HL Deb 18 April 2000 vol 612 cc559-61

3.2 p.m.

Lord Renton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will negotiate with those governments which signed the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees with a view to its revision.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have no plans to advocate revision of the convention which, with its 1967 protocol, continues to provide a vital framework for the international protection of refugees. However, we are concerned at abuse of the asylum system by unfounded applicants and traffickers. We aim to act against the traffickers and return quickly those who have no right to stay in the United Kingdom. We shall continue to work with EU partners and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to develop an approach to international protection in line with today's requirements.

Lord Renton

My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for that largely helpful reply, perhaps I may remind her that, when the 1951 convention was negotiated by the United Nations 50 years ago, it was contemplated that if there was a change of circumstances it would be necessary to revise the convention; and that is why Clause 45 of the convention enables revision to take place. In view of the tremendous change of circumstances and the vast numbers of people involved causing expense and trouble of various kinds to the countries concerned, would it not be wise now to have it properly revised?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have considered whether it would be appropriate to revise the convention. The clear view expressed was that it was not. The convention is an important instrument. We still feel that it has great value in its current unamended form.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Does not she agree that the complexity and scale of the refugee situation have so escalated since 1951 that there is a case for revising the Geneva convention along more inclusive and humanitarian lines? I refer to some of the habits into which we have slipped in the past years in this country by detaining refugees in moderately adapted prisons.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we certainly accept that there is a need for a greater degree of international discussion in relation to this matter. We are working with our other partners to reach an agreed position. We shall continue to pursue that. We have in no way sought to water down our commitment to genuine refugees, who have for many years obtained proper succour from this country. We are deeply proud of that history and will do nothing to besmirch our position in that regard.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the UN convention of 1951 is now enshrined in Article 63(1) of the consolidated Treaty of the European Union? Will she further confirm that that means it can be changed only by unanimity among all the members of the European Union? Under those circumstances does she agree that the objective of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is somewhat improbable of success?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly agree with the sentiment that has been expressed. As a point of fact—I always tremble when I correct the noble Earl—Article 63(1) of the treaty establishing the European Community requires the Council to adopt within five years of the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam measures on asylum which are in accordance with the Geneva convention. Therefore Article 63 does not incorporate the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees into Community law; it merely requires the new EU measures on asylum to accord with the convention. The 1951 convention could therefore be amended without requiring EC treaty change. The noble Lord is right in terms of the import of his question; namely, that our EU partners have made a commitment to us on this matter. Whether the 1951 convention is revised or not, the sentiment which underlies it will remain in being.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, when talking about discussions with partners, does the Minister include the possibility of a revision of the Dublin convention? Given that France and some other countries are now officially regarded as unsafe in terms of returning asylum seekers to them from this country, although France operates under the same 1951 convention, does that not seem an extremely unsatisfactory situation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is somewhat ironic that the party opposite signed the Dublin convention in the first place. We are already involved in negotiations within the EU on a replacement for the Dublin convention. We shall press for a quicker and more robust mechanism for returning asylum seekers to the member state which is responsible for them. In the meantime the 1990 Act strengthens the operation of the Dublin convention by providing that all EU member states will be considered as a safe destination.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that three principles should underlie our approach to asylum and refugee policy: that we should have calmness rather than hysteria; that we should have a fair way of determining each individual application; and that these decisions should be made quickly? I hope that my noble friend will confirm that the Government are applying those principles.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have great pleasure in confirming that that is precisely the Government's approach. Speaking for myself, I am becoming increasingly concerned at the tone of some of the rhetoric which is being voiced in relation to refugees where refugee status seems to be considered as synonymous with being somehow unsuitable or unsound.