HL Deb 08 February 2000 vol 609 cc510-3

2.53 p.m.

Lord Renton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, given that in 1999 the backlog of asylum seekers, excluding dependants, rose above 100,000 for the first time, they will curtail the rights of asylum seekers to enter and remain in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, this Government will continue to honour their obligation under the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees to consider all applications for asylum made in the United Kingdom or at our ports. However, we are taking tough measures to curb abuse of the asylum process. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduces fundamental changes, including measures to discourage unfounded asylum applications, while continuing to provide protection for those who need it.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply and acknowledge the attempt that the Government have tried to make in order to deal with this difficult matter. However, as our enlightened asylum policy has been abused over the years by economic migrants and others, causing the backlog to be doubled during the time that this Government have been in power and causing great trouble and expense to local authorities and, indeed, to the Government, has not the time come for the Government to tell the world that we shall no longer tolerate the abuse of our asylum policy?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I cannot possibly agree with that. That would place the United Kingdom in breach of our international obligations. Like most other European countries, we are experiencing increases in asylum applications. We are taking firm measures to deal with those and I believe that we are widely respected for having done that.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the serious problems for the county of Kent caused by persons arriving at Dover and claiming asylum? Bearing in mind that this is a national problem, should not the Government be doing more to assist the county of Kent?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have been working closely with Kent County Council. We have been working extremely closely with the Local Government Association, to which we are indebted for the steps that it has taken to arrange for a voluntary dispersal programme in advance of our legislation coming into place. When the legislation is in place in the spring of this year, the new measures that we have introduced will enable us to carry out an orderly dispersal programme across the United Kingdom. I believe that to be in everyone's best interest.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, will my noble friend provide comparable figures for all the countries of the European Union so that we can see to what degree there is a common problem? Does he agree that the suggestion made by the noble Lord in his Question will appeal very much to Herr Haider of Austria?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, those figures exist. Asylum applications in the United Kingdom last year were 71,000. I can tell the noble Lord that in Germany there were 95,000; in France, 30,000; in the Netherlands, 39,000; and in Belgium, 35,000. Our problems are shared by other countries across the European Union. Last year, in Belgium there was a 63 per cent increase in asylum applicants; in Hungary, 55 per cent; in Austria, 46 per cent; and in France, 34 per cent. I hope that that is a comprehensive reply which puts in context the fact that we in the United Kingdom experience problems that other countries in the EC also experience.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that a substantial part of that backlog was inherited from the previous administration; that we shall continue to honour our obligation under the UN convention on the rights of refugees and not play this numbers game; and that we should honour our obligation to admit genuine asylum seekers as part of our civilised and humanitarian values?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we should continue to honour our international obligations. I believe that it is worth placing on record that the Government inherited nothing short of a shambles. Members opposite may not like this, but in 1996 they laid plans to reduce the number of staff in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate that would have left us short of people to process applications. That, and problems relating to inadequate technology, placed the present Government in a difficult situation—one that we inherited.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, perhaps I may say, first, that in 1996 there were 29,000 applications, and 39,000 decisions were made by the authorities on asylum cases. That compares with 71,000 applications and 32,000 decisions—a drop—made in the last year. That is why the backlog has increased to over 100,000. Will the Minister tell us how many of those who were refused asylum last year have left the country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, last year we achieved the highest number of removals—7,650. That compares with figures in the early 1990s of 1,350, 1,820 and 2,200. We inherited the problem. Staff numbers were due to reduce under the previous government. The computerised system was a shambles. We are now tackling the backlog.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom receives far fewer applications for asylum per head of population than many other European Union countries?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that the figures produced by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees confirm exactly that.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, in the light of the fact that 7,000 people have been sent home, will the Minister confirm that in the same year the Government tried to send home 20,000 people, of whom at least 13,000 escaped and went underground? Is it not also true that every day in the past 1,000 days of this Government 50 more asylum seekers have been waiting for their cases to be heard?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have been given an interesting lesson in fictional statistics.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I know that there is some concern about how rigorously we apply the time limit on Questions. We have allowed as much time on this Question as we did on the first. Given the interest in the fourth Question, I believe that we should move on to it.