HL Deb 09 July 2002 vol 637 cc565-76

3.7 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Filkin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 14 [Establishment of centres]:

Lord Filkin

moved Amendment No. 97: Page 9, line 8, at end insert— () The Secretary of State may arrange for—

  1. (a) the provision of facilities at or near an accommodation centre for sittings of adjudicators appointed for the purpose of Part 5 in accordance with a determination of the Lord Chancellor under paragraph 2 of Schedule 4;
  2. (b) the provision of facilities at an accommodation centre for the taking of steps in connection with the determination of claims for asylum (within the meaning of section 16(3))."
The noble Lord said: As the Committee will be aware, although there has been support in principle for the idea of accommodation centres expressed by all three main parties both here and in another place, concerns have been expressed about whether in practice they would fulfil the potential that those on all sides of the Chamber would wish. Concerns have centred around the issue of whether in practice increased speed in dealing fully and fairly with applicants for asylum would be achieved through the use of accommodation centres.

The specific challenge that was raised in another place concerned whether a paperchase would continue without having case workers and adjudicators on site to consider appeals in accommodation centres and that the sort of delays that have unfortunately been experienced when backlogs of asylum claims have built up might continue.

This group of amendments relate to the issue of undertaking appeal hearings and casework on site at accommodation centres in order to create a "one-stop shop". The Home Secretary said that he was sympathetic to an amendment tabled in the other place by the right honourable Member for West Dorset, Oliver Letwin. He accepted that there should be a presumption that adjudicators should be on site in the trial accommodation centres, and that he would talk to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor about the best way to organise it with a view to bringing forward a government amendment to make clear our intentions on the face of the Bill.

We have now discussed matters with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and concluded that it would be appropriate to amend Clause 14. Clause 14 provides that the Secretary of State may arrange for the provision of premises (to be called "accommodation centres") for the accommodation of persons in accordance with Part 2 of the Bill. It provides the necessary powers for funding and building accommodation centres. The government amendment reflects our firm intention that accommodation centres should be about more than just housing and supporting asylum seekers. It provides us with an express power to fund and build hearing facilities and caseworking facilities at an accommodation centre, so that we may integrate support and processing and take an holistic approach to dealing with asylum seekers' claims.

It is for the Lord Chancellor to determine where immigration adjudicators sit to hear appeals. It would not be appropriate for the Home Secretary, as the Secretary of State with responsibility for determining asylum claims, to direct adjudicators to sit at accommodation centres. The amendment therefore does not seek to do that. The Lord Chancellor, by virtue of Schedule 4, already has the power to direct adjudicators to sit at times and places that are determined by him. Thus, if Members of the Committee agree to the amendment, the Lord Chancellor may direct adjudicators to sit at accommodation centres in hearing facilities that will be provided by the Home Secretary as part of the wider accommodation centre complex.

I say "wider accommodation centre complex" because it is important that we preserve and are seen to be preserving the independence of the judiciary. It is not just a matter of providing a couple of rooms for adjudicators within the accommodation centre and asking them to get on with it. Hearing rooms need to be separate from the accommodation centre, with a separate identity. So the adjudicator needs to be next door—on hand rather than on site. The amendment deals with that by referring to hearing facilities "at or near" an accommodation centre.

The opposition amendments, which have not yet been moved, seek to require us to take decisions, hear appeals and serve decisions on site at accommodation centres. We cannot agree to that requirement but I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that in spirit and in practical application we are not so far apart.

We agree that it is desirable that as many facilities as possible should be available to asylum seekers on site at accommodation centres. We are trialling accommodation centres to see if they work and, as part of that trial, we want to test the hypothesis that co-location of the casework and appeals functions will help to minimise delay.

However, we need to bear two things in mind. First, accommodation centres are a trial and therefore we need flexibility to try out approaches. Secondly, we need to have regard for taxpayers' money.

In respect of hearing facilities, evidence from the Immigration Appellate Authority already suggests that smaller hearing centres are less efficient and therefore more expensive overall than larger ones. I have already explained that hearing facilities cannot just be a couple of hearing rooms. In addition to courtrooms, we need office space for adjudicators, presenting officers and support staff. We also need a waiting area for appellants and consultation rooms for them to meet legal advisers in private. That is quite a substantial funding commitment. Opposition Members of the Committee have been making the case for smaller centres and we have undertaken to look seriously at that. However, Members of the Committee cannot have it both ways. If we are to have a genuine trial with flexibility for smaller centres, which the legislation provides, the legislation must also provide for flexibility in respect of some on-site services.

The Immigration Appellate Authority is currently expanding to meet its commitment to take on 6,000 appeals per month from November this year. It is opening up new hearing facilities around the country. I hope that Members of the Committee agree that it would not be good value for money if, for example, facilities were readily accessible from an accommodation centre but we were expressly obliged by statute to build a brand new hearing centre next door to the accommodation centre. That is what Amendment No. 109 would require.

I have discussed appeals. The noble Baroness's amendment also seeks to require us to take asylum decisions on site. Again, we cannot support the literal interpretation of that because we believe that it would unnecessarily straitjacket our ability to deal with cases as efficiently as possible. Nevertheless, there is some support for her objective.

A blanket requirement for all decisions to be made on site would remove the flexibility to respond to surges in intake and staff fluctuations (for example, through illness) by reducing our ability to use the main Croydon and Liverpool caseworking groups as backup, as well as sources of expertise for difficult cases. Members of the Committee may think that I am being unduly negative. I am not seeking to be; I merely want to make it clear that a blanket requirement is not the way in which to achieve efficiency, although I do not necessarily believe that that is what lies behind the amendment.

It may help if I explain what we actually intend to do. Our general presumption is that both caseworking and appeal hearings should take place on site at accommodation centres unless there are sound pragmatic reasons for not doing so. To that extent we have been persuaded by the Opposition's arguments, which were advanced in another place and in this place at Second Reading. We intend to co-locate hearing facilities with the trial accommodation centres in all circumstances where it makes sense to do so. As I have mentioned, exceptions might be if there were existing hearing facilities within striking distance, which it would not be sensible to replace.

By caseworking on site, again based on pragmatism, what we intend is that the initial interview should take place on site, any further representations should be received on site and all decisions, including appeal determinations, should be served on site. The full case-file would remain on site while the applicant is resident there and appeals would be lodged on site. With all of that face-to-face activity taking place on site, the strong likelihood would be that it would make sense to take decisions on site, too. So we would plan to do that, but with flexibility to do what works best and to call on central resources where necessary.

With those undertakings, I hope that both Opposition Benches recognise that we have moved a considerable way towards meeting the arguments that were made in another place. I also hope that they will accept that the amendment is reasonable and that the noble Baroness will agree not to press her amendments. I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 109 and 136, which are in my name. They are grouped with government Amendment No. 97, which the Minister has just moved. They were tabled before the government amendment, which is extremely welcome. My questions will simply seek elucidation of the Minister's remarks. I welcome the amount of information that he has given and his undertakings with regard to proceedings on site. He has successfully managed to head off a number of questions with those undertakings.

As the Minister said, there is support in principle for the building of accommodation centres as a way in which to process asylum claims faster, more effectively and in a manner that is fairer to those in the centres and to those who are considering coming to this country. We support the principles that were enunciated by the Minister. He rightly referred to the concerns expressed in another place and to the fact that when my right honourable friend Mr Letwin sought to introduce a new clause on Report on 11th June to ensure that the adjudicators would make their decisions on site, the Home Secretary offered to speak to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the chief adjudicator about the best way forward. I welcome the progress that has been made since then; it resulted in the amendment.

As the Minister said, the government amendment is different from my amendments in one clear respect. The government amendment states that adjudicators will not necessarily be on site but that they will be "near an accommodation centre". He sought to argue that the Opposition cannot have it both ways with regard to changes to the way in which accommodation centres are built and run. He suggested that if we want smaller centres that may be sited near urban areas, there has to be some flexibility with regard to the services that are provided. He also said that the Lord Chancellor already has the power to determine where adjudicators may sit and that it is up to the Lord Chancellor to determine where they should sit. I certainly accept that that is the case.

I welcome the information that was given by the Minister about the facilities that would be required properly to provide services for adjudication. He talked about the importance of the judiciary being seen to be independent as well as being independent.

Certainly I appreciate that that is always the case. I recall the time when magistrates' courts commonly sat either in police stations or in part of a police station site considered to be appropriate. During the building programme of the past 20 years, magistrates' courts have been seen to be independent by being sited separately. I am sure that the Government are right to seek to ensure that any adjudicator who hears a case should be seen to be independent of the government. That ensures, first, that the asylum seeker should be in that accommodation centre, having no choice as to where he should live, and, secondly, that he should then have the application processed by the adjudicator.

I accept much of the Minister's argument that perhaps adjudicators should not always be directed to be present on site. I still have some concerns about the fact that, under the noble Lord's amendment, asylum seekers may well have to travel some distance from one accommodation centre to another in order to seek advice. Of course, if the Government persist in their current intention to build accommodation centres at rather remote places, it is possible that the level of rural bus services will simply not be sufficient to provide easy access for people to adjudication services. I think in particular of families with children and the elderly and infirm.

Therefore, although I welcome the commitment shown by the Government today, I shall have to reserve my position over the summer in order to take advice on these matters from the Immigration Advisory Service and ILPA. I want to know what implications they see for applicants as a result of the commitments which the Minister has made today and of which we did not have prior knowledge.

Earl Russell

I, too, welcome both the Minister's amendment and the speech which he made in putting it before us. It reassured me on a number of points about which I had previously been in a little doubt. I also express my agreement with the vast majority of what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said and express approval of her Amendment No. 109.

The idea that hearings should take place at the centres, or as near as is convenient to them, is important. Incidentally, it will save the Minister from a long string of questions from my noble friend Lord Greaves about the timing of the earliest trains from Preston to London. Some of the early hearings conducted by NASS were something of a dog's breakfast. Indeed, they were appropriately timed before the earliest train that would enable the asylum seeker to get there so that he would end up spending the night sleeping on Euston Station. I believe that the amendment will get us away from that situation.

I take the noble Lord's point about the independence of the judiciary. It explains a number of points which I should have spotted were due to that but where the amendment is not particularly specific, clearly because it is not within the noble Lord's authority to make it so.

I take his point with regard to flexibility; that is, that where there is an appropriate building next door, it is absurd to insist on a purpose-built building to avoid a walk of a couple of hundred yards. On the other hand, I also take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. It is a different matter when one is dealing with families with children, but without the language, who must take bus journeys of 20 or 30 miles or perhaps half-way across a county, probably run under rather erratic and infrequent services. This will clearly be a matter of horses for courses. One cannot account for that type of situation in the drafting of general primary legislation; nor, indeed, I suspect, in the drafting of general secondary legislation. It will be a matter for consultation and for reasonableness, and I welcome the Minister's commitment to undertake to do that.

However, from our point of view, one vitally important element is still missing from the amendment. It does not lay on the Secretary of State any duty to make legal advice available at the centre. The Secretary of State "may" arrange for, the provision of facilities at an accommodation centre for the taking of steps in connection with the determination of claims for asylum". But it does not say that he "shall", and it does not say that he will make legal advice available for claimants.

Throughout, the Government have been concerned about speed, and I understand why. I have heard of cases of asylum seekers who have waited for a decision on their application for as long as 10 years. I shall not soon forget hearing Lord Taylor of Gosforth very shortly before he died describing the time-consuming character of listening to a litigant in person. Therefore, in terms of speed there are advantages in legal advice being available on site.

There are also advantages in terms of reasonableness, fairness and a level playing field between the Home Office and the applicant. The Home Secretary occasionally sounds as though he has a problem with what he describes as "ingenious" lawyers. One does not always feel certain that the adjective is intended as praise. Perhaps I may offer him a quotation from Mr Justice Megarry: As everybody who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; of unanswerable charges which, in the event, were completely answered; of inexplicable conduct which was fully explained; of fixed and unalterable determinations that, by discussion, suffered a change". It is perhaps, ultimately, not so very different from politics.

The earlier in the process that those matters are cleared up, the more quickly and more fairly the issue can be resolved. I believe that that is in the interest of both the Home Office and the applicant. It has been our opinion throughout that the major cause of delay in the asylum system is the poor quality of the initial decision-making: the insistence on an appropriate standard of proof; inaccurate information on the country concerned; or, occasionally, simply insufficient attention to the evidence provided.

All that can be put right more quickly if the applicant has access to legal advice at the earliest possible moment. That is most likely to produce a quick decision and a fair one. That is a point to which we on these Benches must return. However, with that single reservation, I welcome the Minister's amendment, I thank him for it and I am happy to accept it.

Baroness Whitaker

I rise in support of Amendment No. 97, but, following the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I simply want to ask my noble friend whether he will clarify one point. Incidentally, I apologise to my noble friend for having just missed the beginning of his introduction, but I am advised that he did not mention this point. Will he clarify that the legal advice which the Secretary of State may arrange for, if, indeed, that is what is meant in the amendment, should be independent? Will he also clarify that information should be made available to people in the accommodation centres as to what that advice should consist of and what their rights are?

The other document at which I am looking is the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, where we made it clear that we believed that people in accommodation centres should have independent legal advice and also information about their rights and where the legal advice was. Therefore, I hope that that can be positively clarified in my noble friend's response.

Lord Dholakia

Perhaps the Minister will answer one or two questions in his response. While I express our broad support for the amendment, the Minister talked about the provision for adjudicators and appeals. One area with which we are concerned is the relationship between the appeal mechanism and those who provide advice—in this instance, we are talking about bodies such as the Immigration Advisory Service, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the Refugee Council and the Refugee Legal Centre. All those bodies which provide on-the-spot advice will have to travel substantial distances for this purpose.

Do the Government understand that in many cases they are hand-to-mouth organisations, which depend on a substantial amount of charitable funds and, in some cases, government grants? Do they intend to ensure that such organisations are appropriately grant-aided in order to function effectively? That would not only be in the interests of the individual but in the interests of justice.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Hylton

When we consider this government amendment we need to keep a sense of proportion. We must remember that something like 2 to 3 per cent of all existing and future asylum cases will relate to people accommodated in accommodation centres. That will be the situation up until at least 2006. If Members of the Committee wonder why I think that those are the correct proportions, I refer them to the helpful notes produced by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that it will be just as important that the centres provide the highest quality first decisions. If we can achieve that high quality there will be fewer appeals and fewer cases referred for judicial review. Independent legal advice has been mentioned. I hope that the Government will reassure us that that will be fully provided and, in some cases, fully funded.

Another point arises from getting good quality first decisions; that is, the vital need for interpreters for those asylum seekers who do not have a command of English. As I may have said before, it will be important to ensure that the interpreters are capable of entering, in a sympathetic way, into the difficult situation which often faces an asylum seeker. I look forward to further government reassurance on at least two counts.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

Like all who have spoken, I welcome the Minister's proposals and the fact that it is now intended that adjudicators should be available at accommodation centres. Perhaps I may refer to a point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. If one is to have early and fair adjudications, it is equally important that the asylum seeker should have the opportunity of having available to him independent legal advice. The noble Earl suggested that at present that is not fully covered by the Bill. If it is not—I rather thought it was—can the Minister assure the Committee that he will also consider that matter? It seems to me that the success of this part of the Bill will depend on the ability to provide a system which will allow for adjudication as quickly and fairly as possible and, as a result, will lead to as few appeals as possible.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Some of the centres are likely to be in Scotland. Amendment No. 97 and paragraph 2 of Schedule 4, to which the amendment refers, explains that the Lord Chancellor will decide where and when adjudicators will sit. I have always understood that the Lord Chancellor's Writ does not run in Scotland. I wonder whether the amendment will need to be amended to take account of that fact or whether there will be a further amendment from the Government.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

I join the general welcome given to the government amendments by Members of the Committee and underline the critical importance of early and easy access to legal advice. The Minister will be aware that a number of the voluntary organisations which have been involved at Oakington from the start of the process had and still have access to give both legal and expert advice to those who are there as part of the process of dealing with asylum applications.

After the first few months of the opening of that centre, the voluntary agencies concerned in offering such advice were comfortable with the fact that in a high percentage of cases—I cannot remember the exact figure; it may be that my noble friend has that to hand—the initial advice offered had been subsequently upheld in the appeals process. That is a great tribute to the organisations involved at Oakington. It also raises another point, which is easy to overlook.

As far as I am aware—perhaps my noble friend will confirm this—nowhere in that process are the Government concerned with the provision of legal advice to those seeking asylum. That is traditionally left either to independent lawyers or, indeed, to voluntary and charitable agencies which specialise in that field. It is not a matter for the Government. The only responsibility—I believe that is the best word—resting on the Government as part of that process is to provide suitable accommodation for those willing to provide such advice at the premises in which those seeking asylum are to be found.

That is an extremely important point. Surely, the whole of the Bill is concerned with making the process more sensible, fairer and faster. Everyone then knows exactly where they are from start to finish and are then given leave to remain; granted refugee status; or told that they cannot stay here and, where safe to do so, returned to their country. The provision of early advice, which is easily accessible at the start of the process and throughout, is critical. I hope that my noble friend can confirm that that has been a success where practised at Oakington.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

It might be convenient at this point to state that I look forward to receiving the support of the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, and of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, when finally we reach Amendment No. 118 tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bridgeman. That amendment seeks to achieve exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, hopes for; that is, the provision of legal services on site at accommodation centres. The amendment appears in its proper place in Clause 26.

Lord Avebury

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question which has been running through my mind during the debate. He spoke about "trialling" the accommodation. Presumably he means that initially only a single accommodation centre will be built at which the Government will test the availability of all the facilities to see whether or not they work before they go on to spend hundreds of millions of pounds in rolling out the whole programme.

Can the Minister assure the Committee that the Government will not embark upon the whole programme until the first test has been fully undertaken and everyone can see how it works so that an awful lot of money is not wasted on providing facilities that may not be right for the purpose?

I sympathise with everything the Minister said when introducing this group of amendments. We certainly agree that on the whole it is best if the facilities can be provided either on site or in the immediate neighbourhood of the accommodation centres. However, let us first see how it works before we embark on an expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Earl Russell

Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. Her Amendment No. 118 is a good one and I welcome it. Its sits next to our Amendment No. 117, which says exactly the same thing. I would be happy with either of the amendments and am perfectly happy to leave the choice to the Minister.

Lord Filkin

I am deeply troubled to hear of this fraternisation taking place on the Opposition Benches, given the dire import for subsequent stages that it might imply. Seriously, I thank both Opposition Benches for their generally supportive comments and for the commonsense way in which they have responded to what we have said.

The first point concerns the Government's commonsense approach. If there is already an adjudication centre near an accommodation centre one would not want to be forced to build a new one. Clearly, that would be nonsense. The debate related to how far away it would be reasonable to have one. The short answer is that in the trials—we intend that there should be four pilots rather than the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred—the presumption is that there would be adjudication on site, unless there were very good reasons not to have it.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, answered the question as well as it could be answered. He signalled that these matters could not be specified further in terms of any roll-out of the programme, either in primary or secondary legislation. One would have to look at the experience of the early centres and see what was workable. The spirit of the matter is to try to speed up processing while retaining fairness. Therefore, one is trying to avoid either paper chases or people chases or adjudicators having to waste time. We are trying to maximise the amount of co-location as is sensibly possible.

We shall be referring to legal advice. Therefore, I shall not deal with it exhaustively at this point, except to mark that in general terms there are benefits in having independent legal advice available at all stages. The one area of difference is that the Government do not believe that it is essential for a legal adviser to be present at an initial interview. That is frequently the case, but we do not believe that the absence of a lawyer should inhibit the proceedings of the initial interview.

My noble friend Lady Whitaker and one or two other noble Lords raised the question of facilities. The noble Baroness asked about facilities on site. The Home Secretary, through the Bill and his powers, is providing facilities on site to enable interviews between an independent lawyer, or an independent voluntary organisation, and his client to take place in private—all the necessary facilities that support an independent judicial process, which is what a hearing before an adjudicator is.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about the appeal mechanism and how it will work in practice. The simplest way to illustrate that is if, as we intend, these centres contain 750 people, up to 1,000 to 1,500 initial considerations and a potentially near to that number of appeals could take place each year. Already that gives a picture. It starts to be efficient and potentially economic to bring other support facilities closer on site. It makes it easier to provide independent legal advice to asylum seekers, which is funded by the Legal Services Commission. It may make it easier for voluntary organisations to have a presence—not necessarily a permanent one but a supportive presence—on site.

However, we do not have a fixed view on that issue with regard to NGOs, the Refugee Council and the Immigration Advisory Service. We want to consider further and to look at the implications of how co-location of those functions can assist in the voluntary sector's contribution. We shall, as ever, be open to receiving its views and thoughts in that respect.

I was asked a good question by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. The Lord Chancellor's writ does not run to Scotland. As she knows, it is the Lord Advocate. I am told that we shall consider the point further and consider whether we need to make specific provision in respect of Scotland. I think that that counts as a half hit at least.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, marked, quite rightly, that initially this is a trial whereby we shall test whether what we believe to be sound policy and practice works well. In the early years most decisions will not be taken in accommodation centres; the existing processes will continue. I agree with the noble Lord on his central point that high-quality first decisions lead to fewer—I am not sure that they lead to fewer appeals but certainly they lead to fewer successful judicial reviews. There is evidence to support that. So I am with the spirit if not the full detail of his point.

The noble Lord made a point about the importance of interpretation on site. He spoke of the potential benefits in having decent sized accommodation centres with concentration by particular language groupings making the provision of interpretation facilities simpler. As he rightly said, it is crucial that people are advised both about the process and about their rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, spoke about early and fair adjudication. I strongly agree with him. In a sense that issue is not specifically covered by the Bill, although we shall debate the matter later as signposted by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

My noble friend Lord Corbett made similar points about the contribution of NGOs and of the benefit of legal advice. He spoke also of how well, by and large, despite initial concerns, the Oakington centre works. One cannot necessarily read across from Oakington to accommodation centres, but one should not believe that specialist bodies, organisations or facilities necessarily are against the interests of applicants. Clearly, they have led to faster decision-making at Oakington, which we hope will be one of the benefits of accommodation centres.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, remarked that there were four centres in the initial trial or pilot. He then asked about research evaluation. They will be evaluation-led by the research division of the Home Office. We have not yet finalised the detail of that. But it is likely to be ongoing action monitoring and research so that we try to learn the lessons relatively rapidly, rather than running them for two years, letting a university contract and then waiting for another two years at the end. For reasons which noble Lords will understand, that would be too slow. But we expect that there will be a thorough evaluation, which is objectively done. No doubt we shall have an opportunity at a subsequent stage to explore its findings.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.