§ 3.13 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury
asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether they will reconsider the decision to apply for judicial review of the tribunal decision in the case of the Afghan appellant "Number 19".
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)
My Lords, it was decided to seek judicial review of the tribunal's adjournment of the case of "Number 19" after very careful consideration of its determination and all the options available. We do not consider the appellants involved in this case to be refugees. The adjudicators upheld this decision on appeal. It remains our intention to remove them as soon as circumstances allow.
Our view is that the appellants are entitled to have the refusal of asylum considered by the tribunal expeditiously. If successful, they may qualify for refugee status. Taxpayers are also entitled to have the appeal determined, as they remain responsible for supporting these appellants until that happens. We believe that the tribunal's decision to adjourn the appeals indefinitely was wrong, and that it raises an important legal issue. It would not be in the public interest, or that of the appellants, for this application to be withdrawn.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, although I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his full reply, does he agree that, if the Secretary of State is successful in his application for judicial review, the case initially returns to the tribunal and then, if the appellant is unsuccessful there, he can ask for leave to apply to the Court of Appeal; thereafter, if that is refused, he can then go direct to the Court of Appeal? Surely that means that there would be four separate hearings of a judicial character before a decision is finally reached.
Bearing in mind that it has already cost the Secretary of State £14 million (according to the Independent) to fend off the applications for asylum in the United Kingdom by "Number 19" and his fellow passengers on the Ariana Afghan Airlines hijacked plane, does the noble Lord really think that that is a sensible use of resources when there are so many other urgent needs for the expenditure of public money? Why does not the Secretary of State just give in and grant these people exceptional leave to remain?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, this is a most unusual case; indeed, there are no other cases of this kind at the present time. Only two hijacked aircraft have landed in this country in the past three years. The one in question occurred on 7th February last year. There are important points to consider. We do not believe that it 476 is right to withdraw the application for judicial review. As I said, we do not accept that people who are victims of a hijack, quite outwith everything else, have the right to claim asylum when they are landed. The two issues are not connected at all. We have to look into the matter. Obviously many people are affected in this case, although half of them have already gone hack. It would not be justifiable.
For the sake of clarity as regards those listening to these proceedings, perhaps I may point out that we do not normally refer to human beings by numbers. However, in this exceptional case, none of these people is being named by the authorities. That is the reason for the use of numbers. Moreover, although the noble Lord has not approached me personally about this, we have been considering other aspects of this case, as well as the accommodation. It has come to my attention that the noble Lord has, in some respects, stood surety for some of these people. As far as concerns the Immigration Service, I have given instructions for his surety to be withdrawn. We shall not pursue it; it will be laid aside. If there are other matters in respect of which the noble Lord has sureties with the appellate authorities, it will be up to them, not myself, to take that decision.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, we have all agreed in the past on the desirability of making decisions as quickly as possible in cases of this character. Indeed, that theme ran through some of the phraseology used by the Minister. However, can the noble Lord give us any guidance as to when we might now expect a final decision in these cases?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord an answer as regards the judicial review decision. However, that is only part of the issues involved. There is also the criminal prosecution of the hijackers. as opposed to those who were the refugees claiming asylum—in other words, the passengers. That case collapsed earlier this year. I understand that there are plans for a re-trial but that that will not start before October. It will commence this year, but the process is incredibly slow. I apologise for that, as, indeed, I have to apologise in other respects for the slowness of the legal profession. I accept that this is probably not the right place to say that, but nevertheless that is the reality. We cannot shortcut such issues. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, there are several stages in the process. Given the unique situation of the case, it would not be right to take shortcuts. However, it would also not be right for undue delay to continue.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what representations the Government have received from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on this case?
§ Lord Rooker
No, my Lords; I cannot do so in detail. Obviously, this is a case where the 170 passengers, 81 of whom have returned, find themselves in different stages of the process. They are not being treated as a block: some are dependent, some are 477 children and some are hijackers. As is known, we do not return people to Afghanistan in any event, even if an application for asylum is refused. There is a policy enunciated in that respect. I am not aware of any recent representations from UNHCR—at least, not since I took office.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, perhaps the Minister can clarify one further point. In his first reply he said that it was the intention ultimately to send these passengers back to Afghanistan. However, he has just said that, at present, no one is sent back to that country. Can he tell the House what the benefit is of these proceedings if, at the end of the day, he is not going to send these people back? Indeed, why is it necessary to go through all these legal procedures to contest the right of these people to stay here?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, with respect, I did not use the words that the noble Lord attributes to me. I said that it was our intention to remove the people we are discussing. I did not say that we intended to remove them to Afghanistan. We have a policy not to return refugees to that country, which is run by a terrible regime. In fact, the regime is not running that country as it is in a state of anarchy. There is complete disregard for human rights and civil liberties. It would be quite wrong for us to return people to that country. We intend to examine these cases as we do those of other asylum seekers. There is no justification for treating them differently from others who seek asylum. It is better to follow due process in these cases rather than take shortcuts. To shortcut the process would set a terrible precedent. If we are seen to shortcut our normal judicial procedures in this respect, that might lead to changes in people's behaviour around the world.