HL Deb 11 January 1996 vol 568 cc258-63

3.25 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the circumstances in which they decided to deport Dr. Muhammad al-Mas'ari.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the decision to remove Dr. al-Mas'ari was taken when it became apparent that there was a safe country where he was admissible.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Dr. al-Mas'ari is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution in his country of origin and therefore is a refugee within the meaning of the convention irrespective of whether or not there has been a determination to that effect? In those circumstances how can the Government pretend to get round their obligation under Article 32.1 of the convention not to deport Dr. al-Mas'ari except on grounds of national security and public order? Has it not been made perfectly plain by Miss Ann Widdecombe in repeated appearances on television that the reasons for his deportation are our commercial interests?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the important point is that a safe place is found for Dr. al-Mas'ari. However, it has to be accepted that Dr. al-Mas'ari is an illegal immigrant. He has used the hospitality of this country to wage a campaign to bring down the Saudi Government. The decision to remove him to a safe third country was taken strictly within our obligations under national and international law.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is inexcusable that a dissident from a foreign country should be able to come to this country and stir up trouble between this country and a friendly government overseas? Does my noble friend agree that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was absolutely right to deport this man? Finally, can my noble friend confirm that if Dr. al-Mas'ari appeals against his deportation order he will not, as a dissident and illegal immigrant, be entitled to legal aid?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with much of what my noble friend says. Our Government exist to advance and protect the interests of the United Kingdom. Those include people's jobs and peace and stability within the Gulf states. They also include not damaging our national or international interests. The activities of Dr. al-Mas'ari since his arrival in this country in his attempts to overthrow the Saudi Government put all those interests at risk. It is therefore entirely proper for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to take such matters into account while at the same time honouring his obligations under the law.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, since when has an asylum seeker who properly claims a place of safety in this country under the Geneva convention been labelled an illegal immigrant?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is not in doubt that Dr. al-Mas'ari is an illegal immigrant. He left Saudi Arabia and obtained a false passport in the Yemen. He then obtained a visa to enter this country. He entered this country as an illegal immigrant. The noble Lord may shake his head, but that is a fact. Dr. al-Mas'ari left Saudi Arabia for the Yemen. Under false pretences he obtained a passport in the Yemen and then obtained a visa to enter this country and entered as an illegal immigrant. I have to say in addition, that there is no right under any law for an asylum seeker to pick and choose the country in which he wishes to reside. Therefore, it is entirely within the law for my right honourable friend to secure a safe place even if that is in a third country.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of those who are dissidents in their own country are precisely those who need asylum for the very reason that they are under threat of persecution? Will she further accept that the national interests of this country include our stature as a nation which is believed to hold certain moral standards, including that of providing asylum for those who need it? Can the noble Baroness give an assurance that such moral considerations were given full weight together with commercial ones in reaching the decision in relation to Dr. al-Mas'ari?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there is no doubt that this asylum application is being accepted and treated seriously. There is no question of this gentleman being sent back to the place where he perceives his life will be in danger. We are honouring our obligation to find a secure place for him; that we have done. The legal basis on which that decision was reached is paragraph 345 of the Immigration Rules which provides that an asylum application may be refused without substantive consideration if there is clear evidence of admissibility to a safe country.

The Prime Minister of Dominica has given an assurance that his Government would be prepared to allow entry to Dominica; and if Dr. al-Mas'ari were to seek asylum it would be granted.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, for what reason was Dominica selected? By what process was Dominica selected as the place where the Government could take action to get rid of Dr. al-Mas'ari? It is a process which is considered by many on both sides of the House as being discreditable to the Government.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am fairly confident in saying that the Members of this House who sit behind me believe that it is not right that we should give harbour to someone who acts against the British interest. However, we have an obligation under international law. That obligation is to secure a safe place. We asked Dominica; it accepted. We believe that it is the right place for this gentleman.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that the decision to remove Dr. al-Mas'ari to Dominica does not in any way breach this country's obligations under international law?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that I have said that, but I am happy to reassure my noble friend that that is our understanding. Dr. al-Mas'ari has the right of appeal. We do not know whether he has yet exercised it. He has 10 working days from 3rd January. If he does so, we will stand judgment. However, our understanding is that we have acted entirely within the law and under our obligations to international law.

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may hope to command agreement on both sides of the House by saying this. If the Government of Saudi Arabia were to require, as a condition of future contract, that we ban the consumption of alcohol in this country the Government would say, "No", no matter how many jobs were involved. If I may count on that assurance, will the noble Baroness tell us why alcohol matters more than free speech?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if I may be so bold, in the context of this Question I think that that point is rather frivolous.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that if you took into your house a stray dog which persists in biting the postmen, you are entitled to find another home for that dog where it has fewer postmen to bite?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if I have to concede to equality of treatment, I have to say also that in the context of this Question that was frivolous. I also believe that the law well covers the issue of dangerous dogs.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in a number of answers the Government have relied on the general interests of this country. The Minister will know that we on these Benches recognise the obligation of the Government in general to protect the interests of this country. However, is not the issue of an asylum application a quasi-judicial function rather than a political question? Is it not wrong, therefore, for the Home Secretary to rely so heavily on the country's interests in considering an individual question of this kind?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no, I entirely support the activities of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in this matter. It is absolutely right that he should consider British interests. When someone is actively working against British interests, damaging both economic and strategic interests, and international relations between this country and another, it is right that my right honourable friend considers two issues: his obligation under the law to secure a safe place for an asylum seeker; and his obligation to protect the British interest.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, how many jobs are at stake from Saudi Arabia at present? Can the noble Baroness tell me how those who oppose the Home Secretary's actions propose to replace those jobs?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, those who have spoken in favour of Dr. al-Mas' art staying in this country should address themselves to the second point of my noble friend's question. It is not a matter for me.

Trade with Saudi Arabia amounts to about £1.5 billion. That represents many thousands of jobs in this country, all of which would be at risk if we pursued giving harbour to people who were actively working against our commercial and strategic interests in the Middle East.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, have the Saudi Arabian Government stated what she has said in this House: namely, that defence contracts would be cancelled were this man not to be removed from this country?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no, I shall not confirm that because I do not believe it to be true.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does not the lack of a ringing endorsement from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for the action of the Home Secretary contrast rather strangely with the suggestion from the leaderof the Labour Party that Thatcherism would be safe in his hands?

Noble Lords


Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no, it is not frivolous. In the context of the Question, I believe that my noble friend Lady Thatcher, and my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have at the heart of their policy making the economic well-being of this country, and strategic interests between this country and abroad. I believe that it is one of fire legacies that we are happy to carry. In view of some of the remarks of noble Lords opposite, I wonder where they stand on the issue.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, what action are the Government contemplating, by legislation if necessary, to ensure that in future refugees who are granted asylum in this country are not able to campaign politically against the overseas interests of this country?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. We have an honourable tradition in this country of giving safe haven to people who arc in fear of their lives abroad. However, if their activities act against the British interests, and put the British interests at stake, and if there is an alternative safe place in a third country, it is entirely legitimate for my right honourable friend to consider that option.

Lord Howell

My Lords, as regards people seeking political asylum, are there any rules which govern political activities which can take place? Most people believe that there should be such rules. People who seek asylum should receive an explanation about what they can or cannot do until their application has been determined.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no. Li fact even the activities of Dr. al-Mas'ari were not illegal as such. However, what he was doing was to act against the British interest. When my right honourable friend had to make a decision about whether he should be given safe haven here or in a third country, he thought that it was in the British interest that he should go to a third country.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if there is a conflict between Article 345 of the Immigration Rules and Article 32 of the convention, will the noble Baroness confirm that our treaty obligations to the convention would prevail?

Will the Secretary of State, whose father would have been an illegal entrant if the law now prevailing had operated at the time he came here, bear in mind that by giving way to the blackmail of the Saudi Arabian medieval autocracy we have now opened ourselves to similar treatment from every other country in the world which awards large contracts to British companies and which wants their dissidents to be expelled from this country?

Baroness Blotch

My Lords, my right honourable friend acted honourably in this instance. He acted in British interests and I believe that he is right.