HL Deb 28 July 1998 vol 592 cc1344-6

3.2 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made since 31st December 1997 in reducing the number of bogus asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

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

My Lords, provisional figures show that more than 3,000 failed asylum seekers have been removed from the United Kingdom in the first six months of 1998. The White Paper Fairer, faster and firmer: a modern approach to immigration and asylum published yesterday includes measures to minimise further the scope for abuse of the asylum system and to increase our ability to remove those who have no basis of stay in the United Kingdom.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply and for what he is doing in trying to deal with this problem. Bearing in mind that tyranny has greatly increased in the world in recent years and that a very high proportion of asylum seekers prefer to come here rather than to spread themselves elsewhere, perhaps even to other countries within the European Union, has not the time come to renegotiate the 1951 convention on refugees?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, tyranny has certainly spread and that means that the victims of tyranny have increased substantially. One of the reasons that people seek to come to this country is that they hope they will receive a civilised reception. Certainly I bear in mind carefully what the noble Lord said. His namesake made the same point a few days ago. The 1951 convention is now historic but it still has a good deal of underlying validity.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the proportion of refugees attempting to enter Germany continues to be substantially higher than in this country; and that proportionately, the number seeking to enter Holland—a country considerably smaller in population terms—is higher than in this country? Does he agree that the central dilemma for the Home Office is to distinguish between those seeking to enter this country for entirely economic reasons and those who have great cause to seek asylum because of the positions they have taken in fighting tyranny?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is certainly right to observe that Germany and Holland bear an enormous burden of refugees. In many ways, they have discharged their burden admirably. It is a mistake to concentrate always on the pressures on the United Kingdom.

The noble Baroness identifies the dilemma absolutely correctly. We must say no to economic migrants. We have treaty obligations and, I dare say, moral commitments to behave properly to those who are genuinely in need of asylum.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that everyone in this House will welcome the steps which the Government are taking to deal with bogus asylum seekers? But will he recognise this country's honourable and ancient tradition of providing asylum for people who are in real danger? Will he give the House an assurance that every step will be taken to try to preserve their right to seek asylum in this land?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I confirm that. Quite apart from treaty and moral obligations, I believe that this country—and many in your Lordships' House are testimony to it—has benefited infinitely from giving an open, generous welcome to refugees, not least in the years before 1939. It is a difficult dilemma. Those who abuse the system, or try to, are causing great damage and distress, which is avoidable damage and distress, for those who have genuine claims.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no litmus test which makes it possible to distinguish between a bogus asylum seeker and a genuine refugee before their claims are heard? Therefore, will he agree further that the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is one to which neither he nor anyone else can possibly know the answer?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that the absolutist nature of the noble Earl's proposition is absolutely right in every conceivable circumstance. I can think of some instances—I have seen them myself—when it is obvious that people are not coming here on the basis of genuine asylum claims. In some circumstances, one can detect the bogus quite easily. But that is not so in all cases, which is why we must have a regime such as the Home Secretary is about constructing.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in the context of the encouraging White Paper published yesterday, it becomes imperative to encourage all those handling detained asylum seekers to remember the overriding commitment at all times to preserve their dignity and to respect their potential rights and not to fall into the trap of being afraid of public opinion whipped up by the use of words like "bogus"?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. Case working is an extremely difficult job. It deserves the admiration of us all. Everyone who works in this area needs to be aware that people are frightened; they come from different cultural backgrounds; they are unhappy in a foreign land; and, very often, their linguistic skills are limited. That is a constant theme of training which the Home Office encourages.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us who have spoken in this House in the past about the need for provision for asylum seekers to be a national responsibility are delighted that the White Paper is now taking away the burden from particular centres such as London which were carrying that burden? I am pleased to see that there will be one offer of accommodation for people. At present, Westminster Council and other councils arrange for people to go to, for example, Liverpool and Great Yarmouth. Many people who have extremely desirable accommodation arranged for them simply vanish. Only a very small number arrive at their destination or they arrive, and then vanish. How do the Government propose to deal with that problem?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful for the generous welcome that the noble Baroness has given to the White Paper. However, this matter must be dealt with on a national basis. If one has a genuine asylum seeker and accommodation, shelter, food and clothing are needed—in other words, the necessities of daily life—then, by definition, they are likely to be within the accommodation provided. The noble Baroness is quite right: absconders are a very difficult problem to deal with. One then has the further dilemma of using detention, which we want to avoid if we possibly can, as opposed to people coming to this country and simply departing. One of the things that we are looking at is more rigorous reporting restrictions so that a reasonable burden may be put on an asylum seeker without it becoming an unfair burden.

Lord Renton

My Lords, while I fully understand the problem and appreciate what the Government are trying to do about it, does the Minister realise that, apart from Germany and Holland—which, strangely enough, are not as over-populated as the places here to which asylum seekers come—many other countries just do not bear their fair share of dealing with the financial and social problems that arise through having a large number of asylum seekers?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a perfectly legitimate point. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is determined to deal with these matters in a European and international context, rather than simply on a national basis. I revert to what I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. In many ways, Germany has a pretty good record in this context.