§ 3.8 p.m.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Asylum Bill be now read a second time.
The main aim of the Bill is to allow the processing of applications for asylum in the United Kingdom to be accelerated and to be made more effective. The Government are committed to fulfilling their obligations to genuine refugees but we cannot allow the misuse of asylum procedures to circumvent the normal immigration controls. An important objective of the changes which we are making is to discourage non-genuine applicants from trying their luck.
It is important that we should be clear as to the scale of the problem which we are addressing. The numbers of applications in this country have increased more than tenfold in just three years. The total rose from about 4,000 principal applicants in 1989 to nearly 45,000 in 1991. But we in the United Kingdom are certainly not alone in this. The total of people who applied for asylum in Western Europe last year was well over half a million.
When a person claims asylum he is asking in fact to be considered outside the usual immigration categories on the basis that, if he were required to leave, that would breach the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. The convention forbids the return of a refugee to a country in which he would have a "well-founded fear of persecution" for reasons of race, religion or political opinion. The United Kingdom adheres to that convention and we intend to carry out our obligations under it.
So before anyone who asks for asylum can be sent away it is necessary to decide whether our obligations under the convention are met. It is right to point out 458 that there is a lot of loose talking—and sometimes, I think, loose thinking—on this subject. The words "asylum seeker" and "refugee" are not synonymous. We cannot assume that everyone who asks for asylum qualifies for refugee status.
In introducing this Bill in another place on 13th November last year my right honourable friend the Home Secretary referred to the views of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He quoted M. Michel Moussalli, who is the commissioner's Director of International Protection, when he wrote in the Refugees magazine last May. I think that his words bear repeating. He said:The majority of people coming as asylum seekers into Europe are not refugees but economic migrants".He then added that they,clog up the asylum procedures which cannot function normally any longer. This, in turn, proves to be an attraction to many destitute persons abroad, who feel that, if they apply for refugee status in a Western country, they will be taken care of by the social welfare system of that country for a year or two, or even longer, while their claims are being examined".So said the Director of International Protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Those words encapsulate many of the difficulties which we, and, I believe, other countries, face at present. Asylum seeking often raises complex issues of human rights: we all know that and recognise it. But whatever else is involved, asylum seeking does have immigration implications. It involves people crossing frontiers; it involves people intending to stay for indefinite periods; it involves ensuring that the immigration systems are able to cope with them. It is wholly unrealistic to exempt from normal controls anyone who simply declares himself to be a refugee. Otherwise, by the nature of things, anyone who wants to be exempted from the normal controls will declare himself to be a refugee.
Our aim is to create a system which can promptly identify genuine refugees who need our protection. It must be a system which will give them the recognition which they deserve while weeding out the non-genuine applicant. It must ensure that our procedures give to the non-genuine applicant no opportunity whatever to prolong his stay in this country by default.
The Asylum Bill cannot do that on its own. It is part of a wider series of measures which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor announced here in Parliament on 2nd July. I would like to bring your Lordships up to date on some of these measures.
It was announced that the staff who determine asylum claims were to be increased fivefold during this financial year, from about 100 to 550; 380 are now in post and we are on course to reach the target by early summer. Two hundred and seventy extra immigration officers are being recruited; 150 extra detention places are being created with more to follow; extra appeals adjudicators are being recruited; and additional hearing rooms will be obtained. In all, we shall be spending nearly £50 million in the coming year in processing asylum claims. These extra resources will help us quickly to identify the genuine refugee and to deal more effectively with those whose claims are not genuine.
459 We face a special problem with multiple applications. From 1st November we have introduced an acknowledgment form which is designed to be difficult to forge. People do forge forms in order to get social security benefit in more than one name. Some apply with six different names; one made 34 applications. One asylum applicant even applied for social security benefit under 50 different names.
It is quite clear that that kind of matter has to be addressed. Since 1st November, before being issued with an acknowledgment form, all applicants who are unable to produce a passport are invited to attend a short interview for identification purposes. The Department of Social Security will accept for benefit only those new applicants who have obtained this standard form. But of a total of 2,350 applicants who are already in this country and who were invited to attend interviews in November and December only 471 turned up. That is about 20 per cent. of the total. It is too early to reach definite conclusions but it is very difficult to resist the interpretation that a proportion of those who did not respond were not genuine applicants and that they knew that their claim would not stand up to scrutiny.
It may also be significant that in December—the first month after the new procedures were introduced—new applications for asylum fell from about 3,800 to 2,200. This is a drop of over 40 per cent. in comparison with November and it is by far the lowest monthly total in 1991. Again, one cannot reach firm conclusions on one month's figures. But it may well be that some potential applicants who know that they have no real claim are realising that the law is beginning to bite and they are becoming more hesitant about trying to circumvent it. None of these measures affects the genuine applicant, nor are they intended to. But it looks as if they are making some impression on the non-genuine applicant.
I should like to say something about the Government's proposal, which was announced in the July statement but which is not part of this Bill, to withdraw green form legal aid in immigration and asylum cases and to increase the resources of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service in order to allow it to take on the necessary work. This proposal reflected the Government's desire to simplify a system which in fact provides two alternative sources of publicly-funded advice in the immigration field. We thought that there was a strong case for concentrating responsibility for publicly-funded advice and assistance in the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service, and we still continue to find that argument persuasive. But there are immediate practical difficulties with the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service which have been well publicised. Its governing committees are no longer supervising the service in the manner which should be expected of an organisation which is in receipt of government grants.
In view of that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, with the London representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has decided to transfer the refugee unit to a new body which will be responsible for representing appellants in front of the new asylum appeal system. The 460 remainder of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service has been given three months in which to introduce reforms or to face the withdrawal of the remainder of its grant and the transfer of its functions to another body.
It is clear that it will be impossible in the immediate future to contemplate the sort of further expansion both of the refugee unit and of the general side of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service which would be necessary to implement the Government's original proposal to transfer advice from the green form scheme to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. I therefore would like to make it quite clear today that we do not intend to proceed with the proposal to transfer advice from the green form scheme to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. Green form legal aid will, therefore, continue to be available in immigration and asylum cases.
I should now like to refer to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 defines a claim for asylum in terms of a potential breach of the United Kingdom's obligations under the 1951 Refugees Convention. Subsection (2) ensures that the Immigration Rules, which prescribe procedures in more detail, will always be consistent with the 1951 convention.
Clause 2 provides for the fingerprinting of all asylum applicants. As I have said, there is a problem with the deliberate disposal of documents and the construction of false identities by applicants. More than half of those who apply for asylum on arrival in this country have disposed of their travel documents and other forms of identification before they arrive here. Many have actually destroyed them on the aeroplanes.
It is becoming an increasing fact of life that applicants for asylum who are already in this country present themselves without any documents and they freely admit that they have passed them on to others once they have entered illegally.
Other countries have the same experience. A number of them —including France, the Netherlands and Switzerland—already take fingerprints from all asylum applicants and they make systematic comparisons. After introducing these systems they have found that between 5 per cent. and 20 per cent. of their applications are multiple; so it is necessary to address the problem. We think that we are facing a similar problem to that which those other countries face. We are convinced that there is now a clear practical need for fingerprinting powers in this country.
There is no question, as some have suggested, of our seeking to "criminalise" asylum seekers. The system will be operated by the immigration department entirely separately from police records. If people are genuinely in fear of persecution or death if they are returned to their country, a requirement for a fingerprint would seem a modest request —and a thankful contrast—in order to ensure their proper entry here.
Clause 3 contains provisions to modify the duties on local authorities under homelessness legislation in relation to asylum seekers. Those measures will be fairer to people on the local authority waiting list 461 while continuing to provide protection for asylum seekers who are in genuine need. It makes no sense for someone whose right to remain in the country permanently is still under question to be able to secure permanent accommodation. We therefore propose two extra tests for asylum seekers who are waiting for their asylum application to be decided. They are: do they have reasonable accommodation at the moment, even if it is only temporary, and is there any other accommodation to which they could reasonably go?
The Bill provides that if they meet those tests the local authority has to provide only temporary accommodation which is suitable for their needs until the asylum application is decided. An asylum seeker who is subsequently recognised as a refugee or who is granted exceptional leave to remain will have full rights under the homelessness legislation.
Clause 4 provides for the curtailment of any existing leave to be in this country in another capacity when an asylum application is refused. That is primarily directed at those who have entered as visitors and who then later apply for asylum. If a person is refused asylum I suggest that it is illogical to go back to treating him or her as a tourist. The Bill will allow simultaneous decisions to refuse asylum, to curtail leave and to deport. All those issues can then be addressed in a single appeal.
Clause 5 and Schedule 2 set out new avenues of appeal for all asylum seekers before they are removed, regardless of their immigration status. Appeals will be heard by nominated independent immigration appeals adjudicators. Under the revised draft procedural rules, which my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor published for consultation during the Report stage of the Bill in another place, the timetable for applications for leave to appeal has been amended as a result of representations which have been received. In most cases an application must be made within 10 working days after the applicant has received notice of the decision against which he wishes to appeal. The exception is when the applicant has been refused leave to enter at a port and the refusal notice is served on him personally. In those cases the time limit is two days. That is in order to ensure that there is no unreasonable delay in resolving what are clearly unfounded applications from recent arrivals who may be detained at ports.
The challenge in devising a new asylum appeals system is to balance the need for fair and reasonable procedures against the potential for abuse. Protracted procedures inevitably work to the benefit of the non-genuine applicant. It is essential to try to avoid opportunities for artificial delays.
The Bill requires applicants to obtain leave from a special adjudicator before they can proceed to an oral hearing of their case. The intention is to ensure that applicants whose claims are quite obviously unfounded and who are just trying to "work the system" cannot unnecessarily delay their cases and so clog up the system. If there is no fast and final way to dispose of the non-genuine applicant, there will be a great temptation for people to make fraudulent asylum 462 claims simply in order to prolong their stay in this country and thereby to lessen their chances of removal.
Anxiety was expressed in another place about the operation of the leave procedure. The Government undertook to introduce an amendment in your Lordships' House to clarify the criteria which would be applied. We are reflecting further on how best to ensure an effective filtering mechanism for cases which are clearly unfounded. We shall introduce amendments to set out our plans in more detail at a later stage.
Clause 6 provides an avenue of appeal on points of law to the Court of Appeal. This is a new protection which did not previously exist. It is only likely to be necessary in a minority of cases, but it will provide an appropriate means of resolving those cases in which a real legal point is in dispute.
Clause 7 puts on a statutory basis the existing administrative arrangements for requiring visas of passengers who are ostensibly planning to change planes at a United Kingdom airport without passing through immigration control.
As I have tried to point out, those are the main provisions of the Bill. Together with the new procedural rules they will form the basis of a new determination system. With that system, and the additional staff we are now recruiting, we shall be able to resolve most cases in three months. This will be in marked contrast to the present position where many of them remain outstanding for several years. Therefore, that must be an improvement. The changes will be to the benefit of the genuine applicant and to the disadvantage of the non-genuine.
The asylum rules include, at paragraph 6, a list of criteria which may cast doubt on an applicant's credibility. If an applicant is found not to be credible his application is, of course, likely to be refused. We have always made clear—and in revising the draft rules we have sought to make it even clearer—that the criteria which are listed will not automatically lead to a refusal. In some cases, there will be valid reasons why a genuine refugee has, for example, failed to tell the whole truth on his initial interview. But it is right that we should spell out our expectation that applicants will not set out to deceive us and that they will co-operate fully in the determination process. I suggest that that is only reasonable.
The asylum rules also make clear that an applicant will be refused when he could have sought protection in a safe third country in which he was residing before he came here. The aim is quickly to weed out cases where there is no question of the United Kingdom's obligations being involved. That is fully in line with accepted international practice.
The aim of all these changes is to restore a proper balance to the asylum system. The Government are committed to fulfilling their obligations to genuine refugees. I can only repeat again, for the avoidance of any conceivable doubt, that we have no intention of ever sending refugees back to countries in which they would have a well-founded fear of persecution. That is not just a grudging implementation of the letter of the 1951 convention—it is a fact. We accept that there will 463 be genuine humanitarian cases outside the strict criteria of the convention. The option of exceptional leave to remain will continue to be available in those cases. The change will be that in future it will be used for positive reasons and not just because an overloaded system, which has been dogged by procedural complexity, has been unable to produce any practicable alternative.
We must recognise that there is a clear danger that public sympathy for refugees will be lost if our asylum procedures are seen as a back door to illegal immigration. It is vital that we should retain sympathy for refugees in a time of disturbing evidence of xenophobic and racist feeling elsewhere in Europe.
We need to have a system which is straightforward, fast and fair; one which can command the confidence of all those wh006F are engaged in it and of the wider public beyond. With the strains of rising numbers it has been all too easy for non-refugees to misuse, and to abuse, our procedures. That, in turn, has encouraged even more non-genuine applicants to try their luck. We have tried to break out of that cycle of deterioration with the additional resources which we have committed to the problem and with the procedural changes which have already been introduced. I hope that the Bill will help us to continue the improvement still further. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Earl Ferrers.)
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for presenting his case on the Second Reading of the Bill. He did so with his usual charm and panache. He comes to the House this afternoon, as he does so often, as the voice of misunderstood rationality—the motives of the Government being misinterpreted and misunderstood by all those people who, if they had only listened to the arguments, would surely have agreed with what the noble Earl said. I have only one thing to say to him on that point. It is astonishing that none of the immigrant and asylum organisations seems to agree with the noble Earl and they have all looked at the issue in great detail.
Noble Lords will, I know, be conscious of the fact that the Labour Party opposed the Second Reading of the Bill in another place. The Government subsequently agreed to change certain aspects of the Bill in the draft immigration rules. Those amendments are welcome but it is our belief that they do not go far enough. The Bill, through a reliance on, however one looks at the matter, arbitrary criteria which asylum seekers must satisfy and what in our view is the inadequacy of the appeals system, could still result in refugees with well founded fears of persecution being denied asylum in breach of our obligations under the UN convention of 1951 and the 1967 protocol. While it is not our intention today to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, the Government should nevertheless be fully aware of our profound disquiet with respect to the consequences which it could have for asylum seekers fleeing to the United Kingdom.
464 That concern is shared by a wide range of groups whose opposition to different parts of the Bill must be well known to the Government by now.
The rationale behind the Asylum Bill is apparently to improve the processes of' dealing with applications for asylum. We would certainly support any measures on their merits to enhance the efficiency of this system and to prevent bogus applications being made. Unfortunately, the Bill as drafted—this despite certain amendments that have already been made—will undermine the existing rights of genuine asylum seekers. Let us be clear about that, because in many cases this could effectively impose a death sentence on the refugees who have to be deported. I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the House will find that an extremely worrying prospect. The fact is that the Bill will make it more difficult for a genuine asylum seeker to establish his claim. As for unaccompanied children who arrive in this country, their plight seems to go completely unrecognised. It is our intention therefore to examine the Bill's main provisions in detail and to seek its amendment at subsequent stages.
One of the Government's most controversial proposals is—or rather was—to remove the asylum seeker's right to green form legal aid and to allocate to the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service sole responsibility for providing applicants with legal advice. This would have removed the asylum seeker's right to choose the type of legal assistance he wanted, a development which the Commission for Racial Equality has warned would breach Section 20 of the Race Relations Act 1976.
It is perhaps worth reminding the House of what the Home Secretary actually said in relation to this matter. I quote from his Statement of 2nd July 1991: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 immigrant appellate authority, should instead be provided by the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service".—[Official Report, Commons, 2/7/91; col. 166–167.]That was a firm statement on 2nd July, with the smack of firm government from the Home Secretary. That was a proposal, not a suggestion for consultation. Unfortunately, the one body that he had not consulted was the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. Now we are told this afternoon that that proposal is to be shelved and that the refugee unit is to be removed from the advisory service. Something is to be done with it, but we know not quite what. It is then to be given some functions, but we know not quite what. It is then to replace, as I understand it, the green form legal aid system. As an example of consistency and forethought, it puts the Home Secretary in the same category as the noble Duke of York—
§ Lord Richard
The noble Duke of York, my Lords. When they were in, they were in, and when they were out, they were out, except that it was up and down in that case and it is in and out in this one.
In effect the Government have been proposing to give the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory 465 Service a monopoly. If the noble Earl is now proposing that there should be some body responsible to the Home Office—in effect financed by the Home Office—which will take over all representation for immigrants and asylum seekers, I do not think that that will inspire great confidence in that body's independence among the asylum seekers themselves, particularly since many of them will have fled countries in which supposedly independent bodies and institutions have frequently played a collaborative role in government repression.
What are the Government's alternatives? One thing they could do is to leave matters are they are. The other thing they could do is to pursue the idea of creating a new body which will have a monopoly. For myself, a fairer result would be to leave matters as they are. That retains choice, which is surely fundamental to the system, or should be anyway.
One provision that has met with criticism and continues to do so is the requirement in Clause 2 to fingerprint all applicants. That in a sense criminalises those seeking asylum. It puts refugees on the same footing as those facing criminal charges. Indeed, I think I am right—the noble Earl will no doubt tell me when he comes to reply whether I am wrong—that it would mean that the only two categories of people in our country who were obliged to submit to fingerprinting are criminals and asylum seekers. There is also considerable anxiety about the standards governing the use of such information. The Government must ensure that the information which results from the taking of fingerprints is not passed on to the regime from which the asylum seeker has fled. The dangers of that are fairly obvious.
Clause 3 removes the duty from local authorities to provide permanent accommodation for asylum seekers. It deprives them of key rights under the homelessness legislation. The Government have decided that an asylum seeker will only be considered homeless and therefore eligible only for temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation if there is no other accommodation, regardless of how temporary it is, available to him. This provision seems to be unfair, unnecessary and probably more expensive. It has been represented to me, for example, that it could force Church groups and voluntary agencies to stop opening their doors to refugees because of the fear that by doing so they could reduce an asylum seeker's entitlement to local authority assistance. In essence, as Shelter has pointed out, Clause 3 could result in the loss of valuable voluntary emergency accommodation facilities and could lead to increased street homelessness among asylum seekers.
These developments would in our view be unacceptable. Asylum seekers who have obtained admission to the United Kingdom should be treated in exactly the same way as any other resident. Local authorities should treat every housing application according to need and not according to the category of the person whose application they are considering. The Commission for Racial Equality has described the clause as "racially discriminatory" and, 466in direct conflict with all existing statutory guidance on the Homelessness and Race Relations legislation".Indeed to implement Clause 3, the Government will have to denounce key parts of two international conventions; namely, Article 19(4) (c) of the Social Charter of the Council of Europe and the International Labour Organisation's Convention No. 97.
I turn now to Clause 4 of the Bill. By this clause the Government seek to curb without appeal any,existing leave to be in this country in another capacity when an asylum application is refused".The curtailment of leave to stay will almost certainly inhibit people from applying for asylum out of fear that they will lose both their existing rights of limited stay under the Immigration Act and be deported in the event of the appeal failing. The clause will put an intolerable strain on those wishing to apply for asylum who are currently resident in the United Kingdom. I shall give your Lordships just one example: students who because of changes in their home country now find themselves as asylum seekers in this country but who, if they apply for asylum and are turned down, may well find their original leave to enter called into question and indeed revoked. I do not think that that would be a fair result.
Clause 5 and Schedule 2 introduce the appeals system which the Government claim will give "new appeal rights" to asylum seekers. However, the value of those new rights to the asylum seeker is highly questionable because, as one Minister recently said in another context, "The devil is in the details". I fear that we shall have to look at some of those details in due course.
The Government propose that appeals should initially be dealt with by independent immigration appeals adjudicators. Those officials are expected to consider each case in private, without recourse to an oral hearing. They must grant the asylum seeker leave to appeal if there is to be a full oral hearing of the case. If they decide against the asylum seeker, they will do so without his having had any opportunity of putting his case. I suggest that that on the face of it is an astonishing proposition.
In fact the asylum seeker whose application has been initially rejected by the Home Office does not actually have the right to appeal as such: he has the right to go to an adjudicator in order to seek leave to appeal which the adjudicator can refuse. That is bound seriously to undermine the position of asylum seekers who currently have a real right to appeal.
The anxieties expressed by different organisations have been encapsulated in a paper provided by the Law Society. Perhaps I may read to your Lordships just two sentences from it. I shall do so because it seems to me to sum up the problem. It says:The requirement to seek leave to appeal, the lack of oral hearings for those appeals, the speed of the procedures and the difficulties of access to advice and assistance will create barriers to justice for asylum seekers".I think that those words are both wise and right.
Within the framework of the draft rules of the Lord Chancellor, appeals were originally required to be made within two days of the applicant receiving notice that his application had been turned down. After strong protests from various organisations and legal 467 bodies, the Home Secretary announced on Third Reading in another place that that time would be extended to 10 days. So far, so good.
However, I am bound to say that 10 days, in all conscience, seems to me to be short enough. But the 48-hour time limit is to remain for all those cases in which application for asylum is made on arrival at a UK port of entry and notice of refusal is served personally by the Home Office.
That mainly affects those detained, who will inevitably experience great difficulty in obtaining access to an adviser or a lawyer. Consequently, the rights of those detained could go by default. If leave to appeal is not sought because of a lack of advice or through inadequate preparation of the application, the asylum seeker will face immediate removal. Do the Government really not recognise the fact that those who are detained are bound to experience considerable difficulty in preparing their applications in two days? I suggest that that is a point upon which they should be prepared to extend the time limit.
Moreover, when discussing the powers of the adjudicator—which is crucial to the whole edifice which the Government are erecting—and how the adjudicator will approach his task when dealing with such applications for leave to appeal, the Minister in another place, Mr. Peter Lloyd, said:I advise the House that the phrase 'arguable claim"'—which was in the original definition of the adjudicator's powers—has come out of the rules so that it can be included in the primary legislation in a different form … We shall seek to make it clear that, if the adjudicator believed every word of the case put to him by the appellant, he would have to acknowledge that that would be a claim that was at least arguable under the United Nations convention. The adjudicator makes his decision, not on the credibility of the applicant, but on the claim the applicant has made to him. The adjudicator will say to himself, 'Although I may not believe that this looks true and the Home Office is right to disbelieve it, if it looks true, that claim would be arguable under the United Nations convention, so I must have a full oral hearing".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/92; col. 234.]During his opening remarks this afternoon the Minister reiterated that a proposal would be put forward during the passage of the Bill to deal with that point. But if that is how the Government approach the adjudicator's task, I merely ask him: why not have the oral hearing in any event? The threshold envisaged by the Government seems to me to be so low in the instance referred to by Mr. Peter Lloyd that the number of cases which would be weeded out as manifestly unarguable would be so small that it is hardly worth while introducing a system which is perceived as being arbitrary, unfair and discriminatory.
In general, those rules ignore the trauma, disorientation and genuine human distress experienced by asylum seekers, many of whom have had to flee from repression. Reflecting that, the rules of the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees state:Untrue statements by themselves are not reason for refusal of refugee status and it is the examiner's responsibility to evaluate such statements in the light of all the circumstances of the case".468 Discriminating against asylum seekers for possessing false documents or because they have destroyed their travel papers seems, too, to contravene Article 31 of the United Nations charter, which says:Contracting States shall not impose penalties on account of their illegal entry or presence on refugees".It is ridiculous to suggest that asylum seekers, prior to fleeing, will be able to apply for travel documentation to the very government who are threatening their life or violating their human rights. Indeed, making such an application could in itself place them in danger. Further, British posts abroad are not authorised to issue visas for the purpose of asylum seeking. Consequently, significant numbers of asylum seekers will continue to arrive in this country without proper documentation. They should not be penalised for having successfully fled.
The rules also establish that if refugees apply for asylum in the United Kingdom, their asylum claim will not be looked into if they have come here via a third country. They can then be removed if the Home Secretary is satisfied that that country is "safe". But many asylum seekers have to flee via a third country. Therefore, the decision on whether that country is safe gives rise to fundamental problems, certainly problems of definition. In that context what is a safe country? The fact that a country has signed the convention does not necessarily make it so. I believe that the House will require clarification on that point. The obligation should not simply be passed on to other countries which may not have signed the convention or to others which may have signed the document but only pay lip-service to its obligations.
There is a further point on the draft rules that I should like to mention. They initially stated that actions on the part of anyone acting on behalf of the asylum seeker, even without that person's knowledge or express approval, could be used in determining the case for asylum. That has now been amended to limit the actions to those undertaken by an agent appointed by the applicant. However, there is still the danger that an asylum application could be endangered by actions taken without the consent or knowledge of the asylum seeker. The Bar Council has stigmatised that as "unheard of and unfair". It has emphasised the fact that such actions should be taken only on the instruction of the person applying for asylum.
I shall now say a brief word about Clause 7. As the noble Lord, Lord King, is in his place I have no doubt that he will refer to it this afternoon. It requires visas for passengers in transit from countries which the Government will have power to designate. It seems to me to be a somewhat unnecessary restriction. Which countries, I ask. What circumstances do the Government have in mind? Moreover, it underlines the potential liability of carriers to cover circumstances which could be totally beyond their control. In fairness to the carriers, the Government cannot continue to use them as the first line of immigration control. They are not trained to it, and it is not their proper function.
I hope that the Government will take note of the anxieties which I am sure they will hear expressed on 469 all sides of the House and respond positively to the amendments which will be tabled. As it stands, the Bill is arbitrary, unjust and unfair.
I have been sent a letter from the assistant to the General Superior of the Xaverian Brothers Generalate who expresses what I feel about the Bill in language that is perhaps better than mine. After saying that he has had considerable experience of visiting countries in the third world and of dealing with applicants in this country from third world countries, he states:I am concerned about the effect that the Asylum Bill would have on new arrivals seeking political asylum in this country. My experience is that they arrive here, often by chance rather than choice, and often the victims of mistreatment or even torture. Very often they do not speak much English and will have little or no knowledge of our procedures or legal system. Because of their experiences they may well be frightened of any officials and so not give a very clear or coherent account of what has happened to them. Anxiety not to get their family or friends or helpers into trouble may add to the confusion and vagueness of their stories. Inevitably, too, many of them will be without any documentation or have inadequate or false documentation.I believe that any legislation must provide asylum seekers with the time and assistance to establish their cases. In this connection the 'fast-track' procedure seems calculated to make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to do so".
He concludes:I do not question the right of the government to control its own borders and those who seek to enter the country. However, we have entered into solemn obligations to provide asylum for those in real danger of persecution for their political or religious beliefs and activities. The proposals of the Asylum Bill to which I have referred do seem to me to be in danger of effectively excluding many genuine asylum seekers. I am also unhappy at the tendency to presume that the majority of asylum seekers are, in fact, 'economic' migrants who should be sent back to their country of origin forthwith. Each case should be decided on its merits and there should he enough time and legal aid to establish the merits of each case. And the presumption, it seems to me, should be that asylum seekers are genuine unless there is clear evidence to the contrary rather than to assume that they are sham unless they can prove immediately that they would be in real danger if sent back home".That sums up my position on the Bill today.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I find it difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Richard, without repeating a great deal of what he said. I shall try to avoid that and so abbreviate what I was going to say. Some of your Lordships engaged recently in a debate organised by the BBC on whether your Lordships' House was an anachronism. Had the topic been whether there was need for a revising Chamber, it would only have been necessary to point to this Bill.
There have been few Bills in my experience about which so many different organisations, above all those concerned with refugees, have agreed and felt such acute anxiety as to the consequences which the measure, if passed as it stands, will bring with it. Although it was improved in certain respects in another place, there is a substantial amount of work to be done by your Lordships, and a heavy responsibility hangs on this House to put the Bill into a shape which is in any way acceptable.
Anyone who believes in the idea of progress should 470 compare the debate on the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, which took place in 1858, with this Bill to see how far backwards we have gone. The Conspiracy to Murder Bill was an attempt by Lord Palmerston to introduce a measure of control over refugees following the Orsini conspiracy to blow up Napoleon III with bombs made in Birmingham—they had that marked upon them—which involved conspirators who had lived mainly in this country and which killed in Paris eight innocent people and wounded 150 others, but not Napoleon III.
Lord Palmerston's measure was a modest attempt to appease the natural anger of the French at that outrage. It was seen by the public and by Parliament to be, as it was, a measure to control refugees. It is a reminder that from 1823 until the end of the century —in fact right through the 19th century—this country never expelled one refugee and never prohibited one refugee from entering the country. That was a matter of national pride. The Conservative Peer, Lord Malmesbury, said:I can well conceive the pleasure and happiness of the refugee, hunted from his native land, on approaching the shores of England … and the pleasure and happiness every Englishman feels in knowing that this country affords the refugee a home and safety".The defeat of that modest measure led to the fall of Lord Palmerston's government. That attitude was different from the attitude expressed by the Home Secretary when he introduced the Bill on Second Reading in another place. I am glad that the Minister has introduced it here in rather less provocative terminology.
It is in its expression of an attitude to refugees that I find the Bill so deeply unattractive. It has been suggested that many are bogus, and yet 85 per cent. have been allowed in either as refugees or with leave to stay. It has been suggested that they make multiple applications. The evidence produced, including that by the Minister today, is hardly adequate to justify the draconian measures that he proposes.
The purpose of the Bill is to deter people from applying for asylum and to punish those who do, by, for example, curtailing their right to stay or their right to housing. Those measures are meant to deter people from applying for asylum; there can be no doubt about that. That does not seem to me to be worthy as an objective; nor are the means for achieving it ones of which we can be proud.
It is useless to deny that the net effect of criminalising them is to put refugees into the same category as the only other people who are fingerprinted; that is, people charged with criminal offences. How can one deny that to fingerprint people has that inevitable consequence in the minds of those people and others? It is ludicrous to pretend otherwise. The excuse for all that is, of course, numbers. Indeed, the backlog of 60,000 applications is formidable. The numbers, as the Minister said, have increased. The size of the backlog is, however, the responsibility of the Home Office and the inadequate resources it has devoted to dealing with applications.
Some of us here remember a debate we had a year or two ago about the 250,000 unopened letters in the Home Office. That was not because 250,000 people 471 had written letters to the Home Office—though that was an element—but because there simply were not enough people to open them. If the Home Office were to follow the message in the Bill over those letters, officials would say, "People must not write letters to the Home Office, then there will be no backlog". People must not apply for refugee status, and then we will have no problem.
The increase in the numbers is due to circumstances over which we have no control—the circumstances in the countries of origin of the refugees. I have learned that since 1980, 80 per cent. of asylum seekers have been from countries under political oppression or suffering civil wars: Somalia, Uganda, Turkey, the Kurds, Iran, Iraq and so on. These political problems within the countries of origin and, in certain cases, environmental catastrophes are the reason for movements of refugees. The numbers increase and decrease over the years in an unpredictable and unforeseeable way. To quote one month's figures as signifying anything is misleading, as the noble Earl recognised.
The way to prevent these movements, if one can, is to address the root of the problem. That can only be done internationally, not by one country putting up the shutters. We may be able to have some impact through the United Nations or by devising a pan-European immigration policy. We shall not be able to avoid some such policy, it seems to me, after the free movement of labour has been introduced.
One certainly needs some kind of refugee legislation but in that general situation, even if one does have to have it, it does not justify bad or retrograde legislation. That is what the Bill is. It is bad for community relations and, in my view, it is in breach of the United Nations Convention. I see that the noble Lord, Lord King, is present. The Bill is bad for the air carriers. It defies traditions which were followed more generously in days when this country had more self-confidence.
There is hardly a clause in the Bill which does not require amendment. Many of the points were dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and I shall be brief in referring to them. I welcome in Clause 1 the change which has been made in subsection (2):Nothing in the immigration rules … shall lay down any practice which would be contrary to the Convention".However, it is rather unfortunate that paragraph 9 of the rules is almost certainly in breach of the convention because it allows for refusal of entry without examination of an individual claim. Paragraph 9 is the group rule.
I have already referred to Clause 2 which introduces fingerprinting for asylum seekers. I was surprised that in discussing the clause the noble Earl did not mention that it includes children. In another place it was suggested that very young children might be excluded. No definition of a very young child was given. It is extraordinary that children of any age should be fingerprinted under the clause. I hope very much that it will be changed in Committee. The Home Office reason for it is the multiple application one to which I referred.
472 Clause 3 concerns housing, which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, mentioned. It is probably in breach of the Race Relations Act on the grounds which I quote, given by the Commission for Racial Equality:An asylum seeker is by definition a person whose own nationality or national origins or that of their relatives or spouse is not British. The Bill seeks to treat this group less favourably and therefore is in direct conflict with the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976".Once more we will have an opportunity in Committee to discuss the matter at greater length, but I am surprised that the Government have not provided us with their legal advice. It seems to me on the face of it likely to be in breach of the Race Relations Act and I look forward to hearing what the Government have to say.
Clause 4 deals with curtailment. It is the "punishing" clause; it is meant to deter people from applying for asylum. It says, "If you apply, look out for the consequences". In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, pointed out, there are serious consequences for students. In another place it was suggested that the matter might be pursued further in your Lordships' House. Will the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, please tell us whether he proposes to introduce an amendment to the clause along the lines suggested by his right honourable friend Sir Timothy Raison in another place? The clause seems to me to be urgently in need of amendment. I hope that we shall receive a positive answer.
Clause 5 is concerned with the right to appeal or rather the right to apply for leave to appeal. Like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, we are worried that there is no right of itself to appeal. In the absence of oral hearings, it seems to me extremely serious that for one category of applicant two days remains the maximum time given. That is surely disgraceful and impossible. How is the refugee who may have suffered the most appalling experiences in the country from which he has escaped, who may be coming to this country for the first time, who does not know the language, the law or the system, and who does not know how to get help or what help is allowed, how is this man to apply for leave to appeal within two days? I ask how anyone put in that position is supposed to be capable of doing that. The answer is that they would not. None of your Lordships would and it is disgraceful to impose that condition on other vulnerable people. We hope that that too will be changed in Committee. Clause 7 concerns the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act 1987 about which my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich will speak later.
The Bill is a shocking measure. A heavy responsibility lies on your Lordships' House to make it an acceptable and reasonably civilised measure. Many matters are left out which ought to be in it. I hoped it would state the rights of refugees rather than what is to stop them getting into the country. I hoped that those who have exceptional leave to stay here could be brought within the ambit of the Bill rather than the matter being left to the discretion of the Home Secretary. I hoped that indefinite detention would have disappeared and that bail for those detained under the Act might have been included.
473 Introducing the Bill, the noble Earl said that complex issues of human rights were involved in the legislation. He was 100 per cent. right. Very complex issues of important human rights are involved in the legislation. It needs careful consideration; it cannot be solved on a fast track system without the risk of injustice. We must see that even if the machinery is slower, it provides that those people who have come here at risk—people do not become refugees for fun, they become refugees out of desperation—those people who out of desperation are refugees, are fairly treated and that the full processes of British justice are applied to them.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ripon
My Lords, the Asylum Bill has aroused widespread public concern. I am sure all noble Lords have received an enormous volume of briefing and correspondence to testify to that public concern. The concern felt by many in the Churches has been expressed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Westminster in a letter to The Times.
We recognise the proper concern of government, first, to limit immigration into a crowded island and, secondly, to speed up the procedures involved. I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction to the Bill and for the way in which he underlined those concerns. However, there is a widespread feeling that in attempting to achieve those aims the Government are creating a situation in which numbers of vulnerable people will be subject to erosion of their rights in this country and may be returned to their own countries to face harassment, persecution, torture or even death.
The nature of the public debate and the setting in which it takes place are causes for anxiety. There are, of course, large numbers of people involved. Some 45,000 people came to this country in 1991 to seek asylum. Clearly some of those people are bogus. That is to be expected on any count of probability. Some of them will have submitted multiple applications. However, that is a different claim from the claim that the majority, or indeed almost all, are making bogus claims or are submitting multiple applications. There is no evidence to support that view. The press seems to indicate that that is the case. I believe the press has aroused violent feelings in a way that I regard as inexcusable.
Asylum seekers come from countries such as Sri Lanka, Uganda, Zaire, Kurdistan, Kurdish Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has already mentioned that. Since 1980 some 80 per cent. of all asylum seekers have come from those countries. What they have in common is not poverty or lack of opportunity but rather civil violence and political oppression. It seems clear on any reasonable reading of the evidence that it is civil violence and political oppression that have led to so many more people seeking asylum in this country.
474 It is perhaps worth remembering that only some 5 per cent. of the world's refugees come to Europe and of that 5 per cent. only a fraction come to the United Kingdom. The bulk of the consequences of this violence and disorder are borne elsewhere in the world. In the public debate there needs to be a change of attitude. Obviously it is right that there should be in place a proper procedure to determine who are proper asylum seekers and who are not. Those who have no case should be returned to their own countries. However, that provision needs to be established in the setting of a recognition that this country should offer refuge and hospitality to groups of people who are often fearful and traumatised and are frequently inarticulate. They are extremely vulnerable and they need our support. The tone of the discussion and the assumptions behind the public debate are as important as the legislation itself. I must mention the fact that the debate has had some repercussions in the immigrant communities who now feel more disturbed and more at risk from legislation which they feel affects them in some way as well as those who seek asylum at the present time.
As regards the measure itself, I acknowledge the necessity of cutting down the backlog. It is clear that existing procedures are not coping. I echo the words of the noble Earl that what is needed is a measure which is understandable, fair and prompt. Such a measure would command faith. However, it is clear that at the moment the present system does not command such faith. The large numbers of people seeking judicial review is evidence of that.
We need an Asylum Bill which commands confidence. I suggest to noble Lords and to the noble Earl that such a Bill which commands confidence is likely to result from consultation. If there is one thing that is evident from the large volume of briefings we have received, it is that there has been a lack of consultation both with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and with a large range of non-government organisations. As I read what they have to say, I believe that the chief change in the Bill which would bring about a genuine confidence in it as a fair Bill would be a proper appeal procedure; that is to say, not merely a leave to appeal which is granted without a full oral hearing, but a full oral hearing before a special adjudicator. If that were to happen, it would uncover what I believe to be the basic flaw in the Bill. The basic flaw consists in the following. The more the leave to appeal is altered to make it fair and just, the more it comes to resemble a full appeal. In that case it will produce an unnecessary extra stage in the procedure, slowing it down even further.
The more I wrestle with the Bill, the more it seems to me that that is the great difficulty I have with it. The procedure needs to be fairer and, if that is the case, the leave to appeal is an unnecessary stage. Why cannot we have a full oral hearing in the Bill which would enable it to command a much greater widespread confidence?
We are awaiting with great interest the Government amendment setting out the grounds on which leave to appeal may be refused by the special adjudicator. It is fair to say there is an expectation that 475 these grounds will be an improvement to the Bill. We shall have to wait to see whether that is the case. However, without a right to an oral hearing I still believe there will be a lack of confidence resulting in further resort to legal procedures and continuing delay.
There are a number of other matters which concern many noble Lords and I shall refer to those more briefly. The extension of the two-day rule to 10 days has been welcomed. I share that welcome but, as has already been said, it does not apply to those upon whom an order is served directly. The latter people will normally comprise those in detention. I wish to underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that those in detention are likely to be those who, on arriving in this country, find difficulty in presenting their case, who will be distraught and may not be able to articulate well. Surely it is those people who most need the time in which to receive legal aid and to prepare their case. They are the ones who more than any others need an extension of the two-day rule. I hope that when we discuss the amendments in Committee that matter will be pressed hard.
The draft rules have been referred to. I only wish to underline the concerns that have already been expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Bonham-Carter. They are concerned that if documents are destroyed, or someone arrives as part of a group or there is a failure to reveal full information at the initial stages, those occurrences will be regarded as grounds for a possible refusal of asylum status. The noble Earl talked about those matters as reasonable provisions. However, the point we are making is that someone who arrives in this country seeking asylum status is not in a reasonable state of mind. He or she is likely to be distraught and perhaps traumatised. Reasonable is the last word one should apply to such a person. Had I been through what some of those people have been through, I very much doubt whether I would be in a reasonable state of mind.
There are other provisions in the Bill which are not central to its thrust of speeding up the procedures but which nevertheless create great difficulties. They have already been referred to. They are provisions such as the curtailment of leave to remain, withdrawal of housing rights and requirements on fingerprinting. I do not wish to add to what has already been said on those matters. Instead I simply wish to make the point that we are dealing with individuals, some of whom come to this country having experienced imprisonment, torture and all that flows from those kind of experiences. Of all the reading I have had to undertake in preparation for this Bill, the most chilling has been produced by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. If any noble Lords have not read that document, I recommend it as salutary reading. Such people require access to proper legal aid; they require a fair procedure; and they require access to solicitors who have had training and experience in legislation of this kind. As a nation we ought to be willing to provide resources for a fair determination of their cases.
476 In this country we have a fine record of receiving refugees. I should like to underline the words which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, spoke earlier. I hope that we shall pay attention to them. For example, I think back to the Huguenots of the late 17th century who fled persecution in France on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. I think of the tremendous contribution which Huguenot families have made to this country. I think of Jewish families who have come to this country more recently. It is interesting to note how much of the correspondence on the Bill comes from Jewish organisations. I also think of the great contribution made by Jewish people, and I reflect on what might have happened to such individuals had legislation such as is now proposed then been in place.
We have to ensure that our reputation is not tarnished by an Asylum Bill which does little or nothing to protect the successors in our own day of those who in the past fled from tyranny to find a secure refuge here.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Flather
My Lords, this is not an easy subject for me to speak on, not only because of my own origins but also because I am a vice-chairman of the British Refugee Council. I understand that it is essential to balance the needs of refugees and asylum seekers on the one hand and to reassure the nation on the other hand that those who are allowed to enter the country to stay are genuine refugees. We have all watched the numbers claiming refugee status rise nearly tenfold in the past five years. Clearly that situation cannot be allowed to continue unchecked and the need for legislation is self evident. There will also be considerable pressure from Eastern Europe, and we must be ever vigilant to avoid applying double standards and remain even handed at all times.
As my noble friend the Minister said, the Asylum Bill must be seen in the context of the Government's other proposals concerning asylum seekers. Nor should the measure be considered in isolation from any moves towards increasing agreement among the 12 European Community countries.
The aims of the Bill are, first, to reduce the number of asylum seekers reaching this country and, secondly, to remove a larger proportion of those who manage to reach the country. I am sure that the increased fines under the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act, about which we shall no doubt hear more, and the wider requirements for visas will have an effect on the number of asylum seekers who will be able to reach this country in the first place.
Turning to the measures to reduce the number of asylum seekers allowed to stay here, I am aware that at the heart of the issue is the number of people being granted exceptional leave to remain although that status has not been mentioned in the Bill or in the proposed changes to the immigration rules. In the past few years 25 per cent. of all asylum seekers have been granted refugee status. Approximately 60 per cent. have been given exceptional leave to remain. The remainder of applications have been refused.
477 The Government clearly intend to reduce significantly the number of those who will be given exceptional leave to remain in the future. Although in their view none of those people are refugees, in the past many have been allowed to stay here because our procedures are slow and cumbersome. Months and years pass until it becomes impossible to return a person who has become established in this country. Therefore, the Government's intention, quite rightly, is to speed up the procedure in order to be able to remove such people before they have had time to put down roots and claim an alternative reason for staying.
While I welcome any measures which will speed up the procedures, I fear that the situation regarding exceptional leave to remain is not always simple. I am convinced that some of the people who in the past have been placed in that category have a well-founded fear of persecution. The real issue appears to be whether the Asylum Bill and related measures will give such people a proper chance to put their case and have it considered fairly and objectively.
I welcome some of the recent changes that have been made. I am greatly relieved that the time limits for appeals will be more realistic. However, some people will still have to announce their wish to appeal within two days. We have heard a great deal about that and, even though it applies only to those people held in custody, I still hope that the matter may be considered once more and the time limits increased.
I am also worried by the fact that not everyone will be able to have a full oral hearing before a special adjudicator, and I am not alone in that anxiety. It is still not clear how many appeal applications will be decided on the basis of examination of papers alone. My noble friend the Minister indicated that that point will be clarified. We all look forward to that clarification, which we hope will reveal that the procedure is fair and equitable.
I recently visited Denmark for a joint seminar with the Danish refugee council and parliamentarians from both countries. I was impressed by the liberal approach of the Danish Government to refugees and asylum seekers. However, sadly, I found that there was another side to the coin. During discussions it emerged that practically no one from a developing country can obtain a visitor's visa or go to Denmark as a student. The Danish parliamentarians were very surprised that we in this country have so many visitors and students from all over the world. That becomes an extremely important factor when one considers that 75 per cent. of all asylum applications are made by people who are already in the United Kingdom as students or visitors. A speedy resolution of such applications is clearly essential. However, I should not wish to adopt the Danish approach to students and visitors.
Like most people, I should like to pick out the best parts of the Danish rules. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will consider the final, one-to-one interview which the Danish refugee council conducts with an asylum seeker before removal takes place. Such interviews could be undertaken by our 478 own British Refugee Council and provide the safeguard which we seek. That could make the difference between life and death for many people.
My noble friend Lady Faithfull will speak more fully on that particular subject, but I, too, should like to make a specific plea on behalf of unaccompanied refugee children. The numbers arriving are small. The plight of individual children can be extremely distressing. As it stands, the Bill does not distinguish between children and adults. That cannot be right. Many voluntary organisations, including the British Refugee Council, are deeply worried by the lack of arrangements for such children. Proposals on the matter have been submitted by the refugee council and other bodies but so far the Government have said nothing about them. Perhaps the Government will consider what can be done, either as part of the Bill or as a separate measure.
I also hope that my noble friend the Minister will say a little more about the wider European context of the Bill and other related measures. I know that Britain is not alone in reviewing its asylum policy. I understand that progress on a European convention on the crossing of the Community's external borders has been delayed because of disagreement between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar. I wonder when that may be resolved and how the Government see the relationship between their own policies and those of our European partners. We all know about the difficulties regarding the constitutional position of Germany. There, no one can be turned away without going through the full appeals procedure. That can take years and it then becomes impossible to remove any person who has embarked upon the procedure.
We have been fortunate in this country to escape the rise of racism and fascism which many of our European partners are experiencing. When I became a United Kingdom delegate to the Economic and Social Committee of the European Community it came as a great shock to me to learn that we were the only member state to have in place anti-discriminatory legislation on race. I am sure that, along with a clearly defined immigration policy, it is an important factor in the relative calm that we experience. Nature too has provided a moat around us which is not quite so easy to cross as are the land borders.
But whatever happens we must not allow the Bill to create a climate of opinion which brands the refugees and asylum seekers as fraudulent and dishonest people. Not one single person in this country would exchange his lifestyle for that of the best of those refugees. Sadly, every group, every nation contains dishonest individuals. I hope that the British people will continue to keep a little space in their hearts for those who spend their lives in constant fear of persecution.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Lord Macaulay of Bragar
My Lords, the forcefully analytical speech of my noble friend Lord Richard has covered much of the ground that I intended to cover. I shall try to conform with the tradition of your Lordships' House by not repeating what has already been said.
479 My noble friend used the phrase "fast track" in the course of his address. It is plain from the Minister's speech that the Government have set in train a legislative express train which they hope will reach the end of its destination in three months. Whether or not that is a reasonable time in which the train may arrive is a matter for your Lordships' House. Within the legislation proposed there are few methods by which any of the passengers can stop the train. It is for your Lordships' House to make proper amendments to the Bill at later stages to ensure that time and justice do not become mixed up.
We need only to consider the court procedures in this country. We do not speak in terms of weeks or months but in years in order to resolve simple issues in the courts. In the Bill, major issues concerning the lives of people who are genuinely destitute and in fear will be decided on within a proposed timetable of three months. Only time will tell whether or not that timetable is realistic.
When preparing my speech for today, like other Members of your Lordships' House I had in mind the provision regarding the deprivation of the facility of legal aid to asylum seekers. To some extent the Minister has pulled the rug from under my feet, and perhaps from under the feet of other Members of your Lordships' House. I shall refer to that in due course; I do not believe that he has pulled the rug away completely, but I shall read with interest what he said. In common with my noble friend Lord Richard, I am not clear as to what the proposal is. It looks as though it is a stop-gap measure to meet the criticisms of the removal of legal aid while some other form of assistance will be thought out by the Government. Nonetheless, it would be churlish not to welcome the Government's recognition of the proposed injustice through the withdrawal of the green form from persons entering this country seeking asylum.
One dictionary definition of asylum is to give shelter. It is the duty of this country to give shelter to worthy applicants. No one suggests for one moment, I hope, that the Government do not care for genuine asylum seekers. Indeed, the noble Earl made that quite clear. Likewise, as the right reverend Prelate said, no one doubts the necessity to weed out bogus claims for asylum. But care must be taken to ensure that the methodology adopted does not tilt the investigative and procedural approach against the interests of the true asylum seeker. As has been said by previous speakers, such a person comes to this country afraid for his life. That is a dramatic phrase but it is the reality. He is in a strange country, more often than not unable to speak any English. In most cases he will need time not only to present his initial case but to deal with the complicated procedural matters that arise if he is refused asylum.
There is a need for an ordered structure. It would be stupid for people to talk in terms of years. We have to reach a compromise. We have to consider the problem and ask what is reasonable in all the circumstances to deal with the problem. But the structure should not be given the look of a conveyor belt on which the person has little chance of getting off unless he is fortunate enough to be able to jump off.
480 In its present form, the Bill has the look of such an administrative and legislative conveyor belt. There has been reference to a timetable for appeal. I have today received the draft rules. One of the draft rules states:Subject to rule 9(1), a special adjudicator may grant an application for adjournment of a hearing upon being satisfied that there is good cause for the adjournment".Again we go back to the question of the status of the special adjudicator. When the debate began it was clear—the Government have recognised it—that what they proposed by keeping legal assistance away from people applying for asylum, independent of the state, gave the Bill an odour of oppression. I am glad that that odour has reached the Government and is recognised in the new proposals. However, we await with interest the Committee stage to see the reality of the concession made today. The applicants coming to this country under the rules proposed would immediately smell that odour of oppression and wonder what country he or she had come to.
Any enactment emerging from the Houses of Parliament should not only sustain the high standards of fairness and justice inherent in our various legal systems but should, if possible, enhance those qualities. The genuine incoming immigrant seeking asylum in the United Kingdom comes to this country presumably because he recognises those as qualities that one expects in the United Kingdom. Once within the system, if he finds that his expectations are not fulfilled, not only will he suffer but our legal and administrative framework will suffer, as will our reputation abroad.
The Minister has set out his legislative stall. It must be fairly clear to him now that what is on the stall is not particularly acceptable to various Members of your Lordships' House. I do not refer only to this side of the House. At the outset, those qualities of fairness and justice will be seriously undermined by the problem about access to legal assistance.
People were driven into the arms of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service. We await with interest to see what will happen. But it would be wrong if a government body is to be substituted for legal assistance (in the true sense of the word) with access to people of expertise and knowledge in immigration matters. There is no reason why some government body could not exist as an ancillary to the main legal issues. Although it probably does not need to be said, those issues are not to be treated like an out-of-date passport, TV or car tax disc. Those can easily be replaced. We are dealing with fundamental issues of the preservation of freedom and liberty of a human being from whatever country. In most genuine cases the issue will be a matter of life and death and should be treated accordingly—not as an annoying intrusion into the administrative life of the United Kingdom.
The Bill will be subjected to scrutiny at the Committee stage, so I do not intend to go into detail now. The distinction made in another place between the economic migrant and the genuine refugee is no doubt difficult to determine. However, the fact that more people fall into the category of economic migrant should not lessen the quality of justice for the genuine applicant for admission to this country.
481 I wish to make one point about the terminology of the Bill. Why is the adjudicator called a "special" adjudicator? What is wrong with the word "adjudicator". The word "special" has a certain ring about it—Special Branch, KGB, investigation and interrogation. Why do we need such a pejorative term? The Minister said that adjudicators are being recruited. Will he tell us where from, who they are and what qualities are being sought? Such criteria are specified in education and health Bills, yet this Bill omits the criteria that will be used to select the special investigators. Might it not be an idea to set out in the Bill at least the basic framework for the selection of such people? They will exercise great authority over the people seeking asylum.
If this country genuinely cannot afford to give proper access to legal assistance in its recognised form perhaps I may make a helpful suggestion. The issue of refugees is recognised as an international problem by the United Nations, which has a Commissioner for Refugees. Therefore, perhaps the time has come to consider the setting up by the United Nations of an international fund to provide legal assistance to refugees in any country. We know that the problem applies not only to the United Kingdom but that it is world-wide. Therefore, perhaps it should be dealt with by world-wide funding to ensure that justice is not only done but is seen to be done.
Ministers in another place spoke of a right of appeal. Other noble Lords have spoken about the matter and therefore I shall not deal with it in any detail. However, it is nonsense to say that a person has a right of appeal. There is an appeal process but there is no right. We are talking about liberty and freedom, and rights go with liberty and freedom. The so-called right is well and truly fenced because the applicant must go to the adjudicator. Whether he jumps that hurdle depends upon the grace and favour of the adjudicator. If he does not do so there is nowhere that he can go, except perhaps to judicial review. How do the Government see judicial review fitting into the appeals procedure set out in the Bill? We cannot have a system where a faceless adjudicator becomes judge and jury as regards the life of a person applying for asylum in this country. It runs counter to all the precepts of natural justice and something should be done about it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, dealt with the question of an oral hearing. I support that suggestion because one cannot judge the genuineness of an application made on paper. In the courts a person appears before another to present his case at a one-to-one interview. His genuineness can be tested not by words, which can be changed in the context of the language difficulties and so forth, but by talking to the person who is making a report. That will be seen to be fair. Dealing with an application on paper may save time and money but it is not good for justice.
I wish to raise one further main issue. Clause 1(1) (b) has been made retrospective. We all know what we think of retrospective legislation. We had long debates in this House on the war crimes legislation. The method is used in the legislative procedure from time 482 to time but why is it being used on this occasion? Why should people who have already submitted their applications be caught out by this legislative net? Is the retrospective measure merely a means of getting every applicant, bogus or otherwise, into the legislative net, down the three-month rail track, to be weeded out at the end? I suggest that the Government have given no circumstances to show why the legislation should be made retrospective.
Why are there no transitional provisions in the Bill? When such a situation arises there are, nine times out of 10, transitional provisions to protect the people who are not covered by the Bill. However, here we have a kind of Hoover system; we just sweep everyone into the bag and push them out one by one to see into which category they fall. The issue of time limits has already been discussed.
I follow the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness in asking the Government what consultation took place before these draconian changes were proposed? What interested groups were asked for their views? Were representations sought? If so, when, in what manner and to what effect? Where are the results of the representations and consultations? Can we read them in your Lordships' Library? Are they reflected in the Bill? I shall be interested to hear the Minister answer those questions because from the information that I have received I understand that nothing was done and that the Bill was merely introduced.
It is important to remember that asylum seeking is only a limited area in the field of immigration. Although it need not be treated with kid gloves, unfair knuckleduster legislation should not be steamrollered through for pragmatic and fiscal reasons. That will be to the detriment of this country's reputation for fairness and justice. We recognise that this is a highly sensitive area. In moving amendments to revise and improve the Bill we hope that Members on this side of your Lordships' House will recognise the sensitivity and the interests of the Bill and will attempt to balance that against the interests of the nation as a whole.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, my qualifications for speaking in the debate are probably few. However, I have one good qualification in that I am the Rapporteur of the committee on migration, demography and refugees of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. I compiled a report for the committee on the reception of refugees and asylum seekers at airports. I am happy to tell the Government that, compared with some other European airports, I found the treatment of refugees at Heathrow to be humane.
Efforts had been made to correct serious mistakes that occurred with the return of the Kurdish refugees to Turkey. Those mistakes were rectified on the representation of Amnesty International, which did a great deal to help the situation but did not make it efficient unfortunately. It funded the refugee arrival project and helped with the establishment of refugees who had no relations and nowhere to go. Approximately 90 per cent. of people were granted 483 refuge in this country; 30 per cent. were given full refugee status and 60 per cent temporary status. Few were being sent back. However, as the Minister explained, the procedures were extraordinary. Fifteen months was the minimum time taken to establish the status of refugees.
That problem is common all over Europe. The procedures in Paris were appalling and completely unjust. In Rome they were totally incompetent. In Frankfurt they were improving. The church organisations were speaking to the authorities and progress was being made. However, even in Sweden, where there is a most liberal regime and where refugees were treated extremely well, there were problems of racism engendered by the arrival of a large number of refugees. Therefore, it is essential, and the Government are right to say so, that that the entry of economic refugees into this country is controlled.
If I lived in Bangladesh, I should be extremely keen to come to live in this country. Nobody can blame the people of Bangladesh for trying to do that. However, the numbers will be so large, especially in central Europe and Germany, that immense problems will arise. The Government are undoubtedly right to try to uncover economic refugees, many of whom have been deceived by racketeers into coming here. They are told that, if they say that they are asylum seekers, they will receive a warm welcome and will be allowed to stay. In the process, the racketeers remove all their money from the migrants. All that is true and something should be done about it.
My anxiety about the Bill is that I cannot see that it will help the genuine refugee, the person who is fleeing from civil war—certainly, those people deserve our sympathy—and the political refugee who is being persecuted and is in danger of torture or losing his life if he is returned to his country. I cannot see how speeding up the procedures will help to identify genuine refugees.
The cutting down of numbers by making airlines responsible is a bogus step to take. An airline is designed to carry passengers cheaply and safely between countries. It is not a committee for the control of migration, and the airlines deeply resent the imposition of this task. I cannot understand why the Government do not see that in or near the country of origin is the best place to identify the genuine refugees, the genuine asylum seekers who are in danger of persecution or losing their lives and are fleeing their country for that reason.
If the Government are sending out, as they are, people who are expert in forgery to help advise the airlines, there is no reason why they should not, in conjunction with UNHCR, increase co-operation with consulates and embassies in those areas—and they are easily identifiable, as everybody who has spoken today has already said—so that information about people can be given quickly and accurately. Already, the only recourse which exists for checking stories is to write to the embassies and consulates to ask for verification of the oral evidence. The Kurds in Iraq have provided an example of the United Nations making a greater effort not to interfere directly but to influence events internally. There is no reason why the 484 countries of Europe should not join with UNHCR so that there is a positive policy of identifying and helping asylum seekers on the spot, thereby carrying on properly the great tradition of this country.
I do not disagree that there is a great difference between the past, about which my noble friend spoke so eloquently, and attitudes today, but the numbers are so much greater that it is bound to be more difficult to identify and help the genuine refugee.
I suggest that the Bill will be greatly improved in this House by the efforts of my noble friend and noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber who have a great respect for the traditions of fairness and law of this country. However, the Government need to look in a much wider way at the problems and must get a great deal nearer to the source of the problems if they really wish to identify and help the people for whose protection the Geneva Convention of 1951 was intended.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, given the parameters within which the Government are obliged to operate, I believe that they have done an extremely good job with this Bill. But, heretical though this may sound, one wonders whether the idealistic guidelines set down 40 years ago in July 1951 do not now need to be modified to take account of the inescapable realities of the 1990s.
Today, provided one selects one's bucket shop carefully, one can fly across the Atlantic and back for £199. That is the equivalent of £14.9s.3d. just over 40 years ago in mid-1951. One certainly could not buy a return ticket across the Atlantic for anything like that price then. The real cost of flying to western Europe from regions to the south and east of us has also fallen dramatically over the past 40 years.
Furthermore, since 1951 there has been a communications revolution, accompanied by sharp falls in the price of receiving equipment in real terms with consequent widespread availability. Therefore, poor people throughout the world, with the possible exception of the very poorest people in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, very often have access not only to radios but also to television from which they learn that the streets of the industrialised nations, if not exactly paved with gold, are at least paved with most of the good things of life.
Finally, the contrast between the declining population of the industrialised world and the exploding populations of the non-industrialised world has never been greater, aided and abetted not only by a very high birth rate but by the introduction of Western concepts of hygiene and Western medical techniques, which have the effect of lowering infant mortality.
The average Italian family today—and fewer Italians are now getting married—has only 1.3 children, at which rate the indigenous population will have virtually disappeared in the next two or three centuries. Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean in the Islamic Mahgreb, the average family has seven or eight children. Incidentally, the Japanese also have a 485 very low birth rate but they are rather better than the Italians at keeping people out, assisted by their relative geographical isolation.
Therefore, enormous pressures are building up. One way in which steam can escape from a pressure cooker is through the valve marked "asylum route", particularly when most other valves are now blocked. The 1990s are not the 1950s and still less are they the 1850s. I must remind the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, even though he is no longer in his place, that the real income differential between an unskilled labourer in the industrialised nations and an unskilled labourer in the non-industrialised nations is far greater now than it ever has been. In the 1850s even if someone were able to find a means of leaving a poor country, to the south or east of us, to work in Britain he would merely be exchanging life in one insalubrious slum for life in an only slightly less insalubrious slum. No longer is that the case.
What categories of asylum seeker are we now talking about? First, and most important in terms of need, are those whose lives are at risk not because of what they do but because of what they are. I refer to the potential victims of genocide; the Kulaks and many Ukrainians in Russia in the 1930s; the Jews and the gipsies in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe in the early 1940s, and those Cambodians with the slightest degree of education or skill during the Khmer Rouge terror of the 1970s. Such people must be given top priority.
The second group comprises people who are also persecuted for what they are rather than what they do but to a lesser extent: their lives are not normally in danger. They may sometimes be killed, but generally speaking they risk either imprisonment or deprivation of civil liberties rather than death. One may instance the educated and professional classes in Eastern European countries following the communist takeover between 1945 and 1948, and, of course, the Vietnamese boat people.
The third group are those who are refugees from warfare. One thinks immediately of the displaced persons roaming Europe after the end of World War Two; more topically, the Croatian refugees who fled into south-west Hungary; and the Lebanese refugees, mainly, but not entirely, Christians, who have taken refuge in Cyprus, France and many parts of the western hemisphere. Again, they must be considered sympathetically. Ideally, the main objective should be to help them to return to their homelands after hostilities have ceased. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, may well agree with that.
The fourth group—I shall probably strike a discordant note here—comprises people who are refugees not because of what they are but because of what they have done. I refer to those who have actively resisted, perhaps fought against, oppression in their homelands instead of keeping their heads down and leading possibly perfectly satisfactory lives. Of course, in theory, they are brave people and one would like to help them all. But realistically one must remember that the greater part of mankind lives in 486 countries which are oppressive, illiberal or authoritarian. If their populations were all to revolt against their governments and fail in the process, the industrialised world could not possibly accommodate them all. We must therefore be realistic. One wants to help but there is a strict limit to the lengths to which one can go. Those who are refugees as an accidental result of their own choice do not have quite the priority of those refugees who are persecuted because of what they are rather than what they have done.
The fifth and final category is the economic refugees. In reality it is probably the largest group. Because of our well justified fears in regard to nuclear proliferation we are all aware of the Soviet military technicians earning around £3 a week and the nuclear physicists earning around £5 a week being tempted by lucrative offers from Middle Eastern countries anxious to build up their nuclear capability and military strength. Some of us may have read the article in the Telegraph regarding Georgian and Azerbaijani prostitutes who travel to northern Turkey and earn as much in a day there as they can earn in two months in their own countries. There are millions of others far worse off, all of them potential economic refugees who, because of the vast income differentials, may long to come to Western Europe and eventually to Britain.
Others purport to be political refugees when their main motive is economic. For example, we can take the Nestorian Christians who live in south-eastern Turkey, south of Diyarbakir, in the region of Mardin. Of all the Christians in Turkey they are probably the least pushed around because they have never engaged in any political activity; they have taken good care to keep their heads down. Nevertheless, they have managed to persuade the gullible Swedes that they are all victims of religious persecution. Consequently, they have been offered refuge in Sweden, where the standard of living is 10 or 15 times higher than it was in Turkey.
More relevant to Britain, let us consider the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Just as there are plenty of Kurds who live happily in Turkey, despite the relatively minor cultural disabilities imposed upon them, so there are plenty of Tamils—contrary to propaganda—who live peacefully in Sri Lanka, many in government employment, even in the civil service. Rightly or wrongly—I do not want to enter into the pros and cons of the situation—other Tamils are trying to change the status quo by force and suffer accordingly. But instead of travelling 35 miles across the straits to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, whose inhabitants are racially and linguistically identical to themselves, they make every attempt to travel several thousand miles to Europe with which they have no affinity whatever. The reason for so doing is obvious —it is economic.
I am convinced that the Government are right to make it tougher for the less deserving refugees to enter and stay—that is the crucial point. If they were to enter for a few days only it would not matter, but we know that it is difficult to get people out once they have come in. Apart from anything else, the opinion of 487 ordinary people must not be contemptuously dismissed as it was a generation ago over the issue of mass immigration.
Finally, those who contend that the Conservatives generally are being exceptionally hard-hearted over the matter of asylum should ponder this. Almost exactly 15 years ago, in the course of a journey across Thailand by bus and train, my wife and I, in Songkhla in southern Thailand, came across a group of miserable, bedraggled people huddled behind barbed wire. They were much fairer than the local people, who obviously resented them. We approached them and struck up conversation in French and English, and indeed they turned out to be Vietnamese boat people. Subsequently, we were able to help one of them—a former major in the Vietnamese army—reach America. That is another story, albeit one with a happy ending.
However, considerably moved by the experience, on my return to this country I tabled a Question for 19th April 1977, asking Her Majesty's Government, (then a Labour government) whether they would consider admitting a further 750 South-East Asian refugees—a modest enough number, one would think. The reason for choosing that number was to bring the numbers of South-East Asian refugees from communist persecution up to the level of Latin American refugees from Right-wing persecution. The suggestion met with no support from the Conservatives, it is true; but it met with no support from the Liberals or the Labour Government either. Indeed, the Minister—as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will remember—replied that the government had agreed to accept 116 South-East Asian refugees and could see no case for accepting any more. However, approximately three-and-a-half years later Mrs. Thatcher, when the Conservatives were in power, agreed to accept 15,000 Vietnamese boat people—fully 129 times higher than the number that the Labour Government had agreed to accept.
Therefore, let nobody claim that those to the left of the Conservative Party have a monopoly of humanitarian sentiments in this matter.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Lord King of Wartnaby
My Lords, clearly there is an understanding across your Lordships' House of the humanitarian, administrative and economic problems of the Bill. However, I intervene briefly on one part; that is, Clause 7, which empowers the Home Secretary to require visas for passengers in transit through this country. Can your Lordships believe that? Furthermore, it applies the penalties of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 to any airline or shipping company which brings transit passengers to this country with defective documents.
I declare an interest as the chairman of British Airways. But I believe that the whole of the international transport industry, the airports, the ferry companies and other airlines are all strongly opposed to the clause as being damaging to our economic interests—unless noble Lords believe that to be very personal, I mean Great Britain's economic interests.
488 I support the Government's policy to control bogus claims for asylum by economic immigrants from countries less prosperous than ours. British Airways has spent large sums and devoted much effort to ensuring that we do not take passengers to countries they are not entitled to enter. But the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, on 22nd October last showed clearly that the carriers' liability Act is bad legislation. It requires the staff of airlines to act as immigration officers throughout the world under pain of an absolute liability to a fine imposed entirely at the discretion of officials of the Home Office.
Despite all the precautions which British Airways takes to check documents, fines are still running at about £200,000 a month. But 70 per cent. of the people for whom we are fined are then allowed into this country. Despite the powerful arguments from all sides of the House that the Act requires complete reform, the Government have not even conceded that there is a case for review, yet they are now proposing to extend this mediaeval legislation to another class of traveller. I hope that the Minister will now accept that this Act should be reformed; that statutory defences should be created and that there should be a right of appeal to an independent person.
Clause 7 of the Bill extends these pernicious provisions to transit passengers. Transit passengers are very important to airlines and to airports: they are invisible exports, adding to our trade and employment. Heathrow is the largest transit huh airport in Europe: over 25 per cent. of traffic is in transit.
At present the nationals of 84 countries need visas to enter the UK. All but eight are exempted from this requirement if they are flying to another country within 24 hours. Nationals from Sri Lanka and Iraq need visas to travel via the UK even if they remain airside throughout their time here. Nationals from six countries (Libya, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Turkey) may transit without a visa so long as they remain airside, do not stay overnight and do not speak to immigration staff. Transit traffic from these six countries is worth —25 million a year to British Airways; it is worth quite a great deal to a few others.
Clause 7 is a very wide power whose use could extinguish an important part of our country's business for no very good reason. Ministers have not disclosed their intentions, but if, for example, transit visas were required of nationals of the six countries I have mentioned, it is very likely that we should lose a substantial part of the —25 million that I have referred to. Transit passengers usually have alternative routes open to them. If they are asked to go to the trouble of obtaining a visa at a cost of —30 or more simply to pass through Heathrow, many of them will choose to fly by other routes and Britain will lose the business entirely. But the Home Secretary may even choose to include more than six countries in his list. We do not know.
It is not obvious that Clause 7 will do anything at all to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how many such immigrants he expects to be kept out by this provision to set beside the number of genuine travellers who will undoubtedly avoid using British airlines and airports.
489 If the Minister will not drop this clause, as he should, he should do three things. I can think of four, but I shall mention three. First, he should consult formally with the Secretary of State for Transport and with airlines and airports before countries are included in the list of those requiring transit visas. Secondly, the Foreign Office should ensure that visas can be easily obtained by bona fide travellers from the countries concerned. That is an interesting point; namely, that one may live 250 miles away from the place where one has to go to get a visa. In order to have the luxury of coming through Heathrow on the way to his destination, the traveller has to go to that place, pay, and get the visa. That will exclude a great deal of traffic and business. Thirdly, the Minister should provide that orders made under this section are time limited so that there can be periodic review of the case for them.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that he will look sympathetically at these points and will now review the defects in the carriers' liability Act.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Pitt of Hampstead
My Lords, I am very glad to be following the noble Lord, Lord King, because I agree with everything that he has said. I hope that the Government will take his plea on board. Clause 7 illustrates the panic in which the Government are dealing with this matter. I do not need to elaborate on that because what the noble Lord, Lord King, has said underlines it.
In this Bill the Government begin by asserting their acceptance of the protocol and the agreement on the safeguarding of refugees. Having said that, they then proceed right away to go against the protocol and the convention. Clause 2 insists on fingerprinting people who have applied for asylum. As has been said by earlier speakers, that means that they are automatically placed among people who are alleged criminals, as it is only alleged criminals who are obliged to give fingerprints.
The Government have to observe the convention that they must safeguard the true refugee; but because there are so many applying they assume that many of them will be bogus and they must eliminate the bogus ones. But the Government have moved to an extreme position: they suspect every applicant of being bogus and require the applicant to prove that he is not. It is that fundamental approach at the base of this matter which we must try to remedy.
Some of the proposals are contrary to the convention; for example, the recommendations on housing. Article 21 of the convention states:As regards housing the contracting states in so far as the matter is regulated by laws or regulations or is subject to the control of public authorities, shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible and in any event not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances".Under this Bill local authorities are required to discover whether someone is an asylum seeker and whether that person has in fact been granted asylum status. They do not have to inquire whether somebody who comes to them is an alien. Therefore 490 automatically with the new regulation on housing the Government have placed asylum seekers in a condition less favourable than aliens who are not asylum seekers. Therefore, already that is contrary to the convention. It also illustrates an extremely unhelpful attitude.
People come to this country because of fear of persecution. They are often looked after by voluntary organisations, particularly the church organisations, in temporary accommodation. The Bill provides that if they are being looked after in such accommodation then the local authority does not have responsibility to house them. But that is not the worst aspect. Having been declared refugees, housed and given the right to stay, the local authority then has to reassess them again. I regard that as the more discriminatory of the two. I believe that that is certainly contrary to the convention.
There is another matter that is in keeping with the approach which I find so disturbing and which has been mentioned by many other noble Lords. It is the case of a person who is refused asylum, but who is already in this country on some other authority, for example a student. That student may discover that certain things are happening in his country. What is worse, he may discover that his family is involved in activities which makes his country now unsafe for him. At that point he may apply for asylum. If he applies for asylum and the Home Office does not agree and does not grant him asylum, at that point the Home Office has the power to curtail that student's right to remain here even as a student and then to perhaps imprison him prior to sending him home.
I do not believe that the Government have thought through the Bill. I cannot believe that they deliberately wish such things to happen. The Government have panicked. They have looked at the figures and said, "These figures must be reduced; let's see how we can do it." Consequently, a Bill has been produced which is contrary to all the principles of this country. This country has always been regarded as liberal in its attitude to people in need of a place to stay and of shelter. The Bill is the direct opposite of the traditional liberal attitude of this country. I cannot believe that the Government can feel comfortable about taking this line.
The idea is that a special adjudicator will look at applications and decide whether or not people shall be admitted to this country. He will not even give an oral interview to applicants in order that they may explain their situation to him. How can the Government approach the matter in this way? I look forward to hearing how the Minister explains that approach when he replies. I know the Minister well and I know he is not an illiberal man. How then is he in a position to defend this approach? It is the direct opposite to the approach that is required. If we start on the principle of making sure that we do not send back people who are in danger, but that we do not allow people to bamboozle us, we can find ways which are less draconian than the measures which are adopted in this Bill. I therefore hope that we shall look at the Bill thoroughly as it passes through your Lordships' House.
491 Perhaps I may return to the question of fingerprinting. How can the Government want to fingerprint little children when they arrive in this country from abroad? I do not think there needs to be a big campaign to persuade the Government, whatever one may say about fingerprinting and its value, that the fingerprinting of children must be wrong. It ought not to be a big deal. The Government should have seen that from the word go. Therefore, I beg the Government to try and change their approach and to look at the issue in a more liberal way. I agree that numbers must be controlled; that we have to make sure that people who are genuine refugees are looked after and that bogus applicants are eliminated. That is agreed. That is not the issue. The issue is how it is to be done. This Bill does it in the worst possible way. I finish as I began—frankly, the Bill shows a great deal of panic of which this Government should be ashamed.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Lord Greenway
My Lords, the measures announced by the Minister in his opening remarks to speed up the processing of asylum seekers are very much to be welcomed. He mentioned a figure of £50 million and an increase in the number of immigration staff from 100 to around 550. That is very laudable but will provide scant comfort to those who are at the front line of immigration control. I refer to the carriers who bring in these people, either by land or by sea.
As a result of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 the overseas staff of these carriers have been forced to act as quasi-immigration officials. However careful they are, inevitably people still slip through with inadequate documents, resulting in the carriers being fined £2,000 a time.
The Bill now seeks to extend the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act to include transit passengers as well; thereby compounding the already substantial anxiety—I would go so far as to say resentment, after the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord King—being felt by the airlines and the sea carriers who, of course, are mainly the ferry companies. They are worried on several counts.
First, their staff are not employed primarily to act as immigration officials; they have another job to do. Despite the training that has been offered by the immigration department, people are still slipping through with inadequate documents. Secondly, costs are involved. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord King, it is costing a great deal of money, not only to the airlines but also to the ferry companies. The latter feel particularly disadvantaged because the average ferry fare is very much less than the average air fare. It takes the companies an extremely long time to recoup a £2,000 fine.
Thirdly, it is not necessarily creating a very good impression for would-be visitors to this country. Many of the fines being levied relate to cases where the applicant is eventually admitted, as we have already heard. That is a fact which is particularly galling to the carriers. They would much prefer to be exempted from penalty when that occurs.
492 Looking ahead to 1993 and the advent of the single market, what is to be the position then when theoretically free movement will take place within the EC? How are the Government to justify continuing the double check, first, by the ferry or airline company officials, and then by the immigration officials? How is Europe to look upon this then? Is the noble Earl able to give us any comfort in that direction? Surely legitimate intra-Community travellers and those who have valid leave to enter or to reside in another EC country should be exempt from these measures.
The position is not entirely as black as I paint it. Some progress has been made in the course of discussions with the immigration department and the carriers, especially the ferry companies. I understand that fines in certain of the more ludicrous cases will in future be waived. That is welcome and is a step in the right direction. However, the situation could be improved still further, perhaps by giving more discretion to local immigration officers in the imposition of penalties especially where the passenger is subsequently admitted to the country and it is plainly evident that the ferry company has taken all reasonable precautions.
From the comments made so far and from those which are yet to come from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, we shall surely return to the subject of immigration carriers' liability at subsequent stages of the Bill, because at the moment the airlines and the shipping companies are still far from happy.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate remarked that many of the submissions against some of the provisions of the Bill came from the Jewish community. I regret that I appear to be the only Jewish speaker whose name is down to speak in the debate. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, much regrets that his absence in the United States prevents his participation. Those anxieties are similar to ones that have already been expressed. They do not relate to the likelihood that many Jews will figure among applicants for asylum in contemporary circumstances, but of course Jews are also sensitive to the point, which I think has been mentioned by more than one noble Lord—indeed I believe it was mentioned by my noble friend the Minister—that the current movement of people into and across Europe is acting as a stimulus to new forms of Fascism or new Fascist doctrines which inevitably raise the spectre of anti-Semitism.
We are living in a situation which has had no parallel, or no obvious parallel, for many centuries. We appear to be at one of those junctures in human history, and particularly in European history, when we are seeing a great movement of people which may rapidly grow more intense. There are fears of massive migration from Eastern Europe towards the West if the current experiments in liberalisation in the former Soviet and East European countries break down. We also know —it has been referred to by noble Lords —that there is a great traffic for economic reasons across the Mediterranean into the countries of southern Europe, leading again, particularly in the 493 case of Italy but perhaps soon to be reflected elsewhere, to a great deal of passion, feeling and political unrest. In looking at immigration policy in general it is natural that any government—this would, I am sure, be true of a government of any party—would want to know what the impact would be upon this country where on the whole hitherto we have managed to avoid such repercussions.
In this context, in the thought of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people seeking to better their lot by movement, the number of people who are refugees in the narrow sense that was contemplated in the United Nations convention, which looked backwards rather than forwards, is relatively small. The parallels drawn from the 19th century by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and others relate to something quite different. Those were identifiable individuals, many of them well known.
Those seeking political asylum today are not contemporary equivalents of Kossuth, Karl Marx or Hertzen; they are anonymous people fleeing governments, mostly governments in the third world which the premature dissolution of European empires have brought into existence without endowing them with a capacity for decent rule. They are therefore not easily identifiable. How is one to know whether any Tamil from Sri Lanka is a refugee or is in fact a member of a community which, being under stress, might be regarded as entirely available for refugee status? The same would apply to a number of countries in Africa and the Middle East. Exactly the same problem is being confronted by the United States in relation to Haiti, where they are now endeavouring to send back that category of boat-people. It is a universal problem to which countries inside and outside Europe have to give thought and which probably demands a rather less automatic approach to the definition of "refugee" than would seem to be inherent in some of the provisions of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, rightly said that no one disputes the Government's right to find out who are genuine refugees in the sense of risking persecution, or worse, if they are returned to their home countries. The argument about the Bill relates almost exclusively—I leave aside the interest of the carriers—to the procedures that are invoked in order to make this distinction.
The noble Lord, Lord Macaulay of Bragar, pointed out that we do not know much about the adjudicators who are placed in the centre of this process. Will the people who are to have what could amount to life and death powers over individuals be appropriate to the task? Will they be the kind of people who can rattle off without difficulty the names of all the tribes in Somalia and the various leaders and know whether someone who claims asylum is in the majority party and therefore safe or in the minority party and therefore at genuine risk? They will need to know that not only about Somalia. There are at least eight or 10 countries in respect of which they will be called upon quite frequently to adjudicate on the genuineness of the refugee's fears.
494 Here I can perhaps revert to the Jewish element in this sad story of refugees because it is clear that in the 1930s in a great number of countries those who controlled immigration were unaware of and lacked understanding of what was going on in Europe. It was not merely at the strategic level of the Munich settlement. It was also true at other levels. This does not apply by any means uniquely to this country. It is as true of the United States and of many other countries. Officials simply did not have the knowledge, the imagination or the sensitivity to understand that what they were facing were people fleeing from a genocidal regime.
I believe that we need to be satisfied in your Lordships' House—and it has been suggested that the Bill may be amended to give such details—that the adjudicators will be highly qualified people; that is, people with detailed knowledge of the politics, social customs and, if necessary, the languages of the countries from which applicants may come. The idea that within 48 hours an unfortunate person in custody or in semi-custody can secure the services of a QC and an interpreter and copies of the United Nations charter and conventions is so remote from reality that I find it difficult to believe that Ministers with a record of humanity, like the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, have thought about what it means.
Because it is accepted that there must be a procedure and because it is hoped that that procedure will not involve undue delay, the Bill will no doubt reach the statute book. Moreover, as has been said, it is a particular privilege and duty of your Lordships' House to look at the detail of the provisions to try to see how they would affect the lives of individuals, whether it be these trembling newcomers or students who have come here in good faith to follow a course of study. I was head of an academic institution which had many Nigerian students at the time of the Biafran war. Such happenings may befall anyone.
The situation in countries changes all the time; indeed, it may change by tomorrow in Russia or elsewhere. Therefore, in view of the great anxieties felt in the community—as has been pointed out, especially perhaps among the non-Anglo-Saxon members of our community—I should have thought that it would be within the bounds of the competence and knowledge of your Lordships' House to turn the Bill into something which is at least acceptable. I hope that the House will be able to do so.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to rise to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I found myself in agreement with every word of his speech. The Bill before us is a deterrent Bill, probably more by accident than intention. Its aim is admirable: to allow for the proper processing of those seeking asylum. But, because the Government find themselves in the middle of the problems of population, immigration and general population movements—which were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter and more 495 deeply, possibly, by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff—it has turned into a Bill which is seen as one which will clobber everyone regardless.
There must be United Nations' and European solutions to many of the deeper problems posed. It is a pity that the present Government do not seem to be making the right kind of moves towards seeking such solutions at that level. The experiences of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, while permitting us possibly a little pride in the fact that Heathrow is not the worst of the ports in Europe, do not actually give us much hope of producing a European charter which will be fair to everyone. But we must try. We must seek to ensure that the Bill is not a deterrent and that it provides asylum, thus ensuring that those who need asylum actually receive it.
However, there is one area where I probably differ from my colleagues, although I know that other noble Lords who are to speak later agree with me. I refer to the question of fingerprinting. It seems to me that we must first ensure that the Bill makes sense and that it is fair. When we have done that, we must then make the job of the immigration authorities possible. If that can be made much easier by fingerprinting, we should not run away from it. We live in a highly complex society—much more complex than that of the last century or even of the last generation.
In the National Liberal Club, of which I used to be a trustee, there is a plaque on the wall commemorating the member of the club who finally tore up his identity card, and thus caused identity cards to be abolished after the war. He was probably right to do so at the time because the result of any war is to leave a muddle of repressive laws which need to be cleared away. It is possible that the identity card law was one of them.
However, I, for one, would welcome fingerprinting and identity cards as important factors in a modern complex society. If, as I think we all agree, the life that we have to live involves a contract between society and the individuals who are part of it, it is important that society should know who those individuals are and that it should not be subjected to the disappearances and the creation of new personalities that we have learnt are possible from thrillers that we have read such as The Day of the Jackal, and, indeed, from recent affairs reported in the press during the past week.
It should be possible for society to know the identity of its members. Of course, such procedures can be misused. But, in this country, we have a decent society with a rule of law. Indeed, today's debate, and all that has been said in it, is one of the proofs of that fact. If it is said, as is so often the case, that such a process would be a terrible weapon in the hands of any totalitarian government or state, I can only reply that, by the time there was any totalitarian government or state, it would be too late in any event. I believe that we should have a system whereby the citizens are recognised to have rights against society; but where society also has a right to know with whom it is dealing.
The Bill is still defective and we must do our best to mend it. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was absolutely right when he pointed to the need for some heavy 496 work to be done by the Committee of your Lordships' House as the Bill proceeds. But we must be careful to concentrate on those parts of the Bill which are truly deficient and which threaten the lives and liberties of people, particularly the true refugee-seeking asylum. Those provisions we must mend. We must not be dragged aside into amending parts of the Bill which may be necessary even if in the first place we find them emotionally distasteful.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I start from the fact that clearly the Government have been faced with a serious problem. Applications for asylum or full refugee status rose from 5,000 cases in 1988 to some 30,000 in 1990—a six-fold increase according to Home Office figures. However, the problem has been nothing like as severe as, for example, in the German Republic and is almost negligible compared with the situation in many developing countries such as Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, the Sudan, Bangladesh and Thailand. Those are the places where the great majority of the world's refugees now live, as was pointed out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon.
Curiously enough, the Government's response to the problem has been correct, even if a little slow. They have announced a five-fold increase in the staff responsible for processing applications which should make possible the clearing of the backlog of applications and the giving of decisions to future applicants within three to six months. I am sure all of us welcome that. However, further resources are needed. I suggest that the Home Office should shoulder the full cost of legal aid in asylum and immigration cases, thus relieving the hard-pressed department of the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor.
If the Government consider that circumstances have changed radically since 1951, when previous administrations helped to draft and then ratify the United Nations Convention on Refugees, they should seek to amend the convention itself. Instead, Ministers have indulged in inappropriate remarks about bogus refugees and hordes of economic migrants. I fear that such remarks may have done permanent damage to race relations in Britain. That those remarks were ill founded can be seen from the fact that in recent years 80 to 90 per cent. of asylum applicants have been granted either full refugee status or exceptional leave to remain.
Equally undesirable is Clause 7, but the point has been so well dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord King of Wartnaby, and my noble friend Lord Greenway that I need say no more except to hope that the Government will drop or severely modify the clause.
I regret to say that the Bill is largely unnecessary especially in view of the increased resources available and the declining number of applications. That may seem a surprising thing to say but it is illustrated in Government Written Answer No. 200 of 24th January in another place. The point was underlined by the noble Earl in his speech introducing the Bill.
The Bill contains other undesirable features which have been pointed out by almost every professional 497 and responsible voluntary body dealing with asylum and immigration matters. I shall briefly mention only a few. The Bill is partly retrospective in effect. Asylum seekers already awaiting decisions will be prejudiced and many seem likely to lose previously held rights. As already mentioned, the fingerprinting provision is invidious in singling out a vulnerable group of people who have not been charged with offences in this country. There is a danger that fingerprints may leak back to the country of origin of the asylum seeker. That risk is aggravated by the absence of a Community-wide data protection law. Fingerprinting, like identity cards, may be acceptable if universal. I regret to say that as things stand Clause 2 is not acceptable.
The housing provisions in Clause 3 undermine entitlements currently enjoyed by asylum seekers under Part III of the Housing Act 1985. If asylum seekers are to be admitted to this country, reasonable housing provision must be made for them. Both SHAC and Shelter have made representations. I suppose that I have an indirect interest in the matter as I was connected with the formation of both of those useful bodies.
I regret that the procedures under which asylum applications will be handled and appeals may be considered are not specified in the Bill. The human rights of particularly vulnerable people are being dealt with by subordinate legislation and guidance. For example, the new draft Asylum Appeals (Procedure) Rules 1992 contain 30 clauses and 11 pages without mentioning either the representation of appellants or facilities for interpretation. Surely, these are serious omissions. In addition, the Guidance Notes on Asylum given to me last week by the Printed Paper Office clearly contravene the terms of the 1951 convention. That point has already been made by my noble kinsman Lord Bonham-Carter.
I fully accept that Her Majesty's Government have taken the advice of the Council on Tribunals, have improved the time limits for appeal applications and do not willingly wish to offend against natural justice. Nevertheless, we still need a full right of appeal against refusals of asylum, as was indeed promised several months ago. We need improved time limits for persons in detention. Individual appeals should still be possible against group refusals. How can the Home Office possibly know that the circumstances of each member of a group are exactly equal? It is an impermissible assumption. Asylum seekers also need legal aid in the many complex cases that are bound to arise.
I urge the Government to accept that it is essential to err on the safe side in asylum matters. That is why procedures have to be both fair and safe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has consistently maintained that asylum under the convention must be seen as a humanitarian issue and something exceptional to normal immigration rules. I wholeheartedly concur with that, and for that reason do not apologise for returning to the pleas I have made both in your Lordships' House and in correspondence with Ministers. On 23rd July last year at cols. 748 and 498 749 of the Official Report I asked that the detention of asylum seekers should be used most sparingly and as a last resort. The number of those detained fell from 305 last June to 150 in November 1991. I know not whether that decline was intentional or accidental.
Once again, I beg the Minister not to imprison people who have already suffered torture or other severe trauma. It is necessary to understand that those who have undergone horrific experiences cannot be expected to disclose their full stories immediately on arrival in a strange country. Relations of trust and confidence need to be built up first. Once again, I emphasise the absolute need for competent and sympathetic interpreters for asylum seekers who cannot understand or speak English—a point rightly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. Again, that underlines the need for careful and thorough training of all staff who come into contact with asylum seekers or who help them in their resettlement as refugees.
My last plea relates to those who are given exceptional leave to remain. Where leave is granted because of a genuine fear of persecution, would it not be possible to allow the reunion in Britain of the immediate family before four long years have passed?
This is an indifferent Bill, drafted, I am sorry to say, with insufficient consultation, and greatly in need of amendment. I trust that it will be much improved before it leaves your Lordships' House.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for so ably summarising the Bill. I was a little sad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Richard, describe the Bill as arbitrary, unjust and unfair. I was equally sad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, say that it was a shocking measure. As my noble friend Lady Flather said, this is a necessary Bill which meets a need, although, as my noble friend Lord Beloff and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, suggested, there is much to be altered in it and many clauses to be changed. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was a Member of the Committee that considered the Charities Bill. He and I, and others who served on that Committee, found my noble friend the Minister sympathetic and understanding. Indeed, he accepted many of the amendments. I am sure that, as happened then, he will listen to all that we now have to say.
I shall concentrate upon the position of children. The Children Act 1989 lays down that:The welfare of the child is paramount".Furthermore, the United Kingdom has recently ratified the convention on the rights of the child, Article 3 of which states:In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration".Article 12 provides for children's representation at any proceedings affecting them, and Article 22 provides that unaccompanied refugee children shall:receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance".Other European governments recognise their responsibilities for unaccompanied refugee children.
499 Amnesty International reports that there are children who are victims of persecution and who are subject to imprisonment and harassment. Cases have been reported of children being threatened with torture to extract information about their parents and families. Some children flee the country having seen the deaths of their parents. Some parents know that their family is at risk and, to safeguard their children, purchase a single ticket with which the child can leave the country, sometimes giving the child an address to which he or she may go. More often, no address is given. When the child is taken to the airport, a parent, guardian, or perhaps the child himself, will often ask someone to care for him on the plane. However, on arrival at Heathrow, those people will go their own way and the child will be left alone. Some of the cases —I shall not repeat many—are pathetic beyond words. One small girl of 12 was left wandering around a London airport for about two days, not knowing what to do. However, perhaps that was an extreme case.
Heathrow is in the borough of Hillingdon, which means that Hillingdon's social services department deals with the highest number of unaccompanied refugee children in the country. Of course, such children also arrive at Gatwick. In the 18 months from January 1990, the London Borough of Hillingdon received 89 refugee children into its care: 38 from Eritrea; 12 from Angola; eight from Uganda; five from Ethiopia; two from Bahrain and one each from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ghana and Somalia. Their ages ranged from nine to 17. Of the 32 still looked after by Hillingdon, five are now 17; eight are 16; 10 are 15; three are 14 and the others are 13 and 11 and two of nine.
However, by no means all unaccompanied refugee children come through Heathrow or come to the notice of the authorities there. A broader, but still incomplete, picture is presented by the Refugee Council. Returns from 16 London boroughs, West Sussex County Council and refugee community organisations have revealed a total of 242 refugee children. Those figures may not be high, but they are significant.
I pay tribute to the social services departments of, among others, Hillingdon and West Sussex. My colleagues in the social services departments have told me, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Beloff, how difficult it is for their staff to know the conditions from which those children from so many different countries come. It is difficult to know what food they want to eat, what they have been used to, their family structures and whether it is possible to find their relatives. The local authority social workers who deal with the children—few though they may be —cannot give them the service that they rightly deserve, but if we do not look after them they will grow up to be problems both to themselves and to the areas in which they live.
To meet this situation, it has been recommended that there should be what I believe the various children's organisations involved have described as a "children's advocate". Those of us who support the concept of having someone available to speak to a 500 child in the language that he or she understands do not like the phrase "children's advocate" and are thinking up another. However, if a small organisation were to be set up with a number of advisers or helpers who could perhaps be paid by the hour, it could be called upon to interpret what the child wants and needs in relation to where he or she comes from, and could help the social services departments to which he or she is likely to be referred. That would be of enormous value. The proposal has not yet been costed, but I suggest that it would not be expensive and would make for the greater happiness of the children in question.
This recommendation was not accepted in the other place but perhaps the Minister will reconsider it. Following what the right reverend Prelate said, perhaps my noble friend will be prepared to meet people who are anxious about the problem and who have experience of it. Then, without debating it hotly on the Floor of the House, we may be able to reach agreement privately and achieve the smooth passage of an amendment.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Ennals
My Lords, the whole House will appreciate the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. She has a great commitment to and knowledge of the needs of children. Although she has dealt with only one aspect of the Bill—the need to protect the interests of children, refugee children and children on their own—she has typified the anxieties expressed by every speaker in the debate so far.
I share the view previously expressed that the Bill which has come from another place requires a great deal of work before Parliament passes it. More than on any other Bill I can think of, the situation reflects the essential role of this House as an amending and revising Chamber. It did not receive the attention it deserved in another place. There was not the consultation that there should have been in producing a Bill on such an important issue. There is not much in it that I can welcome. Of course I welcome the objective of speeding up the process of dealing with asylum applications and I welcome the fact that the Home Office has greatly increased its staff in order to do so. However, I claim that it is not necessary to have this legislation in order to fulfil that task.
I should have declared an interest: I am a member of the executive committee of the British Refugee Council and chairman of its Asian committee. Over many years I have had close contact with successive UN High Commissioners for Refugees.
I wish for a few minutes to probe the Government on the reason for introducing the legislation at this time. If after consultation the Bill had been found to be broadly acceptable to those who work with the problems of refugees, I should have felt much happier. However, opposition has come very widely, not just as one would expect from the ethnic groups, those which are looking after national interests and the welfare of people coming from a particular country. There is not just the opposition of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. It comes from right across the board. There are criticisms from Amnesty 501 International, the British Refugee Council, the CAB, Shelter, SHAC, Justice, the Bar Council, the Law Society, local authorities and the law centres. Wherever we look, we find great anxiety about the Bill.
I agree with the noble Baroness that we are fortunate in having the noble Earl who sits on the Front Bench as the Minister because I believe that he will listen carefully to the genuine anxiety. He will wish to see a Bill sped from this House which is more just, fair and understanding of the needs of refugees in our society.
The Government have given the impression—as I thought the noble Earl did this afternoon—that most of those who claim to be asylum seekers wish to avoid legitimate immigration controls and that they are economic migrants. Some are and of course it is right that we should distinguish one from the other so that we do not tear up our immigration rules, in a sense. Many years ago I was Minister responsible for immigration in the Home Office and of course I accept that we must have rules which must be respected.
However, when we consider the countries from which people come we must think carefully. Most come from Zaire, Somalia and Ethiopia; there are Kurds from Iraq, Kurds from Iran, people from Sri Lanka, Angola and Uganda. I merely have to read out the names of the countries to give a list of those which carry out acts of oppression, which deny human rights, which in many cases practise torture and where people flee from oppression. The suggestion is that these people are simply economic migrants looking for a better country in which to live, but a high proportion of them are fleeing from oppression. I believe that they are those for whom the United Nations Convention on Refugees was signed in 1951.
I am glad that after all its stages in another place the Bill states in Clause 1(2):Nothing in the immigration rules (within the meaning of the Immigration Act 1971) shall lay down any practice which would be contrary to the Convention".I hope that we shall see the legislation going further than that and that we shall reiterate our conviction and adherence to the convention, not only as it relates to the immigration rules but to the Bill itself. I nearly intervened when my noble friend Lord Pitt spoke about it because Clause 1(2) simply covers the immigration rules and not the Bill.
Thus it is no wonder that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set out a carefully prepared statement of critical comments regarding the Bill and the draft ancillary documents and instruments. I welcome the decision that the Government have already taken, but it does not go far enough.
I wish to return to why the Government are pressing ahead with a Bill which has received criticism from so many respected people. When I listed the organisations, I did not mention the Church. I welcomed the speech by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. He spoke not just for himself but on behalf of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Cardinal and the Archbishop have expressed their deep concern; and I was glad that the 502 noble Lord, Lord Beloff, expressed the views of the Jewish community as well as his own anxieties. The criticisms come from all sides.
No doubt the Government believe that many of these people simply seek to come to Britain. However, there is another aspect. We are considering people who are in almost every case dark skinned and who in some people's minds are in a sense alien invaders. It is sad that in our country there is still enough racial discrimination for it to be popular to be seen to try to restrict people with skin of another colour who seek to join our society. We must be careful that at this stage we do not pass legislation which could be thought to be racially discriminatory. I say "at this stage", but it is not only at this stage in the country's life but this stage in preparation for an election. The issue is controversial between and within the parties. I do not believe that the Government ought to press ahead unless it is absolutely proved that it is essential to do so.
We should put aside the issue until after the election; it is not the kind of issue which should be subject to debate during the months or weeks when we are moving to a general election.
I wish to make one or two points. It is claimed that the Bill is urgently needed. First, I should say that violence and oppression are on the increase in most of the countries from which the asylum seekers come. That is proven by Amnesty International's reports. Secondly, the vast proportion of refugees go to close, neighbouring third world countries and not to Britain. Thirdly, those who come to Britain represent a small proportion of all who come to Europe. Fourthly, although the number seeking asylum here has increased substantially in the past two or three years, it is now decreasing. The statistics show that it is decreasing. Fifthly, the number being permitted to stay in Britain is also substantially decreasing.
According to government figures the numbers of applicants of all nationalities without dependants were as follows. In 1990 there were 22,000 applicants. In 1991 there were 17,000 applicants. I have omitted to give figures for dependants because the Government have not yet produced those figures. The figures I have given show that in 1991 the number of applicants decreased. In 1990, when 30,000 asylum seekers came to Britain, 193,000, for example, sought asylum in Germany, 56,000 in France, 17,000 in the Netherlands and some 12,900 in Belgium.
I hope I may point out a further fact to your Lordships. There is a new and significant trend emerging—that is, the fall in the number granted asylum and granted by the Home Office exceptional leave to stay. I have the figures on a month-by-month basis. In January 1990, 160 were granted asylum, but in June 1991 only 25 were granted asylum. Some 320 were granted exceptional leave to stay in January 1990, but that figure decreased to only 55 in June 1991. I hope that when the Minister replies he will explain that reduction and bring us up to date on the figures.
Only one-sixth of applicants have been granted refugee status and only one-fifth have been granted leave to stay. Some principle must lie behind those figures. The figures provide sure proof that we can 503 deal with the problem the Minister has outlined by administrative means rather than by legislation. I know I would be wasting the time of your Lordships' House if I said simply that I did not believe the Bill should be proceeded with. The very fact that we are here today is proof that the Bill will be proceeded with. However, the Government are bringing forward a Bill which is not needed in terms of dealing with this problem. The Bill has grave defects in the way it copes with the problems associated with this matter.
I shall not repeat any of the arguments that have been expressed on the matters of fingerprinting or the rights of appeal and the rights of children. All those matters will be raised in Committee. However, I wanted to put on record that on the grounds of statistics the Government have no justification for bringing forward this Bill. I am convinced that in Committee we shall have to be vigilant, energetic and enthusiastic so that we ensure this House will not approve a Bill which could at any stage deny genuine refugees the opportunity of being accepted as such or which could force genuine refugees to return to those countries where their lives may be in grave peril.
§ 6.23 p.m.
The Earl of Stockton
My Lords, I must first of all apologise to your Lordships for my somewhat tardy arrival in the House today. If I continue to run behind in this fashion I fear I may earn the sobriquet of being the late Lord Stockton.
Before I come to the specific provisions of the Bill before your Lordships' House, I think we should remember some of the basic facts that are the background to the problems that are being addressed not only in this Bill but by all the governments of our Community partners and indeed ail the other governments of the developed nations.
There are many millions of people living in the underdeveloped and developing world to whom the countries of the northern hemisphere and Australasia are an irresistible magnet in terms of living standards and opportunity. Whatever our perception of our own economic and political problems, these are as nothing to the people of the majority of African countries, many parts of central and South America and large numbers of people in the Middle and Far East.
We must be able to see clearly that we cannot live safely on a planet where almost 5 billion people are excluded from economic opportunity, where there persists an immense transfer of wealth from poor countries to rich, where third world babies are brought up, sometimes deliberately, to provide organ transplants for first world customers, where 11 million children die every year, and there are 200 new corpses every minute—I stress that occurs every minute—in what the World Health Organisation is now calling the silent genocide of preventable famine and disease and where the smoking shantytowns of the forgotten surround the shrinking enclaves of affluence.
Clearly there is an enormous opportunity for the West in the post-Cold War era to use the resources that have had to be concentrated on the arms trade on starting to remove this blot on the escutcheon of the human race. But all this will take time and there is a 504 very real risk that until progress can be made, and indeed until there is the will to raise that progress to the top of the agenda of the world political scene, the magnet will continue to exert its terrible and frequently malign attraction.
There is also of course the problem posed by the full implementation of the Single European Act—that is access to any part of the Community. Once an individual has a legitimate status in any European country, then the full rights apply to work in any other member state. It is still unclear whether this privilege which applies to naturalised and native citizens will in future apply to those holding resident or work permits in member states. I understand that that issue has been raised at Maastricht. Some of our European partners have large immigrant populations that fall potentially into this category, for example Algerians in France, Moroccans and South Americans in Spain, Somalis and Libyans in Italy and the Congolese in Belgium among others. There are also newer pressures. We have seen the recent influx of Albanians into Italy and Eastern Europeans into Germany. The problem faced by the United States Government with the Haitian boat people is another similarly tragic case that is unrolling before us even as we are debating this subject.
There is therefore a prospect of the tide of economic refugees becoming a flood. Of course it is not in the interests of this country or, more importantly, of their countries of origin that they should be encouraged. For it is these self-same economic refugees who are the potential of their own societies for they have exhibited the determination to improve their lot by leaving what are almost certainly desperate straits. It is that same determination that their own countries will need if they are to build a viable economic and commercial future.
The Bill before your Lordships seeks to limit the numbers of those who are granted full refugee status to those who are genuine rather than economic refugees. While that may sound harsh, it is not in the interests of our fellow countrymen, or the citizens of any European country, that an under-class of economic refugees is allowed to grow any larger. The members of such an under-class are frequently exploited as individuals. They are also used to create a pool of extremely low paid labour that can and does undermine the proper protection of the indigenous workforce.
What this Bill seeks to do is to provide proper protection for the genuine refugee and to expedite the inevitable process that must take place before the welcome for refugees, of which we have always been so proud, is afforded to the genuine refugee. I am sure my noble friend Lord Ferrers would agree with me that a growing backlog of more than 60,000 cases under investigation and review is intolerable. It is an unreasonable imposition on the staff of the immigration department, but what is worse, it is an affront to the dignity of those who have in all sincerity appealed for sanctuary in this country from persecution.
Already permission to stay in this country is granted by the Home Department to nearly 505 three-quarters of those who apply, either as full refugees or for a year in the first instance under the terms of the scheme for extended leave to remain. But these provisions are sometimes difficult to enforce and it must be admitted they are open to exploitation and abuse. Sadly, there have inevitably been cases in which refugee status has been refused to those who have subsequently been found to have merited it.
The provisions of Clauses 1 and 2 strike me as reasonable, particularly as they refer to the determination of the validity of a person's claim. Although it is important that immigration officials interpret the regulations in the spirit of the law rather than in the pettifogging letter, I trust that in the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House we can ensure that that spirit is properly reflected on the face of the Bill.
The provisions of Clause 3 will have little effect on the disproportionate financial burden currently affecting London boroughs, to which my noble friend Lady Faithfull referred. Those local authorities and their community charge or council tax payers will still retain at least a temporary obligation to house vulnerable households. It is not clear to me whether that duty could not in some circumstances become a permanent one. I hope that my noble friend will be able to grant me some assurances that, as the decision to grant asylum or temporary permission to remain is made by central government, the cost implications of that decision will not fall on local government.
I am assured that even after the stricter controls implicit in the Bill are in place there will still be some 2,500 asylum seeking households which qualify as statutorily homeless. If the majority of those are housed in bed and breakfast accommodation at an average cost of £15,000 per annum per household the total cost would be £36 million per year. Westminster will be likely to pick up 320 such households this year, Ealing more than 200 and Brent more than 100. In addition, there are the other costs such as dealing with unaccompanied children, to which my noble friend Lady Faithfull referred. That is costing Hillingdon £800,000 in the current year, Kensington and Chelsea £425,000 and Harrow £200,000. I hope that since the passage of the Bill through the other place the Government have had the opportunity to review their decision to allocate resources among all boroughs rather than to target on boroughs and local authorities with a particular problem. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure me, if not today then at Committee stage, that the Bill will be amended in a way which proved unacceptable in another place.
With reservations on those and a number of points of detail with which I should not burden your Lordships this evening, I welcome the Bill as a sensible start towards developing a coherent policy towards what I believe is one of the greatest problems of our times, that of raising the levels of economic, political and social life in the poorer countries of the world to a level which will satisfy the legitimate demands of those people, whose expectations I fear may have been raised as much by the Western inspired global communications revolution as by anything else.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Lord Ackner
My Lords, like the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, I must ask your Lordships, and in particular the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to accept my apologies for not being present at the outset of the debate. We are currently hearing a long and complicated case in your Lordships' Appellate Committee. Counsel for the appellant has just used up his estimated time for addressing their Lordships and it looks as if we shall be in injury time for at least the next two days.
I begin by saying at the outset that I have every sympathy with the Government's desire to expedite the determination of applications for asylum. They are difficult and should be considered with speed so as not to hang about festering, as they have so often in the past. My only reason for intervening is that, with deep respect, I believe that the Government are going about the matter the wrong way.
The Government can afford to be generous. At no cost to themselves they can grant those applicants a right of appeal instead of merely, as the rules now stand, a right to apply for leave to appeal and then only to have their applications considered on paper. It is clear from the note to the Asylum Appeals (Procedure) Rules 1992—dated, coincidentally, 21st January 1992, the day on which the debate on the Third Reading of the Bill took place in another place —that it is the intention of the Government to include in the Bill an obligation upon the adjudicator to refuse leave to appeal if he concludes that there is no arguable case. That was explained carefully in another place.
I in no way deprecate the provision of a filter. We have such a system in many areas of the administration of justice. Those who have been convicted in the Crown Court and wish to appeal against their sentence must first apply for leave to a single judge, who deals with their applications on paper. However, if he refuses an application, there is a right to apply to the full court. Just to indicate to your Lordships that the filter works, I shall give the figures for 1991. A little over 5,000 applied to the single judge. Of those 5,000, the judge, as a result of a paper consideration, granted leave to appeal to 1,566, leaving over 3,000 disappointed applicants. Of those 3,000 only 672 renewed their applications. That is an effective filter.
The same filter system applies in relation to judicial review. The application is made on paper to a single judge. If he is so minded, he may refuse it, giving his reasons, and the application can be renewed. There are no separate figures to assist your Lordships in this instance. The selfsame approach applies to smaller claims in the county court. The leave of the county court judge is required to appeal. If refused, application is made to the Court of Appeal. The same applies to interlocutory proceedings and pre-trial proceedings.
In this case, why should there not be not merely the filter which is proposed but a right to reapply to the adjudicator, with an oral hearing, for those who consider that he has reached a wrong decision? There are unlikely to be very many such cases. First, I have read in the past that a high proportion of the 507 applicants succeed. Secondly, at the Third Reading of the Bill in another place Mr. Peter Lloyd, speaking for the Government said:If there is a soupcon of doubt in the adjudicator's mind that there is the beginning of a case that can be argued, he must go to an oral hearing … The adjudicator can refuse an oral hearing only if he is certain that, even if the applicant's story is true, it does not bring that individual into the ambit of the 1951 convention".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/92; col. 244.]An applicant for asylum who does not even have a soupçon of a case is hardly likely to wish to renew his application at an oral hearing if he is given such a right, assuming as I hope will be the case that legal advice remains available to him through the green form scheme. Moreover, the time taken in an oral hearing of an ex hypothesi unarguable case is likely in practice to he very circumscribed. The majority of your Lordships no doubt know the impressive length of a stipendiary magistrate's daily list, which will certainly contain some arguable cases which, generally speaking, he has no difficulty in concluding in an ordinary day's sitting.
The Government may well ask, since we are dealing with unarguable cases, what on earth does the applicant in reality lose by being deprived of the opportunity to argue such a case? I have at least two answers to that suggestion. First, the applicant loses what is vital to our administration of justice: the sense that justice is being seen to be done. A faceless adjudicator relying on documents, some of which the applicant may well believe he has never seen, makes a final and vital decision without hearing the applicant.
My second ground is expressed more felicitously than I can by Mr. Justice Megarry (as he then was) in the case of John v. Rees in 1970 Chancery Reports, page 402. The learned judge said:As everybody who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; of unanswerable charges which, in the event, were completely answered; of inexplicable conduct which was fully explained; of fixed and unalterable determinations that, by discussion, suffered a change".My final comment, which may provide the coup de grâce, was provided by Mr. Peter Lloyd in the same debate and in the column of Hansard to which I have already invited reference. He stated:If, however, an adjudicator ignored the criteria that I have described … and refused an oral hearing although an arguable case existed, that would be exactly the kind of circumstance on which judicial review would properly bite". [Official Report, Commons, 21/1/92; col. 244.]I do not suppose he realised that since 1984 there has been a steady increase in the number of applications for judicial review. In 1984 there were 915 applications; in 1991 the number was over 2,000. By the end of 1991 the waiting list of substantive cases ready to be heard numbered 1,192. Cases awaiting decisions as to leave numbered 813.
Except where expedition is ordered, a case entering the warned list will not be heard for at least 12 to 15 months. That takes no account of the time lapse before the case enters that list. The current waiting times at the end of last month from the time of entering into the warned list of disposal was, for the Divisional Court, 12.5 months and, for the single judge, 23.7 months. I was told last week by my noble 508 and learned friend the Lord Chief Justice that simply to contain the number of cases and to keep the delay at its present level we need five judges. In fact we have only two judges available plus occasional help from a judge whose other work permits him to lend a hand.
Fortunately this jurisdiction is considered sufficiently important for resort not to be had to judges who have retired having reached the age of 75, QCs who have long since passed the age at which they might have qualified for High Court appointment, or circuit judges. Yet the Government cheerfully contemplate resort to judicial review with all the delay and expense that that will involve, and with further intolerable pressure on the Crown Court lists.
In my very respectful submission, this is forensic myopia. The applicant for asylum should be given the right of appeal. In the first instance, his application should be dealt with on paper by the special adjudicator and, if he rejects it because he considers the applicant has no arguable case, the applicant should be entitled to renew his application to the adjudicator in an oral hearing after he has received not only the notes of interview and any other documents which were before the adjudicator, but the adjudicator's reasons for concluding that he had no case. It will cost the Government nothing to be generous.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Milverton
My Lords, one is aware of the complexities and emotions behind the subject of asylum in relation to immigration. It has been in the minds of people for many years in a world of fast-moving incidents. The matter was in need of clarification. Her Majesty's Government therefore act out of necessity in bringing forward the Asylum Bill, the Draft Immigration Rules (Revised) and the Asylum Appeals (Procedure) Rules 1992.
Her Majesty's Government are trying to make the procedure and process fair to the persons concerned and to all peoples of this country, the Union of Great Britain. We wait to see whether or not a certain part will stay within the union. The Government need good knowledge about those who wish to come and their reasons. If Her Majesty's Government are to act honestly and fairly in the matter they must come to a correct decision from reliable information and sources.
We know that there are genuine seekers of asylum. However, one also knows that there are dubious persons who find ways of misusing requirements of entry and falsifying matters. The position needs to be clarified for everyone's good. Other countries have known set procedures. Therefore, it would not be surprising for this country to have its set of procedures.
With the ceaseless movement of people around the world, a country needs good knowledge of who is coming in or desires to come in. There is the practical reality of life. The available conditions, circumstances and structure of a country come into the picture. As my noble friend Lord Stockton asked, how many asylum seekers can a country absorb when considering its present housing availability, financial state or work availability? Those are practical matters which need to 509 be addressed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Stockton. Those genuine, hard working, honest and sincere seekers of asylum should be enabled to use those qualities for the good of the country from which they have come. That is not easy because we cannot always influence certain foreign governments as we would like to do.
Finally, in all sincerity on behalf of all cultures, all ethnic groups and those seeking asylum, I thank Her Majesty's Government for tackling the matter. The Bill deserves a second reading. I am sure that it can be improved, and no doubt Her Majesty's Government will improve the Bill during later stages as a result of the many good suggestions made by previous speakers.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I apologise to the House and to the Minister for being absent at the opening of the debate. Knowing that I could not be here earlier I asked to speak late in the debate. That was a fateful mistake. The few but useful points that I wished to make were made better by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. The few gaps that remained were plugged by the noble Earl, Lord Stockton. Therefore, my speech will probably be the shortest in the debate. I wish merely to highlight the issues that I believe to be important and that I had intended to raise in relation to unaccompanied child refugees.
First and foremost, we should treat unaccompanied children with an appropriate degree of compassion and give them proper care. Therefore, I shall be inclined to support the amendment which will be tabled to provide for a panel of advocates for such children. As regards fingerprinting, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. The modest trauma of being fingerprinted is less important than the need to support the immigration authorities in doing their job to the best of their ability. If we are not satisfied that they are being sufficiently compassionate, or if we believe that they are being unfair, for goodness sake let us sack them or retrain them. However, we must not put in their way impediments which make it more difficult for them to do their job. If asylum is abused it will become discredited and that is the worst possible outcome.
I wish to ask a question that has not yet been asked. Is this country the best place in which to grow up for many such children? If the flow of child refugees increases, is the burden which they will place on the economy one which the public will be prepared to accept? Perhaps I may give noble Lords some figures. I apologise for the fact that they are slightly different from those given by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and the noble Earl, Lord Stockton. They were given to me on a printed sheet by representatives of the borough of Hillingdon. During the 12 months from January 1990 to January 1991 the borough handled 73 refugees from nine countries. Today it has 35 refugees in care. They come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Angola and Uganda.
I beg to differ with the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, on the subject of Uganda. I believe that the new regime 510 puts in question the need for those young people to continue to be refugees. During that year the cost to the borough of Hillingdon was £910,550. More interestingly, the figures suggest that the cost of keeping each child in care varied between £23,500 and £28,000. As regards the small number of children who are at present coming to this country, those costs may be acceptable. If the flow of children were to increase the costs would become more difficult to justify.
Would it not be better to make financial arrangements enabling those children to be supported in countries physically and culturally nearer to their own? The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, mentioned the neighbouring countries which are already receiving many refugees. Many more children could be supported—perhaps 10 times as many—with the necessary food, shelter and education in, say, Kenya, if we are talking about Ugandan refugees or those from Eritrea.
As numbers increase, as surely they will, it might be worth also considering the possibility of more appropriate ways of giving help and direction to refugees at the point of departure rather than on arrival at Heathrow, which in a sense is too late. If there is to be a change in the law relating to carriers it should, rather than removing the fine, lay on the carriers the obligation to take the children back to a more appropriate home, if one can be found, and if the British Government are prepared to support them in doing so.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Lord Mountevans
My Lords, I hope that my noble friend Lord Ferrers will be glad to hear that in general I support most of the provisions in the Bill. However, he will not be surprised to hear that I am strongly opposed to Clause 7 and to all that is connected with the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. Like other noble Lords who have spoken today, I aired the issues on 22nd October.
As regards the Bill, much that I have heard today and recently read underpins my welcome for the Government's attempts to strengthen the law in relation to asylum seekers —or should we perhaps describe them as those who are seeking to exploit asylum provisions as a means of achieving economic migration into what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon called this crowded island? In that regard I have no quibble. However, I have heard and read just as much to persuade me that the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act, the subsequent Statutory Instrument No. 1991/1497 and Clause 7 of the Bill make only a token contribution towards achieving the Government's aims.
At the same time, those three pieces of legislation are disproportionately damaging to British and foreign carriers. That is demonstrated by the fact that in the past three years the number of asylum seekers has increased tenfold, as the Minister told us in his opening remarks. That is in spite of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act and the fact that the carrier's check-in staff are now the first line of our immigration procedures. They assume that thankless task in a most professional manner.
511 In a previous speech I mentioned how impressed I had been, on a then recent visit to New York, by the routines practised by British Airways and by the corps of knowledge that the airline had built up. Those views were confirmed on a subsequent visit to Paris, which colleagues and I recently made. We experienced the immigration element of check-in from behind the counter, so to speak. Not only are the check-in staff inspecting passengers' valid passports, visas and documents but they are inspecting their origins, routes and destinations in order to see whether they are in any way suspicious under the guidance issued by the Home Office.
From time to time the Home Office generously points out that it believes that a new pressure point is developing for illegal emigration overseas. The check-in staff inspect credit cards and almost everything that one can imagine in order to abide by the requirements of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. To employ someone who can speak 20 or more languages—bearing in mind that visa and passport-speak is not apparent even to a fluent Englishman, as we discovered in Paris—indicates not only that the carrier is aware of enlightened self-interest but is showing a wholesale commitment to the Government's requirements.
I believe that the statutory instrument to which I referred and Clause 7, far from being expressions of gratitude or a means by which the Government can achieve the stated aims of the Bill, are punitive measures suggesting to the carriers that what they are doing is not enough. I realise that not all carriers are trying as hard as BA and others which take the requirement seriously. I accept that the backsliders should and must be dealt with. However, I wonder whether there is scope for the Canadian attitude which is an incentive to those who are working hard to enforce the provisions. I also hope that there will be even-handedness in enforcing the provisions. I hope that my noble friend will confirm that when it comes to collecting unwaived carriers' liability penalties, serious compliers with requirements such as BA, Swissair and Lufthansa are being chased no more assiduously than third world carriers.
I declare an interest as an adviser to the British Tourist Authority. During almost 20 years I have built up a strong body of carrier contacts which explains my interest in Clause 7. The authority is anxious about the effects of carriers' liability on our image as a tourist destination. It seems ironic that within days of welcoming the Customs charter, which was published last week and which is a major step forward in quality of welcome terms, I should be arguing that the first impression which our visitors receive —and that is now at the overseas point of departure—is anything but welcoming.
Amending the carriers' liability Act to include vaguely defined transit requirements, as Clause 7 does, adds to our vulnerability in so much as London's airports have the world's prime position in respect of transit passengers. Today we are being asked to support a clause which poses a direct threat to that prime position. Is that right when the Department of Transport—and, in fact, all of us—has a major 512 interest in preserving London's and, indeed, Britain's aviation primacy? I wonder whether the Department of Transport was consulted about, or has consented to, Clause 7. Is that department happy with the impact of carriers' liability and transit provisions? As I said earlier, no matter how right we get it in major cities like London and no matter how right BA gets it in a city like Paris, others in this iniquitous trade are encouraged to try other points.
I wonder whether the Department of Transport is happy in respect of carriers' liability and its impact on those modest airlines which link, for example, Ipswich to Brussels or Humberside to provincial Denmark. Those are small airlines with small budgets. One such airline has said that it could be wiped out if it had to pay perhaps four £2,000 penalties in a single month because such penalties do not only wipe out the revenue from the flight but also wipe out the profit. Should we ask those airlines—some of which are British and fly British-built aircraft and, indeed, as a consequence of the sell-off of Shorts, some fly aircraft leased from the Government—to be in the first line of immigration control? Moreover, should we penalise them if they or their foreign staff get it wrong?
I wonder whether the Department of Employment and the Scottish Office, sponsors respectively of the British Tourist Authority and the Scottish Tourist Board, are happy with that clause? I am sure that both bodies realise that the carriers make a great contribution to the overseas promotional work carried out by those two statutory tourism bodies. For example, the British Tourist Authority derives at least £4 million per annum in direct financial support for its marketing activities from British and foreign carriers. It derives a further seven-figure sum in terms of contributions in kind from those carriers. I believe that that funding could be at risk if we do not solve the carriers' liability Act problem which will only worsen if Clause 7 goes through in its present form.
How should we address the problem? First, I should need to be convinced that the carriers' liability Act and the present mechanics are working towards solving the economic migrant problem. I should like to know the facts for which several other noble Lords have asked. What contribution is that legislation making in the present context?
I should like to see reasonable and sensible enforcement of the carriers' liability Act which was promised both to the carriers and to both Houses of Parliament when it received its relatively easy passage in 1987. I should like to see something more comprehensive and flexible than the rigidly enforceable one-and-a-half page guide with which I understand immigration officers presently work.
Adjudicators have been much in fashion this afternoon. I should like to see independent adjudication for appealed cases where the penalty is disputed; in particular, in those many cases where the penalty is disputed because the carrier can demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps to comply with the Act, or that it can demonstrate, as happened not so long ago in Copenhagen, that it received the wrong advice from the Home Office hotline, thus incurring 513 the costs of transferring the passengers to another airline and possibly incurring the costs of an appearance before the Danish courts.
If we must have Clause 7, I should like it more tightly drawn. I should welcome the development of the consultations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, and I should welcome time definitions and specific country definitions as sought by my noble friend Lord King. I want to see the carriers' liability legislation work as I wish to see our asylum procedures work. I hope that those two can be more equitably brought together.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, we last discussed the issues, which have underlain today's debate, in October. Inevitably one is going to cover to some degree the same ground. However, on this occasion there have been more contributions and some powerful speeches have been made, not only by noble Lords on this side of the House but also by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather.
I propose to deal, to a fairly substantial degree with Clause 7. Before doing so, I should like to make a number of general observations on the Bill as a whole and the manner in which it has so far been handled. I find it rather odd, particularly after the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that there is still such a high degree of uncertainty about the manner in which the new system will be administered.
I remind the House of what the Home Secretary said in the House of Commons on 2nd July last year. The matter was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, but it is worth going over the ground again. Dealing with the question of legal advice and assistance to the asylum seeker, he said: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 immigrant appellate authority, should instead be provided by the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service".—[Official Report, Commons, 2/7/91; cols. 166 and 167.]That is clear. The green form scheme would be withdrawn and UKIAS would become the monopoly provider of that service.
To judge from the Report stage in the House of Commons and today's speech of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that no longer appears to be the case. The reason is clear: UKIAS has become involved in a thoroughly nasty series of internal quarrels. Relations between some members of its staff have deteriorated sharply and it has become clear that in its present condition it is impossible seriously to consider it as a contender to be the monopoly service provider in the way described by the Home Secretary in his Statement to the House of Commons last July.
Indeed, at the Report stage of the Bill in the House of Commons the junior Minister responsible for immigration policy, Mr. Peter Lloyd—for whom I have considerable personal regard—said that UKIAS needed to introduce constitutional changes to remove 514 a number of shortcomings which had been identified both within the Home Office and by many outside it. He said that the discussions had been going on for over a year. Yet in July last, the Home Secretary announced that this organisation, which was even then subject to serious internal criticism within the Home Office, was going to be made the monopoly provider of the services.
Mr. Lloyd said that UKIAS would have to temporarily detach its refugee section,to enable its expansion for the time being under the guidance of an independent body, to be established in consultation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees".He added,I also gave UKIAS three months to introduce the necessary constitutional changes or face the withdrawal of the rest of its grant".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/92; col. 211.]That seems to me to be tough stuff. Indeed, in the five years that I was a Home Office Minister I can recall no such language being directed at any organisation receiving significant support from Home Office funds. Yet this organisation, despite all those problems, was the one identified as the monopoly provider of the services to be afforded to hundreds of frightened men and women trying to enter this country as refugees. As has been said by many, some of those people will be economic rather than political refugees. But that strengthens rather than weakens the case for good quality independent advice.
In July it appeared that the legal aid green form scheme for those people was to be abandoned. The position is now far more uncertain and, if I may say so with respect to the noble Earl, notwithstanding what he said in his speech, it remains remarkably unclear to most of us what is to happen. The refugee section of UKIAS is to be in some way detached and will be responsible to somebody else. Perhaps I can ask the noble Earl at what stage during the proceedings of the Bill we are to be told what finally is to happen. Or is it seriously suggested that we should allow the Bill to go out of this House without ever being told what will be the rights of the people arriving in these circumstances? That would be wholly unacceptable. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to give us an undertaking that there will be no question of that happening without Parliament being consulted.
I have the advantage of some further words by Mr. Lloyd. Again at Report stage in the House of Commons, on the question of withdrawal on the green form scheme, at col. 210, he said that Parliament would vote on the matter,if and when my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor brings forward considered proposals on the green form scheme"."If and when" sound remarkably uncertain. I certainly welcome the abandonment of the whole idea. That is the only way in which we can ensure that people in the circumstances that we have discussed today can obtain independent advice from an organisation or individuals who are not wholly dependent on public funds. Again, I shall be grateful, when the noble Earl replies to the debate, if he will go into far more detail than he did during the introduction earlier regarding the kind of regime the Government intend to introduce.
515 Perhaps I may put to him one other point. Can he say whether the service to be provided by the refugee unit, or whichever organisation is to be responsible, assuming that the green form scheme is to be abandoned, will be cash limited? I shall be grateful if the noble Earl will deal specifically with the point regarding the finances of the organisation. When legal aid is provided by solicitors and law centres it is not cash limited. The refugee unit or any other agency funded by a block grant will not be financed on a case by case basis, as is the position with solicitors. If the unit were to be cash limited—it would be surprising if it were the only organisation within government not to be—there may be a danger that with all the rigid time constraints and so forth introduced in the present legislation, the new service would be unable to carry out many of its responsibilities. It would not have the resources so to do.
§ Lord Ennals
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. Does he not agree that it is only fair for an asylum seeker to have some choice about whether he goes to one specific organisation, specified and paid for by the Home Office, or takes legal advice from a law centre or whatever? Is not choice important?
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, yes. Like the noble Lord, I find it odd that the Government, which have, rightly in my view, on many occasions indicated that they are strongly opposed to monopoly services, want in this legislation to introduce just such a service. No doubt the noble Earl will clear up any misunderstanding.
Perhaps I may turn to the issue of Clause 7, dealt with by the noble Lords, Lord King of Wartnaby, Lord Greenway and Lord Mountevans. It returns us to the debate we had in October last year on the order which set out a provision increasing the fine on carriers from £1,000 to £2,000 per individual. Under the Act, as most noble Lords will be aware, carriers can be fined £2,000 for any passenger carried into the United Kingdom without valid documentation. Clause 7 of the Bill gives the Home Secretary the power to require nationals of any country to hold a visa, not to enter this country for the purposes of an ordinary visit, but in order to pass through a transit lounge at one of our international airports, primarily Heathrow.
The most critical issue before us in the debate today is the question of civil rights applying to private individuals. It is fundamental that we should also look at what is being done to companies under the provisions of this legislation on which so many assurances were given when the Bill was going through the House of Commons. As the noble Lord, Lord King of Wartnaby, rightly says—he knows rather more about the matter than I—Heathrow is the largest transit airport in Europe. Indeed, as he said, transit passengers account for over one in four of all passengers going through the airport.
Under Clause 7, the Home Secretary, by a single stroke of the pen, could add any of the 68 nationalities who currently transfer between flights without a visa. With one signature on a document all those 516 nationalities could be included. As the noble Lord, Lord King, rightly says, that could do substantial damage both to our airports and to many British airlines which depend heavily on transit passengers in order to make many routes economically viable.
The consequence of a vigorous use of this provision in the Bill could lead many travel agents to recommend passengers to use almost any European airport other than a British one. They would be encouraged to use Frankfurt and Schiphol. The effects on the economy of this country, because we are substantially dependent upon the activities of British airlines and British airports for our economic wellbeing, would be extremely serious.
No doubt the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will reply to our anxieties with assurances that all will be well and that the system will be administered sensibly and reasonably. As the noble Earl will recall, they are well-loved words. I am particularly glad that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is here. Those words were used by the noble Lord when he was Minister of State at the Home Office and justifying the 1987 legislation. As we know from our experience of the debate which we had last October, the result has not quite lived up to the expectations created by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on that occasion.
The House will be relieved to know that I do not propose to deal in detail with all the examples that I gave during our debate on this matter on 22nd October last year. I refer, for example, to the case of the 65 passengers who had flushed their travel documents down the aircraft's lavatory which led to the airline being fined £65,000, thus creating the situation where in some mysterious way the airline should presumably have been able to predict that 65 of its passengers would flush their travel documents down the aircraft's lavatory. Even now, after all the appeals, the appeal against that fine has not been allowed. Perhaps the noble Earl will be able to tell us as regards the cases which we discussed last October and what was said in this House whether any of the appeals have been allowed. Was the £65,000 fine sensible and reasonable as defined by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington?
I refer also to the other well-remembered and well-loved case of the Icelandic baby. The baby was flown into this country for an emergency operation. The Icelandic baby made the appalling mistake of not having a passport before coming here for the emergency operation. The result was that two appeals were necessary before the immigration department relented and allowed the fine to be repaid.
There was then the most bizarre example of all. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, indicated that he thought that the immigration department or Ministers were beginning to reflect on the wisdom of the fine. I refer to the case of the Nepalese military band. They were all in uniform. They arrived at the Hoverspeed hoverport at Dover. They had entered the United Kingdom on a single entry visa and had made the grievous error of playing one or two concerts in France. When the band was stopped at Dover the members were en route to Heathrow to return to Nepal. The result was a fine of £32,000 on the carrier.
517 In my view that kind of conduct is quite outrageous. It is such a farcical example that I hope the noble Earl will be able to tell us either tonight or in correspondence that as a result of the amount of time we have devoted to the Nepalese military musicians the Home Office has decided to relent.
However, it appears that the case of the musicians is even more odd. Given the fact that they were in uniform, they were unlikely to be either economic or political refugees. No doubt the noble Earl will be able to confirm it, but I have been told that if they had had the good fortune of arriving at a British airport rather than a British seaport, the carrier would not have been fined. That is either right or wrong. Perhaps the noble Earl will be able to reassure us. If I or my informants are right on that matter, I very much hope that the Government will be introducing an amendment to put right this particularly foolish practice and be just to the carriers by sea as they hope to be to those who carry by air.
There are still further examples. A new one which has just come to my attention is the case of an Iranian family in transit from New York to Tehran. The members of that family found that they had to wait several hours at Heathrow airport. They made the terrible mistake of asking an immigration officer whether they could do some shopping at the Harrods airport shop. They were told that that was not possible, and about that I make no complaint. But they had committed the crime of asking an official to enter the country, so the airline was faced with a fine of £2,000 for each of those individuals. How is the airline supposed to protect itself from episodes of that kind? I hope that at some stage we shall get a coherent explanation from Ministers as to how practices of this kind can be justified.
If any carrier behaves with gross irresponsibility it should be penalised. I do not believe many of us would quarrel with that. But the examples that I have given demonstrate that the carriers are being heavily fined when no sensible and reasonable person would have taken such action. That is why I believe in cases of this kind there should be a right of appeal to a legally qualified person independent of the government service. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord King, who returned to a point that I made last October. I very much hope that without much additional pressure the Government will concede that point. If they do not, we shall be tabling amendments at Committee stage in order to deal with it.
The Government are also not too keen to change their position on another important matter. In a Written Reply of 9th January the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, told me that Lagos was the foreign airport which gave rise to most fines on carriers, primarily British Airways and Nigerian Airways. There were nearly as many cases at Lagos as at the next three points of embarkation put together. I asked the noble Viscount what was the level of fines imposed on Nigerian Airways. I asked the same question as regards Aeroflot. I also asked what were the sums outstanding. The noble Viscount replied: 518It is not the practice to disclose information on the record of individual carriers".—[Official Report, 9/1/92; WA92.]I wonder why. After all, the noble Lord, Lord King, gave us the figures today as regards British Airways. I wondered what could possibly be the reason for the Minister's reply. I shall hazard a guess. Possibly some of the other airlines are not paying any of the fines at all. I would like to tell the noble Earl in advance that I propose to go into this matter in some detail during the Committee stage of the Bill. If what I have said is true, it seems to me deplorable that British carriers are paying the fines and many others are simply not troubling to do so. They are therefore imposing a further competitive disadvantage on a British carrier.
The House will be relieved to know that I come now to the final remarks I want to make as regards the Second Reading of this Bill. No one on these Benches doubts for a moment that this country and the rest of the European Community are facing the risk of a significant flow of poor, hungry and frightened people trying to gain admittance. Some will be economic refugees, but among them will be others who are the victims of wicked, oppressive dictatorships with a record of contempt for human life and a determination to persecute and sometimes execute anyone who stands in their way. It is therefore essential that within this Bill there are clear rights set out for refugees to have both adequate time to prepare their cases—not the absurdity of the 48-hour rule —and independent legal advice. Anything less than that will do grievous damage to the decent and honourable record which this country had in protecting the rights and the lives of those who have sought political asylum from oppressive regimes in so many other parts of the world.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Ewart-Biggs
My Lords, the Minister has an unenviable task. He will in a moment rise to respond to a debate during which not one speaker has given unqualified support to the Bill before us. Many noble Lords have agreed that the growth of economic and other migrants is an emergent problem of our times. I agree with that, but no speaker has felt that the Bill in its entirety is the correct instrument to deal fairly and effectively with the problem as far as concerns Britain. Indeed, some noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Harris, have pointed out that not all its provisions are yet clear. The noble Lord asked the Minister for an undertaking that these areas will be clarified before the Bill leaves this House. I hope that the Minister will respond to that.
I believe that this extensive and well-informed debate has clearly reflected the opposition and anxieties felt by the many individuals, groups and agencies that have corresponded with noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said that he had never known so many dissenters to a Bill. He may well be right. I also feel that that in itself underlines the point brought out by many speakers, notably by my noble friend Lord Macaulay, concerning the apparent lack of consultation about the Bill previous to its 519 introduction. I hope that the Minister will say with whom the Government consulted about the Bill before introducing it.
In contrast to all those anxieties the Government maintain that the Bill is designed to give effect to the UN Convention of 1951 to ensure that all those who arrive in the United Kingdom with a well-founded fear of persecution will, in effect, find safe haven here, and that conversely those who in reality have no such fear will be obliged to leave. I fear that there is clearly a disbelief both in and outside Parliament that the Bill will in effect achieve that.
However, it would be right to say that the difficulties confronting the Government which have given rise to the Bill are generally appreciated. It is well known, as the Minister has explained, that the number of applications from asylum seekers has increased considerably in recent years and as the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, said may well grow even more in future years. It is true that queues have grown and owing to lack of resources the current system is working badly and may be open to abuse.
The deep-felt anxiety of so many people inside and outside Parliament must arise from suspicion that the Government are trying to close every conceivable loophole. In fact, they are riding roughshod over the human rights of an extremely vulnerable group of people. The result of that may well be that people with genuine claims for asylum will be returned to their countries to face harassment, persecution, torture, or even death. We have had many letters to that effect. Just before the debate today I received a letter from the vicar of the Parish of St. Matthew with St. Paul. He wrote of his anxieties and I believe that they are representative of the anxiety felt by many people. He wrote:Some of the rules attendant on the Bill seem designed to thwart a fair hearing for those seeking asylum and it is hard not to feel that in its present form the Bill would introduce repressive measures incompatible with British traditions of justice".I believe that that speaks for many individuals in this country.
Another aspect which worries us relates to the terms in which the debate on the Bill has been conducted. It would be fair to say that some Government Ministers and Members of another place have created the impression that a large proportion of claims for asylum are bogus, but without giving any supporting evidence. That has been picked up by newspapers and used to focus on racist fears of hordes of people arriving in this country. My noble friend Lord Ennals made a point of that in his speech. However, the facts question the bogus accusation. For as a Home Office report shows, since 1980 more than 80 per cent. of asylum seekers have come from countries with a recent history of political oppression and civil war. Those countries have been named during the debate—notably, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Zaire, Turkey, and many others.
Those are people with sound reasons for requiring asylum. The number of applicants depends, after all, on what is happening in the world. The applications occur in cycles dependent on what is happening in other countries. In order to put the whole matter into 520 perspective it is important to remember that less than 5 per cent. of the world's refugees come to Europe. I believe that in order to remove the fears about the threat of those advancing hordes it is important to make clear that there is a definite distinction between those coming to this country under the immigration quotas and those coming in either seeking asylum or as economic migrants. But at the moment people see it as one enormous, menacing group of people who are coming to invade Britain. In fact, those seeking asylum are a specific group of people.
My noble friend Lord Richard pointed very clearly to the different clauses in the Bill which represent the greatest anxiety. Noble Lords who followed him concentrated on the clauses which worried them most. I certainly do not want to go over that. However, I should like to stress that Clause 2, which contains the subsection on fingerprinting, is seen as a very great anxiety by many speakers who took part. They agree that fingerprinting does take place in other countries. However, in the European countries where fingerprinting is used it applies to the whole population. It does not discriminate against one group of innocent people. Therefore, it is seen in rather a different light.
Clause 3 on housing gave cause for alarm. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is discriminatory to see a certain category of people enjoying fewer rights as far as housing needs go. A mother with her children surely should have the same rights wherever she comes from or to whatever category she belongs.
Clauses 5 and 6 concerning the rights of appeal have received the attention of many noble Lords who have spoken today, notably the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and my noble friend Lord Macaulay. I can add nothing to that. I very much hope that the Minister will respond and give us some clarification as to the new procedures.
The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, received a great deal of support. She put forward an idea for an amendment to the Bill which would protect an incredibly vulnerable group of young people—children who arrive at airports alone. It is a small group and it is always a worry that, when a group is very small numerically, it will not receive the protection it needs. The noble Baroness put forward a case for protecting the children who tragically arrive at airports alone, unaccompanied and with no language comprehension. The dreadful effect that that will have on them all their lives is something to be avoided. I hope the Minister will consider the proposition put forward by the noble Baroness.
Clause 7 concerning carrier liability could not have had a stronger voice, either from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, or the noble Lord, Lord King. The clause as it stands is unjust. It requires those wishing to pass through the UK to hold a valid visa and penalises carriers who bring in such people without one. Surely the Minister will find it very difficult to resist the anxieties that have been expressed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, made an important point about keeping exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. The Bill as it stands does not do so. I hope that her point will be viewed sympathetically.
521 I look forward both to the Minister's answers to the questions put today and also to the Committee stage when many fundamental changes will be suggested to this much criticised Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, put forward interesting views in that regard. The tone of the Bill as well as the accompanying regulations are important. Immigration officers, as the front line of defence, will be taking many key decisions. It will make a great difference if they are encouraged to take a positive attitude towards asylum seekers. If, on the other hand, the tone of the Bill is such as to encourage officers to take an uncompromising and punitive line, there is no doubt that people will suffer. The point has been well made that in some respects the Bill appears to refer to people who are not the kind of people who should be subject to its provisions. Asylum seekers are different in that they may not be English speakers. They may not understand new rules. Those arriving will be suffering from the physical and psychological effects of trauma or persecution. They will suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar environment with no contacts and no friends. They will still be suffering from their experiences. An asylum application on arrival may reflect that and as a consequence be turned down.
Nothing in the Bill will stop asylum applications. As long as there is conflict, famine and abuse of human rights throughout the world people will apply for asylum. The challenge for this Government is to deal with those applications fairly and thoroughly so that we do not run the risk of sending people back to countries where they may be tortured or face death. In the view of many noble Lords today the Bill has failed to rise to that challenge.
§ 7.43 p.m.
My Lords, we have had, as I knew we would, an interesting debate in which noble Lords have expressed their anxieties on this matter. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for sympathising with me. She said that I had an unenviable task. Anyone who replies to a debate on immigration or anything of that nature has a pretty unenviable task. Immigration and asylum are matters of great importance and sensitivity and ones in which your Lordships have always shown a special interest and a keen desire to be fair. Therefore any Bill on these matters must be carefully scrutinised and sensitively dealt with.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, described the Bill as arbitrary, unjust and unfair. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter said that it was shocking. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said that the Bill rode roughshod over the human rights of people who would be sent back to be tortured or even to face death. That is what would happen to refugees who were applying for asylum should they be sent back. Our concern in bringing forward this Bill is to send back not those who are genuine refugees but those who are using the system unfairly and deliberately so as to take advantage of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, hoped that I would consider what has been said during the debate. Of 522 course I shall do that. Your Lordships always make penetrating interventions. I shall certainly consider what has been said today. The noble Lord asked why we did not put the Bill aside until after the general election unless it was proved to be essential. I tried to prove in my opening speech that the Bill was essential. The noble Lord may say that there is no justification for the Bill on statistical grounds. However, I showed that the number of applications has increased tenfold over the past three years. I said that more than 50 per cent. of those who come from other countries dispose of their travel documents. I gave the example of people coming here who have openly admitted that they have given their documents to other people afterwards. I showed how some people make multiple applications. I gave the example of one person who applied in 50 different names in order to get 50 different forms of social security benefit.
§ Lord Ennals
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Does he dispute the Home Office figures which I quoted? They showed not only that the number making application has gone down since last year but also that the number being granted asylum or leave to remain has fallen dramatically. Does he dispute those figures?
My Lords, I shall have to read what the noble Lord said because it seemed to be the reverse of what I have said. My information is that the number of applicants has gone up, but I accept that over the past two months the number has gone down.
There is a problem to be addressed and I think that most noble Lords have recognised that. Whenever one has a problem to address, people who ought not to be affected, so the argument goes, are affected. One thinks of the firearms legislation a short time ago. There was a terrible outcry because people were using firearms. We decided to tighten up the firearms legislation in order to prevent people being shot. Then all the genuine users of firearms found the legislation offensive because they were not doing anyone any harm. The Charities Bill is currently going through the House. It has been generally agreed that charities should come under harsher scrutiny and that there should be a stricter regime when charitable money comes into the public domain. As soon as one brings in a charity law people turn around and say that it will hurt the small charities.
There is a balance to be obtained here. Quite clearly, where there is an abuse it has to be addressed. We have to make certain that the people who are caught are the fraudulent asylum seekers and not the genuine asylum seekers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon made an excellent and understanding speech. He said that, while we should retain our international reputation for being a place to which people in distress could come, there are people who are abusing the system and they should be returned immediately. That is what the Bill seeks to address.
My noble friend Lady Flather, in a sensitive speech, expressed the hope that we would keep a place in our hearts for people who suffer. My noble friend is absolutely correct. It is certainly the Government's intention to keep a place in our hearts for those who 523 suffer desperately. However, one cannot because of that allow others to ride the system and take advantage of it. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, understood the problem facing the United Kingdom. My noble friend Lord Stockton recited some of the terrible situations around the world. I would not dispute for one minute what he said, and that is why we allow those who are persecuted to come into the United Kingdom. However, the United Kingdom cannot be the sole repository of such problems. That is why we have these rules and regulations and why we intend to accord with the United Nations convention.
Perhaps I may refer to some of the remarks and observations made by noble Lords, though of course I cannot possibly respond to all of them because time will not allow me to do so. Several noble Lords referred to children. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said that it was wrong for children to be fingerprinted. He asked whether the process would be against the Race Relations Act. My noble friend Lady Faithfull and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, were also worried about that aspect of the matter. The Bill is not against the provisions of the Race Relations Act. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, wishes to intervene. I gladly give way.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I believe the noble Earl said that I had suggested that the fingerprinting of children was against the Race Relations Act. That is not what I said; I referred to the housing provisions in the Bill.
My Lords, I did not mean to confuse the two. It is probably due to the way that I took note of the noble Lord's remarks. It seems that I have confused the noble Lord, although that does not surprise me. I thought that the noble Lord said that in his view the Bill was against the Race Relations Act.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I mentioned the section dealing with housing. That is the section to which the CRE referred.
My Lords, in any event, whichever section the noble Lord had in mind, it was one that he considered to be against the Race Relations Act. My advice is that that is not so.
With regard to children, the responsibilities of local authorities for the welfare of children are not affected by immigration status. If children are in this country and in need, they must be looked after. It is a fundamental principle of the Children Act that the child's interests are paramount when taking decisions about his or her treatment. Legally, of course, that does not extend to decisions about immigration status. The Home Office takes full account of the child's welfare. Indeed, many who are outside the criteria of the 1951 convention are allowed to stay exceptionally.
The noble Lords, Lord Richard, Lord Bonham-Carter, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, Lord Northbourne, and others were concerned about fingerprinting. Some speakers said that fingerprinting was appropriate only for criminals. I was glad to note that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, 524 approved or at least understood the position. The United Kingdom is, with the exception of Ireland, the only European country which has not so far taken powers to fingerprint asylum applicants. The procedure does not in any way make such people into criminals. The fingerprinting of criminals is carried out by police, whereas that in respect of refugees is carried out by the Asylum Division. There is no question of criminalising those people.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, made an important point in respect of fingerprinting. I should tell him that we have no intention of routinely requiring the taking of the fingerprints of very young children who are clearly part of a family group. However, there may be a need for fingerprints in respect of older, unattached children and in situations where a relationship is doubtful. It would be a mistake at this stage to set rigid rules which may have to be changed in response to a developing situation. There is a particular difficulty in setting a specific lower age limit as there will always be doubtful cases, given the propensity of asylum seekers to dispose of their documents, which means that the child's age cannot be assessed. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that it is less disturbing for a child to be fingerprinted than to be subjected to any form of cross-examination.
I turn now to the difficulty with green forms. I tried to make the position clear in my opening remarks. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, misunderstood what I said. I should like to make it perfectly clear that, because of the difficulties of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service, the Government have withdrawn their proposals for the organisation to take on green form advice work. We do not intend to proceed with the proposal to transfer advice from the green form scheme to UKIAS. However, green-form legal aid will continue to be available in immigration and asylum cases.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, too was concerned about the matter. I hoped that I had made it clear that the proposal to remove green-form legal aid has been withdrawn. The Government remain of the view, in principle, that there are attractions to concentrating public funding for advice on one organisation. However, it is clearly not practical to do so at present, given the difficulties of UKIAS. I should like to emphasise that the Government's argument is with the governing committees of that organisation, which are not carrying out their supervisory role satisfactorily. The individual case work that the refugee unit undertakes is very well done. I do not want to interfere with the good, effective internal working of the unit. However, it is entirely separate from the rest of UKIAS. As soon as new supervisory committees are established, we shall give details to Parliament.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, before the Minister leaves the subject of the green-form system, perhaps he can help to clarify a matter. I understand that he has withdrawn the proposal that it should go to UKIAS. Can he say whether the Government are still of the view that the advice which is now being given by solicitors under the green-form system should in fact 525 remain there or whether they think, in principle, that it should go to another body whose identity the Government have not yet decided? Are the Government actively pursuing another organisation to which the function could be handed over?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a fair point. The green-form legal aid system will continue. We have always said that we believe there is an argument for making the two fundings into one. However, for the reasons that I have given, it has been decided at present not to pursue that aim. Therefore, the green-form legal aid system will continue. I cannot tell the noble Lord what the future holds. I believe that that response is perfectly reasonable. I cannot do more than that. For the reasons that I have given, we do not propose to change the system at present. In principle there is an argument for merging the two forms of grant into one, but at present we do not propose to do so.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I realise that the noble Earl is trying to be as helpful as possible. However, as he realises, his honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place recently made it quite clear that one section of UKIAS will be taken away from the main organisation—that is, the refugee section—and separately funded and that it was likely that that body would carry out the work which was previously carried out by UKIAS. Given the fact that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary said that just a few days ago, can the position now be made quite clear? The relevant question was put by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is a question of principle. Are the Government still trying to find a monopoly provider for the service? Alternatively, have they dropped the ideal altogether? It will be most helpful if the noble Earl can clarify the matter.
My Lords, I tried to make the position clear. The intention is that the green-form legal aid system will continue. We have always thought that there is an argument for having one body; but, for the reasons which I have given and which have transpired relatively recently, we do not propose to continue with that proposal. However, that does not mean to say as a result that the idea that it is correct to have a single body is negated. But it is not our intention to change it. I cannot be clearer than that.
§ Lord Ennals
My Lords, I have just one further point for the noble Earl. Is he saying that if, during the Bill's proceedings in this place, he finds a solution he will then bring it forward, whereas, if he does not find such a solution, he may, when the Bill has been enacted, make some changes?
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, that there is no, so to speak, hocus-pocus in the matter. We have decided to continue the green-form legal aid principle. As I said, that will continue. We shall not change that during the passage of the Bill through Parliament. All I can do is to try to tell the noble Lord, that, if within the next 526 two, three or four years another alternative comes to light, that may be considered. However, if such an alternative was considered, there would be plenty of opportunity for discussion. I want to make the position perfectly clear. I know that noble Lords are worried. I am not trying to dodge the issue; I am trying to be as fair as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Macaulay of Bragar, referred to setting up a United Nations fund for legal assistance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has for many years provided 75 per cent. of the funding of the refugee unit of UKIAS amounting to about £300,000 a year and has agreed to continue to provide the same level of funding in the future.
The noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Macaulay of Bragar, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon referred to lack of consultation. It is not right to say there has been no consultation. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Home Office officials have had discussions about the Bill with Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Law Society, the Bar Council, the Asylum Rights Campaign and the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service.
My noble friend Lady Flather referred to exceptional leave to remain. Exceptional leave to remain will still be used when there is a genuine compassionate case outside the terms of the convention. There is no question of granting exceptional leave to remain when the applicant is entitled to refugee status. Each case will be properly considered on its merits. She also referred to the European dimension. There is regular discussion with our European partners on asylum as well as wider immigration issues. The United Kingdom is ready to talk about the possible harmonisation of controls but is not prepared to pursue that goal blindly if it risks damaging existing controls. We will consider all the proposals on their practical merits.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said he thought that the threshold at which people would be allowed into the United Kingdom had been set fairly low. I believe he said that my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary had said that the threshold for weeding out was so low and the noble Lord said there was not much point in putting it in. If I may say so, that is an old argument. If you make the threshold a low one it will be argued, "What is the point of putting it in?" If you make the threshold a high one, it will be said "This is disgraceful". The fact is that one has to have a threshold.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, of course there must be a system for weeding out frivolous applications but one does not have to have a low threshold tacked on to the adjudication of the independent adjudicator at the first stage.
My Lords, I shall be coming to that point in a minute or two.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, referred to housing need and said that housing provision should be available to everyone from wherever they came. If the person is an applicant for refugee status and has temporary or some other means of housing and may not get leave to remain, I suggest it is unfair that that person should get treatment which would put other people in genuine need further down the housing ladder. When the person who is applying is granted leave to remain or refugee status he or she will take a full share in the housing provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to two matters of great concern. He has raised them on a number of occasions and has enjoyed doing so yet again. He referred to the Icelandic baby and the Nepalese military band. The mind boggles at the scenario which must have presented itself. I do not think it would help your Lordships if we pursued that again in great detail. All I can say to the noble Lord is that if a Nepalese military band or any other military band wishes to come to the United Kingdom, it is not unreasonable that if a visa is required it should get one. Anyone doing his work properly should make sure that the correct visa is obtained; otherwise, anyone who wants to get round the system will dress himself up in military uniform.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, is the noble Earl not aware that the purpose of the legislation is to stop people entering this country wholly improperly with the objective of claiming some form of asylum? Can he explain how it is sensible and reasonable to fine a band £36,000 when on its way to Heathrow to go back to Nepal? To most people it sounds daft. Does it sound daft to the noble Earl?
My Lords, not at all daft. I knew that that remark would get the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on to his feet and that was why I very nearly did not answer the point. He knows perfectly well that hard cases make bad law. One has to have certain laws, and they have to be dealt with and interpreted sensitively.
The noble Lord referred to 65 Turks. That case was conceded on appeal to the chief inspector of the immigration service when British Airways produced substantial fresh evidence. The case of the Nepalese band is subject to further appeal which is yet to be determined. The noble Lord also referred to Indian shoppers. We have no trace of that case. We have asked British Airways for details but so far have not received any.
I come to the vexed problem of transit visas about which the noble Lords, Lord King, Lord Mountevans, Lord Greenway and Lord Harris of Greenwich were deeply concerned. I can understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord King, and I do not blame him for objecting. Here we have a system whereby those who carry persons requiring asylum should ensure they have the proper documents. When the question of asylum was first thought about life was slower. But we now have aeroplanes able to transport large numbers of people to other countries which have to deal with these problems. For the reasons that the noble Lord, 528 Lord King, knows only too well, we have found that a lot of people have abused the system. Therefore, it is important that those carriers carry only those people who have the proper documents. The transit visa restriction is basically a deterrent to people who may pretend to be in transit to other places. For instance, it may happen that a person says that he wants to go to Venezuela via London when his real intention is to ask for asylum when he gets to London. If that person was genuinely going to Venezuela and he could persuade the visa officer of it he would qualify for a transit visa, but he could go there by another route. There are other transit countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada which have also imposed transit restrictions on nationals such as Sri Lankans who have regularly misused the transit facilities."
It is not an unusual problem for the traveller. Most visa offices offer a same-day service. If the British mission were to be in the same city as the airport of departure, it would not present a great difficulty. Increasingly, the experience of Western countries is that inadmissible passengers are misusing the transit facilities by going through difficult and complicated routings to get to their chosen destinations. Other European countries with major airports have also imposed transit restrictions, some more wide-ranging than those we are contemplating. For example, Germany has 90 nationalities excluded from their transit without visa concession; France has 10; and the Netherlands 20. In order to assist regular travellers such as businessmen a greater range of multiple entry visas has been introduced with periods of validity ranging from six months to five years.
The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, referred to carriers' liability and its application to sea carriers. I appreciate the particular circumstances of ferry companies. Whether my noble friend Lord King would agree that life under the Immigration (Carrier's Liability) Act is harder for ferries than airlines I rather doubt. I doubt whether a system of charges which was commensurate with the fare paid would find favour with the long-haul airlines.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about fines. It is not the case that only British Airways pays its debts. We do not disclose the records of individual carriers because most regard the information as potentially commercially sensitive.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested that it was ridiculous to assume that asylum seekers could obtain travel documents. That ignores the fact that people must present their documents before boarding the aeroplane to the United Kingdom. Most applicants dispose of documents after embarkation in a deliberate attempt to complicate the handling of the case. If refugees have escaped to a neighbouring country but believe that the United Kingdom is a more appropriate place of refuge in the long term, they can of course apply to the British diplomatic post.
The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, referred to the number of asylum applications. I do not know where he obtained the figure of 17,000 for 1991. As I said in my opening remark, the total last year was nearly 45,000. He also said that asylum seekers would come 529 only from countries with serious human rights records. Asylum seekers come to the United Kingdom from over 70 countries. The sad fact is that most countries have poor human rights records, but that fact alone does not make someone a genuine refugee.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and a number of other noble Lords said that those who were detained needed more than two days to apply for approval. They need only present the basis of the case within two days—enough to persuade the adjudicator that the low threshold of the arguable case is met. Our main interest is to extend the time limit for most cases, because there have been difficulties with the post. Those difficulties do not arise when the documents are handed in personally. I can assure noble Lords that advice from the UKIAS is readily available in places of detention.
I come now to the right of appeal. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, asked why people should not be allowed a right of appeal. He said that it would cost the Government nothing to be generous. It is difficult to compare criminal appeals with asylum cases. Those who appeal in criminal cases have something to lose. The court may order that the time that has already been spent in custody will not count towards the sentence, but in asylum and other immigration cases the applicant has nothing to lose. The delay works entirely to the applicant's benefit. There is positive benefit in trying every possible avenue of appeal. We need to be more effective in relation to those cases than in other areas of the law.
The noble and learned Lord said that the adjudicators could make decisions on documents that the applicant had not seen. The revised version of the draft immigration rules makes it clear that the applicant will be given a copy of any interview notes and other documents when there is a refusal. The applicant will have seen everything that goes to the adjudicator. That was always the Government's intention. I am glad to be able to make that point clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred to the requirement for leave to appeal. Applicants will have the opportunity to state their case. It must be done in writing initially. Any arguable case will go to an oral hearing. We are reflecting upon the best way of operating the filter mechanism. We shall introduce amendments at a later stage.
A number of your Lordships were worried about the appeal procedure. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, my noble friend Lady Flather and the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay of Bragar, said that there was no right of appeal. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and other noble Lords were also worried. Let us consider for a moment what is the position. A person who arrives at an airport, or who has been here as a visitor, applies to the Home Office for asylum. He can be accepted or refused. If he is refused, he applies to an adjudicator for leave to appeal. The adjudicator will look at the papers. He may refuse leave to appeal or grant an oral hearing. If he refuses leave to appeal, 530 the applicant can apply to a tribunal for leave to appeal. He applies for leave to appeal, not, as the noble and learned Lord said, for a right of appeal. The only reason for that is that in all areas of the law, as he will know far better than I, one has the requirement for leave to appeal to ensure that frivolous cases do not get through. That is why a person can apply to a tribunal for leave to appeal. If that is granted, the tribunal will look at the papers. It may refuse leave to appeal or grant an oral hearing. If leave to appeal is refused at that stage, but there is a point of law which is in dispute, the applicant can apply to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal. There are a number of appeal steps throughout the whole procedure that the applicant can use before he is turned away.
The noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, referred to judicial review. The judicial review process is available at any stage to challenge the legality and propriety of any decision, but we hope that the process that is being established will make judicial review less necessary.
A number of other points have been made, but I shall not be able to get through them without being a burden upon your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, referred to the fact —this is an important point —that there would be no oral interviews. That is a misunderstanding. No one will be refused asylum without a full oral interview with Home Office officials. Those interviews typically take up to eight hours. The Bill provides that thereafter the adjudicator may refuse leave to appeal without an oral hearing when he is satisfied that there is no arguable claim. I shall read the debate. I know that there are a number of point to which I have not replied. I shall see whether I can reply to the majority of them by letter.
The Bill is not against the genuine asylum seeker or refugee. It seeks to weed out those people who are arriving on the back of the system—of which there has been plenty of evidence—and to ensure that the system is good and that genuine asylum seekers will be able to obtain their approval far quicker than they would have had it under the current system. For those reasons, I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a second reading.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.