, which is covered by one of the amendments in the group. Like the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, with whom I have travelled to different parts of the world on behalf of Christian Solidarity International and the Jubilee Campaign, I have taken an interest in the plight of people who have suffered or been persecuted, mainly for religious reasons.

Some years ago, I visited Romania, before the fall of President Ceausescu. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East brought to my attention the case of a Romanian orthodox clergyman called Georgie Calciu, whose weight had dropped to six stone and whose hands had been broken so that he could no longer make the sign of the cross. He was being detained in prison because he had been leading dissidents in Romania to express their political views and to form trade unions to try to effect a more democratic system in Romania. He suffered grievously for the stand that he took. As a result of the campaign led by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and my efforts when I visited Romania, Mr. Calciu was ultimately released. He visited the House, and we sat in the Jubilee Room and listened to his description of the conditions of privation that people had experienced in the days of Ceausescu.

Hon. Members will recall that, in 1989, a transformation occurred in Romania and Ceausescu was deposed. That was largely at the instigation of a wonderful man, a Protestant clergyman called Laszlo Tokes in the town of Timisoara. In that area of Transylvania, he set up the resistance against Ceausescu and became the hero of that revolution. All those who have written about events in Romania describe the brave stand that he took as a dissident in what are now far-off days, which led to the revolution that finally toppled Ceausescu.

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It is therefore especially interesting to revisit that part of the world today, as I have done, to discover what fundamental material changes have taken place during that time and to meet again Laszlo Tokes, who is now a bishop of his Church. I quote from a newspaper article published last year.

Today, in a Romania with a democratically elected government and parliament, Tokes, his wife and children live in constant fear of assassination. He is threatened with eviction from the few rooms in the crumbling violet building in Oradea that his bishopric managed to claim back from the State. The Securitate officers who were tried for mass murder are now free. Last November, the Romanian media reported that Tokes had been sentenced to death by anonymous 'people's courts' and $150,000 (£85,000) offered to his assassins. The article adds that Edith Tokes, his wife, feels that life is worse for her family now. 'Before the revolution, we always knew who was against us—the Securitate and the Interior Ministry, but now, with the campaign in the media, anyone could attack us. The article describes many specific things that have occurred against that exceptional family.

In the context of the Bill, we are including that country in a so-called list of safe countries—the designated list. Those are events since Ceausescu. That family say that the position for them is actually worse from a human rights point of view than before.

That is not an isolated case. Last year, Amnesty International published a report, 'Romania: Broken commitments to human rights' … presenting cases of continued violations of human rights, including the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, death in detention in suspicious circumstances and a nationwide pattern of police failure to protect the Roma minority from racist violence. Anyone who has followed events in Romania will be well aware of the plight of the Roma minority and of the plight of homosexuals, which I mentioned in Committee. The 1995 report of Amnesty International says: Since the publication of its earlier report on human rights abuses further cases of imprisonment of homosexuals who were considered prisoners of conscience, ill-treatment and a death in suspicious circumstances have been brought to the attention of the organisation. These cases, as well as updates to cases from the earlier paper, are presented in this report. Christians have also suffered persecution for the stand that they have taken. I draw the attention of the House to the plight of the Greek Catholic minority—a substantial minority in Romania. Many of their buildings were seized during the Ceausescu years, and few have been returned.

I met one woman, Doina Cornea, who should be awarded the Nobel peace price. That extraordinarily brave, stunning woman of great courage has stood against unspeakable intimidation and pressure for many years. Even while I sat in her front room, telephones rang and people made threats to her, including death threats, so that is not a figment of the imagination. I have seen her and some of her co-religionists standing in sub-zero temperatures in fields and open spaces because they are not allowed access to their own buildings by the so-called democratic regime that we are placing on the designated list.

The message that is conveyed to dictators, despots and those who use the masquerade of democracy when the British Parliament includes them on a designated list is a message that we should not send them. That is why I want the House to reconsider seriously the mechanisms that we have devised.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) drew attention to the case of Mircea Ilin, who fled Romania for reasons of torture, racism and intimidation. When he arrived in this country, in 1991, he applied for political asylum. He told the Home Office in detail about his treatment in Romania, where he is a supporter of the Peasants National party, which bitterly opposes the present regime and is composed of people who believe in a mixed economy and democratic systems of government.

In 1985, Mr. Ilin was detained without trial for 18 months after attending a protest demonstration in Bucharest. He was detained again in 1987 after refusing to give police information about PNP members and he was required to attend various police stations and regularly beaten up. Post Ceausescu, in 1990, he was arrested at another demonstration, beaten with truncheons and detained without trial in Jilava prison.

In 1991, Mr. Ilin escaped to Britain. In 1994, his asylum application was rejected. He appealed. In 1995, he married an English woman. His lawyer, Ghayur Butt, extracted a promise from the Home Office that it would allow his Member of Parliament to make representations and would listen to them. After that assurance was given, before there was any chance for those representations to be made to the Home Office, officials surrounded his home and sought to arrest him.

The man eventually took to the window ledge, threatened suicide and, after six and a half hours there, went into hiding. If that case does not make the grade, what chance do others have? They will be on the fast track; they will be deported back to those countries. We discussed those matters earlier when we considered new clause 5. What does it say about Romania, now to be given that golden seal of Home Office approval?

Those are all reasons why we should reconsider the way in which the Bill is drawn and the need for a black list. If the principle is accepted of a designated list of countries that are so-called "relatively safe in general"—the phrase that is usually used—why is there not another annexe to the Bill, on the face of the Bill if the Minister wishes or not if not, using the procedures that the Government advocate for the system of designated lists? I would be perfectly happy if that system were to be used for the designation of other countries whose human rights records are deplorable.

I know that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East especially wants to discuss the position in Pakistan, but I shall set the scene by describing the general position in the Islamic world.

The position for Christians varies from relative openness in the Lebanon and Jordan to absolute restrictions in Saudi Arabia and genocide in the Sudan. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states prohibit any open practice of Christianity. In Arab countries where Christianity is allowed, traditional churches are controlled by Governments and church buildings and businesses are frequently destroyed. Christians suffer discrimination in employment and education. They are restricted in travel, pay additional taxes and have inferior status in the courts.

In Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Sudan, the law specifies the death penalty for anyone who converts from Islam. In Egypt, which I have helped draw attention to in a report that I published last year with the Jubilee Campaign, new Christian converts from Islam are imprisoned and often tortured. Throughout the region, Christians can be forcibly divorced and their children taken to be raised by Islamic relatives. Many Christians remain under death threats by militant Islamists.

Many devoutly believing Muslims in this country and the middle east deplore those practices as much as I do and seek the type of pluralism and democratic structures that we in the House so deeply cherish. The issue is how we assist them best in that process.

The United Nations defines genocide as attempting to destroy a group by killing its members, causing serious bodily harm, subjecting it to conditions that will cause its physical destruction, preventing births and forcibly transferring children. Certainly, that is a description of what is happening in southern Sudan, where the National Islamic Front Government wage civil war with the predominantly Christian population of the south.

In Sudan, Christian men and women are forcibly separated. Children are seized to be raised as Muslims or sold in slave markets. Tens of thousands of refugees are dumped in the open desert and systematically denied food, water and medicine. Members of the House were done a service by the all-party group on Sudan, which enable them to attend a meeting last year at which some appalling atrocities were highlighted. They include documentation of repeated massacres and of the literal crucifixion of some Christians in southern Sudan. That is an appalling situation which warrants the establishment of some sort of list to show which countries do not have our seal of approval. We would certainly not contemplate adding such countries to the safe or designated list of countries whose human rights records are generally good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson) referred to the way in which we regard Iraq now and how we regarded it previously. Times have changed. That is why it is incumbent upon us not only to be concerned with speeding up asylum procedures, but to look at the root causes of why people become refugees in the first place. We will staunch the flow and end the haemorrhaging of refugees by putting downward pressure on brutal and repressive regimes. That is the best way of stopping the exodus from those countries. We should be exerting pressure on countries such as Sudan. An appendix of the sort that I have advocated would enable that to occur, and that is why I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I sympathise with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) in his remarks about the situation in Romania. He may be aware that it is nearly three years since Romania became a full member of the Council of Europe, which is the European democratic community, and full member states are regarded as having reached our civilised standards of human rights and democracy.

I was the chairman of the Committee for Relations with European Non-member Countries, which scrutinised the progress that Romania was making towards reaching our standards. I accept that we made quite a large political compromise in Romania's case, believing that it would be more likely to achieve our standards if it were a full member of the Council of Europe rather than if it were kept out in the cold.

In the three years since it became a full member of the Council of Europe, Romania has made very little progress towards achieving our standards. It has not yet applied the European convention on human rights and it has not made a petition to the European Court in response to claims of denials of human rights, examples of which the hon. Gentleman referred to in his contribution.

The only comfort that I can offer the hon. Gentleman is that we have now introduced strengthened procedures for monitoring new member states as to their honouring of the commitments that they entered into upon joining the Council. There is always a long list of commitments, particularly in Romania's case. I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's contribution today to the attention of the rapporteurs who are responsible for monitoring those commitments. They will take account of what he has said in the report that they will make in due course to the Assembly of the Council of Europe. We must decide whether it is appropriate to take action against Romania in order to encourage it to honour the commitments that it entered into upon becoming a full member. For example, the Council of Europe could withdraw the voting rights of the Romanian parliamentary delegation. That is just one sanction that we could apply.

It would be a grave mistake to designate Pakistan as a country in which there is no serious risk of persecution. Such a decision would fly in the face of what is occurring in that country, it would be misinterpreted by the unscrupulous and it would demoralise those who are already at risk. I refer to the plight of the Christian community in Pakistan, which constitutes 3 per cent. of the population.

In September 1994, I was invited by the Church of Pakistan to investigate the situation faced by Christians there on behalf of the Christian human rights organisation, Christian Solidarity International—with which a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, have long been associated. By chance, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) was also visiting the country, then in his capacity as a Foreign Office Minister.

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I was appalled by what I saw and by what I learnt at first hand. I met Pakistani Christians in prison who knew full well that they might be murdered before their trial, as others had been. I met Christians in hiding and awaiting trial who knew full well that, even if they were acquitted, they faced assassination on the streets of Pakistan, as others had. I met the families of murdered Christians who were also in hiding because of death threats against them. I visited a Christian village which had been attacked by a frenzied Islamic mob. Several houses had been burnt down and villagers had been raped.

One of the reasons why Christians in Pakistan at such risk is section 295C of the penal code—the blasphemy law—which President Zia introduced in 1985. Under that law, it is punishable by life imprisonment or by death to make remarks which blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed or the Koran by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly. The law is being used by Islamic fundamentalists—who often produce utterly false evidence—to encourage the Islamisation of the country and to intimidate Christians to convert to Islam. As it is a cognisable offence, the police can automatically arrest and imprison someone accused of it. Once in prison, no Christian is safe from beatings, torture or murder.

The law is administered by courts in which, for blasphemy cases, all judges and advocates must be Muslim. There can be no unbiased justice. Any Muslim who has converted to Christianity in Pakistan will be at risk for as long as he or she remains in Pakistan.

During my visit, I met Salamat and Rehmat Masih, who had been subject to such persecution and who were in hiding awaiting trial. Salamat was 12 years old when he was accused of scrawling a blasphemous slogan on a wall, although, according to his defence lawyer, he was illiterate. Outside the High Court, they were attacked by motor cyclists with AK47 rifles, despite being under police protection. A fellow Christian, Manzoor Masih, was killed and Salamat and Rehmat were wounded. Fortunately, they are now in Germany having been granted asylum in that country. They want to return to their families in Pakistan, but they can never go back—at least in the present climate—because it would mean death to them all. I hope that, like Germany, this country would have offered them asylum.

Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Pakistan. I have details of many cases of similar persecution, all of which show that, far from there being a presumption against the risk of persecution, the situation for Christians in Pakistan is such that there should be a general presumption of the risk of persecution.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is fully aware of the situation—not least because, to his credit, he visited Pakistan last month. I am extremely grateful to him and to my hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary for providing the opportunity to meet them, together with the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, last month. They will recall a young Indian, Dr. Simon Qadiri, who fled from his country because there was a fatwa on his life for converting to Christianity. He is currently awaiting the outcome of his application to remain here and I very much hope that it will be considered compassionately. I am also grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends for the asylum given to a very brave Pakistani Christian a few weeks ago. I dare not name him because his family in Pakistan remains very much under threat.

I hope that what I have said is enough to convince my hon. Friend the Minister of State that to suggest that Pakistan and India are free of such persecution would send out all the wrong signals. It would encourage Islamic fundamentalists, who would say that Britain recognised that there was no problem. That would demoralise members of the Christian community, who would feel abandoned by their mother country. I hope that my hon. Friend will think again, and I look forward to her response.

Miss Emma Nicholson

It is a pleasure to support the amendments. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for initiating the debate and to other colleagues for supporting the amendment, which addresses our shared concern about the impact of the lists and the fact that they are not subject to parliamentary scrutiny in any meaningful sense of the word.

During the passage of the 1993 Act, the Minister said that the Government had no intention of designating countries where there was a threat to the life or freedom of citizens and that to do so would be to fly in the face of logic and our convention obligations. My hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill has demonstrated that, in Romania, a country that the Government are prepared to list, there is significant justification for being afraid for one's life. He has also mentioned north Cyprus and we have now heard about Pakistan.

One is tempted to ask who has the knowledge. Where is that cluster of people with continuing and changing knowledge of persecution and horrible tortures in so many countries? The Foreign Office has that knowledge, but it can sometimes be wrong. I have already mentioned Iraq, on which the Foreign Office was clearly in error. That is easy to say with hindsight although, as I said earlier, after the chemical bombing of the Kurds in 1988, most of the world knew that Iraq had no good human rights record. If that is seen and understood to be true—as it is with hindsight—let us also have a negative list. If we are to have a positive list that we cannot subject to rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, let us have a negative list that includes such countries as Iraq. We should not remove them from that list until they have achieved transparent human rights, exemplified by the fair treatment of all citizens.

The good list would undoubtedly contain all the European Union countries and many members of the Council of Europe. As has already been said, there would be problems with that, and perhaps not all the Council of Europe countries should be included. The list would also include members of the British Commonwealth. After all, Commonwealth countries have already passed the golden test of being democracies, and implicit in that is the record on human rights.

Even South Africa, which has made magnificent strides into the real world of no apartheid, has significant problems and Mrs. Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has accepted several official refugees. I am responsible for one of them. His life would be at risk if South Africa were designated a white country. Must we use those ridiculous terms that carry such silly and foolish connotations? It is quite bizarre, but typical of the Government, who are out of touch—as always. We should call such countries good and acceptable rather than white.

Although South Africa is a member of the British Commonwealth and has emerged into the light of day with everything in order in regard to democracy, it still creates problems for some people—perhaps those who fell foul of Mrs. Mandela or her ugly cohorts who killed so many people—and therefore cannot go on the good list. I have full and consistent knowledge of one refugee and I have rights of attorney for him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) spoke movingly about the persecution of Christians. European Union countries would have to be on the good list as they represent the most perfect grouping of all, yet in Germany, France and other countries there is continuing and rising persecution of religious minorities. At present, there is considerable persecution of Muslims in Germany, France and Italy. That is why Muslims fleeing persecution in their homeland—not necessarily for religious reasons—come to the United Kingdom. Despite the 1993 Act, and because the Bill has not yet reached the statute book, Britain still has a reputation—which is falling fast—for tolerance.

In conclusion, it was a tragedy that Britain, with no membership of UNESCO, did not officially take up the banner of the United Nations last year—the year for tolerance. Perhaps it was because tolerance is not in the Government's guidelines.

Miss Widdecombe

I feel that much of the debate has been conducted on a complete misapprehension. There is no question whatever that, just because a country is on the designated list, an individual will not have his asylum claim thoroughly examined.

The purpose of the designated list is to designate countries that are not safe completely, totally or without exception, but are generally considered to be safe. They might generate a large number of applications and a high percentage of refusals. Despite the high percentage of refusals of asylum seekers from Pakistan and Romania, each year a very small percentage receive either asylum or exceptional leave to remain, which is granted when an individual has not satisfied us on the precise terms of the convention, but has done so on humanitarian terms. There is no good reason to suppose that, merely because a country is designated and therefore recognised as one likely to bring about a large percentage of refusals, a small percentage of acceptances will not continue. There has been some misapprehension. It is certainly not true that somebody's life would be in danger merely because the country in which they were living appeared on the designated list.

It would be an error to accept amendment No. 26 because an appendix listing countries that are not suitable for designation would serve no useful purpose. It would replace negative procedure with affirmative procedure for designating countries on the appendix. We consider the affirmative procedure to be inappropriate. The immigration rules are subject to negative procedure, as are the recently amended benefit regulations. We believe that it would be consistent, sensible and utterly in proportion to have the negative procedure for this set of rules. Such a list would be pointless because, if the Secretary of State considers a country unsuitable for designation, he simply will not designate it. He does not have any need of, or use for, a power to list a country as unsuitable for designation. The proposed appendage to schedule 2 to the 1993 Act would undesirably blur the distinction between primary and secondary legislation. As we all recognise that the suitability of a country for designation can change either way over time, any listing should be for secondary legislation, with its flexible procedures.

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I listened carefully to the concerns expressed about Pakistan and Romania. As was acknowledged, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I met the hon. Members who tabled amendments Nos. 21 and 22 last month, to hear their concerns about Pakistan. We listened closely to their arguments but heard nothing to dissuade us from our assessment that Pakistan and Romania are at present suitable candidates for designation in the terms that I have explained. That does not mean that we are saying that anybody in those countries could never, in any circumstances, be in fear of persecution or produce outstanding humanitarian grounds for exceptional leave to remain. My right hon. and learned Friend visited Pakistan at the beginning of this year and found no grounds for altering our assessment of conditions in that country.

I draw a distinction between fear of persecution by a ruling regime, which would cause us to examine the situation most carefully, and fear of persecution by neighbours in small pockets or particular territories, in which case there is the possibility of movement within the country. Far more important, there is the possibility of an appeal to the authorities in that country to deal with the situation. Nevertheless, I do not rule out individual applicants from such countries, even after designation, making a case for asylum—which, under the terms of the convention we would gladly and willingly honour our obligation to accept.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful to the Minister for her answers. We should be careful before emasculating the powers of the House. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson) and I have been able to put specific points about Romania and Pakistan. By approving the Bill in its present form, the House is denying itself the right ever to have such a debate again because in future, the negative procedure will be used in Committee.

The Minister said that if the Secretary of State is unhappy about a particular country, he will not list it. Countries such as Cyprus have already been listed. Letters saying that there are no human rights problems in that country were read to the House earlier, yet we all know that that is contrary to reality. The hon. Lady said that differences between bad neighbours leading to disputes or particular problems in which one group agitating against another might affect minorities are different from systematic persecution by a Government. I agree, but if one takes the example of Romania, what was the difference between the Securitate operating under the Ceausescu regime and the Securitate under the Iliescu regime? The results were exactly the same for the people who suffered.

In the case of Pakistan, the situation that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East described would not occur if the blasphemy laws were not on the statute book and framed as they are. The Pakistan Government, in failing to repeal those laws, are allowing persecution to continue.

This debate would be better pursued in the other place. I do not believe that anything would be gained by dividing the House—there was a Division in Committee on the matter. Having aired the issues, I am happy to leave it to the other place to re-examine them and to amend the Bill. We will then have the opportunity to reconsider the Bill as amended. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 31, in page 1, line 21, at end insert—

'(3) This sub-paragraph applies to a claim if, on his arrival in the United Kingdom, the appellant was required by an immigration officer to produce a valid passport and either—

  1. (a) he failed to produce a passport without giving a reasonable explanation for his failure to do so; or
  2. (b) he produced a passport which was not in fact valid and failed to inform the officer of that fact.'.

No. 32, in page 2, line 5, after 'Act,' insert 'has been recommended for deportation by a court empowered by that Act to do so,'.

No. 33, in page 2, line 14, at end insert '(2),'.

No. 34, in page 2, line 17, leave out 'paragraph' and insert 'sub-paragraphs'.—[Mr.Kirkhope.]

Mr. Henderson

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 2, line 18, after 'paragraph', insert '—

  1. (a) the purpose of which is to designate any country or territory under sub-paragraph (3) above shall—
    1. (i) relate to only one country or territory, and
    2. (ii) be made by statutory instrument which shall be laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by resolution of each House; or
  2. (b) the purpose of which is to remove any country or territory, or countries or territories, from designation under sub-paragraph (3) above'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 24, in page 2, line 18, after 'shall', insert ', if made under sub-paragraph (3) above, relate to only one country or territory and shall'. No. 25, in page 2, line 19, leave out from 'be' to 'House' in line 20 and insert 'laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by resolution of each'.

Mr. Henderson

I shall speak to amendment No. 6 briefly because the House might give priority to other matters, not that they are necessarily more important. Some aspects of the issues that relate to amendment No. 6 and to the next two or three groups of amendments were dealt with in Committee, and I am sure that they will be re-examined in the other place.

I disapprove of the so-called white list because I do not believe that a country can properly fulfil its obligations under an international treaty and the United Nations convention by introducing two lists for different types of asylum applications. If we genuinely believe that cases should be considered on their merits, one procedure should be used regardless of an applicant's origins. I am not suggesting that we should tolerate the delays that have occurred in asylum cases, or that we should be soft on bogus applications, but the House should devise a fair procedure that gives the genuine political asylum seeker a chance to put his or her case, provides legal representation, and allows a case to be processed speedily—and which, if the applicant does not agree with the result, provides for an appeal to be heard in this country.

The resources necessary to allow the Home Office and the judicial system to operate that procedure should be made available—as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) said in a previous debate. He was formerly the Minister responsible. He recognised that the only proper course was to make extra resources available—which would save on costs tomorrow. I refer not only to the administrative costs created by the delays but to those that might accrue to local authorities or other bodies charged with providing for persons waiting for their cases to be heard.

Instead, there will be two lists. We do not know the time limits that will operate, but we know the identity of some of the countries included on the designated list. Newspaper reports have rumoured that the list will be extended.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Henderson

I did not claim that they were other than rumours. The original press leaks some months ago were not too inaccurate.

I do not believe that the proposed system will be effective, and certainly it will not be fair. The House should be given the opportunity to judge any change in the lists, so that hon. Members can make the case for a particular country appearing on either one of them. That view was articulated by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who said that there were strong arguments to be made in respect of Pakistan.

Under the negative procedure proposed by the Government, the orders will come into force before the House has had an opportunity to consider all relevant aspects. I do not argue against the negative procedure being used when a country is taken off a list. If the political or military situation changes in a country, the Government must be able to act quickly, but when the list is added to, an affirmative resolution of this House is called for.

Mr. Alton

I support what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said. I should like to speak also to amendments Nos. 24 and 25, which would allow countries to be dealt with individually, not by a "block vote" and allow Parliament to vote in a proper manner instead of using the negative procedure that we have already discussed extensively.

In Committee, other countries were often cited as models that we should follow when framing our procedures. It turns out that we tend to dismiss the safeguards deployed by those archetypal countries, however. Denmark has such a list, but its refugee council has an absolute right of veto over the inclusion of any country on it. I would not go as far as to say that an outside organisation should have such power, but that is an interesting contrast with the Government's approach. In Germany, these matters are debated in the upper house of the Bundestag, which can vote on them—yet the same safeguards will not apply here. Belgium, which introduced the system that we are being advised to accept, abolished it in 1993. Italy, Spain, Austria and France do not even have safe country of origin lists, although some of them have looked into such methods and decided against them.

We have missed the chance here of adopting a European approach. Some harmonisation might be useful in this area—although I see the Government Whip tutting because I dare to mention the word "Europe". Not too many of his rebellious colleagues are present this evening, so perhaps I may develop the point. A standardised procedure would be far better than a patchwork quilt of procedures throughout Europe and would not put other European countries in a difficult situation.

I want to give one further example of how the lists do not take into account changes of Government that can occur and hence the risk of real unfairness owing to governmental idiosyncrasies. India is included on the list, but everyone who knows it knows that there are massive regional variations. There are minority problems and local discrepancies, all of which render the list approach undesirable.

Before the House approves the lists, we should remember that countries such as India and Ghana have been designated. In its 1995 report Amnesty International had this to say about India: Thousands of political prisoners were held without charge or trial. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees were routine, resulting in hundreds of deaths in police and military custody. Scores of political detainees disappeared". About Ghana, Amnesty International had this to say: five Ghanaians were charged with plotting a coup attempt—'it appeared that the motive for their arrest might have been political and that they might have been prisoners of conscience'; 'inter-ethnic conflict resulted in the killing of at least 1,000 people, and possibly more"'. Why on earth is the House sending this signal to such regimes? Why is it always said that they are safe countries, generally speaking, that ought to appear on the white list? We would do far better to do what we have always done before, and treat each case on its merits. If we need more resources to process cases more efficiently, by all means let us provide them.

8.45 pm
Miss Widdecombe

I am afraid that I must resist all three amendments, which will come neither as a surprise nor as a disappointment to hon. Members.

The effect of amendment No. 6 would be that designation orders could designate only one country per order, and that they would be subject to positive, not negative resolution procedure. Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 would have the same effect, except that in their case the positive procedure would apply regardless of whether a country was added to the list or taken off it.

I see no reason to resort to the affirmative procedure for designation orders. The negative procedure is used for immigration rules, so it should be appropriate for these purposes also. We also believe that the designation procedure must be sufficiently flexible to allow us to make amendments quickly—such as when a substantial increase in the number of unfounded applications from a country calls for speedy designation.

Every year, apparently compelling reasons are advanced for saying that nearly every order in new legislation should be subject to the affirmative procedure; if we took that route, the business of the House would come to a standstill. We must therefore exercise a reasonable and selective approach to the use of affirmative procedures.

A prohibition on designating more than one country in an order would be inflexible, cumbersome and unnecessary. If we designate several countries in one order, and Parliament disagrees with our judgment about just one of the countries in it, the whole order will fall. That is unlikely to happen, but if it does, an amended order could be reintroduced quickly. On all practical grounds, therefore, I urge the House to resist these amendments if they are pressed, which I hope they will not be.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 35, in page 2, line 20, at end insert—

'(7) In this paragraph— 'immigration officer' means an immigration officer appointed for the purposes of the 1971 Act; 'passport', in relation to an appellant, means a passport with photograph or some other document satisfactorily establishing his identity and nationality or citizenship.'.—[Mr. Kirkhope]

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