HL Deb 29 April 1998 vol 589 cc292-4

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Flather

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What public provision is being made in 1998–99 for asylum appellants to be legally represented at the hearing of their appeals when they are unable to fund such representations out of their own resources.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a total of £5.9 million is being made available in 1998–99 in grants to the Immigration Advisory Service and the Refugee Legal Centre to provide representation to asylum appellants. It is not a condition of these grants that the representation should be by legally qualified advocates.

Baroness Flather

My Lords, does that figure include the £500,000 which has been made available to the United Kingdom Immigration Advisory Service for the past two years specifically to meet the needs of asylum seekers who had their right to income support withdrawn? Is the Minister aware that it is because of pressure from the noble Lord's Benches and the present Home Secretary when he was Shadow Home Secretary that this sum was specifically made available for that purpose? There are 5,000 appeals in the pipeline at the moment.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it does not include the £500,000 to which the noble Baroness referred. The £500,000-worth of extra grants was specifically given as spend-to-save grants. Both organisations were told that the grants were for that purpose. There is core funding of £5.9 million, which will be an increase of 3 per cent. on last year's core funding.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that 25 per cent. of asylum appeals conducted by the Immigration Advisory Service are successful, as against the national average of 6 per cent.? Does not that indicate the advantages of competent representation? If such appeals are not conducted by the IAS, can my noble friend suggest anywhere else where appellants can find competent representation? How would that accord with our obligations under the refugee convention?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Immigration Advisory Service represented 1,538 appellants last year. The Refugee Legal Center represented 8,154 appellants. Those organisations have a body of experience and expertise. I would not want your Lordships to think that there was inequality of arms because last year the Home Office was not represented by counsel at any appeal hearing—that is, during the whole of 1997. Non-legally qualified persons from the Home Office appear while people with experience and expertise (from both the IAS and the Refugee Legal Centre) appear on behalf of appellants. I do not think that our contribution is unreasonable in that context.

Lord Henley

My Lords, while I accept that it is right that people should have some form of representation, legal or otherwise, at such appeals, does the noble Lord agree that the best way of reducing the costs and the number of appeals would be to reduce the number of those who seek asylum, bogus or otherwise? Will the Minister confirm that there has been a steady decline in the number of those seeking asylum since 1995, and that it has been even more marked since 1996 following the various reforms that were made to the social security system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, one needs a decent balance—both words are important: "decency" and "balance"—between allowing fair consideration of a claim which may or may not be legitimate and clogging up the system and burdening this country with those who have no legitimate right to, or expectation of, asylum. I repeat that the Home Office's contribution is not unreasonable in all the circumstances.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the IAS referred to dealing with 4,000 extra cases in the years 1996–97 and 1997–98 on the basis of the extra £500,000 grant that it had received? Does the noble Lord accept that cutting that grant aid would result in at least 5,000 appeals not receiving the legal advice which is offered by the Immigration Advisory Service? How can the Minister reconcile that with his own party's manifesto which referred to asylum seekers being dealt with swiftly and fairly?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think that there is any contradiction. The question relates to appeals. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, phrased her question precisely—deliberately so, I imagine. It refers to legal representation, at the hearing of their appeals". That is quite different from informal or formal advice which may be given to a large number of people who may never appeal. The figures are not comparable.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, is it correct that the report of the Government's comprehensive spending review into asylum seekers has been in the hands of Ministers since February but is not to be published until July? Does my noble friend agree that in this country's noble tradition of welcoming genuine asylum seekers it is wrong and unworthy that so many of them are having such a tough time and that they are not well represented when they should be? Will he assure the House that the review will be published now and that it will certainly not be published after both Houses of Parliament have risen in July?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not know when it is proposed to publish the conclusions of the comprehensive spending review. I do not think that it is right to say that those who prosecute appeals in the asylum system are not properly represented. Both organisations are well experienced. The Home Office is not legally represented. I would have thought that that represented reasonable equity.

On the more general point, I agree with the noble Lord that those who seek asylum must be treated decently. Equally, one must recognise that not all those who seek asylum, and not all appellants, are genuinely entitled to what they wish. I understand their desire and I sympathise with it, but that is not the regime that we operate in this country.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, given that the Government's review is awaited—we hope that it will be published in July and I am concerned by the suggestion that it might be even later—is not this a strange time to withdraw the special funding for the Immigration Advisory Service to which my noble friend Lady Flather referred? I am sure that we have no doubt about the Government's good intentions in this matter in general, but would it not be much wiser to maintain the funding until we have heard the results of the review, can debate it and take matters from there?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

No, my Lords. I repeat that the spend-to-save funding was specifically time limited. Both organisations were told its purpose; namely, spend to save. They understood that perfectly well. There was no ambiguity about the position. I repeat that the core funding will be increased by 3 per cent. over the 1997–98 levels.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, will the Government at least accept that there is a feeling on all sides of the House that the conclusions of the spending review have been delayed for too long? Thousands of refugees are waiting for answers about their benefits. Will the Minister, through the Home Secretary, do his utmost to speed up the process?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I take the noble Earl's point, but I do not think that the date of the publication of the CSR has any direct or, indeed, other relationship with the benefits being looked for by asylum seekers. The Question relates to asylum appeals. I believe that we offer a decent service by the funding that we give.