HL Deb 16 February 2000 vol 609 cc1225-8

3.8 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many passengers on the Afghan flight hijacked to Stansted have applied for political asylum.

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

My Lords, as of 15th February, 79 passengers have applied for asylum or are dependants of those who have applied for asylum.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he tell me what the Government will now do to prevent such incidents happening again? Can he further tell me what representations the Government have made to the Russian Government, which appear to be in clear contravention of international civil aviation conventions in this matter?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not aware of the precise representations that have been made to the Russian Government. However, no doubt discussions will continue. As the noble Lord is well aware, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made plain our distaste for the hijacking activities that took place when the aircraft was diverted to Stansted Airport. We have a very good record in this respect—as had the previous government, it should fairly be said—and we shall continue to ensure that we take the most robust measures possible to deter other people from considering such action.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in matters of immigration and asylum and that it was rather unfortunate for him to have made a pronouncement that those people should go back even before their applications were considered? Will he further accept that the Afghans were entitled to make an application for asylum under the present Immigration and Asylum Act and that there is a fast-track system which can determine whether or not the case is genuine? Will he accept that the asylum seekers—bar those being charged with hijacking—have done nothing wrong under the obligations of the United Nations Charter on Refugees?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I fully accept that those who have come here as an unfortunate consequence of the hijacking are entitled to make an asylum application. I cannot agree with the noble Lord's assessment of the position of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. He has not pre-judged the claims. He has made it clear that he will act strictly in accordance with the law by considering each claim on its merits. That must be right and proper.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent incident shows the need for improving the quality of initial asylum decisions? Would that not greatly reduce the number of appeals and applications for judicial review? Is it not important that the first decision maker should personally see the applicant?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the final point made by the noble Lord is an important one. Clearly, the way in which cases are reviewed will have an impact on their outcome. The Government have taken effective action by putting into law the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which will actively deter false asylum seekers but at the same time provide for a new streamlined appeals system to reduce the scope for delay by applicants pursuing multiple avenues of appeal. We believe that to be right and proper. The measures have received active and wide support from both sides of the Chamber.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, is any distinction to be made between those seeking asylum here who had no expectation of leaving their own country and those who were part of a plan hoping and expecting to arrive here?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, each asylum application must be judged on its merits. Clearly the intentions of those wishing to seek asylum will be a consideration in individual decisions. The decisions are complex, but no doubt, as the process will be speeded up, all the applications will be properly processed, as they should be.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the question of the Russian Government. Will the Minister confirm that it was the Russian Government's responsibility under international treaty to deal with the situation when the aircraft landed in Moscow? During the hijack period, did the Government consider the option of returning the aircraft to Moscow to allow the Russians to fulfil their obligations under the treaty? Will the Minister at least undertake to write to my noble friend Lord Brabazon in response to the question of representations made to the government in Moscow, both during and since the hijack?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it would be difficult for me to give precise answers from the Dispatch Box this afternoon to the first two questions that the noble Lord has quite understandably, rightly and properly put to me. I am happy to undertake further investigation of those points. Of course I shall be more than happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, to copy correspondence, where possible, to other noble Lords with an interest in the matter and to place a copy in the Library.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, is any channel now open to enable the Government to engage in dialogue with the Taliban administration, given that its interests are inextricably linked with heroin distribution and terrorism in Afghanistan?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there are of course channels of communication between our Government and the Taliban government. They are important because there are important matters between the two governments. The noble Viscount makes an important point about the movement of drugs and the appalling trade in humanity that takes place, with people coming to this country falsely seeking asylum. Those two matters seem to be closely related.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, will the Minister advise what representations have been made to Her Majesty's Government from airlines using Stansted airport, Stansted being—these are my words—the designated hijack airport of the United Kingdom? Are the Government considering the use of any other airport, for example, a military airport, in order to avoid the chaos that ensued at Stansted for passengers and airlines alike?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, obviously when major incidents of that kind take place there will be discussions with governments, particularly within the European Union. We shall continue those discussions. The noble Lord makes a valuable point and the matter will no doubt be considered.