HL Deb 25 February 1998 vol 586 cc766-86

8.14 p.m.

Lord Hylton

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they are making in reviewing arrangements for asylum seekers, including the backlog of applications; and what improvements they have in mind.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by welcoming and thanking Her Majesty's Government for some small but helpful action that they have taken for people seeking refugee status in this country. They have declared the Congo, Zaire and Sierra Leone to be "countries of upheaval" to which asylum seekers will not be returned. However, will they also include Algeria in that category?

The Government increased the support limit to £165 per week for applicants who would otherwise be destitute. They have allowed local authorities to use their own housing stock for asylum seekers rather than hotels and boarding houses, which are often more expensive and of poor quality. Those are common-sense measures and I welcome them warmly. In the words of Shakespeare: "For this relief, much thanks."

I turn now to four issues hoping that constructive dialogue will lead to real improvements. I have in mind welfare, the use of detention, the backlog of applicants and, lastly, the Government's review and the shape of future arrangements. I look forward to later speakers adding detail to that outline.

As regards welfare, local authorities have recently been providing essential food to some 5,000 single people who might otherwise starve; they have been assisting 2,500 families with children under the Children Act; thus some 12,000 to 15,000 people are receiving help in kind while their applications are considered. The British Refugee Council estimates that to provide income support and housing benefit would cost around £110 per person per week instead of the current £165, which is the allowable cost of benefits in kind. There is thus a huge saving to be made—one which will allow individuals greater choice in managing their own lives.

I understand that the Secretary of State already has discretion to change the regulations so that it would no longer be obligatory to provide benefits in kind. Will the Government grasp this opportunity? Will they also—I hope they will—reduce the six-month period during which new applicants are not allowed to accept employment, even if they are lucky enough to find it? Surely a one-month waiting period would be sufficient.

Do the Government accept that the national assistance and Children Acts do not provide suitable vehicles for sustaining applicants while their cases are decided? The use of those Acts lays unfair burdens on a small number of local authorities and also harms race relations.

The number of people in detention who claim asylum varies from around 700 to 850 at any one moment in time. Some of those people are in prison, others in detention centres. The number has quadrupled since 1990. Detention causes intense suffering, anxiety and uncertainty. There have been attempted suicides and, I am sorry to say, three self-inflicted deaths in recent years. Detention also makes access difficult for legal and other advisers. At the end of last October only 58 out of 740 detainees were held subject to deportation. The remainder were cases awaiting decision or appeal; 316 had applied at a port of entry and 366 were classed as illegal immigrants. That definition includes those arriving unofficially who may nevertheless have genuine cases for asylum and others who may have initially declared themselves as visitors.

The Minister will, I dare say, tell me that detention is only used sparingly and as a last resort. What ideas do the Government have for reducing the use of detention to the pre-1990 level? Bail, we all know, has proved not to be an effective remedy. Will the Government introduce case-by-case reviews by independent reviewers, starting within a week or two of arrest and continuing at regular intervals? Will they ensure that detainees are always informed in writing, in a language they understand, of the reason for their detention and its probable duration?

I come now to the backlog. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has told the House that on 31st December last 51,795 cases were awaiting initial decision. He did not say at that time that there were also well over 22,000 cases awaiting appeal. The total is formidable. I can perhaps encourage the noble Lord who will reply by pointing out that last year the new French Government issued between 20,000 and 40,000 residence permits, many of them to asylum seekers who would have been in danger if returned to their countries of origin. Urgent action is certainly needed in this country as well.

Fast-track procedures have been tried here. They produced some 5,700 decisions in 1996–97, but from these, only three persons were accepted as refugees, an almost unbelievably low figure. I therefore ask to what extent this is likely to be mitigated by exceptional leave to remain and to what extent it is likely to be altered by successful appeals. It does not help very much to give quick decisions if these are later to be overturned on appeal. In dealing with the backlog, what weight is given to the cost of appeals and also to the cost of removing people to distant countries? One thing is quite clear: faster procedures must have built-in safeguards.

After the Act of 1993 it is clear that the proportion of refusals jumped up dramatically. At the same time exceptional leave to remain, which had been a safety valve for genuine humanitarian cases, fell from 64 per cent. of applications to between 14 and 21 per cent. Will the Government reverse this policy? Will they make ELR much more transparent? In dealing with a huge backlog, will the Government take into account that 20 per cent. of the initial applications pre-date 1994? Ten thousand people have been waiting for four years or more. The situation among appellants is probably similar. During the waiting time, families produce children, children become established in school and jobs, and houses are obtained. Are these factors being fully considered? Will the Government look favourably on family reunion as a reason for admitting applicants? Amnesty International has underlined that it is both impractical and unfair to remove people who have been here a long time since their initial applications. I am sure your Lordships appreciate the force of that.

Do the Government believe that computerisation will help to reduce the backlog; and if so, how soon? There is talk of staff cuts in the immigration and nationality departments. How will these influence the situation? Will staff be retained at least until the computers are fully functioning? Legal aid also has a bearing on the backlog. At present none is available for appeals. The Refugee Legal Centre and the Immigration Advisory Service provide free advice for both first applications and appeals. They cannot cope with all current cases. Can the noble Lord assure us that their government funding will not be cut, and will indeed be increased, until such time as the backlog is cleared?

Turning to the future, can the noble Lord in his reply give the House any outline of the new thinking that is emerging from the interdepartmental review? Will there be an interim report? When is the full report expected? I wish to mention two particular points that the review should consider. At the time of the 1996 Act, it was announced that asylum seekers need only register their application on entering the country. They could justify their case after receiving proper advice. I understand that this has not always happened and that port interviews are still being conducted on arrival and before applicants have had access to legal and community advice. This must be counterproductive. Applicants are entitled to know what the 1951 convention states. It would also be helpful if Home Office assessments of individual countries of origin could be regularly published. Will the noble Lord comment on these and on any other steps that would help to build up confidence in the processing of applications?

I have mentioned the Government's small improvements and also welfare, detention, the backlog and the review. I conclude with Europe and the British presidency. Will the Government use this opportunity to resist the concept of "fortress Europe"? Will they seek to have the 1951 convention properly applied throughout the European Union until such time as it is revised or amended? Will they amend or repeal the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act and resist the extension to additional countries of fines on carriers? Europe has a small proportion of all the world's refugees and because of its wealth, it should bear its proper share. Because many refugees are young, adaptable and dynamic, they have much to contribute. I thank all noble Lords who are taking part in the debate and I look forward to a sympathetic response from the Government.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for putting down his Question and for introducing the debate in such a comprehensive and useful way. This evening I should like to express my concern for one particular group of people who do, I think, have a particularly hard time under the present situation. These are asylum seekers who make application in the proper way when they enter this country, but who have to wait a very long time—sometimes several years—before their case is considered in any way, and before they are called to interview.

Of course one should say at once that they are fortunate indeed to be admitted to this country, saving them from what is often an appalling situation in their own country, where they have usually had to endure deeply disturbing experiences. They are fortunate also to be accorded income support—if they are unable to find work, which is often the case—and often housing benefit also. Their good fortune in these respects has to be recognised.

Secondly, one should value the very great care with which the officials of the immigration section of the Home Office deal with such cases—many of them, of course, legitimate cases—against the enormous pressure of numbers from would-be immigrants who sometimes apply for asylum when their motivation is not in fact to escape from suffering under a tyrannical regime in their own country. It may simply be motivated by a desire for economic betterment. One must recognise the difficult task which the Home Office has in dealing with these large numbers—quite apart from illegal immigrants, and those who enter legally but disappear, as I am afraid they sometimes do, when they are asked to leave.

That being said, however, when an applicant has been in this country for two, three, four or five years, there may be perhaps some presumption that he may hope to be granted exceptional leave to remain, which may, after a further period of time, lead to British citizenship. The situation is not an easy one. They may be left for years in a kind of limbo in this position. When I raised this point during a Starred Question debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Renton on 27th January, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, replied in a very sympathetic way. He said: I entirely agree with the noble Lord. It is utterly demoralising … No human being should have to be left in doubt and limbo for that period of time.—[Official Report, 27/1/98; col. 104.] I very much agree with him.

He kindly agreed to write to me to say how many applicants there are in this country who have been applicants for more than five years without having a decision in their case or an interview. To my surprise, however, it has not yet been possible to provide this information. I had a very courteous letter from the noble Lord making clear that records are not maintained on this basis. I have to express considerable surprise that we have no way of knowing—I hope some statistical computations will be made—how many people have not had their cases considered who are applicants of five, six or seven years' standing. I would be very interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, how many cases of applicants there are in this country who have heard nothing at all after seven or eight years, because there are indications that some people are in that very unfortunate position.

The noble Lord was kind enough to write to me to say that 10,000 applications are still outstanding from before the passage of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 in July of that year. Is it not strange that we are making large numbers of applicants, some of them clearly legitimate applicants, wait in this extraordinary and nerve-racking situation where they hear literally nothing for year upon year?

There are also financial implications here, quite apart from issues of justice. I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to indicate the annual total cost—that is to say, aggregating money from central government and from local authorities—of benefits to those seeking asylum. It would be interesting to have an overall figure, which was not given in the brief debate earlier this week on the Starred Question of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I imagine that the average cost of an asylum seeker must be approaching £5,000 a year, although no doubt we shall learn more if we are given the necessary figures.

Secondly, how many cases on average—that is, cases for initial decision—does an immigration case worker determine per year? A diligent and experienced case worker might feel able to determine one case a week. I have no idea what the answer is. It may take longer than that. But if it were one case a week, and the case worker could therefore adjudicate on 50 cases for initial decision a year, it would seem that of the order of £250,000 per year could be deducted, as it were, from the asylum budget. I have no idea how much it costs to support an immigration official but, taking a figure of £50,000, including pension rights and so on. it would seem that if one drafted in a number of new immigration officers—if one had a task force, with people on one or two-year contracts—one might be in a position to save the Exchequer or, at any rate, the asylum bill of the order of £200,000 per officer.

I have based those calculations on hypothetical figures and I stand to be corrected, but I imagine that my point has some validity. The present system is extremely expensive. It is not only unjust and inefficient to have a backlog of cases of five to eight years' standing; it is extremely expensive on the Exchequer to be maintaining applicants without giving their cases any consideration whatever for five years. It is perfectly clear that some of those cases will receive a negative reply and that those involved will have to leave this country. It would have been much less expensive had they been invited to do so rather more rapidly.

In conclusion, perhaps I may make a suggestion. Surely, in cases where an asylum seeker has made application in the proper way and waited for an answer for four or five years, unless there are other special factors militating against that person—for instance, demonstrably untrue statements made in the application—there should be some presumption that he or she might well be granted exceptional leave to remain. After four or five years, surely we must recognise that there has been some deficiency in our own administrative system that goes beyond what is reasonable.

This is not the Prague of Kafka. This is not some Comintern bureaucracy of the 1950s. It is certainly true that these people, these applicants, are seeking a great privilege: namely, British citizenship. But that does not mean that we should treat them as if they are of no account, mere manila folders locked in a forgotten filing cabinet.

I hope that the Minister can give some undertaking that something will soon be done to tackle this appalling and rather Kafka-esque situation.

8.35 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, I also wish to offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for putting down this Unstarred Question and for the very able way in which he introduced it in your Lordships' House.

The General Synod of the Church of England debated the issue of asylum seekers in November of last year and, during that debate, they welcomed the Government's commitment to a fairer, firmer and faster system for considering requests for asylum. We are looking forward with great anticipation to the results of the review which we all trust will deliver such a system. The Synod also expressed its continuing concern about the effects of British asylum immigration and nationality law upon those who seek asylum here.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to the matter of a backlog and to the fact that the total number of pending applications has in fact fallen from almost 70,000 at the beginning of 1996 to just under 52,000 at the beginning of this year. Although the number of pending applications has fallen, the number of appeals has in fact risen from 1st January 1996, when it was just under 12,000, to 1st January 1998, when my figures give just over 24,000. Surely one of the reasons for this increase in the number of appeals is that the quality of the initial decision was not good enough. Good initial decisions will surely lead to a smaller number of appeals. I have heard a number of lawyers make that specific point.

I have read a number of initial determinations over the years and I have to say that I am astonished at the reasons which are on occasion given during the writing up of initial decisions for rejecting an application. I remember one application which was made where the grounds for refusing it, amongst others, were that the applicant had spoken about his work. He had owned a shop in Nigeria and in one of his interviews he had referred to this shop as a corner store. In another interview he had referred to it as a supermarket. I now walk past corner stores and I try to determine in my mind whether I would refer to it as a corner store or as a supermarket. I am tolerably familiar with the English language, but I do not always find it easy to know exactly which term I would use. For somebody arriving from another country, unfamiliar with our culture, to be expected to have familiarity with that degree of sophistication about our use of language does seem to be extraordinary.

I feel that one of the issues in the making of initial decisions is the giving of time to applicants before they are interviewed. During the passage of the 1996 Act, when the whole matter of people arriving in this country seeking asylum was raised, the then Secretary of State said that it had been suggested that someone arriving in this country seeking asylum is required to give details at the port of entry, giving the reasons why they are seeking asylum. He said: All we ask is that, when such people arc asked why they have come to this country, they should say that it is to seek asylum … There is no question of their being required to give details then and there". There is some evidence that that is not the case, that asylum applicants are being interviewed very shortly after their arrival in this country when they are tired, confused and, on occasions, traumatised. It is very difficult for refugees to give a full and coherent account of why they need protection at this stage. Furthermore, the interview is not delayed in order to allow them to get advice either from community organisations or lawyers. In those circumstances it is not surprising that the quality of the initial decision should be poor and that therefore the number of appeals is rising. I suggest that we need to pay great attention to the quality of those initial decisions.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to benefits and clearly that is causing continuing concern. There are figures suggesting that local authorities are now caring for some 20,000 asylum seekers, mostly in areas where there is already great pressure on services. Churches, particularly around London, and also Jewish and Moslem communities are still providing many basic commodities to asylum seekers. These include hot meals, toiletries and clothing. There are eight day centres, of which six are in churches, which have recently extended their opening hours to three and four days a week in order to cope with the demand from asylum seekers.

It seems to be widely accepted—I believe that this was brought out in the Question which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, tabled earlier this week—that it is cheaper to return to the benefits system. It is fairer to local authorities and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, it is less likely to cause community feeling.

One of the small points which needs to be made about the National Assistance Act is that I believe I am right in saying that it does not provide cash in hand. How then are asylum seekers expected, shall we say, to telephone in order to ask for help or to travel by the Underground to meet a lawyer? These practicalities need to be taken into account when looking at the kind of needs that asylum seekers have.

It continues to be an anomaly that benefits are provided to those who claim at the port, but not in-country. That does not seem to be a reasonable way of distinguishing between the genuine and the unfounded claim. It continues to be the case that in-country applicants have a higher probability of being granted refugee status than those who apply at the port of entry. That surely must continue to cause concern for the way in which benefits are allocated.

I should like to say a brief word about attitudes. I believe it is clear that attitudes generally towards asylum seekers leave something to be desired. The Churches were concerned at the issues surrounding attitudes towards people from Slovakia and the Czech Republic who belong to the Roma community. There are others here from Romania and Poland. Quite clearly, there is some violent persecution of Roma people in eastern and central Europe. A day seminar was held on this issue at the European Ecumenical Assembly in Austria last year. Many Roma have died in the past few years; some have been burnt out of their homes and others denied jobs or schooling. It may be that these asylum seekers do not qualify under the Geneva Convention, but nevertheless it remains the fact that their fears are real, that they are persecuted, that each one of them is a human story and that we need attitudes towards them which do not term them as bogus simply because they do not necessarily qualify under the Geneva Convention.

I was recently at a gathering at Westminster Central Hall at which one or two refugees were telling their stories. There was a huge protest march concerned with hunting going on outside your Lordships' House at the time. An Algerian commented that if he were in this country he would rather be a fox because he would have 30 million people seeking his protection. It did not seem clear to him that he had that number seeking his own protection as an asylum seeker.

Perhaps I may also comment briefly on detention. It is by no means clear that those who are detained are kept in custody on any agreed or understandable basis. Such analyses that have been made seem to indicate that there is no particular reason why those who are held in detention should be so. I underline the points that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has already made, that there needs to be protection for those held in detention. There needs to be a proper review of their case. They need to be given written reasons why they are there. It must be made clear that they are not simply put there on some arbitrary basis. We look forward to the results of the review with great anticipation. I hope that the review will indeed deliver that fairer, firmer and faster system for which we all hope.

8.46 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, in one sense we are all on the same side, all looking forward to fairer and faster, if not necessarily firmer, arrangements for asylum seekers. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for his longstanding interest in this subject as well as for providing this new opportunity. Those of us who took part in the asylum and immigration debates should have great sympathy with the Government as they approach this long-awaited review. We trust that the refugee agencies and the refugees themselves, are now pushing against at least a half-open door before it swings back in their face, as is the nature of things. I hope that the Home Secretary, who is not the radical student leader that he once was, will continue to demonstrate that he is on the side of the asylum seekers.

In these few comments I shall assume that the Government's review will be positive in particular as regards detention and entry procedure and that they will reverse at least some of the last government's restrictive policies. For example, I expect the Government to take very seriously the forthcoming report of the Inspector of Prisons on Campsfield. This promises to be a highly critical report. The riot last August was only one indicator of the extreme tension generated by the innate cruelty of a system which locks up in a no-man's land, mainly innocent, disillusioned people who are already victims of appalling persecution, without charge and with limited opportunities for bail.

These asylum seekers are treated in some sense worse than common criminals in that in spite of their own particular form of distress, they are denied a proper hearing or even the regular health and education services available to prisoners, let alone the specialised help that they often need. Can the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, anticipate the review by giving some assurance that asylum seekers are going to be guaranteed an automatic and independent review of their detention, and given reasons for it in writing? Can he also give an assurance that no one will in future be held without a formal charge? Will there be some improvements in bail procedure where the presumption is still weighted against the applicant? Can he also explain why detention—at a weekly cost of about £550 per person—is even necessary in the case of those awaiting an initial decision, as opposed to those who have exhausted the procedure and would be more likely to abscond? On a given day last October, nearly half of the 740 detainees were still awaiting an initial decision. Roughly the same number were detained at the port of entry, which would have entitled them to benefit.

Unlike the previous government, I am sure that the Minister will accept that more genuine refugees have emerged after entry than were immediately identified at the port, and yet these applicants are deprived of benefit. Can the noble Lord say whether the Government intend to relax the rules which insist on port of entry applications and which take no account of the confusion and incomprehension of refugees when they first arrive, as the right reverend Prelate has already mentioned? It seems unnecessary to present all over again the arguments that were well made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and others when in opposition. An important amendment was carried in this House on that issue two years ago, with Labour support. It would be comforting to hear that the Government will be making at least the changes which they supported on that occasion.

We should be aware that unaccompanied minors, under the age of 18, have continued to be detained by this Government in spite of frequent denials. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, confirmed in a Written Answer on 27th November last year that four out of 11 were released from Campsfield last year; but I understand that in spite of representations, there are still two 15 year-olds there from Angola and Afghanistan. Another 15 year-old was among those taken at random after the riot and charged, apparently without much evidence, and he has since attempted suicide.

There was another case of three small children about to be sent back to Nigeria, unaccompanied. There was even a case of an 11 year-old who went as far as the adjudicator before his age was recognised. Where age is in dispute, the IND has, I believe, been apt to take the ages given in forged identity papers for granted; and officers are, perhaps understandably, not always ready to refer cases via the Refugee Council's children's panel, then to a solicitor, and so on to a paediatrician, a procedure kindly explained in the Home Office Minister's subsequent Written Answer last week. Can the noble Lord confirm that at least that referral procedure can be accelerated or improved because it discriminates against unaccompanied minors?

Others have mentioned the position of individual nationalities. I should like to comment only briefly on some of the more recent arrivals from the world's worst trouble-spots. I should like confirmation that the dreaded "white list" which is still in use for some nationals will soon be abandoned—although I of course welcome any countries which come off the list in the meantime. Others have mentioned the extended leave to remain procedure. Will the Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, argued, use that procedure more generously to assist Algerians and Sierra Leoneans, as was done successfully, to the great credit of the last government, with Somalis, Iraqis, and Afghans, as well as new arrivals from the former Yugoslavia?

Out of 1,880 decisions on Algerians in 1996, only 30 were given asylum, and only 15 were given ELR. The figures for 1997 were that out of 765 decisions, 105 were given asylum—that is, 14 per cent.—and five were given ELR, representing 1 per cent. Perhaps we thought that it was a French responsibility or perhaps we simply underrated the urgency of those cases. Given what we now know of the causes of persecution and the nature of torture in Algeria, it looks as though we may have deported large numbers of legitimate asylum-seekers, to what suffering we cannot tell.

Figures like that do no credit to us as a nation, and there can be no pride in preserving asylum and immigration laws which were principally designed by the last government as a deterrent, effectively to keep people away rather than welcome them in. Perhaps the noble Lord will confirm that the original UNHCR guidelines for admitting Algerians have been revised and now include all those who have a legitimate fear of persecution, including sympathisers or associates of the FIS.

Here, I should like to quote from a letter dated 4th February this year from the London office of UNHCR to the Minister responsible for immigration. The letter states: UNHCR would strongly support the Government in not removing rejected Algerian asylum seekers under United Kingdom Immigration procedures, except where it is established, beyond doubt, that the presence of a particular asylum seeker is a danger to the national security of the United Kingdom. In such circumstances, the responsibility on a Government not to return persons to a country where they may be subject to torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment will also have to be weighed". I understand that Germany is reconsidering its position on the deportation of Algerians and that Bremen and Nordrhein-Westfalen have recently suspended deportations.

As we are talking about people, I shall also briefly provide three case studies, not of torture victims which certainly exist, but of ordinary Algerians who seek our protection. The first two come from the Karibu centre in Vauxhall. The first is from an unnamed refugee who said: I left Algeria … because of the dangerous situation there … Because I worked with the government I was threatened by the Islamics, but … I was also at risk from the government. For this reason I was forced to leave … as quickly as possible. There are many other people … in a very dangerous situation … I am a young man and I am innocent. I am on nobody's side—neither the government's nor the Islamics … I only want to find … law, democracy, freedom of expression, and above all peace. In my opinion England was the best place to find these things". Rashid said: My brother is in jail … I haven't seen him for ten years … My application for asylum has been refused and when I go back to my country I will be faced with danger. My brother is against the government and for this reason he was put in jail, When the police come to your house and take a relative away, we don't know if they will ever return". The third quotation comes from a report published by the Refugee Council, and written by a social worker about a 28 year-old army deserter called Ismail. It states: Accommodation: sleeping rough … Daily life: does not talk about life here. Reported assault … when trying to use soup kitchen intended for 'UK homeless' … was beaten, a dog was set on him, and his ear was cut with a knife … he is obviously very disturbed … but refuses to see doctor … He moves around constantly. He is still very obviously in need of specialist support … Note … Ismail was found accommodation by the local authority. However, he then received a negative decision on his asylum claim". Finally, as other noble Lords have said, we are looking forward to a drastic revision of the backlog "shambles" as the Economist graphically described it last week. It is widely accepted that delay has become an incentive for new asylum-seekers, which cannot be part of government policy. There have been various suggestions for reducing the backlog, of which ELR is one, and I am confident that the Government will respond to growing public pressure.

However, if the Government intend to enter a new round of heavy primary legislation, it will be many more months before they can meet all those obligations. I am sure that we all agree that there are some immediate measures which can be taken this year to bring comfort to the important numbers of genuine refugees whom we are all trying to identify.

I would add, in conclusion, that if benefits can be restored as soon as possible to relieve the local authorities, as was hinted at during Questions on Monday, instead of increasing the National Assistance Act payments which, as has been said, end up more expensive, surely the Treasury too will be happy.

8.58 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for tabling this Unstarred Question. At this time last night I was having dinner with the officers of Hampstead Liberal Democrats, to whom I had just been speaking on welfare reform. As your Lordships may imagine, there were a considerable number of people around the table who had originally come to this country as refugees and who are now among its most distinguished and successful citizens. It reminded me once again how much this country owes, and has owed over many centuries, to those who have been former refugees. I once had the privilege when I was in the United States of belonging to a very high quality academic department, 25 per cent. of whose members had started off as refugees from Hitler. We should not forget that positive attitude.

When I look at present policy, I see in it three general areas of error to which I should like to call attention. First, I believe that recently policy has been based on a mistaken objective. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has said, the objective is to deter potential asylum seekers. I believe that it was first stated by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on the behalf of the then Government. It was stated from the Opposition Front Bench by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on 27th January. It appeared to me to be restated by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on 30th October when he said that it was a mark of the success of the Home Secretary's treatment of the Dover incident that numbers of applications had over a few days dropped from 28 to nine. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, strenuously resisted that interpretation of what he said. For the time being, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt, but it is a point to which I may return.

The trouble with deterrence is that it is in the nature of the case that one cannot distinguish between a genuine and a bogus asylum seeker before a hearing. We do not now have any Witchfinders General. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, from everything I have seen of her, has shown no sign whatever of deserving so ungenerous a title. She is one of the most courteous people I know. Without the aid of a Witchfinder General we simply cannot possibly tell. Therefore, deterrence, like the biblical rain, must fall equally on the just and the unjust and until there is a hearing that must remain the case.

Under the UN convention of 1951 we are bound to receive applications from people who claim to be refugees and to treat them as such up to the time of the hearing. That is incorporated by Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, which was passed by the previous Government. That Act provides that nothing in the immigration rules may contain anything that is contrary to the 1951 convention, which means that nothing in the immigration rules may be intended to deter applicants. I am not a lawyer but I should like the courts to determine whether the objective of deterring applicants for asylum regardless of their genuineness is an illegal objective.

My next complaint is that the present system is an expensive and time-wasting method of determining applications. On 27th January the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, told me that there was no such thing as a culture of disbelief within the Home Office. I am sorry that the noble Lord is not here to answer the point. I should have enjoyed the exchange. I am sure that he will find a way of doing so shortly, and I look forward to it. The suggestion that there is no culture of disbelief within the Home Office appears to come within the very limited category of self-refuting statements.

In Canada, approximately 70 per cent. of applications for asylum are found to be genuine. In this country the last figure that I had, including exceptional leave to remain, was about 19 to 20 per cent. I see no reason to believe that applicants for asylum in Canada are that much more honest than applicants for asylum in the United Kingdom. That difference must in large measure be a difference in the way that those applications are treated.

I was very interested in the example given by the right reverend Prelate of the man who referred to a supermarket and a cornershop. There are at least two shops within a few hundred yards of where I live to which either description can perfectly well be applied. I believe they say that the correct title is "mini-market", but I can quite understand that that title may not be familiar in Nigeria. It is a pretty good example of the culture of disbelief.

During the year of the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa I believe that there were 1,494 applications for asylum from Nigeria. It was certainly in the high fourteen hundreds. Of that number, five were found to be genuine. That appears to me to offend against the law of averages. In 1992, 95 per cent. of applications from Sri Lanka were found to be genuine. In 1996, the figure was 1 per cent. I do not believe that there has been a sudden outbreak of dishonesty in Sri Lanka on quite that scale. Those figures must indicate a spread of the culture of disbelief.

Disbelief takes a good deal of time. It leads to lengthy hearings, extensive checks of points that may be quite clear and a high rate of refusals followed by a high rate of appeals. It also demands considerable manpower. At the same time, during the past year the Immigration and Nationality Department has shed 271 posts. I say again what I have said many times: efficiency is not efficient. As the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, argued very persuasively, this is an area in which the pursuit of saving is likely to lead to considerable additional expense, not to mention inhumanity.

The same arguments apply to the question of detention. I know that we are frequently assured that no one is detained without good reason but, since no written reasons for detention are given, that proposition is entirely unverifiable. Dr. Christina Pourgourides, who did research on detainees in Birmingham, identified 16 cases of individuals—I quote from memory and I cannot answer for the accuracy of the figure—who appeared to be suffering considerable mental stress as a result of detention. She asked the Home Office for what reasons they had been detained. The investigation led to the majority of those people being released on the grounds that their detention was found to be unjustified. Not every asylum seeker can enjoy the attentions of Dr. Pourgourides. Until reasons are given for detention we cannot know how many such cases there are.

In 1628 this House and another place resolved that in English law nobody should be detained without cause shown. I believe that we see here quite how right they were. We should not treat asylum seekers as lesser breeds without the law but recognise that they are entitled to the same rule of law as everybody else. We should have written reasons for detention and every detention should be reviewed by a judge. That would not only involve more humanity but a good deal more saving.

I wish we could have here what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, describes as "joined-up policy". On the case of the Roman, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby—who regrets her inability to take part in the debate—had the shrewd idea of putting down a question to the Foreign Office instead of to the Home Office. As non-discrimination is a condition of entry to the EU, the Foreign Office were seized of the question and gave answers which more closely resembled the views of the right reverend Prelate than the views of the Home Office.

One of the countries with the biggest backlog of applications which have not been accepted is Iraq. We all know what the Prime Minister and others have had to say in recent days about the Government of Iraq. It creates a presumption that a high proportion of the applications from Iraq might be genuine. That is another case where I would like to see joined-up policies.

We talk about a global market. We have complete free movement of capital: we do not have any equivalent free movement of labour. That inevitably tilts the global market in favour of capital rather than labour. That inevitably leads to a pressure for lower wages, which may increase the burdens on the social security system quite as much as other measures which are addressed when it is reviewed.

Nobody is suggesting complete freedom of movement of labour, but in a global world the amount of restriction we now have on mobility is coming to look uncomfortably like the 1601 Poor Law, in which the poor and unemployed were whipped back to their home parishes, which were then responsible for relieving them. If people are to be sent back to their own countries and not allowed out, something must be done to make it tolerable for them to live there. Otherwise it is like locking the door of a burning building with a number of people inside. One sometimes wonders whether that is what the world is conspiring to do to the Kurds. In the case of Algeria, I am extremely glad that the Foreign Secretary has recognised the need to review conditions there. If a restrictive approach is to be taken, then a human rights foreign policy must be a necessary concomitant of it. We need this reviewed over a wider canvas than the Home Office alone can provide. We badly need some joined up policies.

9.10 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing this debate. It is a pleasure for me, as always, to follow my noble kinsman Lord Russell. I ought to warn him against advertising some of the more Draconian policies put forth by different governments in the 16th and 17th centuries. He sometimes suggested such things when we were in office—I suspect to frighten us to take up the suggestions he put forward. One sometimes suspects that new Labour might not have the same fears, might take his advice and might follow the policies suggested by my noble kinsman.

I offer my felicitations to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, for having to respond to this debate. I congratulate him on the versatility of what he will have to cope with today. He started today replying to a Question on defence land sales. The noble Lord will remember that we first met when he came to see me as a Member of another place about his concerns about Ministry of Defence land disposals in his constituency.

My noble kinsman Lord Russell stressed that we have a proud record in this country of giving refuge to those fleeing genuine persecution. I underline the word "genuine". Like him, I pay tribute to all those who have arrived in this country over the years, fleeing from genuine persecution, for the terrific part that they have played in the development of this country. I suspect that the forbears of my noble kinsman were not fleeing persecution when they came here but were probably arriving as invaders at one time or another. My history of the Russell family does not go back far enough to remember how and why they did arrive.

It is right that we should provide refuge to those fleeing genuine persecution, but we feel that our asylum procedures have been abused in the past, are still being abused, and are being so to an increasing extent. The Home Office is conducting a review of its procedures and it is important that in doing so it looks carefully at the changing world situation and the increasing growth of oppression throughout the world. It might be that often there is a case for tightening up our procedures so that we do not have to submit to increasing numbers of refugees, genuine or not, coming to this country. I refer in particular to the rapid rise in the numbers coming to this country, whereas throughout western Europe the growth has been less. Perhaps the Minister can confirm the figures.

I am advised that of those claiming asylum in this country in the past year only some 6 per cent. were deemed to be genuine refugees and that 3 per cent. of appeals were upheld by the independent adjudicators. I appreciate that my noble kinsman Lord Russell has given different figures. He quoted a figure of 19 per cent. and it would be useful—

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may clarify the situation. One figure includes exceptional leave to remain and the other does not.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept that point. I should be grateful if in response the Minister, with the authority of the Government, could give a figure which would satisfy us all so that we are able to quote a valid figure.

In answer to the Question asked by my noble kinsman on 27th October last year, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, made it clear that the length of time taken to process a claim could make it more attractive to make that claim. I believe that we would all agree with that assertion. We continue to believe that it is vitally important that we do all we can to reduce the number of bogus claims. That is why, despite opposition from the then Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, we made the necessary changes to the benefit rules. We believe that it is also right to do everything possible to speed up the process by which the claims are dealt with. My noble friend Lord Renfrew dealt with that matter in some detail.

In October, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, informed the House that there was then a backlog of some 50,000 cases with the Home Office. I should be grateful if tonight the Minister could update those figures, giving either year ending or current figures. It is four months since the Home Office announcement. Has the figure declined? The figures I have are 70,000 applications for 1995 and 57,000 for 1996. Can the Minister confirm that those figures are correct and that there was a rapid decline in the number of people seeking to have their cases dealt with by the Home Office? In other words, can he confirm that the changes announced in 1996 by my right honourable friend Mr. Michael Howard reduced the figures and that the reduction to 50,000 is part of a continuing trend which started in 1995? I refer not only to the benefit changes but also to the extra money which he provided to the Immigration Directorate within the Home Office.

Reference has been made to the inter-departmental review mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in response to a Question asked on 30th January. I appreciate that there is still some time to go before the review makes its pronouncements. However, it would be useful if the Minister could comment on its progress and say what the Government hope to receive from it. Perhaps he could also comment on the consultation with immigration advisers, announced by the Home Office, which began in January and is due to conclude in March. We should be grateful for that.

I appreciate that we have given the noble Lord a great deal to respond to, but I am sure that with his usual tact and skill, he will be able to respond to most of the points that have been put before the House. If the Government Continue—and I sincerely hope they will—the policies which we were pursuing, they will have the wholehearted support of noble Lords on these Benches.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this debate. The breadth of opinions expressed has served to underline the great interest of the House in asylum-related issues. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to re-state the Government's commitment to an open and collaborative approach on asylum matters. I thank the noble Lord also for the kind remarks which he made about what the Government have already done.

As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, my difficulty is in replying in the time available to me to all the questions which have been raised. First, I should like to deal with the present situation because in some ways, while we have all enjoyed the debate in relation to the review that is taking place, I am in some difficulty in replying to the questions raised because that review is still under way.

That study is part of the Government's comprehensive spending review. It is looking at the whole problem of delays, backlogs, costs, procedures at determination and appeal, the state of welfare provision and the problems of enforcement. I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the study is being done not just by the Home Office but by several of the government departments concerned with asylum seekers and refugees. The study team has been taking a wide range of views from both within and outside government, including from the Refugee Council and other asylum interest groups. The breadth and depth of the asylum study team's task has reflected our recognition at the outset of government that the asylum system we inherited was in need of radical overhaul, and I believe that is agreed by all noble Lords who have spoken.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that the Government have been all too aware of the consequences that resulted from hasty, impulsive and half-baked attempts to solve the problems of asylum and immigration control which were employed by our predecessors. The sensible way forward had to be a measured careful and comprehensive study of the asylum process. That is what we are doing. The study which is one of several Home Office spending reviews has yet to finalise its work but hopes to do so in the near future. We shall then consider its findings very carefully.

I am sure that noble Lords will understand my difficulty in relation to that review because it covers many of the issues raised by noble Lords. I am afraid that I am not in a position to comment on the detail of a study which has yet to be finalised and considered.

However, I can say what the aims of the study are: first, the creation of a strategy for dealing with asylum and immigration which is responsible, properly thought out, comprehensive and enduring; secondly, the need to show a real commitment to protection issues, linking our asylum policy to a broad and active human rights agenda—and that is what has been called for this evening; thirdly, the development of our strategy in an open, listening and consultative way on both policy and service issues, driving up standards and injecting a new responsiveness into the culture of decision-taking. In other words, what I am saying is that I hope there will be a sympathetic approach to this matter. I know that often there will he a demand for such an approach. There has been such a demand from the House tonight. All I can say is that the Government are giving it a high priority. Our response will be governed by the fundamental need to give protection to those who need it while dealing quickly and firmly with those who have no valid asylum claim.

As regards some of the improvements that are sought, and have been asked for tonight, we need quicker decisions, both initially and on appeal, and we need to be open in our consideration. Delays are bad enough in themselves but are worse when they leave the justified claimant in a limbo of anxiety and fear, as has been mentioned tonight. But quicker decisions on claims which have no validity are also important, not least because they clog up the system and hold up progress on the more deserving cases. That point was made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew. The noble Lord asked me what number of cases are determined each year by each asylum case worker. I am afraid that depends on the individual circumstances of each case that is dealt with, not least because cases vary, although most of them are complex. I shall write to the noble Lord on that point.

Other speakers have asked about benefits. We have inherited much of the present position with regard to benefits. We need an effective strategy which provides support for those who really need it, but yet at the same time does not encourage abuse and which makes sense in relation to the wider provision of accommodation. We have to find the right solution, but I am afraid that will take some time. This, again, is a key priority for the study team and for the Government.

Before I respond to individual points that have been made, I shall refer to progress that we have made on other issues. We have abolished the primary purpose rule which had been the cause of so much suffering. We have also introduced an unmarried partners concession which will benefit those in longstanding relationships. Following the Chahal case we set up a proper review structure for deportation cases. We have also introduced a Bill which will give further effect to the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights. These are early days but we are considering other matters in relation to the comprehensive review.

I have already referred to the matters that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew. As far as I am able in the time available to me, I shall also respond to other points made by other speakers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon asked about attitudes in relation to asylum seekers. We are bound by, and apply, the United Nations convention in relation to this. All asylum seekers are carefully considered against the criteria set by the convention relating to the status of refugees. When an asylum applicant does not meet the convention criteria for recognition as a refugee, consideration is given to any humanitarian factors which may justify the grant of leave to remain in the UK.

The right reverend Prelate also asked about the port of entry. No port asylum seeker will he interviewed in connection with an asylum claim unless he has signed a declaration to confirm that he is feeling well; that he is ready to answer questions; that he is happy to be interviewed in a specific language; and that he understands the interviewing officer or the interpreter. We are trying to ensure that that is carried out at the port of entry. As the right reverend Prelate said, many of the refugees are in a state of shock at that time. We are trying to ensure that people are not interviewed unless they agree to take part in an interview.

The right reverend Prelate also asked about the Romanys. We have taken the view that the Czech and Slovak republics—I agree with the point he made—in common with other countries in eastern Europe do encounter discrimination and harassment from some elements of the community. However, we consider that, where there is no evidence that that attitude is generally endemic or condoned by the authorities of the country concerned, the applicant should seek the protection of those authorities rather than international protection.

I turn now to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. As usual, he made an extremely witty speech. He dealt sympathetically with the position of refugees and called for many of the provisions which I hope will be covered in the review being undertaken. As I said earlier, the matter will not be considered merely by the Home Office but by quite a number of departments.

As I am sure the noble Earl will agree, this country has a long and honourable tradition of accepting refugees. But it also has a responsibility to protect the integrity of its immigration control against those who would seek to abuse it. We need to achieve that balance. I am hopeful that, when we have considered the review, we shall have the "joined up" policy for which the noble Earl asked in relation to it.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked me a number of questions. In regard to the abuse of Campsfield House, the report and recommendations are awaited. Full consideration will be given to all the points made once we have received the review and once it has been published.

The noble Earl also asked about detention. The initial decision to detain is always taken at a level no lower than chief immigration officer. It is subsequently reviewed regularly and at an increasingly senior level within the Immigration Service. As I said, the reasons are explained orally to detainees in a language that they understand, with an interpreter present if necessary. The desirability of an independent review of the decision to detain was referred to, as was the provision of written reasons for initial detention. Ministers are currently considering the recommendations drawn up following wide consultation. So again, I hope the noble Earl will accept that the matter is being examined under the terms of the full review.

In relation to the issue of bail, we have to re-examine the advantages that occur. But it is true that in many cases in which bail is granted it does not work very well. Again, that matter is being examined in relation to the review.

The noble Earl asked how many children are detained and pointed out the undesirability of detaining children. My information is that at 12th February no persons were detained under Immigration Service powers who were accepted by immigration as accompanied minors. There is always a difficulty in ascertaining a person's exact age, but that is the information I have received. In relation to Algeria and Iraq, all asylum applications are carefully considered against the criteria set out in the United Nations convention. The "white list" and other provisions under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 are all being reviewed as part of the examination of asylum procedures.

I now turn to the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I wish to belatedly thank him for the help that he gave to me in relation to land disposal, and I was grateful to him at the time. Today he asked me several questions on statistics. Those I have are that in 1997 only 11 per cent. of initial decisions were to recognise the applicant as a refugee and grant asylum; 9 per cent. were refused asylum but granted exceptional leave, while 80 per cent. were refused outright. The noble Lord also asked me about the rate of appeals. In 1997 special adjudicators determined 21,090 appeals. Provisional information indicates that only 5 per cent. were allowed and approximately 85 per cent. were dismissed. The rest were either withdrawn or referred back to the Home Office.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about the applications outstanding. As at 31st December 1997, 51,795 applications were outstanding, which compared with 57,405 a year earlier.

I thank everyone who has taken part. I wish we had known the full results of the review and studies that have taken place and that I could say a little more in relation to all the points raised. If I have not replied to any Peers, I shall of course write with the necessary information, so far as I can. I stress again that at the end of the review we look to provide a service which is open. That is a significant part of the initiative to make the Government, in relation to this as to many other issues, more responsive and accountable.