HL Deb 27 January 1998 vol 585 cc101-4

3.3 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many people arrived in the United Kingdom in 1997 seeking asylum; how many of them have so far been granted asylum; how many have been rejected; and how many still await decision.

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

My Lords, 32,500 applications for asylum were made in the United Kingdom in 1997, of which 16,590 were made on arrival here.

I regret that it is not possible to provide information about whether decisions have been taken on applications made in a given year. However, 36,045 initial decisions were made on asylum applications in 1997. Of those, 3,985 (II per cent.) were to recognise the applicant as a refugee and grant asylum; 3,115 (9 per cent.) were to refuse asylum but grant exceptional leave and 28,945 (80 per cent.) were to refuse both asylum and exceptional leave.

If I may assist the noble Lord further, as at 31st December 1997 there were 51,795 asylum applications awaiting an initial decision.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving those full details which cause great concern. Is he aware that the Geneva Convention of 1951 which governs the matter has failed to prevent a vast increase in oppression in various parts of the world? Since travel facilities are so much easier than they used to be, and since the United Kingdom has now become a haven for illegal immigrants, has not the time come for the Geneva Convention to be renegotiated?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, obviously the Geneva Convention remains one of our international obligations. If there is oppression which leads to genuine claims for refuge and political asylum, I for one am glad that this country retains its civilised tradition of many years' standing. As I indicated in answer to the Question a few days ago on a not entirely dissimilar topic, an interdepartmental review was set up on 21st August to deal with, among others, some of the points raised by the noble Lord. We must get a system which is fairer, firmer and faster than the present mish-mash. That is what the Government are intent upon.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept the approval of these Benches for what he has just said? It is in the best traditions of this House. Can he give us any idea of the length of time that now obtains between an immediate application for asylum and the settlement of the claim? Finally, can the Minister say whether the Government will reconsider providing assistance for those seeking and awaiting the outcome of their claim and appeal with regard to the position in which local authorities in some parts of the country now find themselves?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot give a particular answer to the noble Baroness's first question because each case varies infinitely. As I said the other day in answer to the Question to which I referred, much of the outstanding backlog relates to people who have been awaiting determination of their case since 1993. No one can regard that as a cause for self-satisfaction about our present arrangements.

The noble Baroness's point about local authorities is a good one. The relevant departments are in close contact with affected local authorities to see what additional supplementary assistance should be given to those local authorities.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the delay suffered by genuine asylum seekers is totally unacceptable and unworthy? Can he tell the House what steps he proposes to take to reduce the delay, without waiting for any revision of the law? Surely steps should be taken now, in accordance with the great and honourable traditions of the country towards genuine asylum seekers.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I subscribe to those great and honourable traditions, but it is also a sensible tradition to approach general reform on a considered basis. That is the purpose of the interdepartmental review which was set up on 21st August 1997.

I echo another point raised by the noble Lord about the proposition that those who seek refugee asylum status ought to have their claims quickly dealt with. Of course, that is our policy—it must be firmer, fairer and faster. In that context—and I am trying to be helpful rather than tedious—the Home Secretary has instituted a review of the evident malpractice in certain parts of our community, namely: bogus asylum advisers, whether or not they are professionally qualified. It is a serious vice because they prey on innocent lost people and distort the system which at present obtains for the hone fide applicants.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can the noble Lord supply an estimate of another category of asylum seekers not mentioned in the Question? I have in mind those who have already disappeared without trace within the United Kingdom—a category referred to in my Question last week to which the noble Lord has already referred twice today and to which he gave very helpful replies.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: he asked this question just a few days ago. My answer then was that our best approximation was 14,000. Although a few days have passed, my best approximation is still about 14,000.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply to my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby about local authority support in the absence of social security benefits for asylum seekers. I also welcome his remarks about the discussions between government departments and local authorities. But is he aware that the Refugee Council estimates that not only do many asylum seekers live in distress because they are living at subsistence level as local authorities are not allowed to give cash benefits but only food and accommodation in kind, but also that it is £30 to £65 a week more expensive for local authorities to support them in the way they do than it would be if social security benefits were available? Is this not the worst of all worlds all round?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not disagree that many aspects of our present arrangements encapsulate the worst of all possible worlds. I can assure the House and the noble Baroness that the whole question of support arrangements for asylum seekers is being specifically addressed as part of the interdepartmental study of the asylum process to which I referred a little while ago.

Lord Henley

My Lords, can the noble Lord assist the House by giving the figures for the number of asylum seekers, bogus or otherwise, who appeared in earlier years than the year referred to in this Question? If, as I suspect, the figures indicate that we have seen a decline in the number of those seeking asylum, would he not agree that that seems to indicate that the measures we introduced, particularly in relation to changes to the benefit regime, have had a considerable effect? Will he therefore confirm that the review being conducted by his department and others will not seek to make changes to the benefit regime as set up by the previous government?

Lord Strathclyde


Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am about to, my Lords. I have never myself come across a review which tried to predetermine the conclusions of the review. That may have been the way in the past 18 years. It is not the way we intend to continue. There are differences in intake, with regard to rise and fall in the statistics, which are substantially dependent on political upheaval in other parts of the world. That is inevitable. What we have to do is to get a decent balance between our historical tradition and the Government's responsibilities, first, to those who live in this country and, secondly, to those who are taxpayers in this country. But there is no easy brutalist solution of which I am readily aware.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I join in the welcome for what the Minister has said about reducing delays in disposing of asylum applications. But does he agree that in the past such delays have been needlessly prolonged by what has been described as the culture of disbelief inside the Home Office? Does he further agree that that culture would wither faster if it were not as assiduously watered as it was under the previous Administration?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the reasons for delays are manifold. One is the present appeal process with the opportunity for judicial review. Judicial review—I say this cautiously in the presence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—is a notoriously slow remedy and it does mean sometimes that unworthy cases are taken to judicial review. There is no culture of disbelief in the Home Office. I hope that there is a culture of decency, as exemplified by the present holder of the Secretary of State's office.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, can the Minister say how many applicants for asylum applied more than five years ago and have not yet had any adjudication or any interview on the matter? Is not to wait five years for a response both demoralising and extremely heavy on the national benefits system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. It is utterly demoralising. As I said in answer to the question a few days ago, no human being should have to be left in doubt and limbo for that period of time. I cannot give the specific statistics to the noble Lord, but I shall research what statistics there are and undertake to write to him as soon as may be.