HL Deb 07 February 2005 vol 669 cc540-2

2.45 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to renegotiate or opt out of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the answer is no. We have no plans to withdraw from or renegotiate the 1951 refugee convention. It is part of the legal and ethical framework that enshrines basic principles of human decency through which all countries meet their obligations. A better and more realistic way of addressing today's protection issues is to adopt effective domestic asylum procedures and to work with other governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno

My Lords, I am relieved by and appreciate the Minister's reply. Bearing in mind the Statement to be made later this afternoon, may we have the Government's wholehearted commitment to upholding our place in the 1951 convention, which was approved at the time by all parties in this House and was introduced and ratified on 11 March 1954 by Sir Winston Churchill's Conservative government?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, bearing in mind the Statement to be made later this afternoon, I have to ask the noble Lord to wait for that Statement. The Home Secretary has a Statement that will be repeated in this House, so we shall have plenty of time to question it.

The broad answer to the noble Lord's question is yes, but I add something that people do not always accept: the 1951 convention is not open-ended, as anyone who reads Articles 1F and 33.2, both debated at length in this House, will see. People get the wrong impression about it. But we have no plans to renegotiate or opt-out.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the Minister agree that on the eve of the previous general election, weeks before the 50th anniversary of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, the Prime Minister wrote in the Times that he would make reform of the convention a priority, should the Labour Party win the election? Will the Minister set out what aspects of the convention the Government have sought to reform since the 2001 general election?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we have accepted that there are problems with the convention and the language in which it is written.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

No, my Lords, we have accepted that. That has nothing to do with the dates. The noble Baroness's party would withdraw from the convention, as has recently been made clear. We have no plans for that. We are seeking to tackle how the convention can be abused. We have a record of legislative change in the past four years, with others possibly to be announced today, to bring that about: to stop the abuse of the convention, not to opt out of it.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, when he gives that immensely reassuring answer on our commitment to the convention, we should all remember that in our serious commitment to spreading democracy and human rights throughout world, how we perform toward the victims of tyranny is one way by which we shall be judged?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, has the Minister worked out the implications of the Opposition's statement about withdrawal from the UN Convention on Refugees for our European partners and the European Court?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords, I have not and I do not think that the Government have. It is for the Opposition to work that out.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that my noble friend asked him a question? He did not give an answer. What exactly did the Prime Minister do to fulfil his undertaking in the article in the Times just before the previous election? He must surely have an answer in his briefing.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I answered the question perfectly satisfactorily. I made it clear that, although the language of the convention is old, drafted a long time ago for a different period and, as I said, is not open-ended—although when one raises that, one may still be attacked for it—the problem from which we were suffering in this country was abuse of the convention. That is why we have sought, sometimes with the co-operation of our European partners and other countries, to close the loopholes and end the abuse of the convention.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister remind the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that the UNHCR itself initiated a two-year consultation on the interpretation of the convention, which was extremely productive and led to widespread agreement among all signatory states?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords, but we have also accepted that the convention itself, in some ways because of its age, cannot cope with all today's problems. We must deal with them in other ways, as we have sought to do. We have developed plans with the UN High Commissioner and our European partners because, by and large, although it is not the case with everybody, in order to arrive in the United Kingdom, people by definition have travelled through safe countries. That issue must be, and is being, addressed.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, will the Minister now answer my noble friend and say what the Prime Minister has done?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, he has promoted, guided and led umpteen legislative changes, which have cut by over a half the number of those reaching this country and claiming asylum.

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