HC Deb 15 October 1996 vol 282 cc693-721 10.16 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

I beg to move, That the draft Asylum (Designated Countries of Destination and Designated Safe Third Countries) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 14th October, be approved.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the order is passed, it will have a great effect on many hon. Members' advice services, so I shall attempt to raise it with my usual mix of charity and cynicism. The order was announced as business at 4 pm yesterday, but I understand that it was not placed in the Vote Office until 4.30. We have therefore had only a very limited time in which to consider its merits and to hear observations from the many organisations that will be affected by it.

If such a limited time is in order, I am sure that the speed at which the order is to be dealt with will give rise to some concern. If it is in order, is there any way in which the business can be postponed for further consultation?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

The hon. Gentleman knows in his heart that it is perfectly in order and that his point of order was a matter of argument.

Miss Widdecombe

I cannot resist commenting on what the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) attempted to pass as a point of order. The seven countries now listed were in fact proposed by the Secretary of State as long ago as December 1995, on Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. The hon. Gentleman has therefore had plenty of time to work out what he wishes to say.

The order designates seven countries as safe countries of destination under schedule 2(5) to the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 as substituted by the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. The order also designates four countries as safe third countries under section 2 of the 1996 Act.

The effect of designating a country as a safe country of destination is that refused applications will normally attract the accelerated appeal procedure that already operates in certain other types of case. The designation of safe third countries has the effect of enabling an applicant for asylum who can be returned to a third country to be removed there without waiting for any appeal against the decision to consider his claim substantively.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe

It is somewhat early in my speech, but I will give way.

Mr. Carlile

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way somewhat early. I should like her to deal with something in the order. Will she tell us whether the words in paragraph 2 of the order, in general no serious risk of persecution", are to be taken to mean that, for some people, the Government accept that there is a risk of persecution? If not, what other meaning are we to ascribe to the introduction of the words "in general"?

Miss Widdecombe

The words "in general" mean exactly that: in general. We have repeatedly made the point that, even in those countries in which there is general safety, some people will have a well-founded fear of persecution. That is exactly why, as the hon. and learned Gentleman well knows, a small number of people qualify either for asylum or for exceptional leave to remain even in those countries that produce a very high percentage of rejections every year. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that, but had he waited he would have heard me repeat it.

In relation to both types of designation, the overall purpose is to enable asylum applications to be dealt with more speedily and effectively, without departing in any way from the principle that each case is to be considered on its individual merits and without detriment to the position of any genuine refugee.

The seven countries designated as safe countries of destination are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Poland and Romania. Those are the same seven countries which, during Parliament's consideration of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, the Government stated were being considered as candidates for designation. We believe that each of those countries has functioning institutions, stability and pluralism in sufficient measure to support an assessment that the general level of risk to people living in the country is sufficiently low to warrant designation.

We have made available—I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) will wish to read it—an explanatory note on the designation of the seven countries, in addition to background country assessments setting out the Government's view of the general conditions in each of them.

We have also made clear the three main criteria that must be met for us to consider designation appropriate. The first criterion is that there is, in general, no serious risk of persecution in that country or territory. The second criterion is that the number of asylum applications in the United Kingdom from its nationals is significant. The third is that a very high percentage of applications are refused on examination.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Minister has mentioned the home country assessment. Will she say how long those documents have been in preparation? Will she confirm or deny that reputable human rights organisations based in this country have been consulted about the views on human rights—particularly in India and Pakistan—expressed in those documents?

Miss Widdecombe

As I said in answer to an earlier intervention, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the seven countries as long ago as December 1995. Obviously, it was open to people to make representations to us once those countries were mentioned. Some people did so, and I met a group about the issue of safety in Pakistan.

We have taken into account not only detailed information and deliberation by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but a range of information from other bodies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International. The reports have had various times for preparation, according to which of the seven countries they dealt with, but they have been extremely detailed. They have not—if this is the question of the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden)—been rushed at the last minute. Full consideration has been given to the detail in those reports. If, when he has read them—he may already have done so as I know that he is very quick—the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise with me any particular issues relating to statements that we have made on those assessments, I shall be delighted to meet him or to engage in correspondence with him on those points.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

My hon. Friend will be aware that, in some of the countries that have been designated, the way in which the ruling party most commonly asserts a slight shift in its religious stance is to take it out on the Christian minority. Will she give an assurance that her Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be properly aware of the extraordinary vulnerability of Christians in Muslim countries which may suddenly wish to send a signal about being more or less fundamentalist, and do so by victimising Christian minorities?

Miss Widdecombe

I can of course give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will make sure that we are aware of any minority who are suffering in any way. But when people apply to this country for asylum, as my hon. Friend well knows, we have to assess each individual case on its merits. We do not create classes of persons who are automatically entitled to asylum. Each case will have to be established on its merits.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

I thank the Minister for giving way. Is she aware of the recent heightened tension in Cyprus, where at the weekend a Greek Cypriot was tragically shot by Turkish forces? Has she taken that into account when designating Cyprus as a safe country?

Miss Widdecombe

I repeat yet again that every individual case is considered on its merits. The fact that a country has been designated does not mean that people who claim that they are victims of circumstances—whether circumstances that were known to us when we designated the country concerned or any subsequent circumstances—will not still have the full right to have their cases individually and thoroughly considered. If we did any less, we would be in breach of our obligations under the Geneva convention.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe

I will give way once more only.

Mr. Fraser

Is the Minister aware that the constitution of Pakistan contains provisions which stigmatise Ahmadis and condemn them to long periods of imprisonment simply for claiming that they are Muslims, and that laws against Christians are enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan? How can one say that a country is generally safe when the constitution itself contains provisions of that nature, which no party in Pakistan has the guts to repeal?

Miss Widdecombe

We would consider whether an Ahmadi in that situation faced persecution, whether he could go to a centre such as Rabwah where he would he safe, or whether he could go elsewhere in the country where he would be safe. If he could not, we would consider the circumstances that constituted a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution. Each individual who applies to us, on whatever basis, will have such questions asked.

I want now to make progress, because I am getting a series of questions about the individual Governments of the countries concerned. They are all answered by one point which I cannot stress enough—that every individual case will be fully considered. The creation of a designated list is not the creation of a blanket ban, or even the creation of a presumption of refusal: it is straightforwardly an accelerated procedure. Designation is not a new concept unique to the—

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe

I normally give way to Opposition Front-Bench Members, but I did say that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) was the last Member to whom I would give way.

Mr. Straw

I should be very grateful.

Miss Widdecombe

All right, but then the hon. Gentleman has had his chance.

Mr. Straw

Will the Minister reflect on the statement that she has just made? She said that the white list did not lead to a rebuttable presumption that an application was unfounded. But the background paper published by her own Department said exactly the opposite.

Miss Widdecombe

What I said—as the hon. Member for Blackburn will see if he consults Hansard—is that there would be "no presumption of refusal". If somebody puts in an application, it will be considered on its merits. We shall not start with the idea that we are turning down an application, regardless of its merits. That is what I said, and if Opposition Members listen to the debate, they will learn what the designated list is all about. It is not a new concept and it is not unique to the United Kingdom. Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland already operate similar arrangements.

We have stressed on many occasions the safeguards built into the designation principle. There will be no blanket ban on claims from designated countries. Each claim will be considered on its merits, and an applicant will still have an appeal to an independent adjudicator. Last year, at least 97 per cent. of claims from nationals of the seven countries were refused—more than 6,750 applications. Those claims that are refused will attract the accelerated appeal procedure. Moreover, if the adjudicator agrees that the application is unfounded, that will be the end of the matter. There will be no further avenue of appeal to the immigration tribunal.

In short, designation will allow the asylum process to deal quickly with the large number of unfounded applications that we currently receive from countries which are, in general, safe, while recognising the small number of applicants from such countries who may have genuine claims.

In determining which countries should be designated, we are required to make a judgment about whether the general level of risk to people living in a country is sufficiently low to warrant designation. The words in general no serious risk of persecution in the fifth paragraph of schedule 2 to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1993 make that quite clear. Designation does not mean that a country should be universally "safe" or that its institutions should function in every respect to western standards. The wording of the Act clearly rules out the designation of any country where there is a significant level of persecution, even if it is targeted only at minorities.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe

No, I wish to make some progress.

The list of countries that we have proposed for designation excludes a number of countries which generate large numbers of unfounded asylum claims but in which there are nevertheless sufficient concerns about human rights that the requirement of the Act is not met. An obvious example would be Nigeria.

I now refer to the second part of the order and the designation of safe third countries. The Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 provided that, in cases where the safe third country concerned is a member state of the European Union, applicants may exercise their right of appeal only after they have left the UK. Hon. Members may recall that we proposed this change because we were finding that delays caused by the appeals process were making it difficult to effect removals in many cases where it was clear that the third country was perfectly safe for the applicant.

We stated during parliamentary discussions on the Act that we were considering using the power provided in section 2(3) of the 1996 Act to extend this procedure to certain selected non-EU states. The United States, Canada and Switzerland were mentioned in the debate. To these, the asylum order adds Norway. Taken together, those states constitute the majority of present non-EU third country cases. I do not intend to describe in any detail why we consider each of the countries to be suitable for designation. They are all states with long-established and respected human rights records. A detailed description of the countries' asylum laws and procedures, together with an explanation of why we are satisfied that returned asylum seekers would be treated in accordance with the UN convention, is set out in the individual appraisals for each country that we have made available to Parliament.

I commend the order to the House.

10.33 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

We oppose the order, and we shall vote against it. Anyone who was in any doubt about the merits of the order need only have listened to the disingenuous sophistry that we heard from the Minister of State a moment ago.

By international conventions, the United Kingdom is bound to consider each asylum application on its merits, but the so-called white list of designated countries will in practice prevent that from happening. Under this system, all applicants from countries on the list will be presumed to be bogus—without foundation—unless they can prove otherwise.

Miss Widdecombe

indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw

The Minister disagrees, but she is damned out of her own mouth. She says that there is no presumption of refusal. In that case I ask her why the Home Office—she has endorsed the words time and again—said that the white list would set up a rebuttable presumption that asylum applications from designated countries were unfounded. If they are unfounded, they will be refused.

The truth is the reverse of what the Minister has said: there is a presumption of refusal. That is exactly what the House was told by the Home Office when the white list was introduced. If there is no presumption of refusal, what purpose is served by a white list? The Minister tried to weave her way through the contortions of her argument by implying that there would be no difference between the treatment of an applicant from a white list country and an applicant from a country that is not on the list. If so, I repeat: what purpose is served by the white list?

Miss Widdecombe

If the hon. Gentleman were a genuine applicant wanting his asylum application considered, would he not be grateful for any measure that speeded up the processing of unfounded claims?

Mr. Straw

I would be grateful, whatever country I came from, if that were so, but the Government are not taking genuine steps to speed up the process and ensure that each application is considered on its merits. They are cobbling together an arrangement that suggests that people from the designated countries are at no general risk of persecution. Thereafter, those applicants will most certainly be treated as second-class applicants, and their applications stand to be refused unless they can rebut the presumption of refusal.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)


Mr. Straw

I want to quote the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir J. Critchley), who got it exactly right in a letter to The Times of July this year. We are all sorry that the hon. Member cannot be here tonight. Writing about this system, he said: It is of course impossible to distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent until a case has been thoroughly examined". The result, he added, is that the system will affect the genuine refugee as well as the bogus refugee. We oppose the principle behind the white list and, in government, we shall not operate it.

The white list's only purpose is to put applicants from the designated countries at a disadvantage. Its operation, in our judgment, conflicts with the spirit of our international obligations.

Mr. Stephen

The hon. Gentleman says that there is a rebuttable presumption. If the presumption is rebuttable, surely that means that the applicant has an opportunity to rebut it. How, therefore, can the hon. Gentleman maintain that the applicant has no right to have his case heard on its merits?

Mr. Straw

It is always delightful to give way to the hon. Gentleman because he is always so badly informed. It was not I who maintained that there was a rebuttable presumption: it was the Government. It was a Home Office background paper published just over a year ago which said it. The hon. Gentleman should think about this and perhaps write a submission to the Secretary of State about it—

Mr. Stephen

Give way.

Mr. Straw

—before he stands up again and makes a fool of himself. The simple question for him concerns what purpose the white list serves if it is not to disadvantage certain applicants and to ensure that the merits of an application from a country on the white list will be less well considered than those of an application from elsewhere.

On Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, the Secretary of State said that one of the criteria that he would adopt in selecting countries for designation was that, in general, there was no serious risk of persecution—but the countries selected are not those that generally feature at the top of any list of nations that are celebrated for their protection of human rights. Bulgaria, Ghana, Pakistan, Poland and Romania would not be at the top of any such list. It is no coincidence that the countries that celebrate and protect human rights are not on that list—generally, they do not generate any asylum seekers. Instead, almost without exception, each of the countries on the list has had a recent history of profound political unrest or of continuing instability in one area or with some minority group.

Ms Lynne

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is strange that India is on that list, considering the human rights record in Indian-held Kashmir, where torture, rape and killings happen regularly?

Mr. Straw

It is strange that any country is on the list, but the choice of the countries that are on the list is especially strange, for reasons that I shall explain.

If we look down the list, we can see that the first criterion—the claim that, in general, there is no serious risk of persecution in a country—has been subordinated to the Home Secretary's second and third criteria, which are that the countries generate a significant number of asylum claims and that a high proportion prove to be unfounded. It is worse than that. Ministers have had to turn themselves into apologists for the poor human rights record of many of those countries to make them qualify for inclusion.

In the short time available, I wish to illustrate my point by reference to one of the countries on the list: Pakistan. I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will make similar points about most of the other countries on the list. I have many constituents who come from Pakistan. I have visited the country and I follow its history and politics with great interest. Most of my constituents from Pakistan, whatever their political affiliations in that country, would regard the country assessment published by the Home Office as a joke. It is a risible but revealing document, riddled with inconsistency and designed to justify the unjustifiable.

The document is supposed to provide immigration officers and caseworkers with a feel for the country and some assessment of how it operates and its politics, but it does not refer to the single most traumatic event in Pakistan's political history—the death of Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed by the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq in 1979. There is not one reference to those events, and nothing about the dictatorship of General Zia—or about the dictator's death in mysterious circumstances in 1985. No sense is therefore given of the potent role that political violence has played, sadly, in Pakistan almost throughout its history.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

Could the hon. Gentleman kindly tell the House what conceivable relevance those events have to the situation in Pakistan today?

Mr. Straw

That intervention merely shows the strength of my case that the document is a joke—and so are the comments of the Home Secretary. He is damned out of his own mouth. What relevance does the execution of Bhutto in 1979 have now?

Mr. Howard


Mr. Straw

I am answering the Home Secretary's question, if he will sit down.

What relevance does the dictatorship of Zia have for today's events? I will tell him. Zia executed Bhutto, Zia came to power and Zia passed Ordinance XX, which made it illegal for the Ahmadis to claim that they are Muslims. That has led to 2,400 Ahmadis facing trial for blasphemy under that law and 21 facing the prospect of death. That is the relevance, and I am astonished that the Home Secretary has omitted that information.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. His answer has strayed so far from my question that it shows his complete unfitness to stand at the Dispatch Box. The party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is the present Government of Pakistan and the daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is the present Prime Minister of Pakistan, so what conceivable relevance does the death of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, which happened all those years ago, have to present conditions in Pakistan?

Mr. Straw

It helps people to understand that Pakistan has a long and continuing history of serious political violence. The Secretary of State talks about the Bhutto family as though the violence that it has suffered happened 17 or 18 years ago. Is he not aware—the document says nothing about it—that Benazir Bhutto's brother was the subject of a political killing on 27 September? Are we conveniently to ignore that killing so that the Secretary of State can whitewash Pakistan's human rights record?

This document is about whitewashing the records of countries such as Pakistan to force them into the Government's designated list. Rarely have I seen a Secretary of State (so clearly) damned out of his own mouth by his ignorance of the state of a country that he has designated. He asks what relevance the country's history has. The document goes all the way back to 1947; it is not as though it talks only about the past few years.

Although the people who wrote it clearly thought that history was of some importance, they decided to fillet the history. They say that Pakistan was set up in 1947 and is an Islamic republic with a system of parliamentary democracy. I happen to think that it is useful to know that that system of parliamentary democracy has had the occasional hiccup, with military dictatorships, the killing of Prime Ministers, and the political killing of the brother of the present Prime Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said, ordinances and laws passed by the dictatorship are still in force as a result of the present Government's refusal to change them, because, in my view, they are too cowardly to do so.

In properly functioning democracies, it is unusual for the Prime Minister's brother to be the subject of a political killing, as happened recently in Pakistan. The fact that that killing is not mentioned in this country assessment simply illustrates how quickly the assessments, even if they were accurate, can become out of date.

The country assessment on Pakistan blithely claims—my hon. Friends should weigh these words with care—that as a democracy there is freedom of opinion and assembly with, for example, a thriving newspaper industry, generally free to discuss public issues. But even the report's authors knew that they could not tax the incredulity of their readers too far, so they go on to admit, in respect of newspapers, that the government retains the power of confiscation for a wide range of prohibitions"— on newspapers— which are prejudicial to the maintenance of public order. The report goes on to say: The government though does exercise a certain amount of pressure on the free press". The British Government exercise a certain amount of pressure on the free press, so they will know all about that. But in Pakistan's case, it is not tea at the Prime Minister's residence or even the offer of the Pakistani equivalent of a knighthood to compliant editors, but the withdrawal of government advertising revenue on which the papers depend and therefore their temporary closure. That is the minor pressure that is placed on editors in Pakistan. If they step out of line, the "free press" is simply closed down. The document goes on to say: Newspaper offices have also been raided by the security forces". The document also reveals arguments that undermine much of the Government's approach to asylum issues. Throughout the debate earlier this year, we claimed that most asylum applications were related to the sense of fear felt by particular communities as a result of political instability. The Government simply countered that most applications were bogus and somehow arose in a random way or as a result of economic forces. The most oppressed group in Pakistan is, by general agreement, the Ahmadis. It is no surprise—even this document admits—that there are now no applications from supporters of Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's party and lots of applications from that oppressed group, the Ahmadis.

I have already spelt out to the House the fact that, although General Zia ul-Haq died in 1985, his dictatorial legacy lives on in the objectionable Ordinance XX, which prohibits Ahmadis from declaring that they are Muslims and carries serious penalties for those who do—some 2,400 Ahmadis are being processed under the ordinance. In addition, it provides for the death penalty for Ahmadis for blasphemy, and 21 are currently awaiting trial. That is the state of affairs in a country where the Minister says that there is no general fear of persecution. I believe that that is an utterly disgraceful statement, which takes no account of the real situation in Pakistan.

The country assessment sought to make light of the little local difficulties faced by the Ahmadis. It says that their rights are safeguarded under the [Pakistan] constitution". Conveniently, the assessment's overall conclusion is: there is no evidence of government led persecution of minorities … where discrimination or harassment does occur, it emanates from the actions of individuals or groups at local level". That conclusion is disputed by all human rights groups who know anything about the situation in Pakistan and we now know that it is also disputed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have a copy of a letter, which was sent to me recently, from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney). Dated May 1996, it refers to the problems faced by the Ahmadis, and states: The main problems faced by the Ahmadi community stem from a … Constitutional Amendment which designates Ahmadis as non-muslims and from the blasphemy laws which specifically make certain expressions of the Ahmadi faith illegal. It continues: Radical sectarian groups and individuals have taken encouragement from these laws, and have carried out attacks against Ahmadis. In some cases there are credible reports that the local authorities have given tacit support to these actions. The letter confirms two things—first, that at local level it is not, as the Minister's country assessment suggests, unofficial groups or individuals who are harassing Ahmadis but the official local authorities. They are part of the Government and, in Pakistan, are usually under the thumb of the provincial governor who, in turn, is appointed by the President. In other words, those local authorities are part of the Government apparatus.

Secondly, the Foreign Office letter confirms that the fundamental cause of the abuse of Ahmadis is not the unofficial actions of a few groups or individuals, but the result of the Government's actions in sustaining the objectionable Ordinance XX. I am glad to learn that the Pakistan Government wish to change the law, but the simple fact is that it is on the statute book, it is in force and 2,400 Ahmadis are awaiting trial as a result of its objectionable nature.

During Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, I referred hon. Members to the experience of the United States in the matter of "white lists". In the 1980s, the United States faced a much more difficult situation regarding asylum than that which confronts this country today. It considered the idea of a white list procedure, but it wisely discarded the proposal before it was brought into force. It thought that the process of deciding whether a country should go on or come off the white list would embroil, complicate and compromise the United States Government regarding that country's human rights record. It also believed that the standing of the United States could be damaged in the process and that many more court actions—the equivalent of our judicial review—could result.

The United States Government were right on every count and the British Government are wrong on every count. The white list, and the country assessments on which the list is based, are partial, defective and profoundly unfair. They will hit the genuine applicant as hard as the bogus applicant and they will damage the United Kingdom's reputation as a defender of human rights. We shall oppose the order in the Lobby tonight.

10.54 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I shall not detain the House for long, but I wish to raise a procedural point. I hope that it will not delay the continuation of a highly charged and serious debate that concerns us all.

The order does not contain a compliance cost assessment. The Government say that every Bill that comes before the House should be scrutinised to assess the cost that will have to be met by private business. The Government wish to avoid putting any extra burden on private business.

The concept of assessment in every statutory instrument and every Act was not, understandably, a feature of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, except in the sections dealing with employment and the cost to industry in terms of establishing the status of new employees. That was because private business was affected.

I raise this technical point because, on 22 May 1996, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in a measured and thoughtful speech, said that cost compliance assessment would be considered to be extended to public costs as well as private costs. That meant that every Bill and every statutory instrument would contain a compliance cost assessment that took account of the additional burden on the public purse on the basis of whether more staff and administrative support would be required.

I expected to find in the order a compliance cost assessment of the additional burden on the public purse. It is not there. Will there be no cost to the public purse, or have the Government yet to decide whether to extend the compliance cost assessment to public costs as well as private costs?

Last year, Lady Blatch, the Minister of State in the other place, said that the number of asylum caseworkers had increased eightfold to nearly 800, and that the Government were investing an additional £37 million to provide for even more caseworkers and adjudicators. The order is silent about additional costs. I understand that there may be some, bearing it in mind that the number of decisions taken has increased from 21,000 in 1994 to 27,000 last year. The number of new claimants reached 44,000 last year.

The Government are committed to less bureaucracy, less officialdom and less red tape. It is not our fault that there are now more asylum seekers than ever before, but why hide the cost of dealing with them? We cannot commit ourselves to compliance cost assessment, which is part of the Government's deregulationary initiative, only to ignore it in the first order to come before us after the summer recess.

10.57 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I shall concentrate my remarks on Bulgaria, but first I shall make a few general remarks. When we debated the Asylum and Immigration Bill on Second Reading and in Committee—the issue was taken up earlier this evening—it was said that a list of countries would have no effect on individuals. It is one of the most ludicrous suggestions that I have ever heard. It has been admitted this evening, as it was by the Secretary of State on Second Reading, that a country's inclusion in the list will lead to the assumption that an individual's application is not well founded. It defies common sense to pretend that such a person's application will be treated in the same way as an application from a person whose country is not on the list. It is a nonsensical argument. No one outside the House could conceivably believe it.

I would have a little more respect for those who are advancing the argument if they were honest enough to say, "We are producing a list of countries from which we intend to reject applications." That is what the list is about. I would have more respect for those concerned if they were up front about their intentions. Instead they are engaging in the ludicrous pretence that people from all countries will be treated in the same way.

In any event, any applicant must prove that his or her fear of persecution is well founded.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Is not my hon. Friend really saying what was said in "Alice in Wonderland" by the Queen of Hearts: Sentence first, trial later?

Mr. Gerrard

That sums it up. It is the guilty until proven innocent approach to the problem. The fact that few people from a particular country—for example, Bulgaria—are given asylum does not in any way justify treating applicants from that country differently. It is interesting to look at what has happened with Bulgaria over the past few years. One person was granted asylum in 1992; there were none in 1993, none in 1994, but five were given exceptional leave. There were none in 1995, but one was given exceptional leave.

The number of applications has been increasing. Why? Those figures do not seem to suggest that anybody could conceivably think that applying for asylum is a soft touch if a person comes from Bulgaria. They are almost all being refused, anyway. But the numbers are going up, and that seems to suggest that something must be happening in Bulgaria to provoke people to apply for asylum.

Anyone who has read the country report—even the Home Office country report—or any human rights organisations' papers on Bulgaria will know of the way in which Roma in particular but also other ethnic minority groups suffer. The Home Office country assessment talks about local inter-ethnic tensions; about widespread resentment of Roma; and about discrimination and violence against Roma, which continue to occur.

It does not, of course, mention the fact that Bulgaria is one of only five countries in the Council of Europe that refused to sign the framework convention on the protection of national minorities. It is not the strongest of frameworks, but Bulgaria refused to sign it, and said that it would be against its national interest.

Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty, that look at Bulgaria quote many examples: for example, in April 1993, an assembly of Macedonians was interrupted by the police and people were beaten. In 1994, the robbery of an inhabitant of a small town sparked retaliations against Roma in the area and 20 families' homes were ransacked and destroyed. There are many documented examples of discrimination against such minorities and many reports of police violence and brutality—again, particularly against ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. At the very least, that calls into question the ability of the authorities to provide protection.

Refugee status does not depend on persecution by the state. The United Nations convention makes it absolutely clear that where discriminatory or offensive acts are committed by the local populace they can be considered as persecution if they are tolerated by the authorities or if the authorities refuse to provide protection. That is precisely what happens to people of Romany origin in countries such as Bulgaria.

The Home Office country report goes to great lengths about what has happened to the legal system in Bulgaria, but again the United Nations says that the laws of the country of origin, but particularly the manner in which they are applied, will be relevant. The fact that there is a law that says that there should not be discrimination, but that it is not applied, should be taken into consideration.

I have absolutely no doubt that the white list will lead to discrimination and to injustice, that assumptions will be made about people without looking at their individual case properly. I return to the point with which I started. Nobody can possibly pretend that this system is fair, that it treats people from the white list the same as people who are not on it. What would be the point of a white list if that happened? It is a nonsensical argument. I would have more respect if people were more honest about what they were doing.

11.4 pm

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

I am grateful for the opportunity, which was denied me by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in the course of his speech, to reply to his rude and, frankly, ignorant response to the point that I put to him. He dodged responding to the substantive issue by relying upon a debating point which, when he reads Hansard tomorrow, even he will see is a false point.

The hon. Gentleman argued that the order deprives an applicant of a hearing of his case on the merits. He accepted or maintained, I care not which, that the presumption raised by the order was a rebuttable one. If the presumption is rebuttable, the applicant will have an opportunity to rebut it. In other words—let me spell it out to the hon. Gentleman—an applicant will have an opportunity to put his case and have it heard on the merits. Therefore, how can the hon. Gentleman possibly argue that the order deprives an applicant of a hearing of his case on the merits?

If the applicant happens to be an Ahmadi from Pakistan, I have no doubt that he will say, "I am an Ahmadi from Pakistan," and I have no doubt that he will make the kind of arguments that we have heard this evening. Those arguments will be listened to. The case will be decided on its merits. That will probably also apply to anyone who says, "I am a Romany from Bulgaria." It is obvious that the order speeds up the process of dealing with asylum applicants, particularly paragraphs 2 and 3.

In the speeches of Opposition Ms—no doubt we shall be regaled by more of them in the course of the debate—the attitude seems to be that anyone who comes from a country whose standards are lower than ours in the United Kingdom should have asylum. That argument applies to just about every country in the world.

Opposition Members must know that a large number of asylum applicants to this country are bogus applicants. They must also know that the large number of bogus applicants weigh down our system to the great detriment of the genuine applicants, for whose plight they do not seem to care. All they can say is that more money should be put into the system. I would rather put more money into the pockets of the pensioners in my constituency. [Interruption.] Labour Members always come out in their true colours. They say one thing but do another. They say they want to put more money into the pockets of the pensioners, when really they want to put more money into the pockets of the bureaucrats—same old Labour. They are just the same as they always were.

I cannot imagine how Labour Members think that even their own voters support their ridiculous attitude to immigration into this country.

11.7 pm

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Yes, well, Madam Deputy Speaker, is all that one can say about the contribution of the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen).

The order is about speed, not justice. That is the simple message that is sent to the House. The message is clear from the explanatory note, which reminds us that the order provides part of the machinery for an "accelerated appeal procedure". It is not a more effective, more efficient or a more just and equitable appeal procedure: it is an accelerated appeal procedure.

The order establishes a rebuttable presumption against asylum status for those coming from white list countries. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Shoreham can sit still for a moment, try to concentrate and put all his silly notions out of his mind, I will tell him what a rebuttable presumption is.

Let me draw a picture for the hon. Gentleman in his mind of the scales of justice. When civil litigation of any kind starts, the scales of justice are evenly balanced. But in this instance there is a rebuttable presumption, so—if the hon. Gentleman will concentrate again for a moment—a bag of rotten apples is being put in one side of the scales of justice.

That is what a rebuttable presumption is. That is what it means. Metaphorically speaking, asylum seekers from one of the white list countries must eat the bag of rotten apples first, and then present their case. I ask the Minister, who I know is excited by the debate, to concentrate for a few moments, because I hope that we will receive an answer to this when the debate is wound up.

I respectfully submit to the House that the Government are doing this contrary to two international treaty obligations.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Carlile

The Minister can reply later. I am glad that she is listening.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

Name the obligations.

Mr. Carlile

I will. The first is article 3 of the 1951 United Nations convention, which states: The contracting states shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion, or country of origin. It is plain that the white list discriminates against country of origin. What is a white list if it is not a deliberate act by Government to set one lot of countries of origin against another lot of countries of origin? Part of the rationale behind the United States Government's decision not to have a white list system is exactly that they understand article 3 of the 1951 convention.

But the order is also contrary to article 13 of the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms—I know that the Government do not like it, but we have been in it since 1948—because it provides that—[Interruption.] wonder why the Minister finds this terribly funny. If she would like to intervene and tell us the joke, I would be pleased to hear it, and so would this country's asylum seekers.

Miss Widdecombe

The joke is the sheer ineptitude of the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. If the creation of a designated list were against international law, why is it valid in so many other countries?

Mr. Carlile

The hon. Lady must tell us exactly what advice—she must place it in the Library—she has received from Government lawyers and from outside counsel, if the Government have taken it, as to whether—[Interruption.] She seems to find this whole thing a joke. I will give way to the Minister in a moment, but this subject is not regarded as one for hilarity by the many thousands of people who fear that, if they are returned to countries such as India or Pakistan, they will be persecuted.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it ill behoves Ministers to talk about ineptitude when, not once but twice, the spirit of the legislation has been knocked back in the courts as contrary to all tenets of human justice?

Mr. Carlile

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I was going to remind the Minister that the order appears, at least to me, to breach article 13 of the European convention. The order amounts to an ineffective remedy, because of the introduction of the presumption, and it runs contrary to the Council of Europe resolution of 20 June 1995, in that it gives only 10 days for the asylum seeker to prepare his appeal, which cannot be regarded as adequate time to do so.

There is a world of difference between someone who fears real persecution if he is sent back, for example, to Pakistan preparing such an appeal and the purring motor of the high-cost sector of civil litigation, where interlocutory appeals can occasionally be heard within seven or 14 days. The scales of justice are nothing more than the digestion of prejudice by euphemism. The presumption against asylum seekers from these countries is institutionalising prejudice against every applicant from every one of those countries, and the Minister knows it.

The order is all about one thing, and one thing only. It gets the Government out of one of the biggest cock-ups—and that is saying something—that even they have ever created. They have been running the immigration and asylum service for the past 17 years. They have allowed the system to get into the mess it is in.

Miss Widdecombe

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Carlile

No, I will not give way.

The Minister of State does not like hearing this, but it is true that the Government have created this chaos.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Carlile

I will not give way. The hon. Lady should wait and stop interrupting. She, on behalf of the Government, has created the utter mess that has led to a huge backlog of cases. We are discriminating against people because the Government cannot run the Department properly.

I do not believe that the Minister can deny that people will be sent back to persecution, and possibly even death, as a result of the political regimes in their own countries—a number have already been mentioned—because the Government cannot run their asylum service properly.

11.15 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I do not share the concerns of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) about Bulgaria. Nor do I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) about Poland. Both those countries are now full members of the democratic community—the Council of Europe. They have signed the European convention on human rights—

Ms Abbott

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Atkinson

No, I shall continue for the time being.

That convention offers the strongest possible protection of human rights—our citizens and members of the Council of Europe are protected by it. Those countries have all held free and fair elections, which is why we allowed them to become full members of the Council of Europe. Both Bulgaria and Poland have strong and active human rights organizations—a residue of their communist days—that know how to operate the machinery of the European Court of Human Rights. Therefore, I do not share the concerns expressed about those countries being designated as safe countries.

I should say in response to the suggestion that Bulgaria has not yet signed the framework convention on minorities that the hon. Member for Walthamstow must surely know that that has only just come into being. A large number of member states of the Council of Europe have yet to sign it. I have no doubt that Bulgaria will sign it after its presidential elections, which are to be held next month. I have no problems with any member states that are full members of the Council of Europe.

However, I do share some of the concerns that have been expressed about the situation in Pakistan—not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). I expressed my concerns at Report stage of the Asylum and Immigration Bill on 21 February. In response to those concerns, my hon. Friend the Minister of State gave certain assurances, which she has repeated this evening. She also gave those assurances to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and me when we discussed the situation in Pakistan at a private meeting with her and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary had only just returned from Pakistan, where he had seen the situation for himself—unlike many other people.

In view of the concerns that have been expressed so forcibly by the hon. Member for Blackburn this evening, will my hon. Friend the Minister use the opportunity of her response to point out once again that no Pakistani Christian or member of the Ahmadi sect who applies for asylum in this country and is being subjected to harassment, threat of assassination, life imprisonment or the death penalty for violating section 295(c) of the Pakistani penal code—the blasphemy law—will face the threat of being refused asylum if they have a strong enough case?

Miss Widdecombe

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that no one applying for asylum in this country who has a strong enough case—who makes the case of a well-founded fear of persecution, and sustains the merits of that case—will be refused asylum.

Mr. Atkinson

I am delighted to hear that repetition, which I know the whole House will have noted and—hopefully—found reassuring.

On Report, I referred to a number of Pakistani Christians who had been killed by Muslims because they were Christian. Since then, a new case has been drawn to my attention. To safeguard his identity, he is codenamed Pastor Sam. He converted to Christianity in 1973, since when he has suffered maltreatment, harassment, police beatings, illegal custody, torture and other abuse. Since his Christian marriage, he has been targeted by Islamic extremists, who have falsely accused him of a minor affray in order to have him arrested, after which he would have undoubtedly met death in custody. He was, however, bailed. He is now in hiding awaiting a magistrate's response to allegations of blasphemy under section 295(c) of the Pakistan penal code, which would certainly be accompanied by a charge of apostasy if and when he were arrested, and followed by certain death.

I understand that Pastor Sam and his family will apply for asylum in this country, or will do so shortly on their arrival here. I have sent his details to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, urging that their applications be given the most compassionate consideration. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure me tonight that, as she has already stressed, the effect of this order will in no way prejudice the applications for asylum from Pastor Sam and his family and others like them in Pakistan.

11.21 pm
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)

The principle at stake in this debate is that each asylum application should be assessed on its merits alone. It is the Opposition's contention that the inclusion of a country in the designated list will undermine such individual assessment by creating a presumption against the credibility of that asylum application from a national of a designated country. We have heard nothing from the Minister to allay those anxieties.

The Minister repeatedly said in Committee that each applicant will be treated to a substantive interview, irrespective of whether that applicant is from a designated country. It is unavoidable that a Home Office caseworker will conduct an interview with a designated applicant in the knowledge that a certificate has been issued with regard to that country, and as a consequence be more resistant to the asylum claim. Indeed, if the designated list did not create presumption against the claim, there would be no point in having it.

If a caseworker is in any doubt about the circumstances prevailing in a designated country, he or she will naturally consult the Home Office's country assessment. In relation to Pakistan, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has spoken, the caseworker will find the observation: There is no evidence of Government-led persecution of minorities". In contrast, the United States State Department commented in its 1995 report on Pakistan human rights practices: Discriminatory religious legislation has encouraged an atmosphere of religious intolerance which has led to acts of violence against Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and Zikris. I am pleased to see that, in the Home Office country assessment, applications for asylum from Ahmadis are given very careful scrutiny. Nevertheless, the Home Office assessment also states: Ahmadis are recognised as a religious group and rights are safeguarded under the constitution. That is in totally contrast to the tone of the remarks of the retiring German ambassador to Pakistan, Mr. Alfred Vesting, who earlier this year wrote: Both the constitution and the penal code constitute the legal basis of the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, who, should they wish to profess or to practise their faith, must live in constant fear. Since they have been officially dubbed as heretics, they are in their daily life exposed to every possible repression and assault against which they cannot or dare not defend. Thus, they are, so to say, outlawed. According to the Home Office: There is no systematic or Government-led persecution of Christians in Pakistan'. Nevertheless—this matter has already been referred to by, among others, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson)—section 295(c) of the penal code introduced by the Pakistani Government in 1986 stipulates the death penalty for blaspheming the prophet Mohammed, and that provision has been used against Christians. Perhaps the best known case is that of Salamat and Rehmat Masih, both of whom have now—significantly—been granted asylum in the west.

The Jubilee Campaign has produced extensive evidence of the continuing imprisonment of and widespread violence against Christians, their churches and their property—outrages often carried out with the connivance of the police and other authorities. I once again cite the US State Department report: Among religious minorities there is a well-founded belief that the authorities afford them less legal protection than they afford Muslim citizens. Contrary to the Home Secretary's claim, there is ample proof of the systematic persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan, and, at the very least, this Government have failed to make a case for including Pakistan in the designated list.

11.25 pm
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I hope that my croaking voice will last long enough to enable me to make one or two points, and that hon. Members will bear with me. I had not intended to speak, but the nonsense that I have heard from the Opposition has brought me to my feet.

One of the most serious immigration and asylum problems we face is the length of the queues for entry into this country. We agree that the shorter we can make those lists and the quicker we can make the process, the better it will be for everyone—not only the British citizens but those we are welcoming into the country under the immigration and asylum process.

It therefore seems eminently sensible that the Government should seek to determine whether there is any way in which it would be reasonable to speed up the entry procedure. They look and see that there are certain countries from which practically every application for asylum is turned down. We know the reasons for that, and it is in that direction that the Government look to speed up the system. They have done so by shortening and, to some extent, reducing the appeal procedure for applicants for asylum from those areas.

The Government have not abolished the appeal procedure, because there are still 10 days in which it can be used for appealing to the adjudicator, and judicial review is still available if there is a problem with the legality of any application. However, it seems eminently sensible that every reasonable effort should be made to shorten the queue in the area in which it will do least harm.

I quite agree with Opposition Members that the system must not prejudice an applicant's right to be properly considered. We have the assurance of the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), and other Home Office Ministers that applications will not be prejudiced in any way. It is also obvious that an application from a listed country is not going to be limited in any sense prior to the point at which it is granted or refused. Applications will be fully considered, and every aspect of the arguments will be taken into account.

It does not seem to me to matter a jot whether there is or is not any presumption when an applicant comes from a suspect country, so long as the burden of proof does not change—and the burden of proof is not changing now.

While I was considering that point, I heard the preposterous argument—made in support of the Opposition's claim—that someone who was a friend and supporter of the Prime Minister of Pakistan's father should want to come here as an asylum seeker, running from the daughter.

It is the same party, and has the same traditions. I do not think that there are many people, if any, who, having supported the Bhutto regime and opposed the ul-Haq regime, run away from the Bhutto regime, would come to this country having run away from the daughter. If there is any such person, for any reason, I am satisfied that the grounds for his or her application will be properly arid sensibly considered.

There was a long rant from the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). I do not share Opposition Members' view in this debate that the Government's intention is to screw down and make totally impossible genuine asylum applications from people from those seven countries.

I should have liked to hear Opposition Members—whether Liberal Democrat or Labour Members—tell us that they are genuinely trying to assist with our asylum procedures, to make them more effective and efficient. Not once did we hear any suggestion that they might have in the alternative on how to speed up the process. If the Opposition parties want to oppose the scheme that we are proposing for speeding up—as far as we reasonably can—the asylum process, it is incumbent on them to offer in return a practicable and acceptable alternative. Clearly they cannot do so, and their opposition must fail.

We are all agreed that decent and justifiable asylum seekers should have the right of asylum. In the name of all that is sensible in asylum policy in this country, we must join together and do what we can to make our system more efficient and effective. This is one such measure. Those who object to it only make themselves look stupid.

11.31 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

If a contradiction of what the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) has just said is necessary, we need only remind ourselves that, as we speak, preparations are under way in west London to open a tent city to provide temporary accommodation to asylum seekers—including many children—who are now so destitute that they have no means of survival. That fact has been brought to public attention, not only by reverses for the Government in the courts but by the speeches of the leaders of British Churches.

My hon. Friendthe Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) have made it very clear that a central part of the Geneva convention was a requirement that all asylum cases should be considered on an individual basis. However much the Government protest, it is very clear that the central purpose of this order is to erect a presumption that all applicants from these seven countries have an unfounded claim.

I have read very carefully the country assessments produced by the Home Office. In all fairness, I can say only that I found them to be completely inadequate. In many respects, they were quite pathetic, and they gave every appearance of being cobbled together by very junior officials over a very short period. Almost daily during the passage of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, I called for these documents to be made available, and I was always told that they were being prepared. I wonder why it took so long to produce so little—although I shall not dwell on that point.

I should like to consider India specifically, and some quotes about India from the United States State Department. In March 1996, the State Department stated: There continue to be serious human rights abuses, despite extensive constitutional and statutory safeguards … abuses include extrajudicial executions and other political killings, torture and excessive use of force by security forces and separatist militants … torture, rape and deaths of suspects in police custody are widespread throughout India. In 1996, Amnesty International found: Thousands of political prisoners were held without charge or trial under special or preventative detention laws … At least 100 people died in police and military custody, many as a result of torture. The torture of detainees was described as "endemic in every state".

Finally, I draw again to the attention of the House the position in the Punjab, where 3,000 people have been cremated as unidentified and unclaimed bodies. The activist who tried to expose this, Mr. Jaswant Singh Kalra, remains a disappeared person.

I remember vividly my visits to the Punjab since 1990, during which I have interviewed literally hundreds of Sikhs. They gave me detailed accounts of the human rights abuses that they and their families had suffered. They are mirrored in the reports to which I have referred.

Much play is made in the Home Office documents of elections in the Punjab and elections in Kashmir. I do not believe that those elections should be any comfort to hon. Members, because it is clear that, in the elections in Kashmir, there has been unacceptable coercion. The refusal of the Indian Government to invite international observers to monitor those elections remains a matter of considerable concern.

I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made it clear that the next Labour Government would abolish the designated list—the white list—and would deal with all asylum claims properly and promptly. I remind the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) that the only way in which to do that is to ensure that proper staff and other resources are available, so that all asylum claims are dealt with fairly, justly and expeditiously.

I do not believe that the Home Office should rely on the poor-quality reports that we are considering tonight. I look forward to the next Labour Government establishing a human rights unit within the Foreign Office, which would advise the Government—

Mr. Kirkhope


Mr. Madden

The unit would advise the Government on human rights issues around the world.

Mr. Kirkhope

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Madden

I strongly suggest that the House should establish a Select Committee on human rights, so that it can advise the next Labour Government on human rights issues.

The order is the latest disgraceful instalment of restrictive legislation of enacted by this Government to deter those who have well-founded claims for asylum from seeking haven in this country. It will be part of the political epitaph that will be hung round the neck of this miserable Government in the dying days of this Parliament. We all look forward to an end to this miserable approach to a very serious human rights issue. I hope that the order will be defeated tonight, that it will be thrown out with the other miserable legislation that the Government have introduced over the past 17 years.

11.38 pm
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

Is it not clear to the House this evening that the Government have been visited by their previous sins? When the Asylum and Immigration Bill was debated at its various stages, the Government claimed that there was a major problem with illegal immigration. Yet, on every occasion that they were challenged by Committee members from all parties, the Government were unable to produce any evidence or figures to justify that claim. Indeed, one of the reasons that they gave for involving employers in the tracking of illegal immigrants was that they were unable to make any estimation of the problem that they claimed existed.

The Government have said that they could meet their international obligations under the Geneva convention and the European convention on human rights. I do not understand—and I do not think that the British people will understand—how the Government can say that each case will be dealt with on its merits when there is one system for the seven countries named this evening, and another for asylum claimants from other parts of the world.

Are we to believe that immigration officers faced with two different systems will use the same presumptions in dealing with each case on its merits? I put it to the House that that is not the case, and immigration department officials have made that point to me. They know that there are other ways to improve efficiency and to get people through the system that do not involve this ridiculous procedure.

Do not the Government know that their proposals will not work? Mr. Justice Glidewell stated in his report that he did not believe that the proceedings for dealing with asylum cases would be speeded up, because he knows—as do most lawyers who deal with these matters—that further doubt in dealing with the cases will slow the system down. As the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) pointed out, people will inevitably seek judicial reviews to get justice and their rights, and that will clog up the system further.

The more one looks for legitimate motives, reason and logic in the 1996 Act and the order, the more one fails to find them. One must then remember what the Conservative candidate for Cambridgeshire South-West said when he was head of the research department—that the Act and the order had nothing to do with efficiency, and certainly nothing to do with fairness, but were examples of the Conservatives playing a race card that they think—I believe, erroneously—will assist them in the general election.

The Government could not justify the Bill or the Act, and I do not believe that they can justify the order. The same contradictions are apparent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, the Foreign Secretary himself has acknowledged, in correspondence with the chairman of the Conservative party, that, together with other EU Foreign Secretaries, representations are being made to the Pakistan Government about their failure to uphold human rights for the Ahmadi community. If they cannot uphold human rights in their own country, why should we put them on a so-called "safe list"?

I do not believe that this order should be passed tonight, but if it is, it will not be long before this House, on a negative resolution, has to consider Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Zaire and the other countries where the same level of rejections is apparent, as the Minister pointed out in relation to the seven countries this evening. I do not believe that this order has any support in this country. The Economist called the Bill "a nasty little Bill", and this is a nasty little order that should be thrown out this evening.

11.43 pm
Miss Widdecombe

There has not been a single speech from Opposition Members tonight that has not revealed a profound misunderstanding of these orders.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe

Nor has there been any appreciation, or any attempt at appreciation, by the Opposition of the difference between acknowledging that there may be some violations of human rights and some dangers facing some people within a country and invalidating the general assessment of a country as largely safe.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Corbyn


Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Corbyn


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. It is clear that the Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Corbyn

I was not sure she had heard me.

Miss Widdecombe

I think the whole House heard the hon. Gentleman. There is, however, a difference between not being heard and simply being ignored, which is what happened to the hon. Gentleman.

Two sensible questions were asked in the debate, both by Conservative Members. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) raised the question of compliance costs. The purpose of the order is not to add to costs but to reduce them, so the situation does not arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) asked me once again to make it clear that cases would be considered on their merits, and that the mere fact that a country was designated would not automatically mean that everybody applying from that country was refused.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) gave us a long treatise on the state of Pakistan. Then, in great triumph, he referred to a letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The hon. Gentleman is much attached to smoking letters and other things be believes to be of great importance. All that letter did was uphold our position. We have said that a country may be generally safe, but that does not mean that there are not pockets within it where there may be problems. Nor does it mean that people applying from that country will not be treated on their merits.

I turn next to the amazing contribution by the hon. And—I am told—learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). He made an amazing blunder. He gave us an exposition of international conventions, his main thesis being that, because we treat applicants from some countries differently from others, we are therefore discriminating and in breach of article 3 of the refugee convention. That article is about refugees, not seekers of asylum. He failed to make that basic distinction. The order applies to those seeking to be recognised as refugees; the convention applies to those recognised as refugees.

The hon. and learned Gentleman made a similar blunder when he referred to article 13 of the European convention on human rights. He said that it prohibited discrimination in matters covered by the convention. It does; but that convention does not confer a right to asylum. He thus made a complete mess of it from start to finish. I am glad that he is not my lawyer, if that is how he understands basic conventions.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) made a tremendous contribution, despite an obvious handicap tonight. He admirably summed up what we are seeking to do. We are seeking to speed up the process so that genuine applicants may be heard in good time, their cases may be properly considered, and they may find the haven that they require. Unfounded applications, however, should be dealt with as efficiently as possible.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14B(1).

The House divided: Ayes 255, Noes 236.

Division No. 215] [11.48 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Bendall, Vivian
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Beresford, Sir Paul
Alexander, Richard Biffen, Rt Hon John
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Body, Sir Richard
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Amess, David Booth, Hartley
Arbuthnot, James Boswell, Tim
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Ashby, David Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Bowis, John
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Brandreth, Gyles
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Brazier, Julian
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Bright, Sir Graham
Baldry, Tony Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Browning, Mrs Angela
Bates, Michael Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)
Batiste, Spencer Burns, Simon
Bellingham, Henry Burt, Alistair
Butcher, John Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Butler, Peter Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Butterfill, John Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Carrington, Matthew Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Cash, William Hunter, Andrew
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Chapman, Sir Sydney Jack, Michael
Churchill, Mr Jenkin, Bernard
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Jessel, Toby
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Coe, Sebastian Key, Robert
Colvin, Michael Kirkhope, Timothy
Congdon, David Knight Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Conway, Derek Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Knox, Sir David
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Couchman, James Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Cran, James Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Legg, Barry
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Leigh, Edward
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Day, Stephen Lidington, David
Devlin, Tim Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Dover, Den Lord, Michael
Duncan, Alan Luff, Peter
Dunn, Bob Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Durant, Sir Anthony MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Dykes, Hugh MacKay, Andrew
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Maclean, Rt Hon David
Elletson, Harold McLoughlin, Patrick
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Maitland, Lady Olga
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Malone, Gerald
Evennett, David Mans, Keith
Faber, David Marland, Paul
Fabricant, Michael Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Forman, Nigel Mates, Michael
Forth, Eric Merchant, Piers
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Mills, Iain
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
French, Douglas Moate, Sir Roger
Fry, Sir Peter Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Gale, Roger Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Gallie, Phil Nelson, Anthony
Gardiner, Sir George Neubert, Sir Michael
Gill, Christopher Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Gillan, Cheryl Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Norris, Steve
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Gorst Sir John Oppenheim, Phillip
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Page, Richard
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Paice, James
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Patchett, Terry
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hague, Rt Hon William Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Pawsey, James
Hampson, Dr Keith Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hannam, Sir John Pickles, Eric
Hargreaves, Andrew Porter, David (Waveney)
Harris, David Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Rathbone, Tim
Hawkins, Nick Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hawksley, Warren Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Hayes, Jerry Richards, Rod
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Riddick, Graham
Hendry, Charles Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Robathan, Andrew
Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test) Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Horam, John Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Townend, John (Bridlington)
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Tracey, Richard
Shaw, David (Dover) Trend, Michael
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Trotter, Neville
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Twinn, Dr Ian
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Sims, Sir Roger Viggers, Peter
Skeet, Sir Trevor Walden, George
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfieid) Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Soames, Nicholas Waller, Gary
Speed, Sir Keith Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Spencer, Sir Derek Waterson, Nigel
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Watts, John
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Wells, Bowen
Spink, Dr Robert Whitney, Ray
Spring, Richard Whittingdale, John
Sproat, Iain Widdecombe, Ann
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wilkinson, John
Steen, Anthony Willetts, David
Stephen, Michael Wilshire, David
Stern, Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Streeter, Gary Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Sumberg, David Wolfson, Mark
Sweeney, Walter Wood, Timothy
Tapsell, Sir Peter Yeo, Tim
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E) Tellers for the Ayes:
Temple-Morris, Peter Mr. Roger Knapman and Mr. Richard Ottaway.
Thomason, Roy
Abbott, Ms Diane Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Adams, Mrs Irene Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Ainger, Nick Clelland, David
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Allen, Graham Coffey, Ann
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cohen, Harry
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Connarty, Michael
Armstrong, Hilary Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Corbett, Robin
Ashton, Joe Corbyn, Jeremy
Austin-Walker, John Corston, Jean
Barnes, Harry Cousins, Jim
Barron, Kevin Cummings, John
Battle, John Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bayley, Hugh Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Dafis, Cynog
Beith, Rt Hon A J Dalyell, Tam
Bell, Stuart Darling, Alistair
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Davidson, Ian
Bennett, Andrew F Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Bermingham, Gerald Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)
Berry, Roger Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Betts, Clive Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Blunkett, David Denham, John
Boateng, Paul Dewar, Donald
Bradley, Keith Dixon, Don
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Dobson, Frank
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Donohoe, Brian H
Burden, Richard Dowd, Jim
Byers, Stephen Etherington, Bill
Caborn, Richard Fatchett, Derek
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Faulds, Andrew
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Campbell-Savours, D N Fisher, Mark
Canavan, Dennis Flynn, Paul
Cann, Jamie Foster, Don (Bath)
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery) Fraser, John
Chidgey, David Fyfe, Maria
Chisholm, Malcolm Galloway, George
Church, Judith Gapes, Mike
George, Bruce Keen, Alan
Gerrard, Neil Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Godman, Dr Norman A Kilfoyle, Peter
Godsiff, Roger Kirkwood, Archy
Golding, Mrs Llin Lewis, Terry
Gordon, Mildred Liddell, Mrs Helen
Graham, Thomas Livingstone, Ken
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Lynne, Ms Liz
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McAllion, John
Grocott, Bruce McAvoy, Thomas
Gunnell, John McFall, John
Hain, Peter McKelvey, William
Hall, Mike Mackinlay, Andrew
Hanson, David McLeish, Henry
Harman, Ms Harriet McMaster, Gordon
Harvey, Nick McNamara, Kevin
Henderson, Doug McWilliam, John
Heppell, John Madden, Max
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Maddock, Diana
Hinchliffe, David Mahon, Alice
Hodge, Margaret Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hoey, Kate Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Home Robertson, John Martlew, Eric
Hoon, Geoffrey Maxton, John
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Meacher, Michael
Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd) Michael, Alun
Hoyle, Doug Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Milburn, Alan
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Miller, Andrew
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hutton, John Moonie, Dr Lewis
Illsley, Eric Morgan, Rhodri
Ingram, Adam Morley, Elliot
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Mudie, George
Jamieson, David Mullin, Chris
Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff) Murphy, Paul
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Olner, Bill
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) O'Neill, Martin
Jowell, Tessa
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Spellar, John
Patchett, Terry Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Pearson, Ian Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Pendry, Tom Steinberg, Gerry
Pickthall, Colin Stott, Roger
Pike, Peter L Strang, Dr. Gavin
Pope, Greg Straw, Jack
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Quin, Ms Joyce Thurnham, Peter
Radice, Giles Timms, Stephen
Randall, Stuart Tipping, Paddy
Raynsford, Nick Touhig, Don
Reid, Dr John Trickett, Jon
Rendel, David Turner, Dennis
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Tyler, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Vaz, Keith
Rogers, Allan Wallace, James
Rooker, Jeff Walley, Joan
Rooney, Terry Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wareing, Robert N
Rowlands, Ted Watson, Mike
Ruddock, Joan Welsh, Andrew
Sedgemore, Brian Wicks, Malcolm
Sheerman, Barry Wigley, Dafydd
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Short, Clare Winnick, David
Skinner, Dennis Wise, Audrey
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Worthington, Tony
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury) Wright, Dr Tony
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Snape, Peter Tellers for the Noes:
Soley, Clive Mr. Joe Benton and Mr. Eric Clarke.
Spearing, Nigel

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Asylum (Designated Countries of Destination and Designated Safe Third Countries) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 14th October, be approved.