§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations (S.I. 1996 No. 30) be annulled.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we believe that the regulations we are debating this afternoon are rather shocking. They deliberately remove benefit from some of the most traumatised and troubled people to arrive in this country and that will leave them destitute. Why? Well, the Government occupy a world of some very simple propositions. The Government believe that the number of asylum seekers has increased without good cause and that almost all of them are bogus. The 1312 Government claim to know that because they say 70 per cent. of the applicants apply for asylum status once they are in this country and, accordingly, they are eating up the benefit bill and need to be deterred and the best way of doing that is to refuse them benefit. That is the Government's view. It is very tidy.
§ In this House—and, indeed, in the country—I believe that we are fortunate. We live under the rule of law; we have never been invaded; we have never had enemies on our land; and we do not fear government. In fact, many of us in this House are government. We do not fear terrorists; we do not fear police; we do not fear officials and we do not fear the dark. We know our rights. We are sure that the system is on our side. How do we begin to comprehend the situation where an asylum seeker comes from, or what it is like to arrive here confused, terrified, perhaps unable to speak English, often in broken health and desperate for the safety of anonymity? How can we comprehend that? Which of us has experienced that?
§ These regulations are chilling, not just because of the benefit income they refuse to defenceless people but because, in my view, they reveal a lack of imaginative understanding of what seeking asylum is all about and of what it means to be on the wrong side—the dark side—of the official system. Government, almost because they are government, can never understand that. That is why we believe that these regulations are founded on a set of propositions, every one of which is incorrect, and which together are indefensible and whose consequences are morally wrong.
Let us look at the Government's arguments. Their first proposition is that the number of asylum seekers has risen without good cause and therefore most must be bogus. The United Nation's High Commission for Refugees states in its evidence to the Government's own independent Social Security Advisory Committee,
In our view the rise in asylum claims may be more rationally seen as a consequence of unprecedented scale of global conflict which produces refugee flows. Moreover refugee recognition rates must be analysed with considerable caution. A narrow application of the refugee definition will reduce the number of successful applicants but lower figures are then tendentiously used as evidence that bogus claims are increasing thereby justifying further restrictive measures. We believe that there are many dangers in such a self-justificatory and secular analysis".
Those are the words of the UNHCR, not ours. In the first six months of 1995 this country recognised just 5 per cent. of those seeking asylum as refugees, though of course it granted exceptional leave to remain to others. France and Germany recognised twice as many; Italy and Switzerland three times as many. Are we really saying that our asylum seekers are less genuine than theirs? Is it not more likely that our criteria are already more stringent than theirs, just as the UNHCR suggests?
§ The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)
My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness might help the House by putting her figures into context and by telling the House 1313 how many asylum seekers seek applications in some of those states—for example, Italy—so that her percentage can be put against a figure.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I am happy to try to give the House those figures. The latest complete figures I have are for 1994 when the figure for Germany was 127,000; for the Netherlands 52,000; and for the UK 42,000. I do not have the figures for 1995 but for the previous year Italy had a figure of 1,800, coming down from 31,700 in 1991. Nevertheless, the figure for Germany of 127,000 is twice our number of acceptances, and the position is similar in France. I do not have the figures for 1995 but I have given the complete figures for 1994 and they show that in Germany, France, Sweden and Switzerland both the absolute figures and the proportional figures were well above those of the UK.
Of course there is a proportion—perhaps a high proportion—of economic migrants for which this country cannot take responsibility. Of course we accept that a country must protect its borders and cannot permit unlimited entry. However, the right way to do that is to have fair but fast decisions on applications for asylum status. Instead, as at December last, 15 per cent. of those who applied in 1991 had not even had their initial determination heard. The figure was 15 per cent. in 1992; 15 per cent. in 1993; 25 per cent. in 1994; and 25 per cent.—but that is more understandable—in 1995. Nearly 70,000 people—some of whose applications were lodged before 1991—have not had even their original application heard.
I am sure that the Minister would welcome another foreign comparison. Germany in the first six months of 1995 heard 112,000 applications. This country in the same period managed just 12,000. Would the Minister care to comment? Perhaps he would not. Precisely because we do not resolve asylum bids on asylum grounds we instead are trying with these regulations to deter asylum bids on social security grounds. Because we do not—and will not—hear the applications when we should, we instead try to deter the applicant by denying him any means of financial support. In all fairness, whose fault is that—the person who seeks asylum or the system which will not hear his application on time, as is the case here? If we want to cut the social security bill, we should do so by hearing and determining applications speedily and then, but only then, denying benefits to those who do not merit them, not by withholding benefits indiscriminately from those who are genuine and those who are not, which is the Government's policy.
I now turn to the Government's second main proposition. The Government say, "We know that most are bogus because they apply for asylum once arrived in this country". The Government say that those applying at port of entry will receive benefits because they are true asylum seekers and that only those who apply once they are in the country will be denied benefits because they are bogus. I suggest that the Government are wilfully refusing to understand what it means to seek asylum and they are equally wilfully 1314 ignoring the advice of their own Social Security Advisory Committee. That committee states at paragraph 38 of its report to the Government,There are many valid reasons why people do not make their asylum claim immediately on arrival. Lack of knowledge of the procedures, arriving in a confused and frightened state, language difficulties or fear of officialdom may all be insuperable barriers to making any kind of approach to the authorities at port of entry. Many intending applicants will quite reasonably want to get help and advice before making their claim. We are told by refugee organisations that there is a common fear that making an asylum application while still in port is more likely to result in immediate deportation or being held in detention. For these and other reasons it is easy to see why for the majority of asylum seekers it appears much safer to make their claim from inside the UK".I emphasise that these are the words of the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee. I suspect that what I have described is what each and every one of us would ourselves do in a similar situation.
The majority of asylum seekers—the Refugee Council says this applies to up to 80 per cent. of its clients—apply for asylum within a month of arrival and most do so within a week or so of being here. They are not holiday makers, tourists or visitors who are staying here after their money runs out to enjoy the delights of our social security system. Their first priority was to enter the safety of our country; their second was to get in touch with an organisation to help them; and their third was to seek official permission to stay. They did all of that within a couple of weeks of being here. Can anyone truthfully say that they were wrong?
Yet these regulations erect a distinction between application on arrival and application in the country. That distinction is, I believe—to coin a phrase—quite bogus. If the Government were right that those who apply at port of entry are genuine and those who apply when in country are not, virtually all those who gain asylum status or exceptional leave to remain would be from those who apply at port of entry. That would follow logically, would it not? Yet precisely the reverse is true. A lower number of people and a lower proportion of applicants gain refugee status at port of entry whereas a higher number and a higher proportion gain refugee status and exceptional leave to remain once they are in this country. Therefore by the Government's own criteria there are more likely to be genuine asylum seekers among those to whom the Government are denying benefit than among those to whom, under these regulations, they will continue to grant it. That is perverse, and it is wrong. Yet the Government are proposing tonight income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit to all in-country applicants. We know that they need the money because those are means-tested benefits without even a threshold of a capital limit. If asylum seekers had other means of support, they would not be eligible for any of those benefits. The old, the young, children, families, the sick, pregnant, disabled, and in some cases those who have been the victims of torture, will all he left without any means of support, in the belief, I suppose, not that they are less deserving than port applicants—the Government's own figures indicate that they are probably more deserving—but presumably in the seedy 1315 hope that such action will deter asylum seekers. They will therefore not come. Therefore the benefit bill will fall.
Are we really saying that we shall deny income support to traumatised children from Somalia in the hope and expectation that it will deter those from applying who are terrified of torture in Iran?
There is likely to be some 2,500 new applicants each month. If they are terrified enough they will still come; and precisely because they are terrified they are more likely to seek asylum once in this country as they fear otherwise that they will be turned away on arrival. What are they supposed to live on when the little money they have runs out and they wait the eight, 12 or 15 months, or the two or five years, to have their original application heard by the Home Office? How will they buy food? How will they keep warm? Where will they sleep? Do we expect them to join the rough sleepers? Do we expect them to huddle under Waterloo Bridge? Do we expect them to steal, to break windows, sell drugs or go into prostitution? They have no home to go back to in this country. Those applicants have no means of supporting themselves because they are not allowed to work for the first six months.
What can they do? What should they do? What do they do? Many will have children traumatised—perhaps deeply—by what they have been through. What will we be doing to them? Under the Children Act 1989, though government may walk away from those children, the local authorities cannot do so. What social security will not do, local social services will have to do. Will we take children into care and offer them dingy bed and breakfast accommodation, church halls, warehouses, with the spaces partitioned by flapping sheets on ropes, or tents?
As Save the Children has said:These proposals will devastate every aspect of children's lives causing homelessness, ill-heath, poor development, loss of education, family breakdown and emotional distress".Are we deliberately going to let that happen to children because their parents did not tidily fit our regulations? Is that what we are willing to do?
We are utterly opposed to the regulations. They are morally repugnant. By convention we cannot vote against the regulations; nor can we amend them. Hence on today's Order Paper we have two Motions which we ask the Government to accept once the regulations have been implemented. We on these Benches will support the Motions in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that benefits should continue while appeals are being heard, and of our noble friend Lord Dubs in arguing that at the very minimum we should protect the position of children so far as we can. Our Motion will bring the children of asylum seeking families to a similar position to that of our own 16 and 17 year-olds: that though denied benefits as of right they should be eligible for discretionary hardship payments as regards living on or off the streets. We do not believe that the children of asylum seekers should be treated more harshly than our own. For centuries this country has been a sanctuary 1316 for those in distress. Virtue has been rewarded because yesterday's asylum seekers have become today's entrepreneurs.
Perhaps I may conclude with a final quotation from the Social Security Advisory Committee—the Government's own independent advisory committee—which states:The reality of the proposals is that thousands of men, women and children will be left with no means of providing themselves with food or shelter. Many will have no option but to live on the streets of our major cities and ports. Health professionals have warned that, given the vulnerability of many asylum seekers due to their already precarious physical or mental health, some will die".The advisory committee continues:We do not believe that solution should be found by putting at risk of destitution many people who are genuinely seeking refuge in this country among whom may be some of the most vulnerable and defenceless in our society".It is not too late for the Government, encouraged by this House, to think again. Otherwise some 30,000 to 40,000 troubled, traumatised and destitute families next year will be living on and off our streets. We can make a modest difference tonight if your Lordships choose to support the Motions.
Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations (S.I. 1996 No. 30) be annulled.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)
§ 3.26 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, as I understand it, we are using a procedure similar to a grouping in Committee. Although there is only one Question formally before the House, we are debating a grouping of three Motions: that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham; my own; and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We on these Benches support all three, each to the degree procedurally appropriate to its status within the conventions of the Chamber. I wish to speak to all three in turn. However, because my Motion and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, do not cover the whole field of regulations I speak, first, to the prayer in the name of the noble Baroness.
I listened to the debate on the regulations last Tuesday in another place. Almost the moment I entered, I was extremely surprised to hear myself being ticked off by name by the Secretary of State for agreeing with my honourable friend Mr. Alton that we are dealing not with bogus refugees but with bogus refusals. Since it is appropriate to respond to a Minister in another place, I should like, if I may, to begin by replying briefly to the Secretary of State.
First, the figures that he used were concerned only with those accepted for refugee status, and left out the 15 per cent. who are given exceptional leave to remain. That means that on his figures the genuine go up from 4 per cent. to 20 per cent. which is a significant change.
Secondly, I must repeat that I cannot regard the criteria used in the 1993 Act as satisfying me as a way of distinguishing between the bogus and the genuine. I accept, of course, in the words used by one of Henry VIII's bishops in commenting on one of that monarch's more wayward acts, "I take it for law because the lawyers so said. But my reason digested it not".
1317 Perhaps I may take one example. If I were a Bosnian Moslem living in Mostar, watching the Croat forces closing in, I might have a well founded fear of persecution. But to apply for asylum in this country under the terms of the 1993 Act in order to secure freedom from persecution by Croats I should have to walk from Mostar to the British consulate in Zagreb. My Lords, my reason digested it not.
There is, too, what has been described among immigration officers as a culture of disbelief. It so happens that the subject arose over drinks after my postgraduate seminar last week. I hasten to assure your Lordships that it was not I who introduced it. It was introduced by an articulate New Yorker with a Cambridge PhD who has been living for 10 years in this country. She has been married to and living with an Englishman long enough to have a daughter about to enter primary school. She was stopped at the airport, detained for questioning for many hours and threatened with deportation under the primary purpose rule. As soon as she raised the subject, she produced an outpouring of indignation from every overseas member of that seminar. They had all had similar experiences, all had friends with similar experiences.
From the point of view of our national interests, one of the most serious was a Canadian businesswoman coming to this country on her company's business. The company had neglected to get the paperwork fully completed, the kind of thing one would have thought a simple phone call might have settled. She was deported to Canada at Her Majesty's expense. That company has probably now taken its European Union business elsewhere. Noble Lords will understand why I speak of a culture of disbelief and why I do not accept that everyone who fails a Home Office test is therefore necessarily bogus.
It is also crucial to me that the regulations make absolutely no attempt to make a distinction between the genuine and the bogus; they apply to all equally. In the words of paragraph 30 of the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee:The proposal to address the perceived problem of economic migrants through the benefits system by financially penalising all but a minority of asylum seekers, without regard to the strength or validity of their claim, was seen as arbitrary and unjust".I cannot help sharing that perception.
The question whether an asylum seeker is genuine or bogus is not one which can be addressed by any formula. It is about individual motives and it must be addressed by individual examination. According to Article 1 of the UN Convention on Refugees, it must be addressed by an individual hearing of claimants. No other way of dealing with bogus asylum seekers is even so much as relevant to the question. I do not know how many asylum seekers are bogus. I am prepared to believe that some are, but the question cannot be addressed by these regulations.
The only attempt to distinguish within the regulations is the discrimination against those who apply at the port of entry. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has saved me a little time by pointing out that more of those who apply in the country are accepted than of those who 1318 apply at the port of entry. So the Government do not believe their own distinction. In that case, I should like to join them: neither do I.
Apart from the points about language which I have made, one often needs help with handling government forms. I know that the Department of Social Security does its best with forms, but none of us always understands them. None of the postgraduates in my seminar with whom I was talking last week would have dreamed of applying at the port of entry. They did not have sufficient confidence in those who would have judged them.
I do not know whether any of your Lordships have ever tried to persuade a rape victim to tell her story in public. I have; I was not successful. Some of the applicants are literally rape victims, especially a number who come from Zaire, I understand. But other victims of torture may have similar difficulty in telling their story. Like the Social Security Advisory' Committee, I should be prepared to discuss a time limit for claiming asylum after entering the country. However, the attempt to make all people apply at the port of entry is insensitive to the evidence and is impractical.
I shall touch on two small points. The first is that the interim payments under the urgent cases rules for people caught by the habitual residence test are being stopped. Since those who have failed habitual residence tests include the niece of my late noble friend Lord Byers, who used to be our leader on these Benches, we believe that the net is catching too much. We must return to that on another occasion. Secondly, as for the rules about sponsorship, I do not understand why the Government have not made allowance for the case of sponsors going bankrupt, which may happen, as with everyone else. A bankrupt sponsor cannot be held to maintain the person for whom he was originally able to answer.
I turn to my Motion. Procedurally it is the type of Motion that will become known as an "Allen", after the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who moved one on 5th December 1995. It makes no attempt to stop the passage of the regulations. It asks the Government, following the passage of the regulations, to ensure that asylum seekers have visible legal means of support and that they have the right to pursue their appeals. When I was working in the Record Office of your Lordships' House last October, I happened to come across a Private Bill from 1610. It said:It is notorious that a sentence may be and is suspended by an appeal duly made to a superior judge. … It is incredible that any judge should proceed without regard of such appeal".That was not said with reference to the present regulations, but I agree with every word.
When my honourable friend in another place, Liz Lynne, used what Conservatives described as "the argument of destitution", cries were heard from the Benches opposite of "Rubbish!". I shall offer the Minister a sporting chance. If he can show me that asylum seekers who are denied benefit have some other legal way of maintaining their livelihood, then he may convince me that that argument is rubbish. I cannot he convinced simply by the bare assertion; I have to hear of something else which may appropriately be done.
1319 The Government's answers so far have been a little uncertain. The Secretary of State in another place said (at col. 239 of Hansard for 23rd January):the vast majority have contacts over here".I should like to know whether that is based on evidence from any study, or is it the Secretary of State's conjecture? If it is evidence, I shall listen to it. If it is conjecture, I beg leave to dissent from it. Many of the Germans who came over here in the 1930s and 1940s, to whom my parents and my wife's parents used to give hospitality, were without any contacts in this country. If that can happen to Germans, I believe that it can also happen to Somalians. I should want evidence before I was moved to doubt that. Can the Minister show me any?
On 11th January, in answer to my noble friend Lady Seear, the Minister said that they could,go back to their own country or find some other way of looking after themselves".—[Official Report,11/1/96; col. 276.]The Minister will have to be a little more specific if he is to convince me that the argument on destitution is rubbish. As for going back to their own country, it is a little like the test of ducking witches. The guilty witch floated and lived and the innocent witch sank and was drowned. I always thought that that was a bit unfair. In much the same way, the genuine refugee may be able, if he came with savings withdrawn, to go elsewhere. But the economic migrant who has no money and whom the Government so much dread will not be able to leave this country. The Government cannot deport such people. The case of in re M stands in the way. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, admitted that there is no plan for deportation.
The Government could, in return for voluntary withdrawal of the asylum claim, finance returning people to their own countries. I have not heard of any government plan to make money available for that purpose. If I hear of any, I will think again. Until I do, I believe the majority of people concerned will be unable to leave this country. They must therefore find some way of living here, or else be left, as we fear, homeless and destitute on the streets, and probably constituting a health hazard in the process.
What else could happen to them if they are not to be destitute? They might be put in detention. I do not regard that as a desirable solution. It may yet turn out to be the least bad option if these regulations go ahead. But it is not in the interest of the taxpayer. The figures, as the noble Baroness gave me them on 20th December, are: £540 a week in a detention centre; or, if you are a little cheaper, £449 per week in a prison. But I do not advise the noble Baroness, given the present state of prisons, to put in a further 13,000 inmates at one time. I should hesitate to repeat the comments that prison governors might see fit to make on such a proposal.
Applicants are not allowed to work in the first six months; and after that it is difficult, especially if there are language difficulties in the way. Begging is an uncertain and undesirable option. I shall not be reassured if the Government say that they will not starve because they can beg. There is, of course, crime. But I 1320 am sure that it was not the Government's intention that they should make a living by crime. There is private charity, and great efforts are being put into that provision. But it will not help that many of the charitable organisations that have housed refugees, paid for out of housing benefit, are in danger of going bankrupt as a consequence of these regulations. That will have knock-on effects on the treatment of other sorts of homeless people in other contexts. There is the possibility that UNHCR might feel the need to open refugee camps in this country. But again, I think I may safely assume that that was not the Government's intention.
We still have left the local authorities, whose spending, unlike that of the Government, is capped. Their liability to rehouse refugees lasts, if the asylum Bill passes in its present form, only until the Bill becomes law. Therefore we should be left only with liabilities under Sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act. That is not an income/maintenance provision. Foster care for a child, which is a lot cheaper than residential care, can cost for a 16 year-old up to £6,750 a year. That cost is independent of what happens to the parents. So if that were the route, it would waste a vast amount of public money and at the same time create gross hardship. That seems to me to be the worst of both worlds.
Perhaps I have missed something. If so, I am sure the Minister will tell me what it is. But if I have not, it is my conclusion that I am not prepared to use starvation as an instrument of policy.
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, first, I declare an interest. Until last June I was director of the Refugee Council and therefore for a number of years had a day-to-day involvement with some of these issues. I believe that Britain's treatment of refugees is a test of the sort of country we are and of the commitment we have to the human rights of some of the world's most vulnerable people.
Perhaps I may give just a few words of background. Over the past few years, the United Kingdom has taken a smaller proportion of asylum seekers than any other European country, save possibly France in the past couple of years. For a long time Germany took 60 per cent. of Europe's asylum seekers—took, not kept, them. For a long time Britain has not given asylum seekers the full level of income support but only 90 per cent. of it. There have been successive waves of legislation and changes in immigration rules in order to make things more difficult for asylum seekers. Now we have another proposal and a Bill that will presumably reach this House before too long.
Why are the Government doing all this? It seems that there is only one argument: "Let us make it pretty unpleasant so that people will not even want to arrive here". That is a distasteful approach by any standards. Many organisations which have day-to-day involvement with refugees—I refer not only to the Refugee Council but to Save the Children, which was mentioned, and many others—are desperately concerned about what 1321 will happen. They have made it very clear, and I speak from personal experience as well, that if an applicant is refused refugee status, that does not mean that there was no justice in the claim—although that seems to be the argument on which the Government are hanging this measure. It may well be that people who are refused refugee status are given exceptional leave to remain—an admission by the Government that it would not be appropriate for that individual to be sent back to the country from which he or she came. There may be third country refusals when the Government have not said to an individual, "You have no basis for your claim", but have simply said, "You spent some time in another country; that is where your claim should be determined". But in the meantime, the Government say, such people do not have any rights.
I do not argue that every asylum seeker has a claim for refugee status under the 1951 convention. All I argue is that surely we should as a country have a system of natural justice whereby we determine each asylum claim fairly and properly, and whereby we allow the asylum seeker to live tolerably decently while that process is going on.
It is perfectly clear that the Government have in their own hands the best remedy for the difficulties in which they find themselves; namely, to cut down the long delays in getting an asylum claim heard and decided, and to do so, not by truncating the process of deciding asylum claims, but by having enough staff to do the job properly. That approach would pay for itself very quickly. When there are 50,000 to 60,000 people waiting for their claim to be considered, it is a signal to those in other countries who do not have a soundly based claim to say, "Well, it takes so long I might as well have a year or two there". However, I contend that many people do have a soundly based claim. My evidence is based partly on statistics but partly on the fact that people come from countries with a history and record of oppression, turmoil, persecution and war—countries such as Zaire and Nigeria. People come from a large number of countries where conditions are such that it is no wonder they flee to safe countries—of which this country is merely one.
I am concerned that the Government seem to be saying, as a justification for these proposals, that not many people are awarded full refugee status anyway, so while the process works its way through it does not matter too much if some of them are denied support to sustain themselves. I argue, in contrast, that surely in a country that believes in human rights, every individual's claim is important and every individual's right to proceed with a claim in decent circumstances is important. After all, that is the basis of the UN Convention 1951.
The UNHCR has come out very clearly in this instance—and it is not given to public pronouncements because its method is to deal privately and discreetly with governments—against the Government's proposals. Perhaps I may quote from what it said:A country's recognition rate of refugees may more often reflect the narrowness or liberalness of that state's application of the refugee definition than the legitimacy or otherwise of individual claims".1322 Perhaps I may make a comparison before and after the implementation of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. In 1990 the number of people not allowed to stay on any basis at all was 17 per cent. In 1994 the number of refusals had gone up to 75 per cent. To a large extent the reason is not in determining refugee status, although there has been some difference in that, but largely in the other category of exceptional leave to remain, to which I have already referred. In 1990, 60 per cent. of applicants were given ELR, but in 1994 the number had fallen to 16 per cent. ELR is discretionary status, which the Government give, as I have said before, because they recognise that it is not appropriate to send an individual back, even if they technically deny refugee status. It is the difference in ELR, which is directly under the Government's control, which has led largely to the dramatic increase in the rate of refusals and which in turn seems to be why the Government are saying, "These people are not genuine". If the Government approve the answer, they can hardly claim objectivity for it.
Reference has already been made to the Social Security Advisory Committee. I do not want to take up the time of the House by quoting again what it has said, except to say that my understanding is that its comments on this proposal have been the most starkly negative on any proposal that has ever come before the SSAC. It said bluntly that the proposal should be withdrawn.
Noble Lords have already referred to the good reasons why not every asylum seeker may make a port application, although many make one in the country within a short period of arriving here. It is an understandable human reaction, even if they had full knowledge of the Government's proposals. But it is very likely that people will be in ignorance of those proposals and will inadvertently put themselves into the position of not being entitled to any benefit or other basis for support.
The Government's own figures have made the position very clear. In each year between 1992 and 1995 as regards in-country applications, a larger percentage were given refugee status than from port applications. So there is no support for the Government's view that people make in-country applications because they do not have as good a case as those making port applications. The available figures for each year deny the Government's contention. There is enormous concern that there will be great hardship caused by these measures to children, families, lone parents, pregnant women, people with disabilities, the elderly and those who have suffered torture.
Perhaps I may deal with two specific points before I conclude. The Government, through the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said some weeks ago that there was a parallel between not giving anyone income support if they have been refused an asylum claim and they are appealing against it and the normal refusals and appeals on social security grounds. I argue that there are a number of reasons why that parallel is not valid.
First, I understand that there is backdating on domestic social security cases but not for asylum seekers. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong. 1323 There are far longer delays in going through the asylum determination process and the appeals process than in appeals to the normal social security tribunals. In any case, the appeal would be against the Home Office and not against the DSS. Secondly, a person already living in this country and making a normal social security appeal is far more likely to have friends, a supportive family or some personal resources, whereas the pattern for many asylum seekers is that they come to this country with virtually no belongings at all except perhaps the contents of a plastic bag.
I refer briefly to the Motion standing in my name which deals with one consequence only of these proposals; namely, the hardship affecting children or families who have children. I am very concerned that if the proposals are given effect many asylum-seeking children or the children of asylum seekers will suffer severe hardship. If the House were to pass my Motion and that in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, there would be no damage to the main thrust of the Government's proposals. I wish that there would be but there would not be. The Motions would merely be lessening some of the more appalling consequences of this measure.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, this is obviously an emotional issue and anything to do with immigration in the present confused and unhappy state of many parts of the world is understandably emotional. But the Government have to respond not only to emotion but also to secure that the wellbeing of this country and its economy is fully supported. I ask your Lordships, before coming to any final judgment on the matter, to study the statement by the Secretary of State attached to the report. I do not wish to detain your Lordships for any undue length of time, but I shall quote from it two short passages. Paragraph 4 says:The Government recognises that genuine refugees do not come to the UK to obtain social security benefits but to escape persecution. Their rights to asylum will not be curtailed in any way by these regulations or the Bill. And those who make their true intentions clear when they arrive in this country, and seek asylum at the point of entry, will continue to have access to benefits while their claims are considered by the Home Office".There then follows perhaps the most important passage of all, which states,However, well over 90 per cent. of those claiming asylum are eventually found not to be genuine refugees".That is a finding of fact and those who wish to ease restrictions, as all the three previous speakers wish to do, have to face this.
We have a considerable number of people wishing to come to this country and claiming to be refugees. But it is found as a matter of fact that 90 per cent. of them are not genuine refugees. Obviously, there are many people who want to come to this country because it is a good country to live in and because, although I do not expect noble Lords opposite to accept it, it is a country with a good government. It is a country with a very fine system of social security and services for which I can claim having played a modest part because I was responsible 1324 for them for quite a number of years. Therefore, it is a country which attracts a lot of people who are in no sense refugees and are not necessarily coming from countries where there are refugee problems. Therefore, it is necessary for any government to operate carefully and secure that only genuine refugees are admitted as such.
When it comes to a point, which noble Lords opposite must face, that 90 per cent. of those who claim to be refugees are as a matter of fact not found to be genuine refugees, it simply is not good enough in the light of that just to say, "You must relax restrictions and you must not impose restrictions". The restrictions have to be imposed, or we shall be simply swamped by a large number of immigrants who come here because it is a good country to come to and because they want to enjoy our social services and our social security system, and who like to call themselves refugees in the hope that that will secure their entry into this country.
Therefore I ask your Lordships to think very carefully indeed about this matter before coming to any final decision or any final vote. It is very important for government—and it is government's job—to secure proper control of entry into this country. We cannot afford to be swamped with immigration. We cannot afford to have unlimited numbers coming into this country: nor is there any justification for it. We are not, after all, the only country to which refugees from those countries which are in an unhappy state have to go. There are many other countries; but it is significant that so large a proportion of those who claim to be coming here as refugees are not found to be coming as refugees but are in fact simply taking advantage of the situation and of the emotional side to it, all in order to try and "dig in" and establish themselves here.
Therefore, with great respect to noble Lords opposite who take a different view, and fully understanding the humanitarian and sensitive approach which they are showing, I beg of them to think very hard indeed as to whether it would be possible to relax in any degree whatever what the Government propose. My own view is that if controls of this sort are necessary, if the well-being of this country and its people is to be properly supported and maintained, it is necessary to do what the Government propose to do. I, for one, will support them.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ripon
My Lords, widespread dismay and anger has been expressed by Churches, refugee organisations, immigration bodies and other significant groups about the Government's proposals to withdraw benefits from some categories of asylum seekers. Indeed, I do not remember an issue in recent times which has given rise to such a volume of briefing papers. There is, I believe, deep outrage in many quarters at these regulations. It is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has just made clear, that emotions be substantiated by facts. If my contribution this afternoon seems cerebral it is not because there is no passion in the Churches or in myself but because argument is also important.
1325 I was slightly dismayed to find that my own speech bore a striking resemblance by those uttered by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. As I reflected upon this it seemed to me that the reason for that is that the figures speak for themselves. Each of the speakers in this afternoon's debate has referred to figures and therefore I think we must look at those figures. If there is a certain element of repetition in my own contribution I ask forgiveness, but I do think that these points need to be made.
The Government invite us to believe that there is a small minority of asylum seekers who are genuine and that the remainder are bogus, economic migrants whose aim is to better their standard of life by gaining admission to this country. Withdrawing benefit will mean that such economic migrants will go elsewhere. To return once again to the figures, the 1995 figures at which I have been looking and for which I have accurate figures only for the months January to September, show that in every 100 determinations in that year four were granted refugee status and 19 were given exceptional leave to remain. That is a total of 23 out of each 100. In previous years the proportion has been similar: that is from a total of about 1,000 applications resolved.
This is not a small minority but a substantial proportion, 23 per cent., who are shown to be genuine applicants, either refugees or people meriting stay in this country, on the basis of their applications. What, then, about the 77 per cent. remainder? Are they all bogus? We are invited to say yes, and one of the arguments given is that they come from so-called safe countries. My memory is that when I had an exchange of views with the Minister on the 11th January on this matter he invited me to look at actual figures and to study such countries as India and Pakistan. I have done that and have discovered that in the period from January to September 1995 10 applicants from Pakistan were given refugee status and another 15 were given exceptional leave to remain, while from India 30 applicants were granted exceptional leave to remain.
These are small numbers, but they are enough to disprove the claim that these are safe countries, all of whose applicants can be regarded as bogus. And what of those whose applications for asylum status are rejected? This does not mean, as noble Lords opposite have already said, that they are bogus. Some of them may indeed be so and, human nature being what it is, people will always seek to abuse a system. It is to be expected that some will abuse the asylum system and that the checks have to be such that those abusers will be rejected. But there will be others whose claims are rejected not because they are bogus but because they are unable to satisfy the tight requirements of our own asylum procedures. They are genuine asylum seekers; they come from motives of fear and not of greed, but they will not know until they are here whether their claim will be accepted. That does not make them bogus.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has already referred to the statement from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I have noted precisely hat statement and have noted that this recognition rate may have as much to do with the state of our own 1326 refugee application system as it has to do with the legitimacy or otherwise of individual claims. I hope that we can move away from this language of "bogus". Again to quote the statement from the High Commission for Refugees:In our experience such simplistic terms are emotive, and undermine an appropriate perception and response to the problems of refugees.The Government propose to withdraw benefit from all asylum seekers who make their claim in-country and not at the point of entry. I can add very little to what other noble Lords have already said, except perhaps to give actual figures. In 1994, of those granted refugee status 300 were port applicants and 530 were in-country applicants: that is both a larger absolute number and a larger proportion. The 1995 figures for the months I have already quoted, January to September, show that 285 successful port applicants were determined and 670 in-country applicants; an even greater imbalance. The greater number of those who are granted refugee status have sought it by means of an in-country application.
If this is the case and if it is indeed true, as these figures undoubtedly show, that in-country applicants are more likely to be granted refugee status, why is this one of the groups from whom benefit is being withdrawn? The statistics simply do not support the argument. The withdrawal of benefit from those who appeal seems to me to be a straightforward attempt to dissuade them from appealing. Once again, given that a significant number may succeed on appeal—indeed almost as many as on initial application—why is this group targeted for removal of benefit?
Of course it is the Government's responsibility to look with great rigour at our expenditure, and in particular at expenditure on these benefits, but the savings which are being made here on benefits are made at great cost. I believe that we need to reflect upon that cost. Let me give just one example. Oaklands Refugee Services, a Roman Catholic and Anglican project, which provides accommodation and related support to newly arrived asylum seekers, comments that the bulk of its income derives from housing benefit. Indeed, in that respect it is not unlike other projects to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, made reference. It receives top-up funding from charitable trusts and business. But if benefit were stopped, Oaklands would be forced to refuse further referrals and, in due course, evict existing residents when their housing benefit ceased. Many of those people would end up sleeping rough on the streets, just at the time when they are most vulnerable.
It is widely agreed that the way to reduce the level of benefits is to shorten the length of time the asylum procedure takes. I referred earlier to the dismay and anger felt by many people and groups in relation to these proposals. They offend against our sense of moral responsibility to the many who genuinely seek asylum in our country. We want the regulations annulled.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lord Dubs and the noble Earl, 1327 Lord Russell. In so doing I declare an interest. I am an asylum seeker. I was brought to this country as a child by parents seeking asylum.
I was born in Lithuania. The threat that caused my parents to leave and to seek asylum was the threat of occupation by Russia or Germany. They knew that being Jewish would lead to persecution by the Nazis. My father was a bit of an intellectual and indeed a religion school teacher. He knew that that was punishable by deportation to Siberia by the communists.
The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said that the regulations would not stop those facing persecution from entering. But would an immigration officer have understood the position of my parents in 1937? I doubt it. Would Lithuania have been on a white list in 1937? Probably.
My father earned his living by selling yarn for a Manchester cotton-spinning mill. It was through that connection that he was able to bring his family to Manchester and to seek asylum. Applying for a visa would have been out of the question; nor could he have applied for a visa in a third country without putting all his family in danger. I strongly suspect that, were the proposed regulations in force at that time, we would not have been admitted. That may be a cheerful thought for those noble Lords with whom I have crossed swords; but to me the government regulations give rise to the feeling that, but for the grace of God, there go I.
We all have our childhood memories and mine are very much bound up with being an asylum seeker. One vivid memory is the pride that my family and friends took in British institutions and British ways. No destructive criticism was allowed of those British institutions and ways. We were proud to identify with a British sense of decency and fair play; we were proud of the Royal Family; we were extremely patriotic. We were grateful and anxious to put something back into the pot whenever we could. That attitude was not confined to my family. In conversations over the years with people in similar circumstances to mine, many have told me that that too was their experience. That is confirmed by the many interviews of this past generation which are in the National Sound Archives. So asylum seekers are not always scroungers; they bring benefits if we give them a chance.
Nevertheless, with the Bill we are faced with the prospect of people who have been or who are likely to be persecuted abroad being forced to sleep on the streets and beg for food purely because they have the temerity to seek asylum. The Minister said that if one asks for asylum at the port, one will be able to claim social benefit. My noble friend Lady Hollis responded to that.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is giving the impression that we will turn people away at the port. That is not the case. It is not the case at all. The point is that applications for asylum at the port of entry will be accepted and the applicants will receive benefit; they will not be turned away.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hollis and others explained the difficulties of applying 1328 for asylum at the port of entry. The Minister says that the barriers are to stop bogus asylum seekers. In fact, the additional barriers will make it less likely that people with families will seek asylum. They will not want to punish their children by dragging them through the hardships and difficulties placed in their way by the Government. That would certainly have been a consideration with my parents. Young people who can rough it will have a go, but families will be excluded. I therefore particularly support the Motion of my noble friend Lord Dubs.
My criticisms are not only directed at the British Government but also at the European Union. Safe lists have been adopted by Europe since 1992 and the Commission has been strongly criticised for that by the UN Commissioner for Refugees.
I realise that this is very much a personal and emotional appeal. But human rights are an emotional and personal matter. Others far better qualified than I have spoken and will speak of the legal and moral reasons why your Lordships should support the Motion. I speak simply out of concern that this inhumane legislation contributes to the destruction of the very values which inspired my parents to seek asylum here in the first place.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, we in this country have a long tradition of humanity and compassion for asylum seekers. One of the best known examples is the Huguenots fleeing from religious persecution, many of whom settled in this country and brought considerable benefits to our community and our economy. A more recent example is the Uganda nations, who again were forced out of their country and many of whom have settled here successfully. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, gave his own example, to which I am sure your Lordships listened with considerable attention and sympathy.
Long may that tradition continue. Human nature being what it is, there will always be genuine refugees and Britain should always be a haven for them. On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said a moment ago, the Government have a duty to guard against abuse of our hospitality. They must be an effective guardian of the public purse. When one looks at the figures, one can see that a serious problem exists.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security gave some figures in a debate in the other place on 23rd January. He said that last year people claiming asylum, including dependants, totalled over 57,000 and that that represented a tenfold increase over 10 years. That suggests that an extremely serious problem exists that needs to he dealt with. It is significant also that the increases over that period appear to he smaller than the increases in other European Union countries where the benefits are usually less generous than ours or, in some cases, not available at all.
For example, in France and Belgium there is no benefit available after 12 months; in Italy there is no benefit available for any period, whereas in France and Holland asylum seekers are usually accommodated in 1329 camps where benefit is mainly in kind rather than cash. The figures probably mean that this country is becoming a soft touch. Word gets around among vulnerable people that life is better in Britain than elsewhere, and, as with illegal immigration, there are those who try to persuade vulnerable people that they can work the system to their own advantage.
I suggest that in the light of the very great increase in applications in recent years no government can turn a blind eye and do nothing. At a time when the Government have made strenuous efforts to prevent domestic fraud against the social security system it would be neglect of a clear duty for them to do nothing about asylum fraud. Your Lordships will know that it is a bad thing for the genuine asylum seeker. A number of your Lordships have made clear in speeches this afternoon that delays occur in the processing of claims, which clearly are to the disadvantage of the genuine asylum seeker.
In his Motion the noble Earl, Lord Russell, used the interesting phrase "visible legal means of support"—but by whom? In a debate in another place on 23rd January the Secretary of State said that 70 per cent. of claims for asylum were made by people who claimed to be students, tourists, visitors or business people. If they are granted entry under those categories they have to satisfy the immigration authorities that they can support themselves while in this country. If later they change their minds and apply for asylum I do not see why the taxpayer should pick up the bill, unless the individual case involves special circumstances. Reference has been made to application at the port of entry. I believe this to be right. I do not see how the system can be effectively controlled and abuse prevented in any other circumstances, unless there are exceptional conditions.
Having accepted that, I seek three assurances from my noble friend the Minister when he comes to reply. The first concerns upheavals in the country from which the person has come. Let us say that someone is here legally as a student. Can he apply for asylum away from the port of entry if circumstances in his home country have changed to such an extent that his life will be endangered if he returns to that country? If so, will the application be dealt with speedily wherever the individual is living at the time? Secondly, while I accept that application at the port of entry should be the normal procedure, I ask the Minister to give an assurance that adequate facilities will be available at the port of entry, including interpreters for those who do not speak English. Thirdly, am I correct in thinking that those who claim asylum at the port of entry will have access to benefits while their claims are being determined? If my noble friend can give assurances on those three matters, I believe that the Government are amply justified in proceeding with this statutory instrument, and I shall have no difficulty in supporting them in the Lobby tonight.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, many years ago for the first time I witnessed the passing of a Bill through your Lordships' House in the course of one night. I refer to the so-called Ugandan Asians Bill. It 1330 was a most shameful occasion. A Conservative Peer, who sat almost exactly in the position from which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, has just spoken, said that a pledge had been given to these people that they would be let in if they were thrown out of their country and relieved of their civil rights. However, if one invited people to come and stay and they took up that offer later one would not be bound to it if it proved inconvenient because one's house was overfull at that time.
I thought then that it was a most unreasonable, uncharitable and dishonourable statement, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would hear a Conservative Peer get to his feet and cite the Ugandan Asians as an example of a very successful form of immigration after such appalling behaviour in relation to that particular Bill. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that those who finally managed to get in are a very good example, but it is not to the credit of this House or the other House that they were not allowed in at the time we were first faced with that challenge.
§ Baroness Elles
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will permit me to intervene. I happened to be one of the United Kingdom delegates in the General Assembly of 1972 when this issue arose. We were under instructions from the British Government to do everything we could to help in this particular situation. I well remember the visit of the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who went out precisely to negotiate for the safety of these people. It ended up with over 50,000 Asians being welcomed to this country. I am very glad to say that the vast majority of them have benefited from living in this country as a result of the action of the British Government of the day.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, negotiations for the safety of those people did take place, but there was a failure to honour the pledge that had been given by Mr. Macleod, which he acknowledged that he had given at the time—he wrote a very famous leader in the Spectator to support it—to let those people into this country in the way that we said we would without qualification. We let some in, and eventually we let in a great many, and we are all richer and better for it. That does not affect the fact that we behaved extraordinarily badly then.
Having embarked upon that, your Lordships may be slightly surprised to hear that I share a number of the presuppositions on the Government Benches. The only reason I add my voice to those of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—who are much more able to cope with the situation than I—is that I come from a slightly different background. I believe that we face a major problem with the prospects of immigration and population. I believe that we will need to have a population policy, which we do not have at the moment. I also believe that in future the number of people who want to emigrate to this country will increase enormously and will present us with a major problem. Therefore, I do not challenge the Government about what they say is their basic attitude toward refugees. I do challenge them on the competence with which they deal with the issue and what appears to 1331 be their inability to deal with appeals, or even first hearings, within a short time. That is shocking. I cannot defend them on that.
It is from that background, of thinking that we have to be fairly strong on the subject of immigration, that I take up another point that has been raised, in particular by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the problem of whether refugees, or anyone at all admitted to this country on any understanding whatsoever, will be allowed to become destitute or starve. A long time ago a very famous judgment was made—the Mansfield judgment—which stated that any slave who set foot on English soil immediately became a free man. I believe that it is equally important that any person admitted legally onto British soil should be protected from destitution and starvation. If they are not, we cannot regard Britain as a civilised country.
I heard the challenge made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I shall not repeat it. I too shall listen to what the Government have to say. If they can convince us that there will be no cases of destitution or starvation whatsoever—I mean whatsoever—I shall reconsider how I cast my vote. But if, as I suspect and as previous speakers have demonstrated, there may be a situation in which people can become destitute and starve on the streets of Britain, I shall certainly vote for this Motion.
Before I sit down, I should like to ask the Government what they are doing about helping the local authorities. I have heard from friends and colleagues of mine of various professions, including the clergy, in the south-east corner of England, where many people land up. They say that there will be very real problems. They do not know how they will cope if they find people destitute and starving on their streets. People will land up in such areas. It is very important, whatever happens as a result of this evening's vote, that the Government take special measures to make certain that the local authorities which have to deal with these problems are supported and helped.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, from what we have heard this afternoon, there is no doubt that the problem of asylum seekers is a very great one. I understand that there has been a tenfold increase in claims for asylum since 1988. I am certainly prepared to believe that the world is not an entirely happy place, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other positive events that have taken place in recent years. But I am not prepared to believe that the situation is 10 times worse than in 1988. Even Amnesty International—I do not always agree with everything that organisation says—states:The misuse of the asylum process by those merely seeking to circumvent UK immigration controls is a significant and difficult problem".Only four out of 100 claims are deemed to he genuine refugees by the Home Office, and just 4 per cent. of appeals against refusal are upheld by independent adjudicators. Some noble Lords have criticised the criteria which have been set. But my understanding is that the appeals are held by independent adjudicators. 1332 I hope therefore that one cannot disagree with them too much. From some countries, such as Poland, Ghana and Romania, 98 per cent. are rejected.
The cost to the British taxpayer is enormous—over £200 million in benefits alone. That is money which, I should have thought, noble Lords all round the House, and in particular those sitting on the Opposition Benches, might feel would be better spent on genuine UK benefit claimants. I ask my noble friend the Minister why we are the only European country seemingly to have failed to tackle the problem so far. Between the beginning of 1994 and last November the number had nearly doubled. I understand that the figure for 1993 was 22,000 and last year it was over 50,000. Yet in western Europe as a whole numbers fell from over half a million in 1993 to 32,000 in 1994. Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Spain and Switzerland all have had large falls in numbers. We get some 40 per cent. of total European applications, excluding Germany.
All those countries have taken steps either by shortening their procedures for dealing with unfounded claims or returning claimants to third countries from whence they came and where they are not at risk. Other countries also seem to be far less generous in the benefits that they give. That is perhaps why the United Kingdom has gained a reputation, as my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree said, for being a soft touch. I am glad that my noble friend Lady Blatch is sitting next to the Minister. She will be aware of my not wholly uncritical remarks in the past about the operation of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. She will be aware that up to this time last year airlines and ferry companies had been fined a total of £75 million for bringing in illegal immigrants of one kind or another, many of whom, I suspect, will have been bogus asylum seekers. I do not know whether my noble friend has any figures on that. I hope that one advantage of these regulations will be that they will at least reduce from that point of view the burden on airlines and shipping companies.
On the point about claimants coming from other safe third countries, such as across the Channel from France, Holland or Germany, surely it would be simple to return the claimant to that country. The claimant can hardly claim to be at risk on the other side of the Channel and to take such action could not possibly be in breach of our international obligations. Presumably, the reason that bogus economic migrants want to come to Britain is because our benefits are so much more generous than they are in other European countries.
I welcome the changes that the Government have made in the transitional arrangements that have been announced. But surely the message that we in this country need to put across is that we will not be a soft touch in the future and only applicants who are genuine asylum seekers are welcome. Noble Lords on all sides of the House do not wish to see any genuine asylum seekers prevented from coming here. But those who are only economic migrants need not apply.
1333 I have listened carefully all through the debate. I have not heard a single word from noble Lords opposite who are critical of these regulations about how they would attempt to deal with the problem and how they would deal with the cost to the British taxpayer.
The noble Lord will have a chance at the end of the debate to make his point, but, if he wishes to make it now, I shall give way.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, perhaps I may also join in those remarks and say that I too dealt with that point.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
I am afraid that I did not hear anything from either the noble Lord or noble Baroness on that matter. No doubt when the noble Baroness comes to wind up, that point will be reinforced. However, I did not hear anything that would convince me that they wished to deal with the cost of bogus asylum seekers.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford
My Lords, I begin by acknowledging the need for the Government to do something to curb the very large number of asylum applications, 90 per cent. of which turn out to be judged invalid. They also have to do something to end the extraordinary delays in processing asylum applications and the appalling backlog of over 64,000 cases awaiting adjudication, with all the pain and uncertainty attached to that situation. I am bound to say that it stretches credulity to say that that backlog is due simply to unexpected increases in the number of applications. Frankly, it seems to me that an additional factor is that too little was done too late to invest in the necessary wherewithal to keep on top of the demand and to keep the system working smoothly.
Be that as it may, the Government are absolutely right to insist that we cannot go on as we are. I welcome also the transitional arrangements recently announced by the Government by which those who have already made their asylum claim will keep their benefits entitlement until their claim is adjudicated.
Having said all that, many of us in the Churches and voluntary organisations still feel that not all of the criticisms made by the Social Security Advisory Committee have been taken seriously, let alone answered. We have continuing anxieties that the proposed changes will deprive some genuine asylum seekers of the means to pay for food and shelter—and there are genuine asylum seekers. I think that we should concentrate a little more on them and their needs rather than on how to keep out those who are not genuine.
Moreover, we believe that the proposals are too inflexible to take account of foreseeable cases of acute hardship. Noble Lords will be aware that religious Leaders have made representations to the Government at the highest level about those concerns, and that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with Cardinal Hume, has had discussions with 1334 the Secretary of State and with the noble Lord the Minister. I know that they were glad to be reassured that the Government would keep their concerns under review, but I have to say that they remain uneasy that the present proposals may be so rigid as to cause substantial hardship in particular cases.
Perhaps I may highlight some of the problems as we see them. The Government have refused any period of grace whatever once somebody leaves the port. From that moment onwards, any person seeking asylum will not be entitled to benefits, irrespective of his or her financial circumstances and needs. It seems wrong to draw no distinction between someone who, for instance, applies for asylum after three years having completed their studies at university and someone who applies for asylum within days of arriving in the country.
It is true that people should declare their wish for asylum on arrival at the port, but the Government have been unable to refute some of the cogent reasons given by the Social Security Advisory Committee as to why so many asylum seekers do not immediately declare their intention at the port even if their claim is perfectly genuine. Some cannot get a visa to travel here by claiming to be a refugee, so they simply have to create a story and to stick with it. It is understandable that they stick with that story until they are in the country for fear of being deported if they change their story at the port before getting in. One can add to that the fact that they may have no idea of how to apply for asylum and desperately need help and advice to know what to do.
To that confusion add fear and sometimes acute language difficulties and one can readily see that it is inevitable that a continuing significant proportion of people with well-founded claims for asylum will not disclose them at the port and then, without any entitlement to benefit, will be at real risk of unwarranted hardship themselves and of imposing extra hardship on others who may feel obliged to look after them but who themselves have inadequate means. I am most unhappy about airy claims that all those people would probably be looked after by friends and relations. In some cases, they are deeply and rightly suspicious of people from their country who are over here. Others come from places from which there is not yet any critical mass of immigrants to this country offering networks of support. Moreover, imposing on friends and relatives can impose worse overcrowding and poverty on some of the poorest families in our society. Surely that is not a proper basis for deliberate policy-making.
Similar considerations will apply to some of those who lose their entitlement to benefit when the initial adjudication is made against their claim and who may have great difficulty in keeping body and soul together while they exercise their legal right to appeal. Therefore, the Motion tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is to be welcomed.
The Government have made the concession that those who apply for asylum in-country following a major upheaval in their home country will be entitled to benefits. That is to be welcomed. However, here again the Government have not responded to the probing questions of the Social Security Advisory Committee. 1335 The fact is that there are all sorts of reasons why a volatile situation may shift decisively against an individual family without there being any great overall upheaval. What happens if the overall situation in the country remains much the same but the army or the police back home have clearly started to take an unhealthy interest in someone's family and associates? The Government's proposals are too rigid to allow such a person to draw benefits while pursuing an asylum claim.
The same point is true of the proposals relating to sponsored immigrants. Let us take the case of an elderly lady who arrives here as an immigrant, sponsored by a younger relative. After a couple of years or so, the young relative unfortunately becomes mentally ill and is hospitalised or has kidney failure, or suffers a stroke, or is run over, or sees his business collapse—of course, these are exceptional cases, but they happen—and because the old lady has not yet been here for five years, she has no entitlement to benefit. How is she going to live? The Government have not given a satisfactory answer to that question.
We are talking typically about vulnerable people, such as old ladies, who will have absolutely no entitlement to a basic means of livelihood. The litmus test of any society is the way in which it treats the elderly and the vulnerable. That is what Church leaders mean when they speak about "insufficient flexibility" in the proposals to allow for hardship cases which are not only predictable but inevitable. Many people in the Churches and the voluntary organisations who acknowledge that major problems exist which any government would have to address nevertheless feel that the proposals are not a sound basis on which to proceed because they cannot cope with the many predictable cases of hardship. The proposals cry out for more understanding and more flexibility.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest in that I am the President of the Refugee Council. I was chairman for some five years, and in the past week I have been made president. I feel very privileged and honoured to have been put in that position. The speech that we have just heard encapsulates many of the concerns which have been expressed not just by the Refugee Council but by many bodies which are directly affected, day in and day out, by these problems.
No one in their right mind supports serious abuses of the position affecting bogus asylum seekers. I was going to say "genuinely" bogus. This, nevertheless, is one of the meanest, most unprincipled and unscrupulous pieces of legislation that I have ever come across in quite a long period in another place and here. I am ashamed of it. I am ashamed of it not because I suffered the same problems as my noble friend Lord Haskel directly, but my grandparents confronted major difficulties when they came to this country. I am ashamed of it because I should have hoped that the Secretary of State himself would not have sought to divorce himself from the experience of his own family, but he chose to do that 1336 deliberately. I am ashamed of it because it does not seem to me that Ministers, and many of those who support these draft regulations, have confronted the problem. I wonder how many have met refugees. I wonder how many have been to the ports of entry and have tried to discuss these issues with them afterwards. I wonder how many Ministers do that.
I am not prepared to acquit the Government of the charge of engaging in political motivation to try to secure an electoral benefit. I cannot omit the fact that it was a Conservative research director who said not very long ago:Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt".Is that irrelevant? Yes, the background to all this is emotive. It has been emotive and pejorative language which has been used by both Secretaries of State involved in this issue (Mr. Lilley and Mr. Howard) to milk votes, to stimulate popularity with the bigoted. If the Government had approached this matter in a reasonably anodyne way; if they had stated the problem, one could have understood that. But they played for applause, and the game has been given away.
This is a case of shameless opportunism, designed to whip up prejudice. The constant reference to asylum seekers as "bogus" illustrates what I mean. The constant use of the term "a soft touch" illustrates what I mean. I cannot believe, from my knowledge of the situation, that people coming from some of these countries in travail settle around a table and say, "How are we going to get to Britain where we can milk the social services system?". Life is not like that. They may not know it, but life is not like that.
I only hope that Conservative Party Members in another place and here are not confronted themselves at any time with that situation, although they might learn a great deal from it. I do not begin to believe that they understand the pressures which were referred to by the right reverend Prelate. I am a political realist. I do not expect great shows of compassion from the Secretary of State for the Home Department or Miss Widdecombe. That would be like expecting a large family from a eunuch.
What I want to do is to ask the Minister some personal questions. I have, as he knows, a high regard for him personally, though not for the case that he will present tonight. Is it not a fact—this has been said over and over again, and the Government must answer this point—that over and above the 4 per cent. who have been given refugee status, 15 per cent. of applicants receive exceptional leave to remain for humanitarian reasons? Were those 15 per cent. at one time regarded as bogus? The Minister shakes his head. Why not? Of course it makes a huge difference, does it not, to the statistics that we have heard over and over again that only 4 per cent. of the claimants are genuine.
Is it not a fact that, even within the Government's own thinking, since the regulations apply right across the board, some genuine asylum seekers may be caught if they apply in-country? Will the Minister reply to that question in due course? If that is right, is it not probable 1337 that children of destitute families may be rendered even more vulnerable by being taken into care and torn away from their families and parents? What responsibility do they have for their plight? Why should they be visited with these problems?
How are such people—including those who may ultimately, perhaps under this regime against all the odds, succeed on appeal—to be expected to survive as nearly 3,000 asylum seekers a month are to be denied benefit? That is a crucial point. We have not heard from the Minister in another place what is the real answer to that.
Why do the Government persist in their "soft touch" propaganda when it is clear that few asylum seekers believe that Britain's streets are paved with gold—as they find out to their bitter experience when they arrive? They do not receive the full rate of income support, as my noble friend Lady Hollis illustrated so vividly earlier. Is it not a fact that the Government's policy is designed deliberately to undermine rights of appeal which are critical to any society which bases itself on the rule of law?
How are these people expected to live, to survive financially, while waiting for an appeal which can take anything between 14 and 21 months? What is to happen to them during that period? How do the Government square their assertions with the fact that one out of 10 asylum seekers obtained refugee status in 1995 following appeals, having presumably been depicted in the interim by the authorities as "bogus"?
A number of noble Lords referred to the fact that there are ample statistics to suggest, contrary to what the Government have asserted, that in-country applicants are more likely to be proved to be genuine than port applicants. Why is it that the statistics illustrate clearly that they are much more likely to be accepted as genuine refugees? I return again to the point raised by the noble Prelate—
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate, I am sorry. I always get that one wrong. I find it difficult to trip it off the tongue easily. He asked a number of pertinent questions about the views of the Social Security Advisory Committee. Why did the committee advise so strongly against the withdrawal of benefit and the rigid application of these rules? Why does the Minister think that the UNHCR has adopted such a strong line against what the Government are proposing? Is the UNHCR to be regarded as a discreditable institution? It is probable that it has rather more knowledge of what goes on than the Minister himself. I wish to put to the Minister one of the many questions that I could put about what the UNHCR has said. With regard to children it has said:If the effect of withdrawal of welfare support for the family impacts in a negative way on any child in that family, then the United Kingdom is likely to fall foul of the Children's Convention. inter alia, Article 22".Will the Minister deal fully with that point because it comes from a very credible authority?
1338 I am ashamed of this Government, and much more so than on any issue that confronts us in respect of which I have major disagreements. They emerge from this discreditably. I support the Motions standing in the names of my noble friends and the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Baroness Elles
My Lords, I too found the discussion on the regulations to some extent discreditable. Compassion is not felt only by those on one side of the House. Time and again the Government have shown compassion to those in this country who need and seek compassion and support. In considering the length of time that asylum seekers must wait for their claims to be dealt with, one has only to remember that the Government will he putting in £37 million to pay for 700 staff to deal with the mounting number of claims of asylum seekers, genuine or otherwise, when only last week they wished to give £33 million to hypothermia cases as a result of the cold weather. If one were in government, whom would one choose as the deserving case needing that source of money? When one is in government—perhaps noble Lords opposite will never know that experience—one must make decisions and have priorities. The first duty of a government is to their own citizens and that should be remembered during the course of the debate.
I wish to turn to a point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. Asylum seekers at the ports are automatically granted benefit. There is no question of them being treated as scroungers. They are identified as they arrive at the ports. If they come here as asylum seekers they are identified as such and they are supported by the benefit system. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will confirm that. I understand that the present figure is approximately 13,000.
Perhaps we may then consider the 70 per cent. who are discovered not to be genuine asylum seekers. Apparently, they come in as businessmen, tourists and students. They are not the poor Bulgarians with no interpreter who will end up sleeping on the streets. They are people who come here with a reasonable amount of money in their pockets. On entry they are asked whether they have money to support themselves or whether they will be claiming benefit and they state their case. I usually travel through airports and I have not come across immigration officers who maltreat people as they are going through those questions. I believe the remarks that have been made are derogatory to the immigration officers who serve this country loyally and efficiently and as best they can in the very difficult circumstances under which they must sometimes work.
I turn to the way in which Britain receives foreigners into this country. It might be thought that this is a xenophobic attack, as was perhaps suggested by one or two noble Lords. As was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree, the DSS is already trying to seek out those British subjects, or people living in Britain, who are defrauding the public purse of something like £1.4 billion as a result of false claims under the social security system. This regulation merely brings in a category of people who are being suspected of 1339 defrauding the benefit system. They are being treated no worse and no better than British subjects who regrettably, in many instances, are defrauding the benefit system and the public purse. Without that fraud millions of pounds would be available to be spent on more deserving cases—
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I am hesitant to intervene. The point is that when, in the British system, a British citizen loses benefit it is because the initial case has been heard and there is a presumption that he or she is committing fraud. The problem under these regulations is that benefit is being withdrawn before the case is heard. That is the difference between the two systems, and that is what we are seeking to address.
§ Baroness Elles
My Lords, the benefit is not being withdrawn. I understand that it is withdrawn between the rejection and the appeal. That is precisely the same as in British benefit cases—
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I apologise for rising a second time. I wish only that the noble Baroness were right. Were she right that benefit is retained both at the port of entry and in the country until the determination had been made and the appeal heard there would be no dispute between us. I hope that in the light of that the noble Baroness will join us.
§ Baroness Elles
My Lords, the noble Baroness knows perfectly well that I will not. The fact of the matter is that those who have stayed in the country came in originally on false pretences as students, tourists and businessmen. Where others came in through fear of persecution that is another matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford—
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Can she tell us any way in which these regulations discriminate between those who have come in under false pretences and those who have come in in genuine fear of persecution?
§ Baroness Elles
My Lords, those who have come in in genuine fear of persecution are automatically given benefit at the port of entry. In future, as a result of these regulations, those who do not will not receive the benefit.
One has only to look at the social security regulations to see the amount of non-contributory benefits that are being poured out on these people, with no justification. Perhaps I may refer to the United Nations' adoption of the declaration on human rights of aliens in 1985. The point is that any alien has the right to benefits in the country in which he or she is legally resident and in which he or she has contributed to the welfare system. The asylum seekers with whom we are dealing are not technically legally resident under the general definition of that term, nor have they contributed to welfare benefits. Of course, if they have contributed to welfare benefits they are entitled to benefit in the normal way. However, these particular asylum seekers have not done so.
1340 I wish to turn to the point that I was about to make when the noble Baroness intervened. It is the recognition of people who come into this country, who are treated as citizens of their country of origin, and who after a number of years make a claim to be naturalised. That speaks highly of the United Kingdom and its welcome to foreigners because among the European Union countries we have a high record of naturalised citizens. According to the 1993 figures, which are the latest available, more than 45,000 people have been made British citizens as a result of our naturalisation process. Most of them, perhaps I may say, come from Asia and Africa; they are not just from white dominions or whatever. They are citizens who have come from Asia and Africa. The only country in the European Union which has a higher figure is France which has 60,000. A vast number of those come from Morocco with their own cultural links.
I wish to insist on the fact that there is no question of discrimination on grounds of race or of not being a British citizen. It is a question of using the finances of this country for totally unjustified purposes. I am happy to say to those who dislike the Maastricht Treaty that provision under Title III to deal with asylum and immigration issues has given us an opportunity to discuss the issues right across the European Union. Many countries have suffered exactly the same problems as the United Kingdom. There may be proof that we have been too generous with our benefits as a result of not being strict on the identification and definition of asylum seekers because during the past three years other European countries have suddenly realised that there is a great influx and have introduced much stricter provisions.
At one recent Council meeting, I am happy to say that a definition of the term "refugee" was agreed unanimously by all member states, including the United Kingdom. The definition states that the refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution in his own country. The people who come through such controls as students, businessmen and tourists do not qualify under those grounds. The United Kingdom is perfectly justified in taking the proposed measures. I very much hope that the Government will play a full role under Title III and co-operate with other member states in the European Union to deal with what is undoubtedly a European problem and not just one that applies to the United Kingdom.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I differ somewhat from the noble Baroness, Lady Elles. I regret to say that the regulations before us are evil fruits stemming from a tree of prolonged bad policy. They, and their forerunners, have been universally condemned by those with experience; namely, the Churches, Jewish organisations, local government, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and charities and advice agencies working with asylum seekers and refugees. To cap it all—as if that was not enough—the Social Security Advisory Committee rejected the proposals. The Government seem to think that they know better than those in day-to-day contact with the practical 1341 problems. I know that some transitional relief has been provided. I welcome that very much, but of course it is quite inadequate, given the original intention to deprive most asylum seekers of benefit.
It is worth looking at the background to the proposals. Since about 1987, governments have successively reversed our traditions of welcome and hospitality to the persecuted. The Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act, which has already been mentioned, attempted to reduce the number of asylum seekers reaching this country. Costly detention has been used, not just for people awaiting deportation, but for many asylum seekers pending their assessment. The Asylum and Immigration Act 1993 did very little to help things, and now we are faced with new regulations savagely cutting benefits and with a new Bill which is now in the other place.
Of course, a few economic migrants have reached our shores, despite the best efforts of many other governments to stop them coming here. That has caused Her Majesty's Government to mount a loud campaign crying "foul" and trying to pretend, both in Parliament and in the tabloid press, that,90% or more of those claiming asylum are bogus".That statement, vociferated by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary, and the Secretary of State for Social Security (supported in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter) is not even correct as it stands. In 1995, about 23 per cent. of applicants were either accepted as refugees, or given exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds and because, to return home, would be dangerous for them. A further 4 per cent. received refugee status on appeal. In previous years the proportion of refugees and ELR was considerably higher.
I ask: why have the proportions changed? The answer, I believe, is to be found in instructions, whether formal or informal, given to those who deal with applicants. That is the culture of disbelief that was so properly mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. The burden has been put on the applicant to prove that what he says is true. In fact, the burden is often quite an impossible one, because the relevant witnesses cannot be produced in this country. Virtually every sentence in applicants' statements is contested. That sometimes produces ludicrous results; for example, a man fleeing the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Colonel Mobutu was told that he could not have crossed the Congo River by canoe because of the number of crocodiles! How else does the Home Office think that the river has been crossed for many generations? Are we to imagine a barrage of crocodiles, nose to nose and tail to tail, waiting to tip up the poor man in his canoe?
In another case, the Home Office considered it,unlikely that he did not know the name or locality of the prison where he had been held".In that case, the applicant's solicitor had to point out that his client was unconscious on arrival and escaped with help, during the hours of darkness. Attitudes such as these are even more serious when genuine victims of torture are told that their scars and bruises could perhaps have resulted from other causes.
1342 I suggest to your Lordships that means and methods quite contrary to the spirit and intention of the 1951 convention (which Britain helped to draft) have been used to minimise acceptances. What then should Her Majesty's Government be doing. First, they should cut the numbers of asylum seekers detained in this country, often in unsuitable and unsatisfactory places and conditions. Voluntary organisations, housing associations and reporting conditions should be used to ensure that applicants do not disappear. Asylum seekers should be allowed to accept work, if and when they can get it, before the presently prescribed six-month period has expired. Both those measures would save money.
On the other hand, money should be spent on maintaining the existing welfare and supplementary benefits. That will avoid arbitrary and unjust action and protect many genuine asylum seekers, especially those who, for genuine reasons, do not always apply at the port of entry. These are national responsibilities which should not be shuffled off on to certain local authorities—indeed, a rather small number of the total of local authorities—as was wrongly being done in the case of unaccompanied children. The Government should be aware that, among asylum seekers, there are children, frail and elderly people as well as some victims of war and torture. Housing benefit should certainly not be removed.
We were promised in 1993—and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned this fact—that money would be spent on extra Home Office and Immigration Department staff to cut down on the processing time and the huge backlog of about 64,000 cases. Some progress may perhaps have been made; but, in my view, it is quite inadequate. The processing time needs to be cut dramatically and, as has been mentioned before, that will result in considerable savings on welfare benefits.
I accept that the savings and the extra costs may not balance exactly, but what I have recommended would produce a better system, much more in keeping with our traditions and our international responsibilities.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House what is the reason that a genuine asylum seeker does not give when he is seeking asylum at the port of entry? Why does he not say, "I am suffering; I am a victim of persecution and I am seeking asylum"? Why does such a person come into the country as a student, or something of that nature?
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, there are many reasons. One of them is that people arrive in this country exhausted by travel, and in a state of shock and trauma.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I share the general concerns felt both outside and within the House about the regulations that are before us today. I rise to support the Motions which have been proposed. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, talked of the prime responsibility of a government being towards their own citizens. As a citizen of this country, I feel that one of those responsibilities is to maintain the honourable tradition 1343 that we have had of behaving in a civilised and humane way towards those seeking sanctuary here in fear of persecution in their own lands. I believe that in putting forward these regulations the Government are failing in that duty of maintaining a tradition of civilised behaviour.
The general concerns have been mentioned. I rise to speak specifically about the concerns arising from the effects of these regulations on pregnant women and families with children. The importance of good nutrition in pregnancy is well known in terms of the outcome for the baby. When women are malnourished during pregnancy, as many asylum seekers have been in their own countries, the risk of their having babies with low birth weights who will therefore require expensive healthcare not only immediately after birth but possibly for the rest of their lives is greatly increased. I find it deeply shameful that we in this country would consider adding to the risk of malnutrition during pregnancy, and the effect on the subsequent baby, by removing financial support for women in this situation.
The Maternity Alliance in its submission to the Social Security Advisory Committee stated that, if pregnant asylum seekers with no financial means are denied access to social security benefits which would enable them to have a reasonable diet, it is inevitable that not only their health but also that of their babies will suffer in consequence. Those of us who have seen the demands put on neo-natal services by the babies of some refugees in this country, occasioned by their health status, are well aware of expense in this area. I suggest to your Lordships that it is deeply shortsighted of the Government not to consider giving adequate financial support to families before the birth of their children, but to accept the need for expensive healthcare after birth because of the failure of these policies.
The other issue I wish to raise is that of care of the children of these families. Although it is possible to change the social security regulations affecting the support for children of asylum seekers, Section 17 of the Children Act of 1989 maintains the duty on local authorities as regards the welfare of these children. Therefore if these children are destitute, as some of them will be, and if their parents cannot provide adequate support, the local authority will have to care for these children but will have no responsibility to care for the parents. There will be few local authorities who will face a disproportionate burden in this respect. We envisage local authorities providing expensive residential or foster care for children and facing the inhumane course of separating these children from their parents. I suggest that it is quite wrong to believe that we cannot support families who are in this situation.
The welfare of these children is dependent on, and intertwined with, the welfare of their parents. One cannot blame the parents and take action against them, and thereby penalise the children. The Government need seriously to consider the United Kingdom's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I believe that to penalise children for their parents' failure to apply for asylum at the port of entry 1344 is in fundamental conflict with the UK's obligations under the convention. I would he grateful if the Minister would address that point when he replies to the debate.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the speeches made by your Lordships who are so knowledgeable on asylum, immigration and social security matters. I apologise to your Lordships if I should be guilty of some repetition but I feel that some matters need to be emphasised again.
I speak as a taxpayer, and therefore on behalf of all other taxpayers in the United Kingdom. My reading of the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee—much of which I disagree with—is that, although it understands the Secretary of State's view that it is unreasonable to expect the United Kingdom taxpayer to support people whose reasons for coming to this country are purely economic, it does not recommend that the Government's proposals relating to asylum seekers, sponsored immigrants, non-contributory benefits and interim payments should be proceeded with.
I believe that the United Kingdom has a proud record of giving refuge to those fleeing genuine persecution, but our asylum procedures are increasingly being abused. For instance, as we have already heard, only 4 per cent. of those claiming asylum are deemed to be genuine refugees by the Home Office, and just 4 per cent. of appeals are upheld by independent adjudicators. Indeed, as many as 98 per cent. of claims from countries such as Poland, Ghana and Romania are rejected.
I am aware that there is a growing number of asylum claims by economic migrants who come to the United Kingdom simply to seek a better life rather than to flee persecution. Since 1988 claims for asylum in the United Kingdom have grown from under 4,000 to over 40,000 a year and the number for 1995 may well exceed some 50,000. The cost to the taxpayer is huge. The annual cost of those seeking asylum is now over £200 million in benefits alone, and if additional costs for health, education and social services of around £10,000 per asylum seeker per year are included, this amounts to a further £500 million. Some 700 staff now work on asylum cases compared with under 100 in the late 1980s. Some 25,000 asylum decisions were taken between June 1994 and June 1995, but even this does not keep pace with the number of applicants.
In February the Home Secretary announced that £37 million would be spent on extra asylum caseworkers and adjudicators over the next three years, which should enable the Immigration Department to process 37,000 applications a year from next year. This should help speed up the system, ultimately reducing costs to the taxpayer. I believe that it is essential to reduce this huge burden of cost to the taxpayer and, in so doing, it is necessary to discourage unfounded applications from those who are actually economic migrants and who live off our country, while ensuring that the United Kingdom remains a haven for those genuinely fleeing from persecution. I therefore support the proposed changes by the Government; namely, that benefits will be available 1345 only for people making an asylum claim at their port of entry, and entitlement to benefit will cease once the asylum claim is first rejected. There will be other changes as regards non-contributory benefits, sponsored immigrants and interim payments.
In this debate I wish only to refer to asylum seekers' applications on arrival and to rejected claims. As we have already heard, 70 per cent. of asylum claims come from people already in the United Kingdom. Typically, they enter this country as tourists, students or business people and undertake not to be a burden on public funds. The changes mean that those who claim asylum after they have entered the United Kingdom will no longer be able to claim benefits. That is reasonable. All foreign visitors to the United Kingdom are required to declare their reasons for coming to this country at their port of entry. Genuine refugees can be expected to declare that they are asylum seekers when they arrive in this country. Those who claim not to be asylum seekers at the port of entry but subsequently change their story will be allowed to pursue their claim for asylum but can scarcely be expected to be allowed benefits as well. The change will deter those who seek to make an asylum claim as a means of prolonging their stay at the expense of taxpayers. An exception will be made for people from countries where there has been a significant upheaval since their arrival in the United Kingdom. That was discussed earlier this afternoon.
I cannot agree with the Social Security Advisory Committee report as to why in-country claimants may not have applied for asylum at the port of entry. The report cites reasons of language difficulties, ignorance of procedures, the need to obtain legal advice or advice from friends and relatives in the United Kingdom and a deep rooted fear of officialdom. As for the latter reason, asylum seekers choose to come to the United Kingdom precisely because of our reputation for legality and fair play. Therefore the Government consider it unlikely that more than a handful of bona fide refugees are genuinely in fear of officials at UK ports. Perhaps more can be clone to ensure that potential asylum seekers have greater knowledge of the procedures before departing from their home countries. Many arrive with visas; and surely it would be possible to brief people on asylum procedures at the consulate concerned.
To cease benefit for people whose claims have been considered and rejected by the Home Office will also save the taxpayer money, but it does not withdraw the right of the asylum seeker to appeal. This change will be another deterrent for bogus asylum claimants, who make up the vast majority of appellants, and should then enable appeals from the small number of genuine cases to be expedited.
In conclusion, I believe that the potential asylum seekers of the future will be fairly dealt with and, by the introduction of the government proposals for asylum seekers, I believe that the processing of cases will be expedited more competently, leading to an eventual reduction of case officers and adjudicators, while bringing about a saving of millions of pounds to the taxpayer.
I strongly support the Government on their proposals and I do not support the Opposition Motion.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lady Kinloss
My Lords, from the many points and worries that have been expressed this evening, it would seem that perhaps there has not been enough preparation or realisation of the consequences that the changes in the regulations will have on the lives of those seeking asylum in this country.
When passengers arrive in this country, those who do not hold a British passport are issued with a disembarkation form. Could they not at the same time be given a short printed explanation pamphlet giving details of how to proceed if they intend to become asylum seekers? Perhaps it could be printed in more languages than one.
When they arrive, they should he given help in understanding the printed explanation. It is essential that they understand the need to claim asylum on entry in order to remain entitled to urgent cases income support until a decision is made on their case. There will probably be language difficulties, and perhaps sign language will be needed in some cases. Can the Minister confirm that in these cases, and if language difficulties arise, everything will be done to ensure that the applicant understands what is needed? Can the Minister say what immediate assistance will be given in particular to unaccompanied children, the elderly and the frail, especially those who are the victims of war and torture, as it would seem that under the new regulations they will all be denied benefits? Would the Government consider a government funded hostel, at least for families and the people whom I have just mentioned? Would a hostel be practical or too expensive to run? It would at least give asylum seekers a shelter, and if no benefits are paid food should be provided.
Local authorities now have responsibility for children under the Children Act 1989. The Government have said that they will give the local authorities additional funding, but so far they have not said how they will allocate any funding, which will surely cause difficulties for those local authorities which need it. Can the Minister say what the rest of Europe does? Would this new legislation bring us into line with the rest of Europe; and should we not all offer equal treatment?
I apologise for asking so many questions, but I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of them. Meanwhile will the Government reconsider their decision on the question of asylum seekers?
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, as a relatively new Member of this House, I have been extraordinarily impressed by the sincerity, dedication and quality of the debate. I feel proud to be a Member of a House which can debate these astonishingly serious matters in the way that noble Lords have done this afternoon. In particular, I have been very impressed by the intense interest and concern that those engaged in the voluntary sector and the Churches have brought to bear.
1347 I turn, first, to what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said about the Statement by the Secretary of State for Social Security. I should like, too, to draw attention to the wording of the Statement. It states that the rights to asylum of genuine refugees,will not be curtailed in any way by these regulations or the Bill".In the strictest and most narrowly legal sense, that may be true. But the report refers to genuine refugees, applying either in country or at the port of entry, who will not be able to be sustained during the appellate process. I find that, to say the least, somewhat misleading. If, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states, a person who seeks to appeal against the decision of an immigration officer cannot be physically or economically sustained during the period of that appeal, then his rights may be false for he cannot exercise them.
Secondly, in the Statement, the Secretary of State says that,those who … seek asylum at the point of entry will continue to have access to benefits while their claims are considered by the Home Office".Again, it is strictly correct that while the claims are being considered by the Home Office, applicants will receive benefit. However, they will receive no benefit at the point at which their claim to the Home Office, having been disallowed and appealed against, is considered by the adjudicator. That period currently averages 116 days after the papers have been placed with the adjudicator by the Home Office. It means that the actual period is considerably longer. As other noble Lords have said, we are looking at periods which may vary from six months to five years.
The Statement continues:Well over 90 per cent. of those claiming asylum are eventually found not to be genuine refugees".A number of noble Lords have drawn attention to that figure and have accepted it as correct. We have already heard during the course of the debate that in addition to the 4 per cent. originally granted asylum, some 19 per cent. are given extended leave to stay. Therefore the figure of 90 per cent. is strange if 19 per cent. are given extended leave to remain, unless we assume that immigration officials are giving people leave to remain who are not genuine refugees; and I do not assume that any noble Lord makes that claim.
However, as regards the 71 per cent. rejected—I do not refer to those given either extended leave to remain, an original grant of asylum, or even the further grant of asylum on appeal—one has to ask in the light of evidence put before noble Lords in the past few days whether some of those are not genuine refugees. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has sent a number of us an extremely harrowing list of cases which have been rejected on application for acceptance as a genuine asylum seeker. I shall not bore the House with more than a few details. There is the case of the Kenyan man who was beaten on his heels, sexually assaulted, saw his house go up in flames and his elder son and his father both burned in that attack. 1348 He was refused entry on the grounds that he was not a genuine asylum seeker. However, on the face of it, he would seem to have a good case.
There is the case of the Nigerian man believed to be involved in the effort to try to retain democracy in Nigeria against one of the most disagreeable dictators the world has seen for some time. He saw his father beaten to death before his eyes. He was himself repeatedly beaten with rifle butts. He finally managed to escape to this country but was refused recognition as a genuine refugee. Again, one has to ask: what more was he supposed to prove? Both those men and a third case which I shall mention briefly were shown by medical doctors in this country to have signs of extreme torture on their bodies. That is according to the Medical Foundation whose chairman is a distinguished Conservative Member of another place.
The third and last case which I shall mention—although I could give many more—falls directly into the group described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. An Iranian woman was attacked because her brother happened to be a supporter of a previous regime in Iran, one which was regarded as a friendly state by this country. Her home was continually and repeatedly entered and destroyed in large part by security guards of the present Iranian state. She herself was, in most extreme terms, sexually assaulted. When she managed to escape and come to this country, she too was rejected as not a genuine asylum seeker.
I wish to read what was said about her case by the adjudicator to whom she appealed. She will now have to appeal with no financial support. The document from the Medical Foundation states:In granting her appeal and recognising her as a refugee with a genuine fear of persecution, the Adjudicator commented that the Home Office refusal letter was inaccurate, not … reflecting what [she] said".The adjudicator said:I saw the acute distress of the appellant giving evidence to me … it is clear she still finds it almost impossible to talk about her treatment".When the Iranian woman arrived in this country, she was speechless with sheer shame at what had happened to her. It would he inconceivable to imagine that she would be able to make a coherent case at the port of entry.
I wish to make one further point about the so-called bogus applicants for asylum in this country. It has been pointed out by other noble Lords in terms of time. Over a series of years we have seen the proportion of those seeking asylum who are accepted change dramatically, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, pointed out. It is difficult to conceive that somehow in 1989 there were far fewer bogus applicants than there are today. If so, at least some of us would wish to know what explanation and evidence are offered for it.
As a further example, currently 70 per cent. of those who apply to Canada for refugee status are accepted; and of the over 150,000 who apply to the United States, 50 per cent. are accepted. Both those facts appear to bear out the statement made by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that the figures for refugees 1349 accepted as genuine as a proportion of the total has more to do with the culture and attitude of the country concerned in terms of its liberality or strictness in interpreting what makes a refugee.
Thirdly, I wish to touch on the position of those who are sponsored. We have already heard about that in the debate and I have no desire to prolong it. I wish to ask the Minister about the case of a student sponsored by his or her government and who is therefore here bona fide, and able to pay the necessary fees. If there is an upheaval in that person's home country, such as has occurred in recent years in Nigeria, will he or she be considered in the same way as those on the so-called "white list", or will he or she be bound by the terms of the regulations? Those regulations state quite straightforwardly that it is only in the event of the death of a sponsor that the position of those sponsored can be reconsidered. In the case of such students, that would be an extraordinarily harsh act of injustice.
I wish to refer to the problems dealt with by many of my right honourable friends and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We would like to know exactly what position is being taken by the Government with regard to the circumstances of those who are likely to find themselves thrown back on the final resort of local authorities. Will the local authorities be bound by their present obligations under the Children Act?
Finally, as regards the issue raised on the immigration Act 1968, my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley referred to the actions of the party opposite. With great respect to him, I wish to dissociate myself from what he said. I believe that every now and then a matter comes up which is so painfully wrong that even those bound by loyalty to the Government of the day feel themselves obliged to stand out against the normal commitment of party loyalty. In the way in which it dealt with the position of the East African Asians, the immigration Act 1968 fell into that category.
I am not at liberty to tell the House what actions I took then, although I certainly acted. I am at liberty to say that on that occasion the actions of Mr. Iain Macleod were in the highest possible traditions of this place. He said: "I gave my word to these people and I will keep it". By "this place", I mean this country of ours, not just one particular House of Parliament. It was wrong of the Labour Government of that era to refuse to uphold and accept the commitment made by Mr. Macleod. It was right of Mr. Heath, the subsequent Prime Minister, to stand by that commitment in 1972 when the East African Asians came under the threat of being expelled and in some cases killed by the Government of Uganda.
However, two wrongs do not make a right in an instance where once again the House has to consider what one can only describe as a profoundly shameful proposal by the Government. In saying that, I am not moved by the colour of the Government on the issue. It is simply wrong. That has been said eloquently on both Front Benches of the Opposition parties and also by many Cross-Benchers and some Members of the party opposite. I beg them to consider their position carefully 1350 and ask themselves whether on this occasion conscience and humanity should take first place over any other consideration.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying that I hope my noble friends will not take a lesson in loyalty from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and that they will in fact retain a greater sense of loyalty than she is trying to encourage them to show.
These regulations form an important element of the Government's overall policy on asylum seekers. The policy has three aims. The first is to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution. The reason genuine refugees come to the United Kingdom is to share our freedoms, not our benefits. Their rights to asylum will not be altered in any way. That is why, unusually, I intervened during the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. I was extremely concerned that he seemed to have misunderstood what was happening and assumed that we should actually turn people away at the port of entry if they claimed that they were asylum seekers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no intention of doing that. Those people who claim asylum at the port of entry will be allowed in, their asylum claim will be considered and, while it is being considered, up to the point of decision by Home Office officials, they will be eligible for benefit. Therefore it is simply not true, as I fear the noble Lord was suggesting in his personal example, that he and his family might in the new circumstances have been returned to persecution having been turned back at the port of entry. I hope that the noble Lord can accept my assurance that that will certainly not happen.
On this point about the port of entry, the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, and my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree asked whether interpreters are available. A very considerable and impressive range of interpreters is available at the major ports of entry. On the rare occasions when an interpreter is not available, the applicant will be given temporary admission until an interpreter can be found. That would in no way affect his or her status as a port applicant, although he or she would obviously be in the country before the application was actually made. It would not affect status at all. I hope that the noble Lady and my noble friend will he reassured on that point. As I have just underlined, we are ensuring that anyone who arrives as a refugee claiming asylum at the port of entry will have access to benefits while the Home Office determines that claim.
Our second objective is to deal more speedily with genuine claimants so that they can get on with their lives. In response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, I absolutely agree that we have to try to do better when it comes to processing asylum applications. Indeed, we are trying to. However, one of the problems is that, as we put resources in, the numbers increase. We arc almost in a Catch-22 situation. The Home Office has already increased the number of caseworkers seven-fold, from 100 to 700, since 1988. An extra £37 million is being transferred from my 1351 budget to the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department to expand its asylum work further over the next three years; and the Home Office is planning a major initiative to computerise the handling of asylum cases. Above all, the Asylum and Immigration Bill currently before Parliament will help to streamline the handling of cases.
However, these objectives cannot be met if the system continues to be clogged up by vast numbers of unfounded claims. Therefore, our third objective is to remove from the benefits system the incentive for unfounded applicants—the great majority of them, as my noble friend Lord Vivian mentioned, economic migrants—so that they can no longer be on benefit and claim asylum in the United Kingdom.
The rising tide of asylum seekers represents a major problem which no responsible government can ignore. We are not the only government to have to tackle this problem. I shall come to that in a moment. Last year, the total number of people claiming asylum in the United Kingdom exceeded 57,000, including dependants. The figure for the previous year was 42,000. That is a ten-fold increase over 10 years. A decade ago, in 1984, 1985 and 1986, for example, the United Kingdom received 4,000, 6,000 and 6,000 applications. Over the past three years the figures were 32,000, 28,000 and 42,000; as I said, applications rose to 57,000 in the year just ended. That is a very considerable increase.
As my noble friends Lord Brabazon of Tara and Lady Elles pointed out, the situation in Europe, which mirrored ours, has now taken a considerable downturn as a result of steps taken by European countries. Belgium, for example, found that applications rose to 26,900. Following steps taken in 1993, its applications are now down, at 14,300. I mentioned Italy, which managed to bring down its applications from 31,000 in 1991 to 1,800 in 1994.
It is interesting to note that the UK's share of all those coming to Europe and claiming asylum a decade ago was roughly 4 per cent. over a three-year period, give or take a per cent. or two. The figures were: 4.3 per cent., 3.8 per cent. and 2.9 per cent. In the past three years they were 4.7 per cent. in 1992, 5.1 per cent. in 1993 and 13.2 per cent. in 1994. We have not collected the full annual statistics from the rest of Europe; however, it is perfectly clear to me, using a calculator, that the likelihood is that the percentages for 1995 will go well into the twenties.
If one excludes Germany from this calculation—Germany dominates the tables because of its proximity to the refugee influx from Eastern Europe over many years—the position for the rest of Europe is even more graphic: from about 6 per cent. in the three years a decade ago, we have seen the position move from 12.7 per cent. in 1992, to 12.3 per cent. in 1993 and 22 per cent. last year; and my calculator tells me that if the trends in the half-year figures continue, we shall certainly be in the region of 40-odd per cent.
1352 UK claims have risen by something like 45 per cent.—and that as a share of Europe's asylum seekers. We have therefore seen our share increase quite dramatically. Indeed, over a decade it has trebled. That point underlines the problem that we have to try to do something about it.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon said that figures were important. Indeed they are. And these figures are very, very important indeed. Amnesty International recognises that. It states:The truth of the matter is that, since 1992, immigration controls and asylum procedures—particularly those applied at the border—have been tightened far more in some European countries than in the UK".It adds that this,no doubt works to make the UK a more attractive destination for would-be asylum-seekers than some other European countries".So the tightening up by our friends and neighbours in Europe has helped to make our problem the greater. People see that if they cannot go to some of those countries, they can perhaps come to the United Kingdom.
We do have a serious problem. It is not helped by the remarks that we heard in this debate. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made some points about Bosnian refugees. I can tell the noble Earl that in 1994 there were 1,385 applications from the former Yugoslavia. Of those, 140 were granted refugee status—80 at the port and 60 in the country—and 1,365 were granted exceptional leave to remain. Of that number, 765 were granted permission at the port—where the noble Baroness would have one believe that everyone is so traumatised that they cannot think about asking for asylum—and 595 in-country. In addition, we agreed to take 500 Bosnians under the quota scheme of the UNHCR. I hope that the noble Earl will appreciate that we have played a very big part in trying to help people who are fleeing some of the serious problems in the former Yugoslavia.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the statistics, can he say how many asylum claims there are now in the pipeline? I suggest that between 50,000 and 60,000 asylum claims are waiting to be considered and that that is the biggest incentive for people to come here and not the argument that we are getting soft.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, of course the backlog has increased, because no matter how hard I try to explain that we have put resources into dealing with the problem, even more come in. In the real world that is very difficult to tackle. The noble Lord need not worry because I have not finished with the statistics: there are a lot more to come.
The plain fact is that our benefit system offers a greater incentive to economic migrants than applies in other countries. Under current arrangements an asylum seeker in the United Kingdom has open-ended access to benefit and is generally accommodated in the community. How much more attractive that is to an economic migrant than, say, Germany or Holland where they are accommodated in a camp and benefits are mainly in kind; or in Belgium or France where benefit stops after a year. After six months in Britain an asylum 1353 seeker can take work. In Denmark, France, The Netherlands and Spain asylum seekers are not allowed to work. So, as the rest of Europe has tightened up their procedures, we have seen our system becoming clogged up with a large number of false asylum claims. The burden on the system continues to grow as more economic migrants are drawn to the UK in preference to other European countries. By removing the incentive for economic migration, as we are doing in these regulations, we shall be able to ease the asylum process for genuine refugees.
Noble Lords should be clear that the overwhelming majority—I used the following figures on the last occasion and no one is countering them, with perhaps a slight exception as regards the two leading figures in the parties opposite—of claims are unfounded. Your Lordships will recall that I tried to simplify the figures away from thousands by simply saying that in 1994, for every 100 asylum seekers who came to this country, seven were found to be genuine refugees, 17 were granted permission to remain in the UK on humanitarian grounds (exceptional leave to remain) and 76 received an outright refusal. We are spending £200 million a year, which is rising rapidly, and over 90 per cent. of that goes to people who do not meet the criteria set out in the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, does the Minister argue that all the cases that I indicated from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture were bogus cases? They were all refused.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I am not going to argue in detail about individual cases because I do not know the facts. I know the facts about some cases which received high profile treatment, but the facts are often not as reported. There is an appeal system. If the noble Baroness does not mind, I shall give my speech in the round.
The appeal system is not going to be removed and neither is the right for people to come here and seek asylum. One would have thought occasionally this afternoon that these regulations were actually going to stop people coming here and seeking asylum. They do not do that. They are tackling what we believe—but which quite clearly the Opposition do not believe—is an abuse of our benefit system.
I was going to try to be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, who asked me a question about exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. Where the conditions in a particular country are so difficult, Ministers have agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect individuals to return to that country for the time being. Those are the kinds of circumstances in which exceptional leave to remain is given. Countries which currently fall into that category are, for example, China, Liberia and Somalia.
I tried to work out in my mind what the difference was. I believe it is that if in a particular country a person is likely to be in danger, not individually but simply because there are a lot of bullets flying around, not necessarily with the individual's name on them, that 1354 begins to lead people to believe that we should give exceptional leave to remain. A refugee is where a bullet may have his name on it.
We allow people to stay in this country on exceptional leave to remain in 17 cases out of 100. I return to the figure that I want to leave in your Lordships' minds for the rest of my speech. Three-quarters of them—76 cases out of 100—are actually found after the whole procedure has finished, including appeals and cases where the adjudicator decides that the original decision was correct, either not to warrant exceptional leave to remain or not to be genuine asylum seekers.
A great deal has been made of the time when people apply. That is one of the key changes we are making. Currently people can apply at the port of entry and when they are already in the country, having got in by saying that they were coming to visit, to be educated, to conduct business or whatever. Something has been made of the fact that they arrive and within a few days they decide to apply for asylum. That is not the case. In the first nine months of 1995, 63 per cent. of all visitors claimed asylum a month or more after arrival. The figures are these: those who applied within a month of arrival, 45 per cent.; between one and two months, 10 per cent; between two and four months, 15 per cent; between four and six months, 20 per cent.; and over six months after arrival, 10 per cent. Therefore, noble Lords can see that more than half of the asylum seekers actually apply at least a month after arrival in this country.
Continuing with the distinction between at-port and in-country applications, under these regulations anyone who arrives here and claims to be a refugee at the point of entry will be entitled to benefit while the Home Office assesses their claim. Seventy per cent. of claims are made by people who have entered this country claiming to be visitors, students or businessmen or who have entered illegally, only later to claim asylum. The bulk of these people have in fact convinced entry clearance officers in their home country and immigration officers at the UK ports that they intend to remain in this country for only a limited time and that they have sufficient funds to support and accommodate themselves while they are here. It is my belief that it is entirely reasonable to say to people that if they want to seek asylum in this country they ought to do it when they reach our shores.
I am told by noble Lords that that is an entirely unreasonable expectation and that people are too scared or disoriented, or lack knowledge of our procedures, and are traumatised, which is one of the words used by the noble Baroness on more than one occasion. The statistics do not bear that out. The noble Baroness tried to pluck your Lordships' heartstrings as regards children. The interesting fact about unaccompanied children is that the vast majority claim at the port. In 1994, 357 claimed at the port, 59 claimed in-country. In 1993, 245 claimed at the port and 30 claimed in-country. In 1992, 185 claimed at the port and only five claimed in-country. I do not believe that these statistics bear out the assertion of people being traumatised.
1355 The noble Earl, Lord Russell, in arguing this matter mentioned Zaïre. I took the trouble to look at the figures for that country. The whole principle of the debate on which the argument by the Opposition is based is that people are too frightened or traumatised to apply at the port of entry. If they believe that we are that kind of country, I do not know why they come to Great Britain. However, that question was not answered. As regards Zaïre, in 1904, of the 775 people who applied, 360 applied at the port and 415 applied in-country. That is pretty close to a balanced position. In the previous year, 635 people applied; 340 at the port and 295 in-country. The year before that, out of the 880 who applied in total 440 applied at the port and 435 applied in country.
I could go through, as I did on the day of the Statement, one or two other countries which draw out exactly the same point. However, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, kindly led me to Zaire as a country where people would be so traumatised and so distraught that they certainly would never think of applying for asylum on entry. The statistics simply do not bear out the noble Earl at all. I do not believe that if someone has identified the United Kingdom as a safe haven and if they have successfully misrepresented themselves to an entry clearance officer in their home country and they have found their way to this country, they suddenly lose the capacity to make the asylum claim which is actually what brought them here in the first place.
I believe, and I am sorry to say it to all noble Lords who have argued this case, that this stretches credulity a little too far. I am told also there is no evidence that in-country applicants are any less likely to be genuine than those who claim on arrival. The implication is that these regulations are based on the belief that in-country applicants are somehow more bogus. That has never been my case. I have never claimed that an in-country claim is less likely to be genuine. Rather it is my contention that the availability of benefit for in-country applicants, who actually form the majority of the applicants, provides an incentive for economic migrants to represent themselves as asylum seekers.
What we are saying is simply that those who wish to claim asylum in this country should do so on arrival. In saying this—this was a point my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree made, together with the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford—we do accept that there may be occasions when someone is trapped in this country by an upheaval in his home country. In these circumstances it will be possible for an in-country applicant to claim benefit on the same basis as a port application.
The great majority of asylum seekers appeal against the refusal of refugee status. Fewer than 4 per cent. of appeals are actually upheld, but the mere fact of having lodged an appeal allows the asylum seeker to retain entitlement to benefit until his case is decided. So in fact our generosity clogs up the system and causes the very delays that every noble Lord who has spoken has actually highlighted as a real problem in this situation. There is a clear incentive for a claimant to string out his appeal.
1356 Our purpose in these regulations is to remove this incentive in order to free up the appeal system. It can only be to the advantage of a genuine refugee and asylum seeker that the appeal system be relieved of this enormous burden of people who simply appeal because it keeps them here. And of course a British citizen who appeals against a domestic benefit decision receives no benefit during the course of the appeal. I just do not believe it is right that we, that is the British taxpayer, should be supporting this vast number of people who turn out to be without-foundation claimants, encouraging them almost to go through the appeals procedure so that they can keep on drawing benefits. The noble Earl's Motion, standing in his own name, would in fact reintroduce this very incentive for people to submit unfounded appeals.
I am asked what happens to the roughly three-quarters out of every hundred of those who come in who, at the end of the Home Office's consideration, are found not to be justified, having no exceptional leave to remain, and with no refugee status. How do they fend for themselves? I am going to turn that question round, because a little later three-quarters of them end up being refused totally and absolutely and then do not receive any benefit: no housing benefit, no council tax benefit. What do they do? Are the streets full of those people sleeping out at night? Of course not. This is a completely, if I may use the word, bogus argument because if there had been any justification noble Lords would have been complaining for years that the current situation, which would stop benefits after the end of the appeal system, was in fact uncaring, traumatising and all the other words we hear. Frankly, all the proposals before us are doing is actually bringing forward the time when the bogus asylum seeker will be deprived of benefits under our system.
If I may, I will now turn to a number of points raised by your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and in fact also the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has his own Motion down on this very point, referred to the safeguarding and protection of the children of in-country applicants. The welfare of those children is already safeguarded by the Children Act 1989, which provides that where children are in need local authorities have an obligation to protect them. This obligation extends to children of an asylum seeker, and these regulations in no way change the operation of the Children Act.
I am dismayed that people, in their haste to condemn these regulations, have chosen to overlook the safeguards we have provided. First, we have made it clear that existing claimants who are awaiting the outcome of an asylum decision or appeal will retain their right to benefit. Secondly, the children of asylum seekers will continue to have rights under the Children Act. Thirdly, we have recognised that local authorities may face additional costs in meeting their obligations under that Act and the homelessness legislation; and we have made it clear that we will discuss with them these matters and we will assist them with these costs once they have been identified.
1357 I should like to say the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that, regarding the UNHCR's point about our being in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, we do not believe that is the case. We are fully satisfied that there is nothing in these regulations that places the United Kingdom in breach of that convention.
We have had a great many arguments for and against the Resolutions and the Prayers, but I do not believe any of them have actually properly addressed the points that I have put over in advancing the case before the House this evening supporting these arguments. The blunt fact of the matter is that the facts speak for themselves: the increase in the numbers coming here as compared to Europe and the three-quarters of them that are found not to be genuine refugees. Indeed, the Social Security Select Committee in the other House said this:The committee shares the widespread view that the growth in the numbers of unfounded asylum claims and their cost to the taxpayer is a serious problem that the Government is right to tackle".Even Amnesty International towards the end of its report concludes:It is not disputed that the Government faces serious difficulties in dealing with large numbers of asylum applications, many of which are not well founded".The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, even went a little way along that line too. She said that maybe a high proportion are economic migrants. A high proportion are clearly economic migrants and the figures show it beyond peradventure. We are saying that we have a responsibility towards the United Kingdom taxpayers. We have also a responsibility towards the genuine asylum seekers. What I am left not knowing is: would the two parties opposite actually allow people in and to claim and then pay them benefits endlessly without question? I am puzzled about that because anybody who reads or listens, as I have done, to the attack on the Government's policy is unfortunately led to the conclusion that if I have got it so wrong then they must be going to open up the system and pay a lot more benefits. I believe I have proved that there is an abuse of our system. It is an abuse we can stop, and it is an abuse that, once stopped, will actually help both the United Kingdom taxpayer and the genuine refugees. These regulations I think ought to be commended.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I should love to but I have only 30 seconds. First, I should like to thank all noble Lords who took part. Whatever our views on this subject I think we would all agree that we have heard some deeply moving speeches which will remain in the memory and which may indeed remain to trouble us in the memory when we see what we fear will happen may come true.
Where we all agree is that this country, and we, have no obligation to support and finance economic migrants. We do not dispute that for a moment. All of us, I hope, and most of us, I believe, think that we should finance, help and support true asylum seekers. If that is the 1358 position, we all accept that we need to distinguish between the two. The question therefore before us is: how do we know which is which?
The Government, in the shape of the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, following an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said that the way to distinguish between those two is that those who apply at the port of entry are true asylum seekers and obtain benefit status; but those who apply in-country are not true and therefore do not receive benefit. That is the distinction on which the Government are operating and on which these regulations are based; that is, that those who apply at port of entry receive benefit and those who apply subsequently do not. That is the way to distinguish between the real and the bogus asylum seeker.
However, as the Government know, that is not true. One is more likely to be granted asylum status or exceptional leave to remain not if one applies at the port of entry, but if one applies in-country. Therefore one is more likely to be a genuine asylum seeker if one applies in-country rather than at the port of entry. That is why we should take seriously the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which certainly ring true to me: that if I were in the position of a refugee seeking asylum, I would seek first the safety of a country; then I would seek the advice of an organisation to help me, and then I would apply for leave to remain. That is the safer way to proceed, as evidenced by the fact that on the Government's figures they accept that argument both for asylum seekers and for those granted exceptional leave to remain.
If it is invalid to distinguish between genuine applicants at port of entry and in-country on the basis of whether or not we allow them benefit, then how do we distinguish between economic migrants and the true asylum seekers? There is only one safe and just way to do that. The distinction is not made on the basis of where one applies; for instance, whether one buys a train ticket at the office or on the train. That is irrelevant. The only fair, right and just way to distinguish between the economic migrant and the asylum seeker is on the basis of a determination by the Home Office.
The answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, as to how we cut the costs is simple. If we wish to cut the cost falling on the DSS then we require the Home Office to speed up the process of determination. The bill has mounted not because we are being swamped by immigrants, but because between 60,000 and 70,000 people are still waiting to have their initial determination processed. We are saying today that we are refusing asylum seekers social security money because our system is not speedy enough to offer them justice. That is what we are saying. We will refuse them money because we cannot offer them justice, and we will do so on the arbitrary distinction of where they apply—whether they apply at port of entry or in-country—even though we know that those who apply in-country, on the Government's figures, are likely to have a stronger case. That is not decent; that is not just; that is not fair; that is not humane. It will linger in our conscience for many years to come.
1359 I regret that convention does not allow me to seek the opinion of the House on a statutory instrument. Therefore, though I believe the Government's case to be profoundly and morally wrong, I have no alternative but to beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.