HL Deb 11 February 1997 vol 578 cc113-6

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to improve the present facilities for asylum seekers held in immigration detention centres and Her Majesty's prisons.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, asylum seekers and other Immigration Act detainees who are held in immigration detention centres and in Prison Service establishments in England and Wales are treated well and have the same special rights and privileges as remand prisoners. Only about 1 per cent. of those whose asylum cases are outstanding are detained at any one time.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply as far as it goes. Does she accept that many people, including most recently the chairman of the British Medical Association, cannot understand why so many asylum seekers are detained, without any hearing, in prisons and detention centres after all they have gone through in their own countries, and why there is no form of independent review of their cases and an overhaul of the bail system?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, about 80 per cent. of those who are detained will have made an asylum claim at some stage. We understand that between 75 and 80 per cent. of those will have had their applications rejected. A significant number will also have had their appeals rejected and will be mounting last-ditch challenges to the system or awaiting documentation from other countries. There are many reasons for detention and the delays in detention, but I believe that the point made by the BMA is rather overstated.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that at present there is a vast amount of oppression in many countries throughout the world, that the unfortunate people affected believe that this is the easiest country to get into and that if we absorb all of them we shall increase our social problems to an unreasonable degree?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. We honour all of our obligations, both national and international. Just 1 per cent. of outstanding applications is subject to detention. Every effort is made to provide facilities for asylum seekers. All of them have access to physical, education and library facilities, educational classes, recreational activities and medical services that are in line with those available to any citizen in the land. They have a more relaxed regime. They have the use of shops and telephones; they can wear their own clothes; they have generous visiting arrangements and regular meals, and dietary and religious requirements are met. I believe that we do our duty by these people.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that in 1994 in response to the European Committee on Torture and Inhumane Treatment Her Majesty's Government said that they would take every possible step to reduce the number of asylum seekers in detention? Further, does she agree that since that time the number has increased and the length of detention has increased despite the fact that the number of asylum seekers has declined? Will the Minister give further consideration to the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that an independent review be made of such cases, in particular for those who are detained for six months or more?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness is wrong in saying that the numbers have declined. The noble Baroness quoted the figure for 1994. In that year the number of applicants was 32,800. In 1995 the figure was 43,965. As a proportion, the figures are not as the noble Baroness has pointed out. A mere 10 years ago in 1987 the number of applications was only 4,256. That demonstrates the enormous escalation in the number of asylum applications. Referring to the earlier point made by my noble friend, the reason may be that this country is more accommodating to asylum seekers than many other countries.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that hunger strikers have access to appropriate medical facilities? That said, does she agree that no government should ever be held to ransom?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, indeed they do have access to medical facilities. An enormous amount of effort is made on two counts: first, to persuade hunger strikers to discontinue their hunger strikes; and, secondly, to ensure that all of their medical needs are met. That involves medical attention being given inside the prison, the hospital wing and in external hospitals. I absolutely agree with the noble Viscount: no government should be held to ransom in this way.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, in view of the suggestion of the noble Earl, there cannot be a review system until a decision has been made and that once a decision has been made there is a first-rate independent review system?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I confirm that. The delay is not all one way. The delay is not always the fault of the Government's administration. Delay may be caused by people simply not turning up for appeal hearings or failing to provide evidence to appeal hearings. Sometimes there is delay on the part of receiving countries who do not provide travel documents to their citizens so that they can return to their countries.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the way in which she has answered questions put by noble Lords on the other side of the House this afternoon suggests that she looks to the imprisonment of asylum seekers who are innocent of any criminal charge as a way of deterring others from seeking safety in this country? Is she not saying that detention and imprisonment work?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have made the point repeatedly that detention is a last resort. That is borne out by the figures: only about 1 per cent. of outstanding asylum cases are detained. They are not all wholly innocent; many of them are guilty of criminal offences. One of the reasons for detention is that they are deemed not to be reliable in conforming to and being compliant with the terms and conditions of their release into the community. It is for that reason that they are detained. During the many Questions on this subject that I have answered, and during the passage of the Bill on this subject, I have noted that noble Lords opposite would have a much more generous policy for such people not to be detained and to be at large in the community. I believe that that would add considerably to the risk in the community.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that 754 persons were detained at the end of 1996, and that that represents 2.79 per cent. of the 27,000 persons who applied for political asylum during 1996, and not 1 per cent. as she keeps reiterating? Does she further agree that 25 per cent. of the 754 persons in detention are awaiting an answer to their first application, and therefore should be considered as prime candidates for bail? Of those, 405 applied at the port of entry and are therefore within the terms of the Minister's definition of genuine asylum applicants.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have never said what the noble Lord attributes to me as having said. I have never said that it was 1 per cent. of applications in any one year. If the noble Lord looks back at the correspondence that I have had with him, he will see that it is about 1 per cent. of the outstanding applications. At this moment there are about 70,000 outstanding applications.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, that is not consistent.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, what I have said is consistent. It is about 1 per cent. of outstanding applications. If the noble Lord is saying that 75 out of 740 are awaiting their first consideration that does not detract from the fact that there must be good reason for detaining them, because there is an independent appellate authority which would consider bail were it applied for. It is not a question of the Government detaining these people. They are detained with full rights to apply for bail.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, why cannot these wretched people be brought before a magistrate, say, within two weeks of the start of detention?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if the Government had proposed that in the Bill, the noble Lord would have been the first person to have stood up and objected to it, because those people must be allowed to have their applications considered in the first place, and time to prepare their cases for appeal. I have said that we believe that sometimes there is undue delay in the appeals being prepared on the part of the applicants. We do not want to cut through that by having quick, sharp justice done by a magistrates' court overnight probably merely, at the end of the day, to deny them their rights. We do not agree with that.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister has obviously described the physical facilities of these people accurately, but does not she recognise that the despair that they feel, which in the most distressing cases has led to hunger strikes, arises from the fact that they have been put in prison by administrative action—by immigration officials—rather than by any judicial process, and that their appeals against detention depend in the first instance upon administrative action?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, where I do agree with the noble Lord is that some of these people are desperate. They are desperate for different reasons, not just because they are detained. They are desperate because the economic conditions in their own country are such that they would prefer to live in this country. We have a system that is generous in awarding exceptional leave to remain in those cases which do not qualify for refugee status under the UN convention. There is independent consideration of bail applications. They are given fair consideration. The noble Lord knows that. We discussed that at length during the course of the Bill. It is not a government decision. It is an independent decision, and, as the noble Lord knows, His Honour Judge Pearl is at the head of that appellate body.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment upon the fact that in answer to a previous question on this subject she referred to people who were accused of having committed crime? Will she tell the House how many of those accused of committing crime have been charged and how many are being kept in detention as a result of accusations that have not been brought to charge?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, a number have not merely been charged, they have been convicted and served their sentence. There is one asylum detainee who had committed abuses against children, had served a prison sentence in this country, had been removed from this country, and re-entered illegally. There will be others who have a criminal background. When one is considering the likelihood of someone conforming to the terms and conditions of release into the community then the character of that person is an important consideration to be taken into account.

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