HL Deb 30 October 1997 vol 582 cc1134-7

3.42 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What deficiencies in the present system of controls on asylum seekers the changes they announced on Monday 27th October are intended to address.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the length of time at present taken to resolve an asylum claim can make it attractive to claim asylum to those motivated by economic reasons. This is because a good number of claimants who make abusive asylum applications at ports of entry are primarily motivated by the access this affords, pending a decision on their asylum claim, to United Kingdom welfare benefits.

On 27th October we announced new procedures to speed up the decision-making process in abusive asylum claims. Those asylum seekers making abusive claims at the port of entry will now only be allowed five days in which to submit further evidence after their interview instead of the 28 days previously allowed. But the final decision on how long to allow for the submission of any further material relevant to the individual's claim will remain with the Asylum Directorate's caseworker in the light of all the available evidence.

This new procedure will enable faster decisions to be taken in abusive cases, maintaining the integrity of our asylum system against those who would seek to abuse it, which is so essential for the protection of the genuine refugee.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister has proved himself to be one of the best advocates in a House which is used to distinguished advocates. Is his skill sufficient to explain to the House how the Home Secretary, having regard to the principles of natural justice, may know a claim to be abusive when its substance yet remains to be heard? Or how the Roma in Slovakia and the Czech Republic have no well-founded fear of persecution?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, some claims which are made bear self-evident hallmarks that they are likely not to be well founded. In those circumstances it is reasonable, in the public interest—not least public funds and the interests of genuine refugees—to introduce a curtailed period for making further representations. There is no suggestion that natural justice will be breached; quite the reverse. The opportunity to make further representations is specifically allowed. That is what natural justice requires. It does not require delay, which is simply intended for improper purposes.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government will receive wide support if they succeed in reducing the number of bogus asylum seekers? Is he further aware that, owing to the increase of oppression in many countries of the world, the ease of international travel and the fact that people find it easier to be accepted in this country than in other countries to which they might go, there has been an addition to our social problems which must be dealt with?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for the initial observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. These are extremely serious questions. Your Lordships may be interested to know that at the present time there is a backlog of cases of over 50,000, 12,000 of which go back to 1993 or 1994. That is an indication of the scale of the problem. On 21st August my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs announced an inter-departmental study. Your Lordships may agree that dealing with the problem on a single department basis is not appropriate and therefore the Home Office is leading that review. It intends to report in the earlier part of next year. The review includes the Cabinet Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and all the other relevant departments that have a specific interest in the problems the noble Lord accurately described.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in September 1994 at an ODIHR seminar, chaired by our ambassador Audrey Glover, a number of recommendations on the treatment of Roma were made? Subsequently the ODIHR set up a contact point for Roma and recommended that a European charter for Roma be set up. In view of all the work that has been done by the ODIHR on the question of Roma, not just in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but throughout the region, does the Minister agree that it is unlikely that claims made by those people are likely prima facie to be abusive? Is not the correct answer to try and strengthen the mechanisms for enforcement of OSCE declarations such as the Copenhagen declaration which would enable the rights of those minorities to be dealt with in their countries of origin?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as I indicated earlier, there is no single answer to what is a complex problem. I am not able to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that it is unlikely that one will encounter abusive claims from the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Perhaps I can give some figures. On 24th October there was a total of four asylum claims made by Czechs and Slovaks at Dover; the next day a total of 28; on the 26th, five; on the 27th, two; on the 28th, seven; and yesterday, none. I suggest that there may be a causal connection between the Home Secretary's announcement and the figure of nought yesterday, not simply a statistical one.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that a decision on interview that this is an abusive application is subject to appeal and judicial review? Can he also state what the status is of the new five-day procedure referred to in Monday's Hansard in another place?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, any decision which is made is subject to the usual review and appeal procedures. I stress that the decision to curtail the period for further representations is subject to the immigration caseworker's decision. The effect, therefore, to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, refers is to curtail the period from 28 days to five days. The Government's judgment—I hope your Lordships think it is a reasoned and reasonable one—is that five days in many instances is amply sufficient for further representations to be made.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have been a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal since 1985. Is the noble Lord aware that the delays are not only on the part of asylum seekers? There are also delays within the Home Office administration and the appellate authority's administration and from the lawyers who represent the appellants. Is the review committee looking at all those factors?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I take entirely the noble Countess's point. Delay in any administrative system is wrong in itself. I have indicated to your Lordships the scale of the problem—a backlog of more than 50,000, some of them of very long standing. Delays will be one of the central features of the interdepartmental review which was announced by my right honourable friend on 21st August.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister congratulated himself on reducing the number of Slovak applications in Dover. Is he aware that he congratulated himself on what, under Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, may well be an illegal objective?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did not congratulate myself on anything. I simply indicated the general understanding in your Lordships' House that this is an extremely serious problem and I ventured to offer a mild, pacific suggestion that the Home Secretary's announcement might have had something to do with the fact that yesterday there were no applications at all.