HL Deb 03 February 1997 vol 577 cc1436-8

3.1 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they are doing to bring to an end the hunger strikes by asylum seekers and others in HM Prison Rochester.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the prison and immigration service at Rochester prison are making every effort to care for those detainees who have chosen to refuse to take regular prison meals, but they are also making it clear to them that it is in their own best interest to stop their hunger strike. There is no justification for them to take this action and the right course is for them to end their protest immediately.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, no one will condone a hunger strike—but this is by people who are the victims of torture and persecution throughout the world. Is not the right answer for the Government to say that it is wrong that we should detain people in prisons and detention centres against whom there are no criminal charges whatsoever merely on the decision of an official? Would not the right answer be to have a judicial process other than the bail system, which does not work, to safeguard these people and ensure that justice is done? The hunger strike would then be over immediately.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not absolutely certain what the noble Lord is suggesting. There is a proper process. There is the right of appeal for all people who enter this country and apply for asylum. We detain in our prisons about 1 to 1.5 per cent. only of those applicants whose cases are outstanding. That means that between 98 and 99 per cent. are allowed into the community awaiting the appeal procedure.

The noble Lord referred to offences. I do not intend to use names because it would be inappropriate for me to do so. But some of the people who are operating this protest are involved with crimes, including child abuse, shoplifting, drugs, blackmail, living on immoral earnings and fraud, to name but a few.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in view of the remark made by the noble Lord that these people have been tortured and have suffered terrible conditions throughout the world, can my noble friend assure us that they are not suffering such terrible conditions in our prisons and there is no question whatever of continuing torture and maltreatment of these people?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can say two things to my noble friend. First, if people are genuine victims of torture that would be sorted out in the substantive consideration of their case. Secondly, these asylum seekers are being looked after. There is a separate wing in the prison and there is no connection with convicted prisoners. There are D and E wings. There is also a hospital wing where some of the detainees are sent if they need medical care and attention. Food and water are provided throughout the day if they wish to partake of it. Medical attention is offered, although sometimes some of them refuse it. Care, attention and counselling have been given to persuade these people not to continue with the protest, and they are continuous.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is quite wrong that anyone should be imprisoned without trial? Why have we reverted to this barbarous and uncivilised practice?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord that it is barbarous. I have mentioned how few people are detained. They are detained because it is judged that they would not conform to the normal conditions of release. There are good reasons why they are detained, and it is done very rarely. The asylum seekers still have the freedom to apply for bail. Some have done so and in fact one was granted bail. Bail is considered independently of government and after taking into account the likelihood of a detainee conforming to the conditions of release.

Earl Russell

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us of any other circumstance in which people may be detained in a British prison without trial, without cause shown and without limitation of time? If the answer is no, can she tell us whether asylum seekers are so treated because they are seen as lesser breeds without the law or because the Home Office regards the safeguards as outdated and they are no longer taken seriously?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I find that a preposterous premise on which to base a question. I have already given some reasons. Sometimes asylum seekers are detained because on an independent judgment there is considered to be a decided likelihood that they will abscond while awaiting either deportation or for the process to be completed. Some have been detained on conviction or on suspicion of having committed a crime. I have given reasons why they should be detained; and they are treated humanely. We have conformed to all our obligations under national and international law in the way in which we are caring for these detainees.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister referred to independent judgment. Is it not the case that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees requires that the granting of bail should be considered by a competent, independent and impartial authority, whereas in this country it is in the hands of Immigration Department officials, who can hardly claim to be independent? Is it not also the case that, even when bail is granted, an asylum seeker has to obtain two referees and find £2,000 for bail? Does that not of itself increase the number not only of those who are held in detention but of those who feel themselves to be unjustly held?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, unless the noble Lord has evidence to the contrary, we are not in contravention of our obligations under national and international law. We certainly conform to the United Nations Convention on Refugees.