HL Deb 03 March 1987 vol 485 cc534-42

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement about asylum seekers which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"Many Western countries, have become increasingly concerned in recent years at the large number of people who seek entry with forged or fabricated passports, or visas, or without any documents at all. Very often they, or the organisers of their journeys, know that they have no legitimate claim to entry but hope the absence of documents will hinder the immigration authorities in securing their return. At the same time large numbers of people who aim to find a more secure or prosperous life in Western countries have been abusing asylum procedures as a means of evading immigration controls. Last year during the UK Presidency the Ministers of the Interior of the European Community set work in hand on these problems. Last week I sent a message to the Belgian Presidency expressing the Government's hope that this work will be pressed forward urgently.

"In December and January 600 people arrived and sought asylum, the large majority of whom did not have the right documents. It is only recently that members of the public and of this House have become generally aware of the problems facing us. The Government have been considering what action to take to prevent evasion of visa requirements and the abuse of asylum claims as a means of securing entry.

"The Government have decided to introduce legislation tomorrow to give power to impose a charge on carriers who bring to this country people who require leave to enter the United Kingdom but who carry no valid passport or other identity document and those who have no valid visa where one is required by the immigration rules. The charge would he £1,000 for each passenger without valid documents and would he applied from midnight tomorrow. The carrier would not be liable to pay if he could show that the passenger had the necessary valid documents when he boarded the ship or aircraft or, in the case of forged documents or visas, that the forgery was not reasonably apparent. Payment would be enforceable, if necessary, by civil action in much the same way as detention and removal costs can already be recovered from carriers.

"This change in the law would reinforce the messages already given to airlines and other carriers that they have a responsibility for ensuring that those who wish to travel here have obtained the necessary papers before they do so. A similar provision already operates in many other countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and, more recently, West Germany and Denmark

"In the cases of the Tamils who have last week been given leave to move for judicial review, I have to take account of the passage of time—more than two weeks—since their arrival and of the fact that the litigation is likely to take further time to resolve given rights of appeal on either side. Morever, I understand that UKIAS has already been able to interview many of the applicants. In these circumstances and in the light of the outcome of last week's court proceedings, I have decided that the most sensible way forward is to refer to UKIAS each of the 64 cases and thereafter to reach fresh individual decisions in the light of all the relevant facts, including any representations UKIAS may wish to make. In doing so, I shall of course take account of any other representations I receive, including those from honourable members. In the circumstances, I should expect to receive representations by Wednesday 18th March and to take decisions after that. My willingness to proceed in this way has been conveyed to the applicants' solicitors and UKIAS.

"For the future, however, we need to change our procedures to ensure that we are protected against immigration rackets which take advantage of our generous procedures. In particular, we must not allow procedures intended originally as safeguards to become the vehicle by which those who have no entitlement to come here, whether as refugees or whatever other capacity, obtain their ends.

"Accordingly, the present arrangements under which my department refers cases to UKIAS will be revised and I shall be inviting UKIAS to participate in discussions to that end. I should stress, however, that the present arrangement does not involve the reference of all cases, and for the avoidance of doubt I must place it on record that in future there will be cases which will not be referred to UKIAS, and that therefore applicants for asylum can have no expectation that as a result of the arrangement arrived at in 1983 or otherwise there will in their cases be such a reference. Similarly, there will be instances where early removal is necessary in the interests of immigration control, and it will not be right for me to defer removal on an MP seeking to put a stop on the case. It follows also that those who seek to challenge in the courts decisions to refuse asylum cannot expect that they will automatically be allowed to stay here until proceedings are completed.

"The Government remain fully committed to their obligations under the United Nations 1951 convention to genuine refugees as defined in that convention. The decisions which I make as Home Secretary on individual cases will respect that obligation. But we have to find the right means of preventing abuse of the asylum provisions and preventing evasion of the visa requirements which Parliament has endorsed. The policies which I have announced aim to strike that balance."

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

4 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I ask the House to accept that the whole background of my response to this Statement from these Benches is based upon the great desire, which I believe your Lordships share, that, whatever national standards have for one reason or another to drop, our great tradition of political and other asylum will not be spoilt. I say that also stressing that I hope no one in this House—I certainly would not from this Dispatch Box—would ever defend any forgery or fabrication of documents done without good faith and done without good cause. I use those words on purpose.

What is the panic for a measure to be introduced tomorrow, to be effective from midnight tomorrow? What is the urgency of the matter? We are told in-the Statement that there are 600 people who, in December and January, sought refuge here by way of asylum, the large majority of whom did not have the right documents. Why were we not told—and I ask it now—how many of those people had forged or fabricated passports? That is what we are dealing with, not people who may not have had their documents in order.

What too is the panic when there is already a statutory provision? It is in Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971. Airlines can be required under that statute to pay for the return flight and the cost of any detention up to two months. They were reminded of that when we had the visa regulations which were required of certain countries—and your Lordships will remember that—when those requirements did not previously exist. All the airlines were reminded of that provision when this occurred.

Quite apart from that, as the Statement itself says, we as a government have co-operated with other European countries to investigate this evil where it is an evil, and have said to those governments—and there has been a reminder recently to the Belgian Government—"Please can we co-operate in regulations to deal with that internationally?" Why have we not waited for the result of that reminder? I have a shrewd suspicion that the thing is completely ineffective anyway. Are aircrews of all airlines now to be trained in the art of detecting forgeries and fabricated passports? Are airlines now to be scared of taking passengers, even genuine ones who are refugees and seeking asylum? It is much safer not to, because there might be a fine at the end of the journey if for some reason or other the documents are fabricated or forged, and somebody can prove that reasonable conduct would have detected the forgery or the fabrication.

Is this because of the Tamils who arrived a week or so ago? I have such a high regard for the Home Secretary, as have my noble friends, but is it that application, which was successful, for a judicial review and a change of mind which has made him now feel that there ought to be proper representations available for Members of Parliament, and that there ought to be proper consultation with UKIAS where it is needed? That would be such an unworthy source of something which is such a breach of our traditions.

It is unnecessary because of the statutory provision about which I have spoken, and it may well mean that some people whom all your Lordships can remember and who have been refugees in this country (which has always had such a magnificent place in world history in that context) may have to forge documents or fabricate papers in the state of the world as it now exists. Some did it before, from 1933 to 1939. They were understood. My Lords, what is this panic measure?

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we are grateful to him for repeating the Statement made in another place, but that we see this as a chickening out by the Home Office from the court action which would otherwise have taken place, while continuing to make totally unfounded allegations about the 64 Tamils who arrived here seeking asylum under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, and that we consider this to be absolutely disgraceful?

The majority of the people so far interviewed had suffered actual physical assaults, in some cases amounting to torture. Is the Minister aware that a doctor who recently went to see patients at Foston Hall, where the Tamils were detained, examined six of them and found that five had actual physical signs that were consistent with the beatings or tortures they described; and that in the sixth case although there were not any signs remaining of the tortures which he claimed were inflicted on him the doctor said that she would not have expected to find any physical marks arising from the kind of ill-treatment that he described?

Did not the Minister, Mr. David Waddington, assure me in a letter dated 1st August 1985 that cases would normally be referred to the UK Immigrants Advisory Service refugee unit except for two examples? Those were seamen who left their ships and were manifestly unqualified for asylum and cases where it was not possible to contact the UKIAS refugee unit. Has this not subsequently been covered by a letter from the UKIAS refugee unit giving the Home Office telephone numbers where they can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Did not Mr. S. Handley of the Home Office, also in a letter to the head of the UKIAS refugee unit, dated 3rd February 1986, say: We will continue to refer to you the cases of Tamils coming here without a visa who have previously been in third countries"? Was not that statement a completely unqualified one? Was there not an absence of any exception to this undertaking by Mr. S. Handley? How do the Government reconcile those undertakings from the Minister and from an official in his department with the behaviour of the Government in the case of the 64 Tamils who arrived here without proper documentation?

Turning to the question of documentation, is it not in the nature of things that refugees will not have been given passports by the governments which persecute them? How many of the 600 who arrived here in December and January and who were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, have subsequently turned out to be genuine refugees? Can the Minister give us that figure and can he tell us how many of those 600 are still under review, so that we can see whether it was correct of him to give this example to justify the action he has now taken?

How many Iranians who arrived here during 1986 had proper documentation yet were genuine refugees? How many people arrived from South Africa? Does the Ayatollah give passports to Baha'is? Does Mr. Botha give passports to black dissidents? Does General Jaruzelski give passports to people who wish to escape the tyranny in Poland? Do any of the Eastern European countries dish out passports to dissidents so that they can freely leave the country?

Is it not quite incorrect for the Home Secretary to talk about rackets, abuse and evasion when people are escaping from that kind of tyranny? Is not the hysteria whipped up by the Government on completely bogus grounds against the 64 people (many of whom I venture to suggest will turn out to be genuine refugees) being used to justify totally incorrect legislation. to penalise the airlines and to stop them from bringing here people who are manifestly genuine? Finally, will the Minister give an assurance that the changes in the rules which he has threatened against UKIAS will not be implemented until this matter has been thoroughly discussed in both Houses of Parliament.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I must make it clear, to support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that our good reputation for political asylum in this country must not be spoilt. That is the reason we have had to bring in the measures, because it is solely what has been happening in the very recent past at an increasing rate that has caused an unprecedented situation that had not been foreseen. That is the reason that my right honourable friend has had to take the action that he has, and that accounts for the urgency of the legislation.

I am unable to give either the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, or the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, exactly the breakdown of the 600 that they requested, bat most of the inadequate documentation has come from missing passports, usually old ones that have been thrown away, in order to destroy evidence of the itinerary, which is important, and the identity. There have been a number of forged visas and also mutilated passports, again destroying evidence of itineraries.

Lord Mishcon

Before the noble Earl proceeds with this matter, I wonder whether he would forgive my intervention. This subject is so vital to the House. Can he be a little less vague? Roughly how many forged or fabricated documents were used by the 600 in December and January?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not want to mislead the House and therefore I cannot give a precise answer. All I can say to the noble Lord and to the House is that a great many were used.

With regard to the existing statutory provisions under the Immigration Act that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon read out, of course it is true to say that the flight back and detention are already covered, but we believe that it is necessary—as others in Western Europe and the Western hemisphere have thought—to give the carriers a further reminder of their responsibilities. The carriers are familiar with the requirements for passports, visas and other documents. We would expect them to be able to examine the papers and to identify forgeries without too much difficulty. The immigration service is always ready to advise them on what to look for. But no penalty would arise if the carrier showed that any forgery was not reasonably apparent. As the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, will be aware, this matter is dealt with in paragraph 19(2) of Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, if I heard him correctly, accused me of making further allegations against the 64 Tamils. I made no such accusation against the 64 Tamils. What I said was that we were considering their cases again to reach fresh individual decisions.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, by inference the Secretary of State has made unfounded allegations against them of coming here with a manifestly poor case, because he has agreed that anybody with a reasonable case or a prima facie case would be referred to the UKIAS refugee unit. Therefore his first intention of not referring them means that he did not think that they had a starting case.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I thought the noble Lord had accused me of saying something in the Statement, which I was repeating. The examples that my honourable friend Mr. Waddington gave—

Lord Avebury

Right honourable.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, he was honourable at the time he gave two examples—it was not on 1st August 1985, but I believe that I am right in saying it was on 1st August 1983—but these were not the only two examples, as I understand the situation. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wanted some examples at the time and he was given two. But he cannot say that those are not the only two that the Government must be tied to. Most of the 600 who have arrived over the past couple of months, of whom not all are Tamils, are still under review. I conclude at this stage by saying that this measure is not an hysterical answer. It is solely to protect our integrity and reputation for political asylum, which has been abused, that we have taken the steps we took today.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us will echo his last words and that the good, very high reputation of this country for accepting genuine political refugees will not be able to be sustained if a flood of illegal immigrants arrive who do not come within that category, but who simply want to enter this country for one reason or another?

Is my noble friend also aware of the fact that some of us perhaps have less sympathy than the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, with those who deliberately forged passports, documents or visas showing a premeditated intention to defraud our immigration arrangements? Is he aware that a genuine refugee does not do that and in the nature of things is someone who wishes to be an unlawful immigrant, and that he and his department have a great deal of support in keeping them out?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend, who, as is always the case, put his finger on the very salient point that our reputation is being threatened by people taking action to countervail the visa requirements that have been working very well up to recently. When a loophole such as this exploited it does considerable harm to this country.

Lord Chitnis

My Lords, rather than rushing through any changes in refugee procedure when the furore about a particular case is at its height, would it not be better if the dust were allowed to settle on this case and for there then to be calm and considered discussions with the agencies concerned with refugees, not only about fines and airlines but also about referrals to UKIAS? Were not such specialised agencies given an assurance that this was how the Government intended to proceed?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the situation is much wider than the particular case which the noble Lord raised. As I said in the Statement, the figure is 600 people in the past two months. That is a considerable increase on anything that we have had before and poses, as I have said, a major threat to this country's reputation for the very good work that has been done in the past.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the noble Earl perhaps answer the other questions that my noble friend put to him? How are genuine refugees supposed to get valid documents? For example, looking back into history and to the people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred, how would refugees from Germany before the war have obtained valid documents from Adolf Hitler?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think I should concentrate on the present. I am sure that the noble Lord would be the first to agree with me that the great majority of refugees would not be affected in any way by what my right honourable friend proposes. Until the recent increase in the number of applications made from abroad, most applications for asylum had been made in this country by people who were already here, and genuine refugees do not generally have to travel far in order to obtain immediate safety. Refuge can often be found in neighbouring countries.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, will my noble friend please appreciate the valuable job done by immigration officers in very difficult circumstances? They are Crown servants and have to operate the laws under the Act. The situation, as he said, has not just gone on in the last six months but for many years. People come over on cross-Channel ferries in the middle of the night and so on, and the immigration officers often have to operate in very difficult circumstances. They have charge of people's lives. They have people coming from other countries who consider this country to be a mixture of Eldorado and Utopia. The officers discharge their duty with impunity.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. We all sometimes tend to underestimate the good work that is done by civil servants in this country.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble Earl and the House accept from these Benches that we also feel for the difficult task that immigration officers, mostly with great courtesy, perform? However, before the debate on the Statement finishes, will he kindly deal with the point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter? It is this. Does he feel, as was mentioned before, that refugees from Iran and from many of the other troubled spots of the world at this moment can leave their shores without forged documents? Does he not know that to be a fact? Also, will he accept from me that I have personal reason for gratitude to the Secretary of State for the great consideration and mercy he has shown to many Iranians whose cases I have put to him and to whose pleas he has responded with the utmost generosity?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, where there is a genuine case I am sure that my right honourable friend will continue to carry out the good work on that front.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, on the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is my noble friend aware that many of us see all the difference in the world between a refugee who uses forged documents to escape from a country where he is being persecuted and one who tries to use forged documents to enter this country, which has done him no wrong and which indeed is trying to help him? We have much less sympathy with the latter.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there is a great difference between the genuine refugee or asylum seeker and somebody who wishes to seek a better life in the West.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister admitted in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that a person escaping from Iran must of necessity do so on forged documents and that while he is outside Iran he is unlikely to be given genuine documents by the agents of the Ayatollah in third countries. Therefore must he not ipso facto arrive here on forged documentation? In future the airlines will refuse to carry him, and many of the people of whom the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, speaks, who have in the past been admitted by the Home Secretary, will not even be able to get on the 'plane.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not think I made that admission. In any case, a person from Iran is not required to come here to seek asylum. That can be done in a neighbouring country.