HL Deb 18 March 1996 vol 570 cc1066-8

2.46 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they will respond to the decision of the adjudicator in the case of Professor Muhammed al-Mas'ari announced on 5th March.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is considering the case further.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would it not be better if the Home Secretary were to admit defeat now, grant asylum to Professor al-Mas'ari and pay his costs? Or, as regards the safeguarding of arms contracts with countries in the Gulf, is it considered imperative that he should be seen to go down standing on the bridge with all his guns blazing and colours flying in the High Court?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no. No fault was found with the Home Secretary using the legal basis on which the decision was reached in paragraph 345 of the immigration rules. It provides that an asylum application may be refused without substantive consideration if there is clear evidence of admissibility to a safe third country. It was deemed that Dominica was not safe and my right honourable friend is considering how to respond to the recommendation made by the adjudicator.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that whatever decision is taken in the case the Government will use their best endeavours within their powers to restrict the damage which Professor al-Mas'ari's political activities could cause to commercial, political and economic interests in Saudi Arabia?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that that is a proper consideration for my right honourable friend. Saudi Arabia is a most important part of the Middle East. Indeed, it is very important to the stability of the Gulf. Many British companies employ thousands of workers who depend for their livelihood on legitimate trade with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps I may put that into context by pointing out that in 1994 there were £1.5 billion-worth of exports, of which only 20 per cent. were defence related. It is the third largest market outside the OECD and the single largest market within the Middle East.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, do I understand that if Professor al-Mas'ari belonged to a country which was totally unimportant to trade the principle would be different?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no. Every single application is treated on its merits. If an application is made it is entirely legitimate for my right honourable friend to use paragraph 345 of the rules to consider different ways of responding and acting legally consistent with our obligations under international treaty. If a safe third country can be found, my right honourable friend's action would be entirely consistent with his obligations under international law.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, quite apart from the question of commerce, which I know is a very real problem—and I speak as someone involved in the "Death of a Princess" saga when that took place in Saudi Arabia—is not the purpose of asylum to grant people refuge from persecution and not to enable them consciously to set up a base for subverting other people's governments?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister who said: For a very long time in our country, we have been willing to take … people who feared persecution abroad into the United Kingdom. That's a long-standing British tradition, and I don't believe anybody would wish to change that. But there is then a very delicate balance to keep. If people enter on that basis, and then use the United Kingdom as a base from which to conduct their own particular activities against another government elsewhere, perhaps particularly a friendly government, then that is a matter that we'd have to look at very carefully".

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind the experience of this country in relation to its trade relationships with Iran consequent on the change in regime in Iran after the fall of the Shah, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that they are not associated too closely with a particular regime and are establishing trade relationships with the country at large instead of with a particular regime?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, an asylum application in this country is considered entirely on its merits. My right honourable friend has obligations under international treaty. There may be two ways of satisfying an application which is made under our international obligations. One method may be to find a third safe country. Therefore, it is entirely legitimate that my right honourable friend should consider that option, and in considering it, at the same time he should consider British interests.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did not the conditional mood in which the Prime Minister expressed himself indicate that he was considering powers for the future and not as they affect asylum seekers in the United Kingdom as they are at present? Will the noble Baroness say whether Professor al-Mas'ari is accused of having broken any laws in the United Kingdom? If not, is he not entitled to be considered on the same basis as a native of this country?

The noble Baroness seems keen on quoting the law. In that case, perhaps she will tell me why the Secretary of State failed to comply with the direction of the previous adjudicator given on 7th March 1995 under paragraph 4(2)(b) of the second schedule to the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 and Section 19(3) of the Immigration Act 1971 to consider the substantive and outstanding application of the applicant to asylum? Why was that not done under the direction of the adjudicator?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we know that as regards the judgment in that particular case—which is the subject of this Question—my right honourable friend, who had sought to seek a third safe country in Dominica, was overruled on that point. He is now considering how to respond to that. It was found also that my right honourable friend was not in breach of Article 3 of the convention that he acted in a discriminatory way against Professor al-Mas'ari.

I repeat that we wish to continue to offer asylum to people who genuinely need it; but we are bound to be concerned if that offer of a safe haven is then used to conduct activities against other friendly governments which may damage the British national interest. The British Government are bound to have to consider British employment and other matters relevant to the case. If my right honourable friend has two options which are both consistent with our obligations under international law, it is right—and I believe that he has a duty—to consider the British interest.