HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc286-97

'.—(1) A member State is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (2) as—

  1. (a) a place where a person's life and liberty is not threatened by reason of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion; and
  2. (b) a place from which a person will not be sent to another country otherwise than in accordance with the Refugee Convention.

(2) Nothing in section 6 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 (protection of claimants from deportation etc.) prevents a person who has made a claim for asylum ("the claimant") from being removed from the United Kingdom to a member State if—

  1. (a) the Secretary of State has certified that—
    1. (ii) the member State has accepted that, under standing arrangements, it is the responsible State in relation to the claimant's claim for asylum; and
    2. (ii) in his opinion, the claimant is not a national or citizen of the member State to which he is to be sent;
  2. (b) the certificate has not been set aside on an appeal under section 51; and
  3. (c) the time for giving notice of such an appeal has expired and no appeal is pending.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (2)(c), an appeal is not to be regarded as pending if the Secretary of State has issued a certificate under section 58(2)(a) in relation to the allegation on which it is founded.

(4) "Standing arrangements" means arrangements in force as between member States for determining which state is responsible for considering applications for asylum.'.—[Mr. Straw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.15 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 3—Removal of asylum claimants in other circumstances.

Government amendments Nos. 56 and 58 to 60.

Mr. Straw

The new clause is the centrepiece of this group. For the most part, the other amendments in the group are consequential.

The objective of new clause 2 is to deal with the problem—which was identified in the White Paper that we published last July—of lengthy and unnecessary delays to the operation of the Dublin convention caused by disputes over the safety of transfers to other member states. We made it clear in the White Paper, and in Committee, that we perceive that to be a major problem, and that we might table an amendment to deal with it later in the Bill's passage. New clause 2 is the result of those considerations.

New clause 2 would replace section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 in so far as it applies to asylum seekers transferred to other European Union states under what are referred to as "standing arrangements" for determining responsibility for asylum seekers. Those arrangements are currently provided for by the Dublin convention. As my hon. Friends and Opposition Members will notice, the clause itself does not specifically refer to the Dublin convention, as that convention may be superseded in the future. Moreover, every hon. Member will know, possibly by heart, that article 63 of the treaty of Amsterdam provides for the possibility, in the next five years, of a new instrument in the sphere.

The House will also note that new clause 2 provides that A member state is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (2) as essentially a place where convention criteria are satisfied, and as a place from which a person will not be sent to another country otherwise than in accordance with the Refugee Convention. Before I continue explaining the changes, I should mention that the new clause would also make it a requirement that removal may not proceed if an appeal is outstanding, or if there is the possibility of such an appeal—or, of course, if there is a successful appeal—on the basis of the European convention on human rights. We are proposing certain limitations on the right of appeal on ECHR grounds in cases that I shall explain when I speak to amendment No. 60.

We are proposing those changes to the approach established in section 2 of the 1996 Act, first, because of the very real problems that we are experiencing in operation of the Dublin convention within the legislative framework of the 1996 Act, which seems not to have anticipated the convention. The second reason for our proposals is our conviction that, in the context of the Dublin convention, some of the current requirements are no longer necessary.

I had quite a few surprises when I became Home Secretary. I discovered, among other delights, that I had a dignified function in the election of new bishops to the Anglican Church.

Miss Widdecombe

Better you than me.

Mr. Straw

Yes. I have to administer an oath of homage, which new bishops have to make to Her Majesty, that was written by Queen Elizabeth I and has remained unchanged ever since. The oath refers, by implication, to those who have converted to Rome, and promises them a dire fate—as was befalling them, one way or the other, in the 16th century.

Various other delights awaited me. I had not properly realised that the Home Office was responsible for burials, or that we were somehow princes of the Channel Islands and of the Isle of Man.

I had also not comprehended—I do not remember it ever being mentioned in the House, in all our fascinating debates on immigration and asylum—that, in 1990, the previous Government had signed the Dublin convention. Hon. Members should mark that the previous Government signed it at the height of their Europhobia, when Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister. Although I have yet to discover who was responsible for appending his or her name to the convention, the previous Government did sign up to it—which, happily for them, did not come into force until October 1997. I think that they had realised that, by then, they would be long since gone.

Mr. Clappison


Mr. Allan

He signed it.

Mr. Straw

If the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) signed it, I shall give way.

Mr. Clappison

The Home Secretary may not be aware of the fact, but the Committee Hansard for the 1996 Bill shows that the then Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), not only specifically mentioned the Dublin convention but welcomed it.

Mr. Straw

I look forward to consulting the record. I am happy to say that I was not a member of that Standing Committee. As the late Enoch Powell once said, the best way to keep a secret is to speak it in a Standing Committee.

The convention came into force in October 1997. Its purpose is not a problem and may have been given a general welcome, but its wording is a major problem that has caused immense difficulties in the European Union. It is already difficult to find sufficient evidence to show that a particular member state is responsible for individual asylum seekers. The added hurdle of disputes about the safety of member states makes matters even worse.

There are many hundreds of Dublin convention cases in a growing judicial review backlog. They are held up behind a series of test cases in which the courts are examining whether it is reasonable for me, as Home Secretary, to consider whether a member state of the European Union will abide by its obligations under the 1951 convention. A range of questions about the application of the asylum procedures in other member states and their interpretation of the 1951 convention can be at issue. In each case the representatives of the asylum seeker argue that an alleged deficiency in the other state's procedures makes it unreasonable for me to consider it a safe third country.

The scope for finding new points of detail in the laws and procedures of other member states on which to seek to delay removal is almost unlimited. An applicant's representative might point to a new report by a non-governmental organisation that alleges that an aspect of the procedure in another member state is defective. A case can be held in limbo for a year or more while it works through the courts. During that period it is impossible to progress the case of any applicant raising similar grounds.

As a result, almost all removals to a particular member state are delayed for at least the time that the case takes to get through the courts. We also find that no sooner has a case concluded in our favour than the applicant's representatives find another issue on which to challenge the decision and we are back to square one.

During our debates and in discussions outside the Chamber, but within the precincts of the House, many hon. Members have said that we need to process applications quickly and enforce the decisions. I agree, but in case after case the delay is caused not by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office, but by the fact that in this country, much more than in any other EU state that I can think of, particularly as the courts have developed the concept of judicial review, the opportunities for making one appeal and piling it on another have become disproportionate to the mischief of judicial maladministration, with which the courts are trying to deal through the process of judicial review.

If that pattern continues indefinitely it will be a constant obstacle to the effective operation of the Dublin convention. Around a third of all cases are presently delayed in that way.

The consequences are serious. There is an obvious risk of damage to our immigration control. The longer that an asylum seeker is in the UK, the harder it generally is to effect their removal. Over the coming years there could be considerable costs associated with that. In our debates on the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 it arose that under section 2 it would be possible for people to be returned to one so-called safe third country—the definition was not originally limited to EU states—and then leapfrog back to a fourth, fifth or sixth country. Later, on the Floor of the House, we were able to secure support for changes to section 2, which certainly improved its operation.

Prior to the 1996 Act, asylum seekers who were to be returned to member states had an in-country right of appeal, and it has been suggested that reintroducing such a right might solve the problem. As my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) made clear in Committee, that would not prevent applicants from finding issues on which to apply for judicial review after their appeal, which in my judgment would only add to the delay. The cases often involve very detailed comparisons between our asylum system and that obtaining in other states and there would always be scope for raising new issues after appeal.

I believe that the proposal is justified by the safeguards in the Dublin convention—which were obviously not in force when the 1996 Act was passed—and the need to make the convention work effectively, as well as the high standards of asylum procedures in other member states. Such provision is not without precedent in other member states.

Germany is well regarded for its application of human rights. Since the war it has been almost rule-bound in its consciousness of the need to observe human rights, and its basic law has a structure of constitutional courts. In Germany, however, other member states are considered safe third countries as a matter of law. It is also notable that other member states simply do not experience anything like the same amount of litigation over these issues. Their courts are prepared to accept that member states can be regarded as safe third countries.

Ms Abbott

This matter was discussed in our proceedings on the 1996 Act. Is not my right hon. Friend aware that there were serious problems with people being returned to France who were then passed directly to Zaire and Congo? There have been occasions when EU member states have not proved safe for genuine asylum seekers.

Mr. Straw

I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed. I have examined in some detail the arrangements that apply in France. The French authorities, and the police in particular, tend to treat people who are regarded not as asylum seekers but as wholly illegal immigrants—they are called "sans-papiers"—in a fairly peremptory way, but that does not apply—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman should face the Chair, not the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).

Mr. Straw

Indeed. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The French do not treat asylum claims in so peremptory a manner. The French office for the consideration of asylum claims, OFPRA—I apologise to the House for the fact that I cannot recite off the top of my head what that acronym stands for—is a highly respected organisation, and if one reads the French press, as I do from time to time, one will quite often see stories about the length of time that it takes to deal with asylum cases. It applies itself strictly to the law.

We do not intend to return asylum seekers unless either their case has already been dealt with, in which case it falls to the other member state to take appropriate enforcement action, or there is an undertaking that it will be dealt with.

Mr. Allan

Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that there has been a successful challenge against the Government on the ground that the French do not treat non-state parties as persecutors under the refugee convention, whereas we do? In France, persecution by Islamic militants would not be recognised as it is here.

11.30 pm
Mr. Straw

Whenever there is an international convention—and this applies also to the European convention on human rights—there will always be some difference in the interpretation of that convention within the domestic law of the individual countries. That is called the margin of appreciation. The hon. Gentleman takes an interest in such matters and if he considers the interpretation of the European convention, he will notice significant differences between countries.

We are assisted in the interpretation of the European convention on human rights because we have what amounts to an international court that is able to determine what margin of appreciation should apply. There are many defects in the jurisprudence—but not in the original purpose—of the 1951 refugee convention, one of which is that there is no way that the margin of appreciation can be defined internationally. Different member states define it differently and it is open to argument which way is right.

There is a substantial argument that says that the interpretation applied by France, in respect of non-state parties, and by Italy, Germany and Switzerland—which has a good record on human rights and refugees—is much closer to the original intentions of the framers of the 1951 convention than that of our courts in one or two cases.

Mr. Corbyn

A few moments ago my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) asked the Home Secretary specifically about the situation in France and its methods of removing people, especially to west African countries. In his discussions with the French Interior Minister, what undertakings were given to the British Government about the French formulation for adherence to the original convention?

Mr. Straw

I have talked to my opposite number, Jean-Pierre Chevèenement, on many occasions about the French asylum system. People parody the French judicial system, but France is subject to the constitution and the application of the law to a similar extent to this country. Indeed, in practice although perhaps not in legal theory, there is considerable convergence in the way that the French approach many issues. They have detailed judicial procedures for processing asylum applications. They are in place, they are followed and they are subject to the European convention on human rights. From time to time, France is in the dock before the European Court of Human Rights, just as is every other signatory state, and it adheres to the court's judgments. I hope that that provides reassurance.

Some people are confused—I was myself confused at one point—by the fact that the French police may deal peremptorily with people who are not asylum seekers. Such people are wholly illegal and are not seeking asylum. However, that is a separate issue from those who have applied for asylum. Some thousands of people—fewer than in this country—apply for asylum in France each year and their applications are considered on their merits.

The most important safeguards that were introduced by the Dublin convention are that applicants are now returned to another member state only if that state has accepted beforehand that it is responsible for considering the claim and if specific arrangements have been made for the transfer. That is an important development. Those safeguards were not present when the 1996 Act was passed. Indeed, in opposition we argued for those safeguards during the passage of the 1996 Act.

I have spoken of my belief that other member states are able to meet the full effect of the 1951 convention. It is also important to note that the 1951 convention is not the only international instrument that provides protection to asylum seekers. In addition to the convention, protection is provided by the European convention on human rights.

I said in my opening remarks that I would refer to amendment No. 60 when I was explaining new clause 2.

Government amendment No. 60 would amend clause 58, which relates to miscellaneous limitations on rights of appeal. It would place an important limitation on European convention on human rights appeals in cases under new clause 2, and also on cases under new clause 3 that involve a member state or a designated safe third country. It would provide that, where the Secretary of State was satisfied that a claim that removal was in breach of the convention was itself manifestly unfounded, the right of appeal could not be exercised while the applicant was in the United Kingdom.

Such provision is necessary to prevent transfers in such cases being delayed by spurious allegations that the transfer would be in breach of the convention. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that we understand why people want to come to this country and remain here. I make no judgment about their motives: we must work on the basis that, in almost every case, people want to come here to better themselves. However, that desire has to be balanced against the need, in the wider public interest, to secure effective immigration control and—very importantly—to secure fairness for those of our constituents and their families who are willing to avail themselves of rights under the law. Those rights often mean that applications for entry into the United Kingdom have to be considered outside the country, rather than within it.

Any misuse of the certification power under amendment No. 60 would be challengeable by judicial review. The power will be exercised only with great care.

I hope that I have explained the reasoning behind new clause 2 and the associated amendments to the satisfaction of the House.

Mr. Clappison

I welcome the Home Secretary to our proceedings, and the consistent calmness that he has brought with him. That is in contrast to the mood swings that the Under-Secretary seems to be experiencing. After being soothing for a time, he has displayed some abrasiveness that is not entirely called for.

I appreciate the gratitude that the Home Secretary expressed in a written answer last Wednesday to all the members of the Standing Committee and Special Standing Committee. However, I was surprised when he imposed a guillotine on debate a few days later, but I shall have to ponder that mystery. The Under-Secretary said that there has been so much debate already that there is no real need for more, but the Government are introducing entirely new provisions that are in addition to the sensitive matters that the Under-Secretary agreed to reconsider on Report. That is rather strange, and I hate to think of the wails of indignation that would have greeted a Conservative Government who had acted in that way.

In principle, I do not take issue with what the Home Secretary has said in connection with new clause 2 and the associated amendments. Later in the debate, I hope that he will be able to satisfy my natural curiosity about the background to the proposal. As he conceded in his opening remarks, it did not arise from the debate in Committee, but was under consideration last year and appeared in a consultation document last July. If the Government were considering it for so long, why has it taken until now for them to put it into the Bill?

This sensitive proposal takes away a person's right to seek judicial review. We may not consider the proposal to be controversial, but expert groups such as the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the other august bodies that gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee would like to have expressed their views. The opportunity to do so has been taken away by the way in which the Government have introduced the provision.

Mr. Allan

It may assist the hon. Gentleman to know that the Immigration Law Practitioners Association has seen the new clause at this late stage and has described it as draconian, unprincipled and wholly without justification. The association would have liked to elaborate further in the Special Standing Committee.

Mr. Clappison

Even when I do not agree with someone, I like to hear his or her point of view, particularly in the case of experts. The Government want to close down debate and ignore the experts while pretending to go through the motions of holding a Special Standing Committee.

We do not oppose the new clause. The Home Secretary has conceded that it builds on the provisions of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. The Under-Secretary was intemperate—perhaps even reckless—when he spoke about that Act, much of which is reproduced in the Bill. On carriers liability, employment checks and rights of appeal, the Bill reproduces large parts of the 1996 Act. We can hardly oppose something that we enacted.

Remarks made on the 1996 Bill by Labour Members about the safe third country principle will make interesting reading alongside what they said in Special Standing Committee and their welcome to the Dublin Commissioner. My hon. Friends will recall how our provisions were criticised from pillar to post by Labour Members, some of whom have sat on the Front Bench.

We value consistency, accepting that asylum seekers can, in some circumstances, be removed to safe third countries. No legal impediment should get in the way, allowing cases to be dragged out before the courts. Section 3 of the 1996 Act removed the in-country right of appeal for that reason. The Bill goes further. Since that right was removed, some asylum seekers have successfully sought judicial review.

The Government's actions are justified. The safe third country principle should be applied without protracted legal proceedings, notwithstanding what Labour Members said in 1996. We are, however, curious to know why the Government have introduced the provision so late, bypassing all debate and expert evidence in the Special Standing Committee.

Mr. Gerrard

I find it difficult to deal with new clauses that were tabled just a few days ago. They are technical and it would have been useful to have seen them earlier. In particular, it would have been helpful if I had been able to consult outside organisations about their effect.

Safe third country appeals were introduced by the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. People threatened with removal to another country on the ground that that country should determine their asylum application were given a right of appeal by that Act. In 1996, the Conservative Government decided that they had got it wrong and took that appeal right away. The original intention was to remove appeal rights entirely. I have looked back at what was said on Report in 1996. Then, we said: Originally, the Government believed that persons should return to those countries to make their appeal", and we were glad that the then Government recognised that that was impractical and would have guaranteed no fairness or protection for the individuals involved. We also said: If a political asylum procedure is to be fair and perceived as fair, it is very difficult to cover all eventualities, even in the European Union."—[Official Report, 21 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 447.] I have concerns and I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether my interpretation of the clauses is accurate. They seem to say that if we are dealing with someone who is to be removed to a country that is a signatory to the Dublin convention, they will prevent that person from having access to judicial review. In the case of removal to a country that is not a signatory to the Dublin convention, they would stop the person having appeal rights before he or she is removed.

Some of our arguments three years ago, about the difficulties of exercising the appeal rights after one has been removed, still apply. I have not been able to find out how many appeals there have been since 1996—I looked through asylum statistics in Home Office publications this afternoon—involving people who were removed from the country and who, in theory, had the right of appeal from abroad. I suspect that the numbers are relatively small.

The problem that that creates for me in trying to understand the reasoning behind the necessity for the changes is that I have always understood that decisions on asylum cases should be made on the basis of what is happening or has happened to the individual concerned. That was our fundamental objection to the white list that was introduced in the 1996 Act—we are now getting rid of that. The fundamental objection to that list is that it made assumptions about a country as a whole, rather than asking what was the position of the individual in relation to that country. A similar line is being followed in this Bill as regards the Dublin convention.

In the next few years, there are likely to be changes; if some of the provisions of the Amsterdam treaty are taken forward, there may be some significant changes, with agreements throughout the European Union on minimum standards. However, we are not there yet.

The other question, about which I am not at all clear, is what will happen in the next few years if the European Union expands. The clauses mention member states. What happens if countries that are not signatories to the Dublin convention join the EU? For one reason or another, we may well have granted asylum to people who have come from some of the states that may join in the next few years. There may be some question marks about the human rights standards in those countries.

Therefore, I am not clear how the provision will operate. I understand the problem with judicial review in the past few years, as Ministers do not want hundreds of cases queuing up behind one or two judicial review cases. I am not a lawyer and I may be getting this completely wrong, but I have always worried about judicial review being substituted for an appeal. That is what happened in 1996, when the appeal rights on safe third countries were taken away. Judicial review became almost a substitute.

In general, many asylum cases are refused. People go to appeal and a small number get permission to go to the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Very few get leave to go to judicial review, although many of them may try. That suggests that a comprehensive process of decision making followed by an appeal under the law is much more difficult to take to judicial review. Perhaps that is at the root of what has gone wrong during the past three years. The removal of appeal rights brought in under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 has left a vacuum into which lawyers have happily rushed. As we know, they are quite glad to go for judicial review and to spin matters out and keep the process going.

I find this matter difficult and I am not sure whether I have exactly understood the amendments—obviously, they are highly technical. As the Bill progresses through another place, I hope that we shall have the opportunity to reflect on them. There are worries at the back of my mind about whether we are getting the matter right, because some people might be sent back to another EU country, but will later find that their asylum claim has not been determined there and that they are to be moved on to somewhere else. Alternatively, the claim might be determined in a way that would strike us as unreasonable.

Mr. Allan

This measure, with the previous new clause, sums up the Government's approach in amending the Bill, in that the previous new clause made some minor concessions, but this one introduces a new element with a potentially significant and serious impact on asylum seekers. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) over why the measure was introduced at such a late date. The sittings of the Special Standing Committee at which evidence was taken worked well; I hope that becomes the norm rather than the exception. However, that can work well only if substantive issues are introduced at an early stage. This is a substantive issue.

The matter seems to represent the Government's contribution to the arms race that seems to be taking place between the Government and the courts over judicial review. In later parts of the Bill, the Secretary of State denies himself the power to consider preferences as to where asylum seekers want to live, in order not to be taken to judicial review over whether he exercised that discretion properly. Perhaps Ministers will increasingly become automatons, who merely make standard decisions in order to avoid judicial review as that arms race continues. The Government—and perhaps the previous Government—have adopted a fairly combative approach to the courts in the way in which judicial review is exercised.

In this context, it is important to consider what judicial review does when it is exercised in cases under the Dublin convention and those in which safe countries are involved. The Secretary of State said that there would be serious consequences if the cases of a queue of people were undergoing judicial review. The consequences for an individual who is returned to a third country and is not treated properly are incredibly serious. That is literally a matter of life and death.

The kind of cases that have been considered are, for example, those of Kosovan asylum seekers that occurred before the beginning of the conflict. The British Government have now, quite properly, decided to apply 100 per cent. recognition to cases of asylum claims from Kosovans. However, before the conflict started, an individual took a case about being returned to Germany to the Court of Appeal and won, because it was clear that there was a significant chance that the person would be returned to Kosovo from Germany. There were domestic German reasons for that, although I understand that Germany does well in taking a large number of refugees. However, the consequences of a return from Germany to Kosovo could have been serious. We all saw what happened to people in Kosovo before and during the conflict.

There is also the Algerian example. The Home Secretary referred to the fact that we apply provisions differently, but arguments about the wrong kind of persecution are deeply disturbing. We seem to be saying that we are quite content to send people back to the wrong kind of persecution; we are content that they should be persecuted by paramilitaries in Colombia or by Islamic militants in Algeria. As long as the state is not carrying out the persecution, we are not prepared to apply the law.

The Secretary of State says that there is a problem with the Dublin convention. I accept that; and I accept what he says about the problems over the different definitions of the 1951 convention. However, I do not want us to take the lowest common denominator, whereby we all head for a minimal definition—especially in the European states, which are among the wealthiest in the world and are more able to offer refuge to individuals who are fleeing persecution. I do not want this country to play a part in driving down standards, by saying, when reinterpreting the 1951 convention, that it is acceptable to use the margin of error and to allow people to face the wrong kind of persecution.

I hope that the Government will tell us why they have introduced the provision at this late stage, and how they intend to drag up standards, rather than drive them down. If the Government are determined to adopt the approach of having 100 per cent. confidence in safe third countries and of not wanting the courts to intervene and consider the issues of differential recognition rates at all, there is a duty incumbent on them to ensure that our European partners have standards that match our own. There is a strong Somali community in Sheffield and Somalia offers a good illustration of my argument. I understand that, because Somalia is deemed to be a civil war state rather than a case of an established Government persecuting individuals, the conflict there would not be regarded in Germany as sufficient grounds for refugee status.

I was pleased when, during the British presidency of the European Union, the Government announced that a common European approach to immigration and refugee issues would be a key matter. However, all has been quiet since then and we have dealt only with domestic legislation. I doubt that the Home Secretary will be successful in reassuring us, so we shall revisit the issue in detail in another place, where we have legal minds who will apply themselves to it. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to offer us some hope that the Government are facing up to the challenge that they set themselves during the British presidency to reach a common European approach and to make the Dublin convention work.

I also hope that the right hon. Gentleman will state that, in that effort, the Government's intention is to meet the highest possible standards, and not to go down the route of the lowest common denominator. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, some of our future EU partners will be countries in eastern Europe whose records are not entirely laudable on these matters. To go for the lowest common denominator would be a dangerous path and would make the new clause deeply disturbing to the Liberal Democrats.

Ms Abbott

I join colleagues from the Special Standing Committee in expressing regret that these important and highly technical new clauses were not tabled in good time, so that the Committee could take expert evidence on them and debate them properly. Despite their having the support of some Opposition Members, there is no doubt that the new clauses will have to be considered more fully in the other place.

The amendments deal with issues on which, during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996, Labour Members spoke at great length. Concerns still remain in respect of differential standards and differential interpretations of asylum issues within EU member states. It is not a pleasant thought that we as a Government are reduced to playing pass the parcel with asylum seekers. It is difficult to comment on these technical new clauses, having had only a few days in which to study them, but one cannot lose sight of the suspicion that the convenience of Home Office officials is being elevated above the rights of asylum seekers. My hon. Friends have raised serious questions about the new clauses and I hope that Ministers will be able to answer them—if not in the minutes remaining, then when we resume the debate tomorrow.

Mr. Straw

In the closing minutes of the debate this evening, I hope to deal with some of the questions raised. My hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) all asked why the Government were not able to table the amendments and the new clause at an earlier stage in the Bill's passage. I wish that we had been able to do so. They were not an afterthought—the issues they deal with were flagged up in the White Paper published in July, and, if they had wanted to do so, it was open to the non-governmental organisations that gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee to anticipate that we might make a change—

It being Twelve o'clock, the debate stood adjourned, pursuant to Order [this day].

Debate to be resumed this day.