HL Deb 02 November 1999 vol 606 cc862-70

12. The regulations may make provision with respect to procedural requirements including, in particular, provision as to—

  1. (a) the procedure to be followed in making an application for support;
  2. (b) the information which must be provided by the applicant;
  3. (c) the circumstances in which an application may no: be entertained;
  4. (d) the making of further enquiries by the Secretary of State;
  5. (e) the circumstances in which, and person by whom, a change of circumstances of a prescribed description must be notified to the Secretary of State.").

[Amendment No. 73, as an amendment to Amendment No. 72, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 72 agreed to.

Schedule 8 [Asylum Support: Interim Provisions]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendments Nos. 74 to 77: Page 140, line 25, leave out sub-paragraph (1). Page 140, line 37, leave out ("prescribed"). Page 140, line 40, leave out ("prescribed"). Page 140, line 41, at end insert— ("( ) For the purposes of any provision made as a result of subparagraph (2), the regulations may make provision for the determination by the Secretary of State of—

  1. (a) the applicable maximum number of asylum-seekers;
  2. (b) the applicable maximum number of eligible persons.
( ) The regulations may make provision for any such determination to be made—
  1. (a) for local authorities generally;
  2. (b) for prescribed descriptions of local authority; or
  3. (c) for particular local authorities.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 78 not moved.]

Schedule 13 [Consequential Amendments]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 79: Page 155, line 42, leave out from ("2") to ("sub-paragraph") in line 45 and insert ("paragraph 21 (temporary admission of persons liable to detention) is amended as follows. (2) After sub-paragraph (2) insert— (2A) The provisions that may be included in restrictions as to residence imposed under sub-paragraph (2) include provisions of such a description as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State. (2B) The regulations may, among other things, provide for the inclusion of provisions—

  1. (a) prohibiting residence in one or more particular areas;
  2. (b) requiring the person concerned to reside in accommodation provided under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and prohibiting him from being absent from that accommodation except in accordance with the restrictions imposed on him.
(2C) The regulations may provide that a particular description of provision may be imposed only for prescribed purposes. (2D) The power to make regulations conferred by this paragraph is exercisable by statutory instrument and includes a power to make different provision for different cases. (2E) But no regulations under this paragraph are to be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House. (3) In sub-paragraph (3), after "2" insert "or 2A". (4) In").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move.

[Amendments No. 80 to 83, as amendments to Amendment No. 79, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 79 agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 84: Page 157, line 28, at end insert—

("The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (c. 44)

. Section 53 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (requirement to provide school meals etc) is amended as follows—

  1. (a) in subsection (3)—
  1. (i) for the words from the beginning to "an", where it occurs for the second time, substitute—
(3) Subsection (3AA) below applies in relation to a pupil—
  1. (a) whose parents are in receipt of—
    1. (i) income support;
    2. (ii) an income-based jobseeker's allowance (payable under the Jobseekers Act 1995); or
    3. (iii) support provided under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; or
  2. (b) who is himself in receipt of income support or an income-based jobseeker's allowance.
(3AA) An"; and.
  1. (ii) for "him", where it occurs for the first time, substitute "the pupil"; and
  1. (b) in subsection (3A), for "Subsections (1), (2) and (3)" substitute "Subsections (1) to (3AA)".").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 85 not moved.]

Schedule 14 [Transitional Provisions and Savings]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendments Nos. 86 to 91: Page 165, line 33, at end insert—

("Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996

1A.—(1) This paragraph applies in relation to any time before the commencement of the repeal by this Act of section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996.

(2) That section has effect, and is to be deemed always to have had effect, as if the reference to section 6 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 were a reference to section 13, and any certificate issued under that section is to be read accordingly."). Page 166, line 30, at end insert—

("Duties under Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 Section 116(1) has effect, in relation to any time before section 114 is brought into force, as if section 114 came into force on the passing of this Act."). Page 166, line 32, leave out ("Section 119(1) has") and insert ("Subsections (1) to (3) of section 119 have"). Page 166, line 33, at end insert—

("Duties under Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972

. Subsections (1) and (2) of section 120 have effect, in relation to any time before section 114 is brought into force, as if section 114 came into force on the passing of this Act.

Duties under National Health Service Act 1977

. Section 116(2) has effect, in relation to any time before section 114 is brought into force, as if section 114 came into force on the passing of this Act.

Duties under Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984

. Subsections (4) and (5) of section 119 have effect, in relation to any time before section 114 is brought into force, as if section 114 came into force on the passing of this Act."). Page 167, line 31, leave out from ("whom") to ("applies") in line 32 and insert ("an amended provision"). Page 167, line 42, at end insert-— ("( ) "Amended provision" means any provision amended by—

  1. (a) section 115;
  2. (b) section 116(1) or (2);
  3. (c) section 119; or
  4. (d) section 120.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

11.18 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton. )

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I should like to say a few words of thanks to the many who have taken part in the debate on what has been a long, detailed, and sometimes difficult Bill. It would be less than gracious if I did not say in that context that Ministers, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, who is not at present in his place, and indeed the Home Secretary, have shown a great willingness to listen, a great deal of patience and a great deal of consideration in a situation where all of us know that we are facing an extremely difficult problem.

We have faced not only the problem of handling a great many people who wish to come to this country as asylum seekers, but also the real difficulties arising from information technology. That is not the Government's fault; the problems predate their time, and have not been made any easier as a result of the technology having to be introduced in a difficult situation. We understand that and we sympathise. Every time I look at my own personal computer swallowing my immortal words when I cannot do anything to stop it, I think of the Home Office and my heart bleeds just a little.

I pay tribute also to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and his colleague, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and very much also to the Cross-Benchers, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Alton, and others, for their contributions to these debates.

I conclude with two points. I am sure that noble Lords on other Benches, not least on the Benches of the right reverend Prelate and his colleagues, the Bishops' Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard—with whom I still dimly associate that particular outstanding role—share with us the sense that we have two matters greatly in mind. The first is the noble, outstanding tradition in this country over many decades of accepting voices of dissent and voices fighting for liberty and freedom. The mind goes back as far as people like Kossuth and Garibaldi. It is a great tradition which most of us would not wish to see brought to an end.

In this Bill there are many powers which affect directly not only the liberties of people who seek to come to this country but also our own liberties. There are precedents which could be disturbing if not brought under control. Therefore, we have had in mind not only the liberties of asylum seekers but also those of our own countrymen and women in the moves that we have made on the Bill.

Again, I thank Ministers for their patience and I thank other colleagues who have been kind enough to sit through and take part in those very lo rig sessions. We are grateful to all those involved.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I join in the thanks expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to the Minister and noble Lords on all sides of the House who have taken part in these long debates.

This Bill leaves the House in a form very different from that in which it arrived. Most of the changes made in the course of our debates are improvements. We continue to share the general intentions of the Government that immigration decisions should be fairer, faster and firmer. But I am not confident that the new machinery established by this Bill will work smoothly.

It has been quite apparent to us that the legislation was put together under great pressure, and the number of government amendments testify to that. There were another 50 or so government amendments today. Whenever we have asked questions about the machinery, which will have to be the most elaborate and sensitive machinery UK-wide, the answers have not been very satisfactory.

New arrangements, new legislation and new systems in government usually slow things down, at least at the start. I am not hopeful that this Bill will be an exception to that rule. The Home Secretary inherited a difficult situation and made it worse. This Bill fills me with foreboding. Nevertheless, I believe that it should pass.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I associate myself with the thanks which have already been expressed, in particular to Ministers for the courtesy which they have shown.

However, I wish to draw attention to a substantive point which arises from a letter to The Times on 28th October from Professor Goodwin-Gill, professor of international refugee law at the University of Oxford. He made important points about the procedure for handling asylum applications and, secondly, about the size of the backlog. It seems that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has hardly changed its methods over the past 25 years, since a time when applications were far fewer and the backlog was tiny by today's standards. Asylum seekers are still interviewed and their cases are then considered largely on paper. It is difficult to assess credibility on paper and the applicant often has no opportunity to clear up inconsistencies or to remove doubts until the case reaches appeal. The success rate at appeal shows that time and resources are being wasted.

On Second Reading I asked for better quality decisions and I now urge the Government to improve the system to achieve that end. Improvements should allow for advice and representation at the earliest possible stage.

Not long ago, the backlog of asylum cases stood at 78,000. It may now have risen to 90,000. Whatever the precise figure, it is surely something of a national disgrace, particularly after 22½ years of a new and reforming Government. What should be done? I suggest that the oldest asylum applications should be examined and that one or two years' worth of them should be given full refugee status or exceptional leave to remain, unless they have criminal records, charges outstanding against them or can be shown to be security risks.

The next block of applications up to say 1st January 1999 should then be examined. If those cases conform with the three principles that I explained at Second Reading, those people should immediately be admitted, subject to the safeguards I have just mentioned. I remind your Lordships that the three principles are: family reunion with close relatives already here, a good knowledge of English, and the support of an existing ethnic, religious or linguistic community. Cases not having any of those three kinds of support would remain to be dealt with in the usual way.

Without radical measures of the kind I have outlined, I cannot see that the vast backlog will be reduced within any reasonable length of time. To take a determined but principled approach of this nature would save vast amounts of official time, many appeals and much expense. It would open the way for introducing better procedures for the future. Professor Goodwin-Gill said that the Bill was irrelevant to the real needs that we face. I agree and I ask the Government to produce better policies than we have had so far in this Bill.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I consider this an important Bill, one of the most important that the Government have introduced since they came to power. I want to congratulate the Attorney-General and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, for the way in which they have piloted the Bill. The subject is confusing and we have dealt with it in far too detailed a way. One realises the pressures that the Government have had to face.

Over many generations we in our country have prided ourselves on the welcome we have given to people who have come from countries where they have been oppressed. However, in recent years the numbers of immigrants—especially asylum seekers but also others—have grown so much that the problems have increased due to the sheer weight of numbers. I have collected a number of relevant statistics, but I shall spare your Lordships as they are all ascertainable. However, I mention that in the past 12 months the number of immigrants, including refugees, has increased by more than 80,000. That is the size of a big town. In addition, even if we have no further immigration, we are told that in the next quarter of a century we have to build another million houses. We are told that in the south of England we shall need the equivalent of five cities the size of Southampton and that they will take up much more of our green and pleasant land.

Our first duty as parliamentarians is to the people who are already here, the native people and those whom we have welcomed and who have now become thoroughly absorbed. They nearly all live in crowded areas. It will not help them if we allow the pressure to increase by too free an admission of people from abroad. For that reason the Government deserve full support for introducing the Bill and in enforcing it. Enforcement will be difficult because the number of asylum seekers, genuine and bogus, whose cases have not yet been decided is now, we are told, 100,000. I trust that the Government will be strong-minded about this matter when increasing the facilities for hearing the cases. That must be done. I am sure that the manpower can be found. The alternative is to relax control, to allow unjustified asylum seekers to remain, and to add to our social problems.

The Bill is vitally important and I wish the Government well in enforcing it.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I take one minute of your Lordships' time and I apologise for that. There are three groups of people we should have thanked. They are not only the Minister but the civil servants who assisted him in a number of the meetings that we had. The meetings have been extremely helpful. There are two bodies working in the refugee field. One is the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture. In particular I refer to Alison Harvey. There is also the Refugee Council and in particular Mike Kay. They have been extremely helpful in providing us with a considerable amount of briefing. Their experience has helped us to make the Bill a little better.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to those of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and those expressed by others during the course of this brief debate. We have just been told by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that perhaps as many as 100,000 cases are still outstanding. The Government have said that the target should be to speed things up radically. But the average waiting time at the moment is about 20 months. That is about 10 times the Government target.

For me there is a real sense of déjà vu. I listened to the end of the debate in another place four years ago when I served on the standing committee that looked at the previous asylum Bill. I realise, and I regret, that many of the remedies offered by the previous administration are now contained in this legislation as well. The real challenge is to reduce that backlog, which will only be done by providing resources and personnel. We have made a huge error by putting resources into creating things such as the voucher system which, I suspect, we shall have to revisit again in another two or three years with yet another asylum and immigration Bill.

That said, it would be churlish not to pay tribute to those who have given so much of their time and have been patient and generous in dealing with the many points raised during the progress of this Bill. I am personally grateful to Ministers such as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and the noble and learned Lord the Attorney General for the very patient way in which they have deal with the issues raised by my noble friend on the Cross-Benches and myself.

Lord Hacking

My Lords, during the passage of this Bill through the House I have concentrated on a small but, I believe, important area; namely, the relationship between the Immigration Service and the port operators. The sadness, as this Bill has gathered pace through your Lordships' House, is that the consultation process has, alas, been neglected.

However, during the latter stages after returning from the Summer Recess, my noble friend has been of considerable assistance. He has assisted us, for example, in understanding the basic service that port operators wish to know about and which is offered by the Immigration Service.

I had the opportunity to see the document only after Report stage. It was distributed on 15th October and did not reach me by the Report stage on 18th October. I have now had the opportunity to read it. I ask my noble friend to ask his officials to revisit the document. It is written in rather complex language and sets off on entirely the wrong foot. Paragraph 2 reads, The level at which the 'Basic Service' will be provided will be subject to an overarching qualification based upon an analysis by the Immigration Service of the risk to the integrity of the immigration control generated by passenger movement at a port". The first reaction to that rather long and verbose statement is, phew! But much more basic is the fact that it is not focusing on what the basic service is. It is essential that the Immigration Service itself should operate efficiently so that it can scrutinise, as is necessary, those who are seeking entry into our country. At the same time it should operate in such a way that all arrivals into the United Kingdom, whether UK or European Union citizens, are processed efficiently and fairly with reasonable promptness. That is entirely absent from the statement I read. I should therefore be grateful if my noble friend could visit this. I notice that at the beginning of the document it is described as a draft document representing the views of officials and that it has not been cleared by Ministers. Perhaps it could now have the eye of my noble friend and his colleagues.

My noble friend kindly wrote to me on the other point I raised and shall just briefly identify it again; I take the hint about briefness. I suggested that there should be an efficient dispute resolution process. My noble friend said that the matter was still under consideration. It can be efficiently set up in a way that is satisfactory to the Secretary of State and the airport operators and I hope that attention will be focused on that. Again, this is an area where, alas, there has been a lack of consultation. With that, I wish the Bill a happy journey.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I had not intended to say much at this stage, but your Lordships have tempted me; I feel driven and compelled to make a long, interesting and perhaps incisive speech!

Perhaps I may make one or two points. My noble friend Lord Hacking raised two issues; they are both under consideration. I am happy to continue the dialogue and correspondence with him to try to resolve those matters in a way which we both find satisfactory.

I should like to follow the gracious way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, so kindly and generously thanked Ministers and other Members of your Lordships' House for the way they conducted themselves throughout the passage of this Bill. As most noble Lords are aware, I came rather late to this Bill. I am still learning and the learning curve is steep, but I am enjoying the experience. This has been one of those experiences which has been more pressing and demanding than many of the others I have had to confront in the short time that I have been privileged to be at the Dispatch Box.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the courteous way in which she and her colleagues on the opposition Benches—I include in that noble Lords on the Conservative Benches—conducted themselves throughout the different stages of this Bill. We focused on the practical. We have been hard-headed. As Ministers, we tried to answer as precisely as we could the questions and difficult and wicked issues raised from all quarters of the House. I trust that we have done that in the best traditions of your Lordships' House.

Matters of substance were raised when I moved that the Bill do now pass. I can say, particularly to the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Hylton, in relation to the way we see this legislation working, that we inherited, as a government, something of a mess. That is widely accepted and acknowledged. We all know that we need to improve upon the quality of the service. We all accept that resources are an issue. It is for that reason that the Government seek to put in place legislation which is effective, firm and fair, and which will deliver a faster, better and more efficient service. We are committed to that. We have put in place measures which will release an additional £120 million to the IND. We have put in place measures which will speed up the decision-making processes—everyone welcomed that—and we recently recruited 300 additional staff and plan to recruit 250 more.

That is a fair indication of our commitment as a government to getting the immigration, nationality and asylum services on a firm, effective and efficient footing. We believe that this legislation will lead us in that general direction. We have put the resources in place to do it. We look forward to enjoying support from all quarters in making the new system work much better than that which went before. It is in no one's interest that we have a system that does not work; one that is ineffective, full of delay, chaos and inefficiency. Our staff have worked tirelessly to improve the situation and for that we must all be grateful.

My final thanks go to the officials who supported us throughout that process.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.