HL Deb 18 February 2003 vol 644 cc1021-4

3.9 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the monthly number of applications for asylum in the United Kingdom is something for which the United Kingdom Government can properly be held accountable.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United Kingdom is a result of a number of factors, including government policy. We are determined to reduce the number of unfounded asylum applications. The measures we introduced in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and the subsequent robust measures to ensure the integrity of our borders are testament to that.

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister to comment on two alternative propositions. Does he agree that the main determinant of the number of asylum seekers is conditions in the refugee-producing countries? Is he aware that the most rapid increase in asylum applications was between 1989 and 1991 when it amounted to 400 per cent? Therefore, is not an interpretation which risks describing the fall of the Iron Curtain as a case of Home Office inefficiency necessarily defective? If the Minister is talking of deterring, can he give the House any evidence whatever that the contents of the asylum Acts from 1991 to 2002 are known in any of the refugee-producing countries?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as regards the first question asked by the noble Earl, as a government we accept that the refugee-producing countries are the major determinant of who visits our shores. As to the second question, our Government make every effort to ensure that measures we put into legislation which seek to explain what we are about are broadly known. Through our embassies and delegations we ensure that that information is widely disseminated.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that 18 months after the present Home Secretary came into office the number of asylum seekers has reached record levels; that no accommodation centre has received planning permission; that there is no sign of a bilateral agreement with France over asylum seekers, and that the evidence that terrorists are abusing the system is there for all to see?

On the last point, will the Government now take firm steps to enter a reservation under Article 3 of the ECHR to allow the UK to deport foreigners who threaten national security, an idea apparently first trailed by the Prime Minister on 26th January in "Breakfast with Frost- but first advocated more than a year ago by my right honourable friend Mr Oliver Letwin?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am interested in the noble Viscount's response to my initial comments. We have only just enacted the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act. Accommodation centres were enabled by that legislation. It is the case that we are actively pursuing the question of accommodation centres in a number of places across the country. It is also the case that that will have to go through proper planning procedures. I would expect the noble Viscount to agree that that should be the case, not least because a number of residents in a number of those authority areas have objected to the location of accommodation centres.

As regards the other points raised by the noble Viscount, as a government we are endeavouring to ensure that we have in place robust measures. We have put in place a number of new pieces of legislation and instruments. For instance, we now have juxtaposed controls. We have a system which enables us to detect potential breaches of our control over people coming into this country. We have taken steps with the French to close abuses such as those that were being visited through Sangatte. We have also ensured that we now have a strategy which enables us to prevent people coming in through the use of visas. We are putting in place robust measures, and we look to the noble Viscount and the party opposite for their support.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the system was brought into disrepute last week when a woman who has lived in this country for nearly 50 years was threatened with deportation to the United States? That woman lives in Suffolk and has never travelled out of this country. By contrast, The Times today reports that three members of the Taliban, including one militiaman, who paid £9,000 to people smugglers to come to this country, are being offered political asylum.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the first case referred to by the noble Lord is now well known. I believe all Members of your Lordships' House will welcome the fact that the Minister gave a full apology to the woman, which is quite right. I am sure that everyone would agree that it was an appalling case. Yes, there are always difficulties when applicants make a case for asylum. We have to go through due process. I have been confronted many times at this Dispatch Box, as have other Ministers, by noble Lords obliging us and forcing us to go through due process, to ensure that we do so. It is right that we do that, even though there are difficult cases.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House the stage reached in the discussions started by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees concerning plans to deal with asylum applications in the region in which asylum seekers arrive?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, discussions and negotiations in that regard are ongoing. I cannot give the noble Lord up-to-date information. However, I shall endeavour to write to him advising him of the stage reached in those discussions and negotiations

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, the policy of the Conservative Party in relation to Article 3 of the European convention is to deport asylum seekers back to countries where they are likely to be tortured. Does the noble Lord regard that as acceptable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course we do not regard that as acceptable. We must take a balanced approach. That is exactly the way the Government have proceeded throughout. We want to be fair in the application of legislation and in the operation of protocols and international agreements. However, we must ensure that our system has integrity. That is why we have taken the legislative steps we have.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, is there not a simple answer to the proposition advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in his Question? Have not a significant number of people who apply for asylum here come across the Channel from France? Is it not plain from the fact that they come here from France that they must be either genuine refugees who failed to make their claim for asylum in France or people who have no claim to refugee status? Does it not follow, therefore, that the Government are accountable for the number of asylum applications because they could take steps to try to discourage such people from coming here?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought I made plain that we had been doing exactly that. I am grateful to the noble Lord for assisting me in my Answer.