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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you had a request from any Minister to make a statement about the agreement by the Council of Ministers to approve the working time directive that involves the 48-hour week provision? Is not the matter desperately important, given the conflicting advice from Brussels and Whitehall in regard to whether the directive will have the force of law while the Government are contemplating an appeal to the European Court? Should not a statement be made?

Madam Speaker : I have received no such request. No doubt Ministers have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to raise what I consider to be a gross breach of the conventions of the House ; I think that you may agree. I have given notice to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) of my intention to raise the matter.

A constituent of mine, Susan May, was convicted of murder on 5 May. She has written from Risley prison--an action group formed only two weeks ago has written as well--to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth, who has a certain reputation--some would say, notoriety--for his interest in the more lurid happenings in the Oldham area, which includes his constituency.

Madam Speaker : Order. Points of order must be addressed to me, and should not be colourful or elaborate.

Mr. Davies : It is a convention, Madam Speaker, for us regularly to forward letters addressed from neighbouring constituencies to the hon. Members concerned. On this occasion, far from forwarding the letters that he had received to me--and despite having announced to the local press that he had done so--the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth has said that he is taking an interest in the case, and will discuss it with the Attorney-General. The Susan May action group has subsequently met me and put me in the picture, and Susan May's solicitors have submitted an appeal.

I ask you, Madam Speaker, to reinforce the conventions of the House, to ensure that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth does not interfere in my constituency cases or those of any other hon. Member ; that he forwards to me the representations that he has received from my constituents ; and that he bears in mind that he is singularly ill placed to take up the interests of anyone convicted of murder, given that he regularly professes to be in favour of capital punishment.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I did make a statement in the local paper, because I had received a number of letters about the case. I referred all my correspondents to their Member of Parliament, suggesting that they bring the matter to his attention. It was only when I had gone home for the recess that I found a letter from the prisoner herself--a cry for help, asking me to take an interest in her case.

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The House has only just reassembled, and I have not had a chance to discuss the matter with the prisoner's Member of Parliament. He has acknowledged receipt of a letter that I sent to the prisoner, and placed on the Board today. He will understand the details. I do not think that you should have been bothered with the matter, Madam Speaker ; it is so petty. Here is someone in prison, convicted of murder ; meanwhile, the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) is making petty points about that person in the House of Commons.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker : Order. Let me deal with that point of order. That is not a matter for the Speaker of this House. However, the convention is that hon. Members do not act on behalf of another Member's constituents in personal cases. It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding about whether or not letters have been forwarded, or received. That is not, as I have said, a matter for me, and it cannot be resolved on the Floor of the House. I hope that both hon. Members can agree between themselves how this matter is to be pursued.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) : On an entirely different point of order, Madam Speaker. Would it be possible, even at this very late stage, to table an amendment to the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill to prevent the purchase of political parties by trade unions? I need your advice, in the light of the remarks of John Edmonds today that we --

Madam Speaker : Order. I can help the hon. Gentleman immediately. I do not give procedural advice across the Floor of the House. If he comes to see me later, I shall do my best to advise him.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have here a booklet that describes the procedure to be followed by Ministers over the acceptance of presents. The advice that they are given is that they should not accept presents, as Ministers should be under no obligation. Would it be possible for hon. Members to submit questions to the Table Office regarding the representations made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, regarding Mr. Nadir who, as you know, has fled justice?

Would it be possible for hon. Members to find out from questions, which I hope could be tabled, why the Secretary of State and the Minister of State made representations about someone who is not one of their constituents? In addition, what proceedings could we take to find out whether anything has taken place which should not have taken place?

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman has put to me a most convoluted point of order, but again it is a question of procedure. If the hon. Gentleman wants advice about procedure, he ought to go and see the authorities of the House, or come and see me, as I advised earlier. I am not prepared to give advice on matters of procedure across the Floor of the House.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you could give me some advice on what to do when Ministers state that they cannot answer a question, on the grounds of disproportionate

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cost? I asked a specific question about the cost over the next 20 years of the commitment to public sector pensions for civil servants and others. I have been told that the unfunded liability, which does not appear anywhere in Government accounts, is £170 billion. I wanted that figure to be broken down for me on an annualised basis. When one is considering £170 billion of public expenditure, it would surely not be disproportionately costly to be provided with the details of that expenditure.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman is arguing about the decision of a Minister. I am certainly not going to discuss such a decision. It is for Ministers to argue for themselves. Perhaps it is because I am looking so fresh after my holidays that there are so many points of order today.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A few moments ago you said that it was not a matter for you but that it was a convention of the House that Members of Parliament did not take up cases in somebody else's constituency. Will you, then, help us to explain to our constituents how it comes about that not just a Back Bencher but a Minister of the Crown--the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office--was able to take up the case of Asil Nadir, who was not one of his constituents?

Would it not make a lot of sense if he were to come to the House, along with the President of the Board of Trade, to explain the precise relationship between Asil Nadir and the Tory party and the representations that have been made on his behalf?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, find some parliamentary method by means of which he can tease out those matters.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), Madam Speaker. As the Latin quotation--

Madam Speaker : Order. That point of order has been dealt with. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to raise a different point of order.

Mr. Jessel : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I was going to say--

Madam Speaker : Order. I will not take any further points of order on that matter. Does the hon. Gentleman have a fresh point of order for me?

Mr. Jessel : I wanted to say that as the Latin quotation "Non illegitimis carborundum" means "Don't let the bastards grind you down", not "Don't let the buggers get you down"--

Madam Speaker : Order. A little merriment on our first day back is in order, but the hon. Gentleman is going over the top.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Can I raise a serious matter? During the recess, I sent approximately 250 letters from my constituency office to my constituents, quoting a statement made at the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State for Social Security on 19 May in the debate on automated credit transfer and post offices. He said :

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"All small post offices are currently paid a fixed sum, regardless of volume, so people switching to ACT will make little difference to the amount of remuneration they receive."--[ Official Report, 19 May 1993 ; Vol. 225, c. 259.]

The problem is that postmistresses in my constituency are challenging that statement, with the result that I--or Parliament, as I am sure that it will apply to many of my hon. Friends--am faced with the expense of sending a further 250 letters to the same constituents to explain that the Secretary of State made a mistake. I cannot say that he deliberately misled the House, but it is for my hon. Friends and the House to decide for themselves what was the intention behind the Secretary of State's statement.

Can you advise us, Madam Speaker? Should I, as a Member of Parliament, be required to correct the record of a statement made by a Minister which, if not deliberately, misled Parliament and meant that I misunderstood? To what extent is it a question of contempt?

Madam Speaker : If it is a question of contempt, the hon. Gentleman should have written to me instead of raising it in this way. It is for all hon. Members to do their best to ensure that their constituents are kept fully informed. If the hon. Gentleman has to send another letter, it is up to him to do so. He is responsible for keeping his constituents informed when they have a particular interest in a matter such as that which he has raised.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I have some sympathy with the difficulties expressed by my hon. Friend, and I am corresponding with the Minister about this matter. Would it not be useful if the record were put straight and a proper explanation given in Hansard, so that at least the issue of replying could be simplified by the circulation of the amended version?

Madam Speaker : As the hon. Gentleman knows, some member of the Treasury Bench may take up his suggestion but, at this stage, there is nothing further I can do. I have had no request for such a statement to be made.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Order. I have dealt with the matter to the best of my ability. The hon. Member from the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), was particularly helpful.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I am sorry, but Parliament is now required to correct the record as a result of the Minister's statement. I am asking perhaps for a ruling from you on whether it is a Minister's responsibility to have the record corrected rather than mine, as an individual Member of Parliament, using the House's resources.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I think that it probably behoved the hon. Gentleman to inform me that he intended to raise the point of order and to take advantage of the fact that he asked the first question on this subject at Question Time, which he did not do. It also behoved the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) not to reinforce a point which is misleading the House. If the hon. Gentleman reads column 260, the very next column to that which he quoted to his constituents, he will

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see that I said--I was speaking from memory-- that 2,700 post offices were subject to that arrangement. I can now confirm to the House that the exact number is 2,696. It seems to me that the matter is clear in Hansard. He is deliberately misleading his constituents. He should withdraw his comments and send 250 letters of apology.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We have now heard three hon. Members casting serious aspersions against my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). Would you confirm that Ministers are free to make their views known about constituency matters and about issues raised by constituents to other Ministers? That is confirmed in the questions of procedure for Ministers which was issued by the Cabinet Office in May last year. It is clear from that document that my hon. Friend has done nothing wrong. Opposition Members should withdraw their accusations.

Madam Speaker : If the hon. Gentleman is confirming that point, he should not seek confirmation from me.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm--

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker : Order. Hon. Gentleman should not be so intolerant. Many are rising to make points of order. Hon. Members should be patient and wait their time.

Mr. Grocott : Can you confirm briefly that, not for the first time, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has got things hopelessly wrong? The crucial issue is hon. Members looking after the interests of their own constituents. Can you confirm from the Chair--this would be very helpful--that all the representations made on behalf of Mr. Nadir by the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office and by the President of the Board of Trade were not representations made on behalf of their own constituents?

Would it therefore be your guidance to those right hon. and hon. Members that, if they ever make similar representations in future, and on the basis of those already made--

Madam Speaker : Order. I have no intention of making any comments on individual cases that are raised in this manner. It is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Grocott : I think it is.

Madam Speaker : Order. With respect, it is not a point of order for me. No hon. Member should expect me to comment across the Floor of the House on such an individual situation. It is not a point of order.

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It might be helpful to Conservative Members for Opposition Members, when they catch your eye, to tell us whether their allegiance is to the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) or to John Edmonds, the leader of the Labour party in the country.

Madam Speaker : Order. Hilarity is one thing, but this is an abuse of the time of the House.

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Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any requests from the President of the Board of Trade to make a statement on the circumstances in which pits were closed last week, especially in relation to the home security of miners made redundant? Many of those miners have mortgages and the terms of their mortgage policies give no mortgage protection if they are made voluntarily rather than compulsorily redundant.

Has the President of the Board of Trade asked you for permission to come before this House to explain what steps the Government will take to ensure that at least the homes of the miners who have forcibly been made redundant by British Coal will be protected? As things stand, those miners will lose their homes as well as their jobs, because British Coal insists on calling the redundancies voluntary, when the whole world knows that they are compulsory.

Madam Speaker : I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that no Minister asks me for permission to make a statement. He informs me that he wishes to make a statement. I have no authority in the matter. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have had no such information.

We now come to the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am most grateful to you. You will know that I was in correspondence with you over the recess on two matters connected with today's proceedings.

First, would it be possible in your view for the Minister during the course of the day to explain why no new immigration rules on asylum or immigration appeal procedure rules are available for today's debate? I checked at the Vote Office a few minutes ago and it confirmed that both instruments are not available. They are extremely important in terms of interpreting the effects of the legislation that we are debating this afternoon.

The second matter concerns the opportunity that the Minister will have today to inform the House about the outcome of the meeting of European Community Immigration Ministers in Copenhagen last week. You will know from our correspondence, Madam Speaker, that it was reported that important decisions with a direct bearing on the substance of this afternoon's debate were taken at that meeting. I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me today on the matter. He confirms in his letter that

"agreement was reached on, amongst other matters, Resolution on guidelines regarding the admission of particularly vulnerable groups of persons from the former Yugoslavia, and on the harmonisation of national policies on family reunification."

Those matters are of literally life-and-death importance. I believe that, rather than the information being given in a letter to me, the Minister should be given an opportunity as early as possible this afternoon to report to the House on the decisions to which he was party last week in Copenhagen. The decisions have important implications for the many people who are settled in this country who are either applying for refugee status or who have refugee status and who wish to have their immediate relatives join them in this country.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The House is to discuss an important matter, but half the documentation

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that we need to discuss the matter properly is missing and is not available to hon. Members. I refer to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) in respect of the rules of procedure relating both to asylum and to immigration appeals. Without those documents, we shall be conducting half a debate this afternoon.

Even at this late stage, is it possible to request that those documents--if available--should be made available to hon. Members ?

Madam Speaker : Whether the documents relate to today's debate is a matter of opinion. We shall be debating not the Bill, which has already been debated, but Lords amendments proposed to it. Therefore, it is a matter of opinion for hon. Members and Ministers whether the documents to which the hon. Gentleman refers are necessary for our debate.

In saying that, I think that I also respond to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). As the hon. Gentleman understands, this is not a general debate on immigration matters. I understand the hon. Gentleman's deep concern, however. Provided that Back Benchers and Front Benches alike remain within the terms of the amendments before us, the Minister can give the House whatever information he wishes. Perhaps we may now come to the amendments.

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Orders of the Day

Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Before clause 3

Lords amendment : No. 1, insert the following new clause-- Young unaccompanied asylum seekers --

" (.--(1) The Secretary of State shall by order establish an advisory panel for the purpose of making advice available to a child who has arrived in the United Kingdom unaccompanied by an adult person capable of looking after him.

(2) The members of such advisory panel shall be appointed from time to time in accordance with the provisions of section (Appointment and functions of advisory panel) below and shall have the functions therein described.

(3) A member of such advisory panel is referred to as an asylum-seekers adviser.

(4) Where a child unaccompanied by an adult person capable of looking after him arrives in the United Kingdom and is, or appears to an immigration officer to be, under the age of 18 years and such child has made, or may reasonably be considered as desiring to make, a claim for asylum, the immigration officer shall notify the advisory panel with a view to the child being forthwith referred to an appropriate asylum-seekers adviser for the purpose of carrying out the functions described in section (Appointment and functions of advisory panel) below.)."

3.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Speaker : With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Lords amendment No. 2 and the Government motion to disagree, and Lords amendment No. 12 and the Government motion to disagree. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 involve privilege.

Mr. Wardle : Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would place on my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary a statutory duty to establish a panel of advisers whose function would be to befriend and advise asylum seekers under the age of 16 who arrive in this country unaccompanied by an adult.

The House will be aware that the amendments were passed on Report in the other place and reflect the widely felt and understandable concern that we should be seen to be doing all we can to protect the interests and welfare of unaccompanied child asylum seekers. The Government understand, respect and share that concern.

Our decision not to accept the two amendments is not based on any lack of sympathy for unaccompanied children arriving in this country. As I shall show shortly, we intend to meet in a very practical manner the spirit and purpose of the proposals by Lord Brightman, who moved the amendments in another place. Let me take this early opportunity to thank the noble Lord and commend him for his courteous advice and helpful guidance on such matters.

I should also make it clear that our decision is not based on questions of cost. The amendments would create a charge on public funds and, if this House disagrees with the amendments, the formal reason which will have to be given is that they infringe the privileges of this House.

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However, as I will show shortly, the Government are prepared to provide resources to help meet the needs of those children in what we believe is a more appropriate way. Therefore, cost is not the issue. The Government are as determined as anyone to see that the immigration status of such children is resolved with the minimum of delay and stress, and that the proper arrangements are made for their care, accommodation, health and education needs. The real point of difference between the Government's approach and the approach adopted in the amendments is that we do not believe that the creation of a statutory panel of advisers is the best way to protect the interests of this group of children.

I will refer in a moment to our own view of how that should be achieved, but first I want to explain why we do not believe that including a statutory requirement in the Bill for the creation of a panel of advisers and the assignment of an adviser to every asylum-seeking child is either necessary or desirable.

The amendments envisage that the adviser would give advice to the young asylum seeker on immigration matters and on a range of welfare issues, including accommodation, health and education. Dealing first with immigration matters, there may be a belief that, without an adviser to protect their interests, unaccompanied children are at risk of being sent to countries where they may be in danger of persecution or where there is no one to look after them.

I can assure the House that any such fears are misplaced and unfounded. In the first place, the 1951 convention on refugees applies to children in exactly the same way that it applies to adults. The strict issue to be resolved in determining a claim for asylum is the same for a child as it is for an adult--would his removal result in his being sent to a country where his life or freedom would be threatened?

Over and above that asylum issue, simple humanity demands that any immigration decision to remove an unaccompanied child involves consideration of whether safe and adequate reception arrangements for the child can be made. We would not send an unaccompanied child to another country, whether or nor that child had claimed asylum, unless we were satisfied that such arrangements had been made.

Of course we recognise that children who are claiming asylum may need help with the presentation of their cases to the Home Office. The Home Office already funds the refugee legal centre to provide advice to asylum seekers and representation in asylum appeals. That body is currently developing a team of counsellors designated to dealing with vulnerable applicants, including children.

Those counsellors will be specialists in asylum procedures and in preparing and presenting cases. They will have access to a considerable body of knowledge about conditions in countries from which asylum seekers come. We do not believe that it would be sensible for a panel of advisers to seek to duplicate that role. Meeting the longer-term welfare needs of the child is clearly the responsibility of the appropriate local authority. The provisions of the Children Act 1989 make no distinction on the basis of a child's nationality or immigration status. They apply in the same way to

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unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as they apply to any other child in this country who has no responsible adult capable of looking after his welfare and interests.

There is a statutory duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of all the children they look after and to satisfy themselves that the welfare of privately fostered children is satisfactorily safeguarded and promoted. In other words, the function which the amendments would confer on a new panel of advisers is already part of the statutory function of a local authority. The local authority is the body best placed in terms of personnel, experience, facilities and resources to care for the needs of unaccompanied children. To create a new statutory body charged with those functions could create a duplication of effort and blur lines of responsibility.

The amendments appear to recognise that risk by stating that nothing in the two new clauses affects the powers or duties of local authorities. However, as the primary responsibility is to continue to rest with the local authority, it is difficult to see why the functions of the proposed adviser need to be placed on a statutory basis.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The Minister prayed in aid the role of the children's legal centre. He will know that it has advocated a guardianship system or a panel of advisers along the lines of the Brightman amendment.

Mr. Wardle : As I hope to demonstrate to the House, what we propose in the way of a panel of advisers will meet with the approval of the refugee legal centre and other interested parties.

The amendments envisage that the panel will include, so far as is practicable, persons who can speak the child's language, who are familiar with the habits and customs of the child's homeland and who have knowledge of child care legislation and immigration procedures. We recognise that local authority social services departments may need help in some or several of those aspects, but the extent and nature of the help that is needed will vary from case to case. There may be cases in which the involvement of a person with specialised background knowledge of the child's own country and language is of help both to the child and to the social services, but there might equally be cases in which the local authority is able to meet that need from within its own r-9 t 4 pm

Moreover, unaccompanied children might arrive from anywhere in the world and it would not be possible to guarantee--indeed, it seems quite unlikely- -that any statutory panel of advisers could provide for every child a person who had the relevant language skills and background knowledge. It is difficult to see how the appointment of an adviser without those qualifications would materially assist the child.

A statutory requirement for the appointment of an adviser for every unaccompanied asylum-seeking child therefore seems too rigid. What is needed is a system which can operate flexibly to provide appropriate response to the needs of each child, to fill gaps where they exist, and to avoid creating duplication of effort or confusion of responsibilities where gaps do not exist. There are existing

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responsibilities covering all the needs of children in that position. Inevitably, different needs are covered by different services.

We believe that the crucial task is to ensure that those different services mesh together properly and that those providing the services have the support and specialised advice that they need. It is vital to mobilise and harness the potential sources of help within the various communities that are already here. We believe that those ends will be better achieved by supporting practical, non-statutory initiatives rather than by imposing a new statutory framework that might conflict with other statutory requirements.

The Home Office has agreed in principle to fund a non-statutory panel of advisers, which the Refugee Council has offered to establish and administer. The advisers would be volunteers from the communities from which most children could be expected to come, selected for their suitability for that role, and given the necessary training. It is envisaged that, when an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child arrives in this country or comes to the notice of the Home Office when they are already in this country and applying, as some do, the immigration officer or the Home Office would notify both the appropriate social services department and the administrator of the new panel, who would offer the services of an adviser to the social services department wherever that was possible and desirable. The function of the adviser would principally be to ensure that the social services department was aware of the child's wishes and of relevant cultural considerations and that the child understands as far as possible, taking his or her age into account, what is happening and what choices he or she has.

The agreement to fund the panel of advisers is necessarily for one year in the first instance, but that does not indicate any lack of commitment on the Government's part to the longer term view. Public expenditure decisions have to be taken on an annual basis. There is no way in which I can give the House a cast-iron guarantee of a specific level of support in future years, particularly in relation to a new commitment that has not featured in our earlier spending plans, but we certainly intend to give the scheme sufficient support to enable the concept of children's advisers to have a fair period of trial.

We believe that the scheme will--

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