§ 2.52 p.m.
§ Lord Jay asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ How they propose to reduce delays in reaching decisions on claims for refugee status by asylum seekers currently held for long periods in Campsfield House, Oxfordshire, and other detention centres.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, priority is given to asylum applications where the applicant is in detention. Measures which were introduced by the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 have streamlined and accelerated the processing of all asylum claims.
§ Lord Jay
My Lords, although it is necessary that each case should be examined carefully, is it really satisfactory—or indeed good—for the reputation of this country that many who are genuine political refugees from oppression and who come to this country in search of civil liberties should find themselves incarcerated not for weeks, but for months, in the conditions of prisoner of war camps, managed in this case by the notorious Group 4 Security organisation from which there was a forcible outbreak only last week?
My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord is entirely fair. He refers to the centre being 1582 something like a concentration camp. In fact, Campsfield House is a hostel; it is not a prison. It has accommodation for 200 detainees. It has been extensively refurbished, and an architect advised on the colour schemes for the carpets and the curtains. Our experience is that many people who claim asylum are not asylum seekers, and that only about 3 per cent. of those who applied in 1993 were, in fact, granted asylum.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for getting the nomenclature wrong; but I do not think that what he said was particularly complimentary.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
My Lords, as distinct from asylum seekers, is the Minister not concerned about the numbers of illegal immigrants who are managing to settle in our country? Would not the introduction of a national identity card scheme help to solve the problem?
My Lords, the noble Lord is a great aficionado of an identity card scheme. We are concerned about the number of people who come to this country purporting to be asylum seekers, but who are in fact using the asylum system to try to get into this country. One of the reasons why we introduced the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act a short while ago was to try to expedite the process. I seem to remember that that legislation did not, regrettably, have the wholehearted support of the Opposition. The fact is that the Act has expedited matters a great deal. Those who are not proper asylum seekers can be dealt with in the proper way, and those who are asylum seekers can be given refugee status earlier.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ripon
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that many of those who are held in Campsfield House and elsewhere are in a high degree of anxiety? Does he agree that that anxiety is caused in part by the uncertainty of their situation and not knowing for how long they will be held? Bearing in mind that they are not criminals but detainees, will the Minister undertake to ensure that as much information as possible is given to them about why they are there, how long they are likely to remain there, and how they can gain access to relatives and friends?
My Lords, I understand the anxiety of the right reverend Prelate. I should tell him that only about 1 per cent. of applicants are detained and that only 650 are detained at any one time. It is important that the right reverend Prelate should realise that the detained cases get priority. Detention decisions are authorised by a chief immigration officer. They are now reviewed locally at least every seven days. After one month, the case is reviewed at immigration service headquarters and, thereafter, monthly at increasingly senior levels. Reviews are conducted in close consultation with the asylum division and monthly notifications are sent to detainees to let them know where they stand.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, am I right in thinking that the Minister said that only 3 per cent. were genuine asylum seekers? If so, can he tell me how he knows that only 3 per cent. were genuine asylum seekers?
My Lords, we keep an account of those who apply for asylum and an account of those who are given asylum. The answer is that in 1992—I think that I said 1993—the figure was 3 per cent. and that in 1993 it was 7 per cent.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, to put the matter in perspective, can my noble friend say how many of those detained are awaiting the result of their internal appeal, and how many are there having further exercised their right to seek leave for judicial review?
My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend those particular facts, but I can tell him that the delay before the Act was passed was caused by having to await the original decision of the asylum division, then having to wait for the appeal to be determined, and then awaiting the documentation prior to removal. Before the passage of the Act, that process could take two to three years. Our aim is to resolve the application in three months—and that has largely happened. If the claim is without foundation—in other words, if the person has arrived from a safe third country or the claim was frivolous or vexatious—the appeal is determined within seven days. Other claims are supposed to be dealt with within 42 days.
§ Lord Ennals
My Lords, if what the Minister has said indicates that the Government are seeking to speed up the process, which is the idea behind the Question, does he accept that not only is there a humanitarian aspect to this, which was referred to by the right reverend Prelate, but that there is also a public relations aspect? Does he accept that there is bad publicity in other countries about the length of time that people are kept in prison circumstances when what they are seeking is freedom?
My Lords, I dare say that they are seeking freedom, but when they come to this country saying that they are asylum seekers, one has to find out whether or not they are asylum seekers. If they come to this country without the proper entry permits, they are not allowed in. When they then say, "Ah, but we are seeking asylum", that has to be considered carefully. I can tell the noble Lord that half of the point of the Act that was introduced in 1993 was to speed up the process. Before the passage of that Act, there were only 50 or 60 officials in the asylum division, which was totally overloaded; there are now 650. That is one of the reasons why the process has been greatly expedited.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the people most genuine in seeking asylum are those least likely to have the documents?
My Lords, that may well be so; but it does not alter the fact that only 3 per cent. of the people 1584 who applied for asylum received it. The inference was that the other 97 per cent. were not proper asylum seekers.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, the Minister criticised opposition to the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act. Does he agree that our opposition was to the removal of appeals procedures that already existed? The Government's argument was that this would speed up appeals, and therefore, presumably, reduce the time that appellants spend in custody. Is it not curious, therefore, that in response to repeated requests the Government have been unable to give a figure for the average time spent in detention before an appeal is heard?
My Lords, a number of people spend a variety of time in these places. Some of them are there for one or two months and others for two or three months. The most extreme cases are there for more than 12 months; but that is a small proportion of the total.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that in order to give evidence it would be proper for him to state that the average time spent in detention before an appeal was heard was, prior to the passing of the Bill, X months and, since the passing of the Bill, it is Y months; in other words, a smaller figure. Cannot the Minister do that?
My Lords, I do not believe that that will be particularly helpful because each case is considered on its merits. Some cases are dealt with very quickly and some take a long time to deal with. The average time is relatively immaterial.
My Lords, the number of people has risen from 50 to 650. That is a substantial increase by any standards.