HL Deb 07 October 2002 vol 639 cc12-21

3.7 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I shall offer a brief explanation of why we are proposing a slight change to the normal order of consideration of the Bill. As the House knows, the Government are tackling a complex and changing problem in terms of immigration and asylum. Over the summer events have taken place, requiring further action. We have identified further actions that we believe are necessary.

I apologise to the House for making these changes at this relatively late date, but we believe that it is important to use the Bill to take all necessary steps to address the challenge.

In practice the Motion moves Part 3 and Part 5 to later in the order of consideration, to give adequate time for the House to consider the amendments. I expect the final amendments to be tabled in the next day or so. This morning I wrote to all Peers seeking to set out a fuller explanation as to why we are doing this.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. The proposals in the Bill are of great interest to this House, to the other place and to the country at large. The Government ask us to approve what is called a "slight" change in the order by which the clauses will be considered. I believe it is more than "slight".

The first I heard of the matter was in an e-mail on Friday, just after the Government had cancelled my scheduled meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, in connection with the Bill. My colleagues on the Back Benches will not have had notice until today when they picked up the Order Paper. That is simply not good enough.

The Government have had a Recess of more than two months to get their act together and they have failed. The Government say in the note that was kindly circulated to Front-Benchers on Friday that,

The aim is to give the House a little longer to consider some of the significant issues contained in Parts III and V", to which the Minister has referred. Does that mean that the Government have agreed to extend Report stage beyond the three allotted days? If not, all the Government are saying today is that we can debate Parts 3 and 5 at a different time from that expected; in other words the third day, perhaps during the afternoon and evening rather than the early hours of the morning, pushing everything else on to Wednesday and Thursday. That will still leave parts of the Bill, which noble Lords believe are important, to be debated, we are told, in the middle of the night.

Just before the Recess the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House—whom I am always pleased to see in his place—talked to the House about the importance of changing our rules so that we finish by 10 o'clock. He said that the House was not at its best discussing amendments late at night. He is right. But that is exactly what the Government seem to be planning, not for minor technical adjustments but for fundamental changes. How long past 10 o'clock this Wednesday will we be expected to sit? The Government must already know this, since they must have decided it when they changed around the order of the clauses to be debated.

Before today, the Government had already added a significant number of amendments to the Report stage, including seven new clauses, two of which are significant and complex clauses, on British citizenship and juxtaposed controls. So the Government have been doing some work in the Recess, but not enough.

This morning I woke to my usual alarm call of Radio 4 news to learn that the Home Secretary intends to pile yet more new clauses into the Bill without prior warning to the House. The Home Secretary seems to prefer to tell The Times and the BBC how the Bill will be amended this week rather than telling Parliament, or indeed his own party at its conference last week. There was no sign of all this in his speech.

When will we see the clauses? We are told, "Soon". With such important changes, soon cannot be soon enough. We are told in the press that five significant new policies will be implemented by the new clauses. I shall refer only to two. That does not mean that I think that the others are any less important, but I am aware of the time. I do not want to hold your Lordships up for too long on something that is, after all, still a significant matter.

The Government tell us in the newspapers today that they will start accepting refugees through the United Nations High Commission of Refugees from 1st April next year. For the first time this will provide an external gateway for those fleeing persecution. That completely changes current approaches to processing of asylum claims. It is a totally and utterly different policy. We must ask whether people in Zimbabwe will qualify under this policy? If not, why not?"

I have the greatest respect for the UNHCR. I thank it for its briefing. I look forward to meeting it again in the future. But this measure appears to force us to surrender our own right to grant or to refuse certain applications for asylum. It creates a two-tier system. This has all the hallmarks of a panic measure to get the Home Secretary out of the hole he dug for himself in his chaotic handling of the asylum issue and his deal with Mr Sarcozy to persuade him to close Sangatte.

The second matter is the safe country list which the Government are now talking about introducing. The Minister will know that I have an amendment tabled for Report which uses that method to resolve the vexed issue of non-suspensive appeals. I cannot now see any reason why the Government will even think of rejecting my amendment. But we shall want to examine carefully the Government's proposals, when we are allowed to see them. But that is just what the Government seem determined to prevent—full discussion.

The Refugee Council's response to today's government press release is as follows: These measures are highly undemocratic given they will fundamentally change the legislation currently before Parliament with almost no opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, and have all the feel of a Government in a state of panic". I agree.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation. During the Summer Recess he was very generous with his time. We had a number of meetings. I think that he will agree that we were able to iron out many of the issues that were raised in Committee.

I share the concern expressed by the Official Opposition. There are a number of issues that we need to address. Two days before the Bill's Report stage we are faced with—I counted earlier this morning—33, maybe more, new amendments. None of those has had detailed scrutiny in Committee. More importantly, the other place has had no knowledge of what the Government intend to introduce. The amendments have not been scrutinised by the Joint Human Rights Committee or the Delegated Powers Committee. More importantly, they have not had the scrutiny of Labour Party members. If they had been introduced 10 days before the party conference, at least then we would have had their views on these measures.

There are some serious issues of concern here. One of the amendments is designed to deal with the "liability to detention" interpretation. My first concern is that the Government cannot even await the Oakington judgment. The case has been heard by the House of Lords, but it has yet to give its decision. One of the government amendments pre-empts its decision. That cannot be right. Why are the amendments so late in the day? Surely it would have been easier and better if the proper process of consultation had taken place, not only in terms of past help but also with some of the key agencies, including the UNHCR. At least we could have agreed on some common ground on the basis of which we could have proceeded further.

I further quote from the statement which has just been issued by the Refugee Council. Its concern can be summed up. It states: We cannot understand how a Government that repealed the 1996 Conservative legislation that resulted in thousands left destitute, living on the streets and relying on soup kitchens and charity, can now reintroduce similar policies by the backdoor without consultation". That causes a considerable problem. I do not believe that within the three days allocated to the Bill it is possible to deal in a substantive way with some of the Government's amendments.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I should very much like to support warmly the indictment that my noble friend presented—she has not had much time to put it together—about the Government's cavalier treatment of the House in their handling of the Bill. I do not suppose that it is very much good my asking any particular questions of the Minister. There seems to be one overriding and much more important question, which perhaps the Leader of the House could deal with. That is, what on earth is the point of proceeding—as I imagine the Government intend—with proposals to make this House more efficient, and then to produce this kind of cavalier, sloppy and slovenly procedure which makes a mess of them? This is no part of the Opposition's handling of the Bill. This is just the Government not knowing how they ought to behave.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I understand that government is like facing fast bowling with both ends bowling at once. I therefore resolved, when I had been here about a month, that I would never object to the ordering of government business simply for my own convenience. I believe myself to have lived up to that; at least I hope so. But we are not dealing simply with our own convenience. We are dealing with the lives and liberties, and perhaps worth, of many innocent people.

The measures announced today in The Times amount practically to a new Bill. Perhaps I may express the hope that these measures, which are of considerable importance, will not be taken in what Sherlock Holmes would have described as the hours of darkness in which the powers of the executive are exalted.

I was also somewhat disconcerted to observe the Home Secretary using the words, "We will amend the Bill". I thought that was a matter for Parliament. Will the Minister confirm that Parliament is not yet redundant?

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, as a Back-Bencher involved in the Bill, the first I heard of these changes was when I picked up the Order Paper this afternoon. I am now told that I must consider matters which I have not yet seen beginning the day after tomorrow. Does the Minister accept that this simply is not democratic? This Bill is about many people who want to come and live in this country because they believe it to be deeply democratic. Will the Government consider not taking the measures under Report stage rules? The way in which we discuss matters on Report is that each person may speak only once; the person proposing the amendment speaks first and at the end the Government speak once. That is not a debate. People should know that it is assumed on Report that we have already discussed the matter in Committee. But the Government do not seem to be interested in democracy. That is deeply worrying—even more worrying than is what they may do with the Bill. Will the Minister tell us whether that is really considered to be democratic?

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I agree with noble Lords on the Conservative Benches. Not only are we being denied the right to discuss matters properly, as we can in Committee; we have been denied the right to a Second Reading debate on them. That practice has previously been unheard of unless there has been an emergency. Those matters should be carefully considered. I declare my interest as a member of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, which at present is in a shambles because no one knows what will happen. We are extremely concerned about the process and I should be most grateful if the Minister would reconsider.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I, too, am concerned about some aspects of the Government's policy on the matter but, in at least one respect, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has not got it right. We as a country have in the past had schemes under the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for people to come here as asylum seekers or refugees—in particular, the Bosnians, who came under a scheme agreed with the UNHCR. So that suggestion is not new; it is simply another instalment of the policy that was sensibly introduced some years ago by the government supported by the noble Baroness.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to the Motion. I especially regret not having had the pleasure of meeting the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on Friday, as we had planned, but at that point I was not able to give her a definitive answer and I did not want to waste her time. That is why I had hoped that we could speak on the telephone today, but that was not possible, for reasons that I fully understand.

With regard to the question of whether Report will take three or four days, as the noble Baroness implied, that is clearly a matter for the usual channels. She is right to say that changes are proposed. Some of those are the result of the Government listening to what was said from the Opposition Benches in Committee; no doubt those will become apparent later. In other respects, the changes are proposed because the Government think that the situation demands them. No one with any sense wants to introduce late amendments to a Bill, but neither would any Government with any sense who believed that circumstances required it avoid trying to get a Bill that is before Parliament into a form that they thought right and appropriate. That is what we are doing.

With regard to the good question of when the amendments will be tabled, as ever, I should be happier if I had a copper-bottomed guarantee, but I am told that we shall do our utmost to table them tomorrow. If we cannot, we expect to table them on Wednesday.

With regard to the debate about the UNHCR, as those who participated in Committee will recall, the Bill already gives power to open up such a resettlement programme. We debated that. What my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced was when he would introduce the first live part of such a resettlement programme—a more rational and sensible measure towards which we believe it is extremely important to start to move.

With regard to our meetings with the French, they have been extremely co-operative about working with us to implement a system of juxtaposed control—which is why there is a measure in the Bill to that effect—which will make it increasingly possible to obtain their support and co-operation to stem the flow of illegal migration. I noted with interest what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned to me at the beginning of last week about the Conservative proposal for a safe country list; we look forward to discovering to what extent we are at one on that issue.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his generous comment recognising the amount of time that the Government spent in discussion with opposition Peers over the summer. It was a pleasure to do so, because we are obliged to try to answer all questions raised in Committee. We sought to do that both face to face and by sending more than 100 letters to Members of the House about the queries raised during Committee.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I simply want to ask a question of fact. Is it impossible at this stage to revert to Committee to deal with the new business and to defer Report?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the House will know its procedures as well, if not better, than I in that respect. Such a process would in practice destroy the Bill, and that is not in the interest of good government or of the proper consideration of the House.

Earl Russell

My Lords, what the noble Baroness proposes was done in the case of the recommittal of the Jobseekers Bill and did not destroy that Bill.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I suggest that such matters are normally discussed between the usual channels.

I stress that the Government are not acting lightly, flippantly or frivolously. Events over the summer have revealed significant abuses of our asylum system. In addition, the Government believe that we must—and have been working extremely hard over the summer to do so—bring before the House on Report the Bill that we think right. That is why, on this Bill as on many previous Bills, the Government have tabled amendments on Report. We have a duty to democracy and to the public to act in that way.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, why cannot the amendments to the Bill be introduced early in the new Session, rather than now?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I should have thought that my noble friend would know the answer to that question. That would delay action that is urgently needed now for about nine months.

As an illustration—although I regret being in danger of being drawn into the substance of the issue rather than the process—during the summer we received a considerable number of asylum applications from people from countries which on all the evidence we believe to be perfectly safe. The number of such applications has been a considerable source of embarrassment to the source countries, but we are obliged to deal with those applicants in the system and, if they demand it, give them support. The Bill sets out what we consider to be balanced and reasonable proposals to deal with that. We think that the House should have an adequate opportunity—hence the proposal to change the order of consideration—to consider those proposals.

Turning, if I may, to other questions that were raised, it is clearly not every year that we have a Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill—at least, one hopes not. It is therefore important to use the measure while it is before the House. Clearly, the House, or Parliament, is sovereign in those respects. While we intend to and will table amendments, Parliament will decide what it thinks is right. I clearly expect and hope that Parliament will lend its support to what we think are good and right actions.

To address the remarks of the noble Countess, Lady Mar—as, in a sense, I already have—about issues on Second Reading, Bills change as they proceed and governments therefore introduce amendments at this stage.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, that is precisely why I asked that if entirely new clauses are to be inserted into the Bill we should be allowed to take them through the whole process. It is unfair to people outside for us to be bulldozed into having a Report stage only on entirely new amendments.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, although these are issues for the usual channels, I should hope that the House will have adequate time—and, I hope, not at too unseasonal an hour—to consider the new government amendments.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance here and now that the new amendments are consistent with the principle of the Bill? Surely, that is the point that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, was making.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I can give that assurance strongly and clearly. The amendments are consistent with the principle that we set out at the beginning in the White Paper published in January. We shall continue to give four-square commitment to meeting our responsibilities under the Geneva Convention to defend people who are subject to political persecution. At the same time, we shall balance that by trying to develop economic migration, while recognising that many people, for understandable reasons, seek to use asylum as a means of economic migration.

The aim of the Government, the aim of the White Paper and the aim of the amendments is to ensure that we stand four-square with those issues and do not confuse them. We shall be resolute in their achievement.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I must, first of all, say to the Minister that he did not answer the question about whether the Select Committee on Human Rights would have the opportunity to consider the new clauses. Secondly, I must say that, when we see the amendments—tomorrow or whenever it turns out to be—we shall need to consider whether to press for recommitment in respect of the new clauses that are being inserted into the Bill. It is being described—I say this provisionally, as none of us knows exactly what is in the new clauses—as a wholly new Bill.

We do not wish to hold up the existing Bill; we are suggesting that the House should examine properly the new clauses and new principles that are being inserted into the Bill. That is all the more important when we consider that, were the clauses to be inserted after any process or set of processes in this House, the only opportunity for the other place to examine them would be when it came to consider Lords amendments—that is to say, one brief debate. Under that House's new timetable arrangements, that represents an extremely brief opportunity to consider the new principles that are being inserted.

Lord Roper

My Lords, we on these Benches will not oppose today's Motion because the new amendments come towards the end of the Bill. However, like the Official Opposition Front Bench, we must consider carefully whether it would be appropriate to put down a Motion for the recommittment of the parts of the Bill to which the amendments relate. The amendments introduce new matters and require proper consideration. It would be in the interests of the House for that to be agreed to through the usual channels.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, as is so often the case, I am grateful to both Opposition Chief Whips and am particularly grateful for the commitment given by the noble Lord, Lord Roper, that his party would not oppose the Motion at this point but would consider the matter. That was also the thrust of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley.

We will consider the issue of the involvement of the Select Committee carefully, but, essentially, the issues are for discussion and consideration by the usual channels. Those discussions will, of course, take place.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, the Minister cannot get away this afternoon with hiding behind the curtain of the usual channels and saying that he cannot discuss the possibility of recommitting the Bill. We understand that he cannot answer for the usual channels, but we ought to hear something from either the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House or the Chief Whip about the possibility of recommitting the clauses. That is an important point about our consideration.

As the Clerks will, no doubt, tell us, there are many examples of occasions on which the parliamentary consideration of a Bill has been put back one step because important new issues, which—to answer the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy—are consistent with the principle of the Bill, have been parachuted in. I can remember one off the top of my head. In the late 1970s, in another place, Lord Peart, a former Minister of Agriculture, introduced some new clauses into an agriculture Bill. They were consistent with the Bill but gave rise to entirely new principles. We made exactly the sort of fuss that noble Lords have made this afternoon. As a result, the usual channels in another place agreed at the Committee stage that we would have a day to give the new clauses a Second Reading and discuss them properly. There must be many other examples of occasions on which a government have been prepared to go back a step when important new principles have been announced.

I hope that either we will now hear the two business managers in your Lordships' House say that they will consider seriously the recommitment of the clauses or that they will announce this afternoon that they will grant us an opportunity to do that.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has explained very well—I hope, to the House's satisfaction—the reason why it was necessary to table the amendments on Report. It is by no means unprecedented for governments or anyone else to propose new clauses on Report. That is one of the reasons why we have Report stage.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that, when we have a fast-moving situation, it is appropriate that we, as one of the two Houses of Parliament, should be the lead Chamber in considering matters relating to any relevant legislation that is passing through Parliament, if that is the stage that the legislation has reached. I am sure that no one has any doubt that the House will properly consider the amendments, by whatever means are deemed to be fair and satisfactory. I have not the slightest doubt about that. We have a splendid reputation for doing that for all legislation and especially for legislation, such as this, which affects human rights, among other things.

I have had the pleasure of seeing the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, in operation in a senior capacity in another place, and I am sure that he knows that negotiations about precise procedures would not take place at the Dispatch Box. It is fair and reasonable to ask the House to accept that the usual channels—we heard from three of them today—should consider what the House has said and discuss the matter in the normal way. I hope that, in the meantime, the House will accept my noble friend's proposal.

On Question, Motion agreed to.