HL Deb 16 November 2000 vol 619 cc341-4

3.12 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the MORI survey for the Reader's Digest, whether they have any plans to improve the standard of information available to the public about asylum seekers and refugees in this country.

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

My Lords, the Government recognise the need to provide balanced and honest information on asylum issues. Home Office Ministers and the department take all available opportunities to do that, to put the information in its proper context, and to challenge misinformation or misinterpretation. All of us—the press, politicians and others—have a duty to conduct the debate about asylum and immigration in an accurate and responsible way.

We have a strong commitment to raise the standard of information available to the public. The continuing development of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's website is one example. It is scheduled to be relaunched in December with new pages on asylum.

We also recently published our strategy for integrating refugees into the United Kingdom entitled Full and equal citizens. The strategy sets out the Government's view on ways to enable those recognised as refugees to become full members of our society and to fulfil the undoubted potential that they have for their own benefit and for that of society as a whole.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm the UNHCR figures produced in February this year that, within the EU in terms of the number of asylum applications in proportion to population, we were twelfth in 1998 and ninth in 1999? Therefore, does he agree that in relation to the figures we do not need to explain why we attract a flood of asylum seekers, but that we should consider whether we receive our share?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I believe that the figures mentioned by the noble Earl are broadly accurate. We should explain to everyone the contribution that those who seek asylum here can make to our society and we should do all we can to ensure that they are well integrated into a comfortable, multi-racial society that is at ease with itself. I believe that to be the wise strategy and that is exactly the strategy that the Government are pursuing.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that plans are in hand to increase the quality of information to asylum seekers, bearing in mind that there are cases of asylum seekers in the north-east of England being called for interview in Croydon at 10 o'clock in the morning?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for that information. If he wants to draw to my attention specific difficulties that asylum seekers have experienced, I shall be grateful to receive them. We always seek new and better ways to inform asylum seekers of their rights and responsibilities. For that reason I am extremely pleased that we have launched our website, a copy of the front page of which I have here. It is designed for and targeted to those who advise and to those who seek advice in equal measure. I believe that it will be a useful addition to the work that we undertake.

Lord Renton

My Lords, as there are so many bogus asylum seekers and so many bogus refugees, should not all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, give full support to the Home Secretary in his efforts to stop such rackets?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we in the Government take a very dim view of any type of racketeering. The racketeering that has taken place in relation to the movement of human beings across the European continent is particularly reprehensible and has had tragic and fatal consequences. It is in everyone's interests that we oppose that. Equally, we must recognise the rights of those who quite properly seek asylum in our country. We have a long and proud tradition in that respect of which I am proud, as are the Government. I believe that we should all be proud of that.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, during the proceedings of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, many Members from all sides of your Lordships' House expressed concern about the way in which the voucher scheme would operate? Given that a review is currently under way, can the Minister ensure that consideration will be given to the way in which the vouchers are tendered? At the moment no change can be given even when small sums are involved, which can have an adverse effect on people who live on tiny amounts of money? Will the Minister also tell the House how much it costs to operate the voucher scheme and whether it gives us value for money?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am content that the scheme provides value for money. As the noble Lord is aware, currently we are conducting a review of the implementation of the voucher scheme, which will take some time, but it will be completed in April next year. If the noble Lord knows of specific problems that individual asylum seekers have experienced when using vouchers, I shall be grateful to hear of them. We are dependent on people bringing forward such information in order to conduct a proper and effective review.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that no amount of ministerial pedagogy will allay public concern over such issues unless combined with the correct policies? Therefore, is he encouraged by the recent poll carried out on behalf of the Rowntree Reform Trust that suggests that our policies are about right? For example, only 13 per cent of the public believe that people who want to come here just to escape poverty in their own country should be allowed entry. Equally, only 14 per cent consider that entry should be refused for people who have a well-founded fear of death and torture.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that interesting report has been drawn to my attention. The noble Lord has provided me with the background data. We should all take encouragement from its findings. My hope is that those findings will broadly be supported by all sides of your Lordships' House. They seem to match up to what the Government are trying to achieve and provide us with a valuable platform on which to promote greater integration. It is good for those seeking asylum here and good for our community as a whole.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the website that he mentioned. Can he confirm that the figures on the Research, Development and Statistics Directorate website demonstrate that in the three months to 30th September this year there were 9 per cent fewer asylum seekers compared with last year, but that 14 per cent more of them finished up in detention on 30th September compared with the same date in 1999? When will the Government make progress in meeting the recommendation of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and many others that asylum seekers should not be kept in detention? Can the Minister assure the House that when Aldington and Harmsworth are completed they will not simply add to the total number in detention?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am familiar with most of the statistics to which the noble Lord refers and I do not quibble with them. Oakington is making a valuable contribution to the way in which we manage this particular problem, and we have received very few complaints about its operation. I believe that when the other two centres are established they will enable us properly to conduct a fast-track procedure in the interests of those who seek asylum, in particular those with families. The system is working well and I am confident that when it expands it will continue to do so and will provide value for money and good quality accommodation.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the question of heightening public awareness was raised at a meeting between the Prime Minister and Home Secretary and Bishops and other church leaders. Does the Minister agree that the information of which he speaks eloquently—we should like to hear more—should be about why this is a worldwide problem rather than that it is a problem? One in 120 people on this globe are homeless, which surely indicates that we should be looking in the direction of "why" as well as "that".

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate speaks with great knowledge and wisdom on this matter. We need to raise public awareness, and much more should be done. After all, we are a caring and compassionate society, and this is a shared value of which we should be rightly proud and to which we all want to subscribe. However, a degree of proselytising goes with it, and the Government share that common objective.