HL Deb 02 July 1991 vol 530 cc914-24

4.5 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is making a similar Statement in another place. The Statement is as follows:

The number of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom has risen sharply from 5,000 a year in 1988 to more than 30,000 in 1990. From January to May this year 21,000 applications were received, a rate of nearly 1,000 a week. In the light of this increase the Government have been examining asylum arrangements, and I should like to inform the House of our initial decisions.

Britain has a long tradition of providing refuge for people who face imprisonment, torture or death because of their beliefs or ethnic origin. But for hundreds of millions of people who live in disordered countries or under totalitarian governments the answer to their problem does not and cannot lie in emigration to the West. Last year about 500,000 people applied for asylum in Europe. Numbers of this kind cannot be sustained year after year and go far beyond what was envisaged when the present international arrangements were established.

Fear of persecution is no longer the dominant element for many asylum seekers. In only a small minority of cases in the United Kingdom are the applicants shown to have a "well-founded fear of persecution" as required by the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees.

This convention is an instrument of last resort, designed to protect life and liberty from immediate threat. It does not confer an unfettered right to travel the world and settle in the country of one's choice. It does not oblige parties to facilitate, still less to encourage, the arrival of asylum applicants. We cannot allow immigration control to become optional. Nor must we let the institution of asylum be undermined by abuse.

Across the whole of Europe governments are having to review their procedures and provide additional resources to cope with the unprecedented weight of numbers. My right honourable friend is of course discussing the problem with our EC partners. In the United Kingdom we have decided to take the following action. First, we want to make it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom is not normally prepared to entertain claims from individuals who have failed to claim asylum in the first safe country which they reached. If individuals arrive here who could have safely claimed asylum elsewhere on their way to the United Kingdom they will be sent back to that country for the claim to be dealt with there. The only exception is where the applicant has such close links with the United Kingdom that his or her claim should be considered here. In particular, applicants who arrive from other European Community countries should claim asylum there. The Asylum Convention which we signed in Dublin last year deals with these matters. We shall strengthen procedures at sea ports and airports, particularly at Dover, to identify such applicants.

Secondly, the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987, through charges on airlines, discourages the acceptance of passengers who do not have valid travel documents. My right honourable friend and I recognise that many carriers have tried to comply with this, but in other cases carriers are simply not doing enough. My right honourable friend is therefore laying before another place today an order doubling from £1,000 to £2,000 the charge payable by the carrier for each passenger who fails to produce valid documentation. We shall increase our programme of training for the staff of airlines to implement this Act.

Thirdly, my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary are exploring, with the co-operation of host governments and airlines, other ways to improve document checks at certain overseas airports. We are willing to provide document specialists to advise carriers about the authenticity of travel documents, perhaps taking photocopies of travel documents for later verification. The police will continue to seek out corrupt agents who are operating in or through the United Kingdom. Some of these have already been prosecuted and convicted.

Fourthly, my right honourable friend and I are particularly concerned that asylum seekers can arrive here with no passport or other means of identification and have to be admitted while their claim is considered. Evidence is coming to light that some asylum seekers have made multiple applications for asylum and have claimed social security benefits in a number of different identities. This is not acceptable. We have recently required asylum seekers to provide photographs of themselves. My right honourable friend is considering the contribution which finger printing might make in such cases. My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Social Security and the Home Secretary are considering how the opportunities for such fraud can be reduced. They will consider whether any further powers are needed.

Fifthly, the present system for handling refugee applications is excessively cumbersome. The system is now completely overloaded. There are 50,000 undecided cases and the backlog is growing at over 3,000 cases a month. The average decision time is already over 16 months and is getting worse. On 26th April my right honourable friend announced proposals to speed up the whole process. Accelerating the process will bring early justice to the genuine applicant and bring about the speedier removal of many more bogus applicants. We are now recruiting up to 500 staff for the immigration department at Croydon so that the initial determination can be made more rapidly. At the earliest parliamentary opportunity we will introduce a Bill to allow a substantial acceleration and simplification of procedures. The present opportunities for delay through repeated representations and litigation will be substantially pruned away.

Some asylum seekers already have the right to appeal to the immigration appellate authorities before removal; some do not. The Bill will make it clear that all those who are turned down in the determination process will be able to appeal while they are in the United Kingdom. In addition, there will be new procedural rules which will impose time limits for the submission of material in support of claims. Decisions on cases will take into account such matters as the deliberate destruction of travel documents and entry by deception. We will also carefully examine the credibility and good faith of applicants who make claims for asylum after they have resided in this country for some time.

I will be recruiting extra adjudicators and other support staff to the appellate authorities to ensure that asylum appeals will be heard more quickly. In order to assist the process of improving and streamlining adjudications, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I also propose to change the publicly funded arrangements for advice and representation in asylum and immigration cases. At present, advice and assistance, but not representation, are available to those whose means qualify them under the legal aid green form scheme. We propose that in future advice and assistance, and where necessary representation before the immigration appellate authority, should instead be provided by the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. We believe that this will enable those who genuinely need it to be given such help more economically and effectively than under the green form scheme. When the necessary arrangements are completed, I will bring forward regulations to effect the change, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

In consequence, and as a result of the extra work which will flow from the changes that my right honourable friend and I have announced today, we intend to increase substantially the Home Office grant to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. I am grateful that UNHCR continues to contribute to the costs of the refugee unit of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service.

Our aim will be to decide all cases within a matter of months from start to finish. But in some cases it will be clear from the outset that the applicant has no claim to our protection. The Bill will provide for accelerated handling of clearly unfounded cases. An adjudicator will be able to dismiss an appeal without an oral hearing upon deciding that there is manifestly no substance to the claim. I believe that the rapid rejection of a large number of unfounded claims, and the early departure of those applicants from this country, will play a major part in deterring further abuse of the process and allow us to tackle the dramatic growth in the number of applications.

The Government recognise their obligations to refugees, but they also have an obligation to the British people to control immigration. Those obligations can pull in different directions. Our aim is to arrive at a balance between them which is in line with the realities of the modern world. I believe that the measures we have announced today represent such a balance.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will recognise that this is, on any view of the matter, a restrictive Statement. As he said in the last paragraph, the object of the exercise is to produce what he considers would provide a better balance than is the case in the present situation. I must confess that I am slightly mystified as to why the Statement is being made now. As I understand it, there has teen no consultation with any of the refugee authorities. None of them has been consulted as to whether this is the right time to make such changes. Moreover, the authorities have certainly not been consulted as to whether the proposed changes are the right ones.

The noble and learned Lord said in the Statement: I am of course discussing the problem with our EC partners. In the United Kingdom we have decided to take the following action". Have the proposals been discussed with our EC partners? Is this to be part of some co-ordinated policy within the European Community for dealing with the problem of asylum seekers and refugees? If it is not, I am bound to say that the implication of those words is that the matter is being discussed with the EC, "but we have decided to take the following action, without waiting for the reaction of our Community partners". If that is the situation, it seems to me a somewhat extraordinary way to approach the matter.

As to some of the more detailed provisions, I am bound to say, looking at the document and listening to the text of the Statement, that I have concerns. I believe that they are reasonable concerns. Perhaps 1 may express them to the House. The noble and learned Lord said that there is to be some increased initial screening. Of course, it is unacceptable that there should be multiple applications for asylum and that there should be multiple claims for, social security benefits in a number of different identities". That is absolutely true. However, nowhere is the mechanism for this initial screening spelt out. I should be most unhappy if it ended up by being the decision of an immigration officer at one of the ports or airports of entry.

The Statement refers to the contribution which finger printing may make. What is that contribution? I know not, except that it could apply once the individual is in the country. At that stage, I can see some grounds for suggesting that perhaps finger printing may be of some use. However, as part of an initial screening process, I am bound to say that I do not see how the mechanism could possibly work. If one moves further into the substance of the Statement, one sees that there is provision for reinforcement of the immigration department at Croydon with another 500 staff. That is most welcome. Moreover, the Government tell us that there is to be a Bill, to allow a substantial acceleration and simplification of procedures". When can we expect to see the Bill? Will it arrive before the Summer Recess? If there is such urgency that the Statement has been made at short notice after no consultation with any of the responsible organisations, are we to expect sight of the legislation this side of the Recess? I hope that we will.

The part of the legislation which causes me the greatest problems is that which deals with the abolition of legal aid in respect of advice in asylum and immigration cases. I am by no means convinced, as the Statement says, that the necessary representations before the immigration appellate authority should be provided solely by the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. However, perhaps the key to the issue appears in the next sentence: We believe that this will enable those who genuinely need it to be given such help more economically". If the object of the exercise is really an attempt by the Treasury to save money, I must tell the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that this part of what the Statement justly claims is our proud tradition, so far as concerns asylum seekers, will end up sullied.

Finally, as regards the details, we are told that the Bill —whenever it appears—will provide, for accelerated handling of clearly unfounded cases". We are then asked to consider the following proposal: An adjudicator will be able to dismiss an appeal without an oral hearing upon deciding that there is manifestly no substance to the claim". Surely, that cannot be right. In such situations, when one is dealing in some cases with the lives of individuals, I believe that it would be very wrong for an adjudicator to be able to dismiss an appeal without a proper hearing after having decided that there is, manifestly no substance to the claim". Under the terms of the Statement, we know not whether it will be possible to appeal against that decision. Indeed, there is a strange sentence in the Statement which states that while someone is in the country he will be entitled to appeal. I hope that the accelerated screening procedure will not mean that such people will be whipped out of the country so fast that there will be no proper opportunity for them to exercise a proper right of appeal.

As a country our openness towards genuine asylum seekers is something of which we should be proud. Successive governments have always claimed that they are proud of it. If it is part of our heritage, perhaps I may leave this thought with the House: the danger is that these measures might mean—I do not say that they will mean, because it is too early to say when we have not seen the fine print of the legislation—that genuine asylum seekers will not in future receive the fair treatment to which they are entitled and which they have received in the past. We on these Benches will therefore scrutinise the forthcoming Bill with extreme care.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I welcome the Statement made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I am sorry that it has to come on his birthday, upon which I congratulate him heartily. I wish that I could congratulate him on the Statement with the same heartiness. It appears that some of the wording of the analysis of the problem is taken straight from the tabloid press. That is unfortunate. We must be careful over the words we use when we deal with these serious matters. Anything that creates the impression in this country that refugees, or people seeking refugee status in this country, are rogues and vagabonds is to be deplored, because if we are not careful it will feed through later into race relations in this country.

We hear that only in a small minority of cases in the United Kingdom are the applicants shown to have a well-founded fear of persecution, as required under the terms of the 1951 United Nations convention. It is nevertheless true that between 1979 and 1989, 87 per cent. of applicants were allowed to stay in this country. It is agreed that 25 per cent. only of those were given refugee status and 62 per cent. extended leave to remain. I suppose the difference in view between ourselves and the Government is that they believe that many of those 62 per cent. were not proper people to stay and that they stayed only because the process was taking so long. We take the view that a large proportion of that group should be given the right to stay.

I agree with the statement that we must not allow the institution of asylum to be undermined by abuse. Any steps that can be taken genuinely to root out abuse and to ensure that such people do not undermine the position for genuine refugee seekers is to be applauded.

We have no quarrel with the suggestion that people who fail to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach should not be allowed to stay here. As the Statement rightly says, that is agreed under the asylum convention signed in Dublin last year. We have no complaints about that.

When it was going through this House the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 was opposed vigorously from these Benches, as it was from the Labour Benches, for reasons that I do not intend to rehearse again. I doubt whether the increase from £1,000 to £2,000 will make any difference. Once again I must say that the inability of people to produce valid documents is not necessarily an indication that there is anything wrong with those people. Genuine refugees find it difficult to obtain valid travel documents. Some people who travel on forged documents could well be genuine refugees.

The Statement says that the police will continue to seek out corrupt agents operating in or through the United Kingdom and that some have already been prosecuted and convicted. One would like to know how many cases there have been and how successful the police have been in this matter. We are told that evidence is coming to light of asylum seekers making multiple applications. That should be stopped but again people in such circumstances may easily be tempted to do that and yet still remain genuine asylum seekers.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, has already queried finger printing. If the whole population were to be finger printed, there might be some validity in the suggestion. If there is to be a great central computer in Brussels to exchange fingerprints throughout the whole of the Community, that would be one thing, but to pick out a group of people and subject them to finger printing on the assumption that they are somehow more likely to be social security fraudsters is divisive and discriminatory.

We unreservedly welcome the methods proposed to speed up the process of producing early justice. Provided that it is justice that we are talking about and not just saving money, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, that proposal has our full support. The recruiting of an extra 500 staff in Croydon should go some way towards helping.

The Bill will receive the most careful scrutiny when it comes to this place. I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to give us an indication of when we may expect it. I hope we shall not find ourselves suddenly putting a Bill through at the end of a long year, waiving all the normal procedures of the House. I hope that the Government will go through considerable consultation before they produce the Bill.

The fact that the noble and learned Lord is recruiting extra adjudicators and other support staff is also to be welcomed. The United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service will be glad of any assistance in improving its resources. I am pleased that the UNHCR is given a pat on the back. The noble Lords, Lord Ennals and Lord Clinton-Davis, and I, had an interesting discussion with Mrs. Ogata, the commissioner, this morning on the whole refugee problem. We were not at that stage aware that the Statement was to be made or we might have asked her opinion of some of its contents.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the dangers of the adjudicator being able to dismiss an appeal without an oral hearing. That is a peculiar proposal. But underlying everything is the need to know the criteria that such an adjudicator will operate. They need to be spelt out in considerable detail. Behind all this is the need for us never to send back to any country people whose lives are likely to be endangered or who face persecution. It is far better that some people—not vast numbers—should slip through the net than that anyone should be sent back to death, persecution and torture in their country of origin.

Once again I say that we must not allow the feeling to grow that refugees are in some way third or fourth class citizens from whom we have something to fear, because if we do that the whole of race relations in this country will be in jeopardy.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords for their remarks, especially in so far as they are supportive of the Statement. The purpose of the principal part of the Statement is to indicate what we are doing to bring speedier justice; that is to say, to determine the case of the genuine refugee and to distinguish that from those who are not entitled to refugee status here.

Perhaps I may deal with some of the points that have been raised. The Statement points out that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary regularly deals with these matters and is discussing them with our EC partners. Obviously asylum arrangements are necessarily part of the agenda in that discussion. However, immigration controls in the United Kingdom remain the responsibility of the Government. Of course the arrangements for determining whether someone is a refugee are very much matters for the Government. That is why the Statement is concerned with them.

The Statement is made now in order to give your Lordships, and also those who will hear it from my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place, the thinking of the Government so far on the matter. A good deal of detail is required, as the Statement indicates.

Questions have been raised about the purpose of photography and finger printing. The idea would be to provide identification in respect of those who as they come into the country have none. It is in order to deal with situations where documents that are presented may not he reliable. It would also obviously help to make it more difficult for people to make multiple applications. A number of other countries have already adopted such measures. I think it is right that your Lordships should know that we are considering to what extent they may be useful in the circumstances of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Tordoff, both asked in slightly different ways when the Bill would be introduced. I shall not elaborate on what was said. I had better stick to the phraseology of the Statement: At the earliest Parliamentary opportunity we will introduce a Bill". The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was kind enough to mention the part of the Statement that deals with green form legal aid. He read out part of a sentence dealing with it which stated: We believe that this will enable those who genuinely need it to be given such help more economically … than under the present system". However, I did not stop at "economically". I said: "more economically and effectively". In other words, I believe that money given to UKIAS in the circumstances will be a more effective method of helping the community which is affected by the legislation than money under the green form scheme. That is the belief on which the proposal is founded.

Both noble Lords spoke of the suggestion in the paper of a procedure under which an adjudicator would be able to dismiss an appeal without an oral hearing. The criterion is provided in the Statement: upon deciding that there is manifestly no substance to the claim That is quite a high standard and one with which the courts are perfectly familiar. The system of dismissing claims when they are manifestly without substance is a reasonable one and in the interests of the proper and efficient administration of justice. One does not want the system to be clogged with cases awaiting determination if they manifestly have no substance. That is an important step in getting to the heart of claims that have substance so that they may be properly adjudicated. People should not have to wait an unnecessarily long time because the system is clogged with unnecessary cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, summarised well the purpose of the latter part of the Statement when he said that if it was directed to early justice he supported the proposal. It is manifestly directed to early justice and I believe that it carries that aim out well and in the right direction.

4.34 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I congratulate my noble and learned friend. It seems that Her Majesty's Government have thought ahead. It is worth remembering that the world at the moment is a particularly nasty place. The Serbs are cutting the throats of the Croats, the Armenians are having their throats cut by the Azerbaijanis, the Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab are doing the same. The world, to mix metaphors, is wall to wall with people being persecuted by others.

I know that this may sound illiberal, but we must not allow the country to become the sole repository of political and persecuted refugees. Perhaps we may remember that if we had been slightly less liberal in the 19th century we would not have given refuge either to Marx or to Lenin. We could have sent them back to the tender mercies of the Romanov or Hohenzollern police force. That may not have been a bad thing. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, finds that nearly as amusing as I do.

We must think about the problem; it is a complicated situation. My noble and learned friend and the Government have put prior thought into the suggestions and that must be good.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend did not intend asking a question. I am extremely grateful to him for what he said about the Government's purpose in seeking to secure speedy justice. That is the purpose of this—to distinguish between the genuine refugees who are entitled to be here and those who may apply without having a proper basis for doing so.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I am the rapporteur of a Council of Europe committee concerned with the arrival of refugees at airports. I confirm that the problem is common throughout Europe. It is a great problem and I should have thought that the greatest need was for co-ordination of policies among the countries of Europe before 1992 when the internal frontiers will cease to exist.

One of the points in the Statement which I believe is a step in the right direction is sending documentary experts to the airports of departure of refugees. I confirm that the rackets are universal. All over the world people have seized on the opportunity and charge large amounts of money to instruct refugees and to forge passports and other documents. The experts are organised into committees. I ask the noble and learned Lord whether the practice of sending documentary experts abroad could be extended. It would surely be much cheaper and quicker to have more people in our consulates and embassies abroad who are expert in these matters than have the laborious business of collecting information after people arrive here. It is not only laborious; it is difficult and sometimes impossible. In this way, at least the Government would have definite knowledge on which to base the first check on whether people are genuine asylum seekers.

The need is known in the areas affected, particularly in places such as Liberia, Somalia and other areas where certain people are genuine refugees. They could be identified on the spot. I should be grateful if the noble and learned Lord could give his views.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about the extent of the problem. He is quite right that these matters require to be discussed and should be the subject of international consideration. As I said in the Statement, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is engaged in discussions. The steps we take on control within our own country are primarily a matter for us and that is what we seek to deal with in the Statement.

In trying to identify situations abroad, there is scope for developing the policy, which is one of the aims we have in mind to try to help airlines in particular to identify those passengers who may have difficulty or may cause difficulty. The Statement points out the desirability of increasing our programme for training the staff of airlines to implement the Act and for considering what other help can be given. That is important.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, as an officer of the British Refugee Council, perhaps I may first ask for an assurance that there will be full consultation with the refugee council as well as with the UNHCR and other bodies which are intimately concerned.

Secondly, I sympathise with the Government's wish to draw a distinction between economic migrants and genuine refugees. I ask the noble and learned Lord whether he can give an assurance that those who are genuinely fleeing from oppression will have the opportunity of stating their case, even though they may be a minority of those seeking to come to this country.

Finally, is it not clear that genuine refugees fleeing from oppression or fear of oppression are unlikely to have adequate documents with them to present to the carriers? Is that not one of the weaknesses of the present legislation?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, if we can take the last point first, it is true that a genuine refugee may well have difficulty with travel documents. It is not at all clear that that would necessarily be the case, but it would be rather unlikely that a genuine refugee with no travel documents would come from one international airport to, say, London Heathrow. If somebody has embarked at an important international airport abroad and then travels to Heathrow, that is a rather unlikely scenario for a genuine refugee without documents. If he was without documents at the beginning, particularly in a country where persecution is to be feared, it is unlikely that he or she would present himself or herself at the international airport in that country. Of course the system would require us to take account of the possibility to which the noble Lord has referred.

So far as consultation is concerned, the Government are in regular contact with organisations that are active in the asylum and immigration field. Their views will certainly be taken into account as we develop the proposals outlined in the Statement. The Statement, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, recognised, is one of principle and the detail has still to be filled in. We shall certainly take account of continuing consultations with the relevant organisations.

As to the third point which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, the object of this exercise is indeed to have a proper procedure for ascertaining whether people who present themselves as refugees are genuine and to try to decide that in a fair way but sufficiently speedily so as to enable the decision, once taken, to be made effective. One of the difficulties of the present system is that people present themselves as refugees and even if it is later decided that they are not refugees they are still enabled to remain because the procedures have taken so long that it would not really be feasible to give effect to the decision. This is a very important, indeed a major, issue and the latter part of the Statement is primarily directed to that.