HL Deb 02 March 1993 vol 543 cc538-57

3.8 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Report be now received.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Earl Ferrers.)

Lord Bonham-Carter rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion "That the Report be now received" to leave out ("now") and at end insert ("when the House has had an opportunity to consider proposals from Her Majesty's Government to privatise the Immigration Service.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I was moved to table this amendment by a report in the Independent yesterday which stated: Among the more controversial areas identified for potential privatisation over the next two years are computerised police records … But the suggestion causing most concern is that all port-of-entry control be put out to tender … Previously, Home Office ministers have rejected any market testing of immigration, believing the sensitivity of the area does not lend itself to privatisation. The £120 million programme was drawn up from a study by the chartered accountants, Coopers and Lybrand, and an in-house privatisation survey". That report leads me to wonder whether immigration control is to be handed over to Securicor or some other value-for-money private company. I wonder what the significance is of the amendments we are tabling, of the responses of the noble Earl to our questions and of the debate which we are holding.

We plough through the immigration Bill meticulously, clause by clause and word by word trying to inject an element of civility and justice into, this unhappy measure. But what will happen if the administration of the whole business is handed over to some value-for-money private company which is in it for profit? Such an operator may be interested only in the bottom line and making what he can out of wretched refugees fleeing from persecution and possibly death.

Before we embark on further consideration of the Bill the noble Earl should tell us whether privatisation of immigration control is on the agenda. If it is we should reconsider engaging in the debate on which we are about to embark. I beg to move.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I speak in support of the comments which have just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I am sorry, I should have said the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I live in hope that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, will speak with the same sense as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter.

I hope that the Minister will deny the report that has appeared in the newspapers because it is an extremely offensive suggestion. I recall that when I was a Minister at the Department of Trade dealing with aviation the chief executive of the British Airports Authority, who later became its chairman, took the view—with which I concurred —that it was offensive that Securicor should be looking after searching operations at Heathrow and other BAA airports. The primary reason was that very little was done to educate Securicor employees in that task. Just imagine the educative process that would be required for such people to deal effectively, properly and humanely with asylum seekers and refugees.

It is important that a suggestion of the kind which has been made should be cast aside by the Government altogether. It is not worthy of the Government's consideration. I hope that the Minister will give the House some reassurance on that point immediately.

Lord Renton

My Lords, it is fair enough that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, should wish to table what is in effect a Parliamentary Question and use this opportunity to do so. However, this asylum Bill is most urgently needed. Tens of thousands of people have been claiming to come to this country when we have 3 million unemployed. They do so under the umbrella of the asylum laws, which have been very generous in the past. It is only right that the Government should have this Bill at last in order to put the matter right.

I remind your Lordships that the Bill was introduced in the last Parliament. We have already devoted a good deal of time to it in both Houses in this Session. Therefore I hope that my noble friend will make it clear that the Bill is not to be delayed.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I should like to make two points in response to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. First, the Bill was withdrawn during the last Parliament because the Government did not consider it a priority in terms of time. Secondly, all that is required to proceed with the Bill is an assurance from the Government that they do not intend to privatise the immigration service.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, anyone who understands the first thing about parliamentary procedure recognises this as a delaying manoeuvre. There is no need for this amendment at all. The matter has been discussed at length and a decision has been arrived at. The word "now", which means that we want the Government to implement what Parliament has decided, is the right one.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, if the noble Earl tells the House that there is no truth in the report, there will be no delay at all. We shall be able to continue with the Report stage in three minutes' time, because that is all the time he needs to say that.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, if the Minister were to confirm that it is the intention to privatise, that could not be done by secondary legislation. That being so, would not a future occasion be the right time to consider appropriate safeguards and the form of transfer of functions rather than now? Although well intentioned, the amendment is in a sense premature.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said that it would take me only three minutes to say what I have to say and to clear up all the concerns. I could not rise earlier since the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, had put down an amendment which has stimulated an irrelevant debate. The noble Lord has, not for the first time, fallen into the trap of believing all that he reads in the newspapers. In that he is now followed by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. The noble Lord has allowed his imagination to go into overdrive.

I can assure your Lordships that the report in the newspaper which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, read is wrong. My right honourable friend has no plans and has never had any plans to market test the work of immigration officers at ports of entry. My right honourable friend is undertaking a programme of market testing in areas for which he is responsible in accordance with the proposals in the White Paper Competing for Quality. Given the nature of the discretions which are exercised on his behalf under immigration law, my right honourable friend has never believed that the work is suitable for market testing.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that satisfactory reply, which is exactly the one I hoped to receive. I am most grateful to him for clearing up a matter which, even though it appeared in the newspapers, might have been believed because sometimes reports which appear in newspapers are true. Therefore, I am glad to have that assurance from the noble Earl.

If the noble Earl casts his mind back to the time when he answered a similar question from my noble friend Lord Harris about the privatisation of prisons, he will remember that he said that there was no hidden agenda but there proved to be an agenda of which he had not been informed. I hope that on this occasion there is no hidden agenda. I take it that there is not. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to: Report received.

Clause 1 [Interpretation]:

[Amendment No. 1 not moved.]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 10, leave out ("the United Kingdom's obligations under").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2 I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 18, 26 and 31B which are all to the same effect. The purpose of the amendments is to take out the words, the United Kingdom's obligations under", the 1951 convention. The reason for taking out those words is that, as we understand it, the only United Kingdom obligation is not to return a person applying for asylum directly to the country of claimed persecution. In other words, the addition of the phrase, the United Kingdom's obligations under", in all the places in which it occurs restricts the application of the convention where claimants for asylum and refugees come from safe third countries.

At Committee stage I was obliged to point out that few places from which people seek asylum are accessible by direct flights to this country or directly by ship. The vast majority of people coming to this country as claimants for asylum come through a safe third country. Just as all of the immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union travelled through Vienna or other ports of call, so anybody coming to this country from Iraq, Somalia, any of the central African countries which are at present in turmoil or any country where there is a real risk of persecution will almost certainly, because of the distances involved and the nature of the travel business, have to come through a so-called safe third country.

It is the intention of the amendments to ensure that the Government do not have the opportunity to use that fact of the travel business to slough off all responsibility for claimants for asylum. Under the Bill as drafted those people could return to a safe third country without any investigation being made let alone any agreement being secured that the safe third country would not take exactly similar action and return them to the country where they suffered persecution and from which they fled. We take the Government's protestations of adherence to the United Nations convention of 1951 seriously. With the provisos that I have made, we invite the Government to accept the amendments, to give full effect to the United Nations convention and not to have a bolt hole relating to the ability to return applicants to safe third countries. I beg to move.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and other noble Lords opposite on the wisdom they have shown in following government advice at Committee stage about confining the operation of the Bill to the convention of 1951 and the protocols made under it. That is indeed a step towards agreement that we should like to have in your Lordships' House on the provisions of the Bill.

I had rather hoped that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, could be reassured that the danger which he has suggested will arise is not one with which we need be concerned. We are legislating for the law of the United Kingdom; we do not make laws for other countries. It is surely right that where we have an international convention to which we are a party, we should consider those parts of it which are relevant to the United Kingdom. That is what the Bill does. If the noble Lord needs further assurance, I invite his attention to the second clause of the Bill which reads simply and is very operative. It states: Nothing in the immigration rules (within the meaning of the 1971 Act) shall lay down any practice which would be contrary to the Convention". I should have thought that the noble Lord has nothing to fear.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the definition of a claim for asylum and the Bill offer protection to asylum seekers by relating the claim to the United Kingdom's obligations under the convention. For the purposes of an asylum claim, the essential obligation is contained in Article 33 of the convention which forbids the return of a refugee to a country in which his life or freedom would be threatened. The convention deals with other issues and rights which are of importance to a refugee once he lives in a particular country. But those have no relevance whatever to the determination of an asylum claim.

The amendment seems to envisage that a person's removal from the country can in some sense contravene the 1951 convention as distinct from the United Kingdom's obligations under that convention. That is simply not the case. The convention works by imposing obligations on contracting states. The key obligation in regard to asylum is the obligation in Article 33 not to send a refugee to a country where his life or his freedom would be threatened. The proposed amendments would not add any measure of protection whatever for refugees over and above that which is already in the Bill.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Minister say, and I am not reassured. The noble Lord is right in saying that the Bill is concerned with United Kingdom law rather than with the obligations of others. However, having listened to the Minister's reply, I still do not detect any sign that he recognises that if someone comes from, let us say, Mogadishu, or (as I cited in Committee) from Adana in Eastern Turkey, Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, or northern Sri Lanka, via Frankfurt, he comes to this country from Frankfurt. Under those circumstances, as I understand the convention, the United Kingdom's obligations under the convention relate to Frankfurt rather than to Mogadishu or to Sulaymaniyah.

If I am wrong, I shall be delighted not only to withdraw the amendment but never to speak on the subject again. From the distinction which the Minister made in Committee between the convention and our obligations under the convention it seems that there must be some difference. The Minister has been more categoric today. I believe that I should take the opportunity between now and Third Reading to compare his words at Report and Committee stages and if necessary to return to the matter. I am delighted to give way to the Minister.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the thought of the noble Lord never speaking again on the subject stimulates me to rise to my feet. To do so, I have to have the leave of your Lordships; but I make only this point. It might help to clear up the noble Lord's concern. The immigration rules on asylum will spell out that a person will not be sent to a safe third country unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that that country will sara not send him elsewhere contrary to the principles of the convention. That is an important facet of the noble Lord's anxiety. I hope that that clarification will satisfy him on the subject for ever.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I should have learned earlier that "never" and "never ever" are words which one does not use in this Chamber or in politics generally. In referring to the draft rules, which I had not seen before, the noble Earl has satisfied my mind that the intentions of the Government are those that we would wish. Whether we believe that the issue should be written on to the face of the Bill at a later stage is another matter. I accept the assurances given by the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Brightman moved Amendment No. 3: Before Clause 3, insert the following new clause:

  1. Young unaccompanied asylum seekers 7,752 words, 1 division
  2. c557
  3. Appointment and functions of advisory panel 300 words