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Column 1063Secondly, the properties must be dealt with from the standpoint of blight. It is no good making a blanket automatic exclusion from the voluntary purchase scheme of every home above tunnel along the entire route. The issue is whether individual homes are seriously blighted. If they are, in fairness to their owners they should be acquired. The Secretary of State described the homes that would benefit in the part of the safeguarded route on the surface, where the voluntary purchase scheme applies, as follows :
"Homes wholly or substantially required for building the railway, together with those seriously affected by the works or operation of the railway, will be included in the safeguarded zone and will be offered voluntary purchase".--[ Official Report , 24 January 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 20.]
My right hon. Friend included two groups of homes in the scheme, the first of which was those where the land would be
"wholly or substantially required for building the railway". Of course, that is not a concession ; it simply gives effect to the standard blight purchase notices provisions that would apply to any transport or highway scheme where the land was required for the development.
The second leg represents a potentially important concession. My right hon. Friend said that, where the land itself was not required but homes would be
"seriously affected by the works or operation of the railway", they would be brought into the safeguarded zone and made the subject of the voluntary purchase scheme.
The critical wording is the phrase, "seriously affected". The worth of the concession will depend entirely on how that phrase is interpreted. It is not satisfactory that British Rail, which has a vested interest in reducing to the minimum the sum that it will have to shell out in compensation, should be the arbiter of whether a property is seriously affected or not.
It is imperative that there should be some independent appellate body to which individuals could turn. The obvious body would be the Lands Tribunal. I urge my right hon. Friend to create an independent body to which people could appeal if they believed that their properties were seriously affected, but British Rail tried to maintain that they were not, and denied them the opportunity to use the scheme.
The second group consists of homes outside the statutorily safeguarded zone. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has agreed in principle that some may be eligible for the voluntary purchase scheme. That reflects the principle embodied in section 62 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, a welcome policy development that acknowledges the fact that property certainly can be blighted even when it is not the subject of statutory blight. Section 62 gives a discretionary power to the highway authority--or, in this case, British Rail--to acquire homes which are blighted but not statutorily blighted.
However, there is a sting in the tail of what the Secretary of State said, to which I drew attention during the questions that followed his statement. The sting in the tail lies in the following wording :
"Any other homes that may be affected by operational noise above the proposed threshold for noise insulation will qualify for purchase in cases of hardship."--[ Official Report , 24 January 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 20.]
In other words, two criteria will have to be satisfied before individuals can use the concession. First, they have to demonstrate hardship. I hope that British Rail will interpret the word "hardship" in a sympathetic and understanding
Column 1064way, and will not be tight-fisted, mean and uncaring when, for example, it decides whether an individual illness in a particular family represents hardship.
The other critical requirement is that the predicted noise disturbance must be above the proposed threshold for noise insulation. Here the Government are in danger of making a significant error. The consultation period on the Department of Transport's proposed new noise insulation regulations for railway lines ended in February, and we await the Government's conclusions. However, all the hon. Members who represent constituencies in London, Essex and Kent along the route of the new high-speed rail link believe that the Government are setting the threshold for noise disturbance far too high.
The higher the threshold is set, the fewer the people who will qualify for noise insulation--or, in this case, for having their homes acquired under the voluntary purchase scheme. Indeed, if the Government persist in setting noise thresholds too high, the concession may prove almost worthless. Almost no properties at all may be able to use the scheme under the concession.
As my right hon. Friend knows, among local authorities and residents in the affected areas there is total unanimity on what the noise threshold should be. That level is set out in the papers that I know my right hon. Friend has received.
The standard is described--at least in Kent--as the Kent noise standard, but the paper was sent not only by the Kent district councils and by Kent county council, but by the London borough councils, the Surrey district councils and the Essex district councils, all of which have agreed a basis for the new noise insulation threshold. Of course, it is materially lower than the threshold that the Government originally proposed. I urge my right hon. Friend to adopt the local authorities' Kent noise standard, in preference to that suggested in the consultation paper.
I shall now briefly summarise the four points on which I hope that the Department and my right hon. Friends will be prepared to make changes to the voluntary purchase scheme in connection with the channel tunnel rail link. First, I hope that the scheme will be extended on a case-by-case basis to homes within the safeguarded zones that are above the tunnel sections and are individually well and truly blighted.
Secondly, I urge my right hon. Friend to get British Rail to withdraw the devastating letter dated 31 January that it sent to certain individuals above the tunnelled section, and replace it with an alternative letter that properly gives fair warning that the subsoil may be affected. The alternative letter should include a copper-bottomed legal guarantee to the owner of that property, whether the present owner or the subsequent purchaser, of full indemnification if the property is disturbed as a result of the tunnelling operations due to take place.
Thirdly, I am asking that there should be established, for those who have homes in the area of the line where it runs on the surface within the safeguarded zone, an independent tribunal, probably the Lands Tribunal. That tribunal should arbitrate independently and on the basis of the facts between individual home owners and British Rail on whether or not individual properties will be "seriously affected", either by the works or by the operation--the key trigger as to whether or not one can take advantage of the voluntary purchase scheme.
Fourthly, I am asking that the owners of those properties outside the safeguarded zone should be helped by the Government in the following way. When the Government
Column 1065lay before the House the noise insulation regulations, they should introduce a noise insulation threshold that is more reasonable, significantly lower and preferably the Kent noise standard. That acoustic threshold would ensure that those who face disturbance from the channel tunnel rail link trains, but who live outside the safeguarded zone, will be able to benefit from the voluntary purchase scheme and escape the blight.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) for his consistence and perseverance in setting out to protect my constituents, as well as his, against the worst effects of blight. His work on compensation deserves the highest praise, and the gratitude of us all. I am grateful to him for allowing me to have two or three minutes to speak in this important debate.
I strongly endorse all that my right hon. Friend has said, particularly the need for some form of independent appeal. The voluntary purchase scheme operates in an arbitrary way. There are clear cases which, in my view and that of my right hon. Friend, should be treated sympathetically. We must have some independent appeal that overrides the internal and secret workings of Union Railways' or British Rail's tribunals.
The issue of noise is important. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport knows, many of us are deeply concerned about the intention to build a line capable of running trains at 180 mph, while building in the noise protection necessary for trains that run at 140 mph. It seems that, if the capacity to run faster trains exists, as soon as the signalling is capable of absorbing it, whoever runs the line in future will undoubtedly run faster trains. As I understand it, that will have considerable effects on noise. I hope that that will be part of the current planning.
There is a serious difficulty with blight. The length of time taken to complete a big project exceeds--by 2.5 generations of normal house ownership--the occupation of a family in a house. Most families spend, on average, less than six years in their homes. Many of the projects, particularly the one that we are discussing, will take at least 10 years. The one under discussion will take 15 years to complete. That is a long period for people to be unable to sell their houses at anything other than a distress sale price, leaving them with no scope for buying an alternative home.
Action groups and others face a cruel dilemma. We recently had a meeting at which North Downs Rail Concern advised as many solicitors, estate agents and professional advisers as possible to come to a presentation. We explained how much additional protection had been won by the work of action groups and others since the line was first proposed. As Union Railways will agree, the effect of such action has, in some ways, exacerbated the sense of blight. However, had we not fought like cats to win the protection, we would not have achieved the remarkable improvements in protection that have been obtained. It is not just a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister. The Government must think about ways of achieving some buyer of last resort for people whose
Column 1066properties have been plunged into blight by large-scale Government schemes, but who are outside the statutory blight corridor. 10.46 am
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : Once again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) has done the House a service by raising specific issues ; he has certainly focused my attention and that of the officials in the Department. I shall respond to the four points that he raised, but it may be helpful to my right hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) if I put on record a number of the points that relate generally to the voluntary purchase scheme. Since the debate on 13 January, we have announced the route of the new channel tunnel rail link, with the exception of Ashford and Pepper hill, where we expect to reach a decision in the next few weeks. When we announce our conclusions, we shall be able to safeguard the entire route. We have also issued formal safeguarding directions for the route, except for the two exceptions that I mentioned.
Those directions came into force on 25 February, and are essentially a planning mechanism to ensure that conflicting development does not take place on land required for the purpose of an undertaking--in this case, the rail link. They also initiate the statutory blight arrangements for affected homes. Union Railways wrote to all those affected at the time, and has also produced a guide to property purchase procedures for the rail link, from which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling has quoted.
Two safeguarded zones have been defined in the safeguarding directions and shown on the plans that accompany them. One is for land required for surface works, and the other is largely for land above deep-bored tunnels. The surface safeguarding creates a right to statutory blight compensation where homes and some other properties would be wholly or substantially required.
So that those affected know where they stand, all those homes included in the surface safeguarded zone will be offered voluntary purchase without the need to demonstrate a statutory right to compensation. Purchase will be on the same basis as if the houses were being acquired under a compulsory purchase order. The owners will be paid the market value of the home as if the rail link proposal did not exist, plus home loss payments, legal and agents' fees and disturbance costs as appropriate.
If agreement cannot be reached on voluntary purchase, blight notices may be served by the property owners qualifying, and any disputes can then be settled by the Lands Tribunal. That tribunal would also settle any disputes on statutory compensation for compulsory purchase and compensation for loss of value due to the physical effects of the operation of the rail link on the surface or in the tunnel under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973. Compensation under that Act is a statutory right, and may be claimed 12 months after the start of use of the rail link. That is simply because time is needed to assess the actual impact, whether in tunnel or on the surface, of the railway once it is operational. Advanced predictions of the physical effects, such as re-radiated noise, would probably not be sufficiently precise, and could cause later problems associated with
Column 1067overpayment and underpayment. It would not be right for compensation to be available from an earlier date than the normal 12 months, especially as, during the construction period and for a time thereafter, the property market may well be distorted by the effects of the project. There could be difficulty in assessing the extent of any long-term drop in the value of homes.
However, exacting design aims have been set for the rail link, not only for noise, but for all other areas of potential environmental impact, such as vibration. Our paper on property purchase and compensation policy explains that the thinking behind this is that it is better to limit the environmental intrusion at source, as far as reasonably practicable, by putting the rail link in a cutting or providing mitigation in the form of noise barriers and landscaping, than to rely simply on compensation.
Union Railways has included in the surface safeguarded zone all the land that may be acquired, either temporarily or permanently, for the rail link and associated works, including land required for construction sites and ventilation shaft sites, and homes seriously affected by the works or operation of the railway have also been included. Having purchase arrangements related to property taken or seriously affected is nothing new ; it is the accepted practice for road building. It is a tribute to the abilities of Union Railways in designing the project that so few homes need to be taken or are judged to be seriously affected and hence included in the zone. In general, Union Railways is not seeking to acquire
non-residential property at present before compulsory purchase powers are sought in the hybrid Bill for the rail link. Any non-residential property owner and occupier whose property interest meets the criteria for statutory blight is invited to contact Union Railways to discuss the position.
Acquisition by mutual agreement, with the blight notice procedure being held in reserve, can then be discussed. Statutory blight procedures for non -residential property apply to commercial properties with a rateable value not exceeding £18,000, and agricultural units. For properties not meeting the statutory blight criteria, purchase notice procedures may apply, as provided for in part IV of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
Again, property owners and occupiers considering a purchase notice are invited to contact the relevant local planning authority, and to advise Union Railways of their position.
I know from the representations that I have received that many argue that a much wider surface safeguarded zone is needed. There is no planning argument for extending the safeguarded zone further, although I appreciate that, as an alternative, some people would like to see a purchase buffer zone apply along the route beyond the safeguarded zone.
It is true that such buffer zones, a set distance from the track, have been tried in the past, but after initial enthusiasm, the communities affected have found them a mixed blessing. That is because, first, a standard width zone, regardless of its width, is somewhat arbitrary and creates many anomalies and complaints about fairness. For example, a property over l00 m from the rail link in open country may be more affected than one half the distance away but shielded by buildings, or one that is close to the rail link but on the far side of a motorway from it.
Column 1068The second reason is that, wherever the line is drawn, there is a perceived blighting effect just beyond it, and the wider and more arbitrary the delineation of the zone, the greater this problem tends to become.
Thirdly, in a wide zone, the increasing loss of neighbours and an influx of new neighbours on short-term leases is in itself perceived as generating blight. The people--usually the majority--who originally had no intention of moving as a result of the railway proposals increasingly feel that the community is changing too much for them to stay.
That is why we feel that the surface safeguarded zone is best restricted, as far as possible, to the homes that are either taken or seriously affected by the works, and that it should not be influenced by general fears or the perception of blight where in reality none should exist. As we said in our paper last year, this has to be coupled with the provision of information on impacts, particularly to building societies and estate agents, to try to bring fears down to the level of the likely impacts.
In addition to the homes included in the surface safeguarded zone, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport said in his January announcement, any other homes that may be affected by operational noise above the proposed threshold for noise insulation contained in the draft railway noise regulations will qualify for purchase in cases of hardship.
As with highway schemes, hardship needs to be proven, and each case is looked at individually. Those who think that they may qualify for the scheme should contact Union Railways. I should stress that the scheme is not a statutory requirement, and that decisions are entirely at the discretion of Union Railways.
As I have said, homes within the surface safeguarded zone will be offered voluntary purchase. In line with long-established practice for underground railways, purchase is not available for homes above bored tunnels. The practical evidence of underground railways in use is that their impacts are not sufficiently serious to justify purchase.
Land within 40 m of the centre line at a tunnel portal has been surface- safeguarded. Where land falls within the criteria for both surface and sub- surface safeguarding, the surface safeguarding will always prevail. Where tunnels are shallow--less than 9 m below the ground--the land above would normally be subject to surface safeguarding.
In addition, we have made it clear that property surveys will be undertaken of potentially affected homes both before and after construction of the rail link, and any damage caused by construction, including settlement due to tunnelling, will be put right. Any loss of value of homes caused by the physical effects of the rail link in operation in tunnel--from re-radiated noise, for example--may qualify for compensation under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973. In the construction of the rail link, every effort will be made to minimise the impacts. However, if a home were made temporarily uninhabitable because of the disturbance, compensation would be paid in respect of the cost of moving to temporary accommodation. A code of practice for construction will be drawn up in consultation with the local authorities.
I now turn to the four points made by my right hon. Friend. I am grateful for his patience in letting me get on the record some wider points.
Column 1069First, my right hon. Friend has not convinced me, on his first point, that all houses--he referred specifically to those above the tunnel--that are blighted should be bought. Blight is clearly a very real problem, which often arises from people's perceptions and is not based on hard evidence of what might be the effects of the construction and operation of the tunnel.
I cannot concede the general principle, which my right hon. Friend is forcing on me, that all houses that are blighted above tunnels should be bought. If one thinks of the number of houses that would be affected in Greater London, for example, one realises that thousands of properties could be involved.
My right hon. Friend has advanced powerful arguments on his second point, and he has persuaded me that the present position is not satisfactory. There is doubt what the consequences would be for property if the subsoil, for example, was affected. My right hon. Friend quoted from a letter which caused me concern when I read it. My right hon. Friend is also concerned about the nature of any indemnity that would be offered if there was settlement. I take his point about an assurance or guarantee being given in writing. Although I repeat at the Dispatch Box that in all cases of settlement or structural damage there is an absolute guarantee that the damage will be put right, I take my right hon. Friend's point that that assurance should be repeated in writing.
I also take on board my right hon. Friend's point about what the distinction is between underground rail tunnels and broad-gauge rail link tunnels in terms of re-radiated noise. We have little experience, because we have not built such tunnels before. I am happy to repeat that if, as a result of re-radiated noise--that is when the building itself vibrates as a result of the movement of the trains--there is any reduction in value, under the Land Compensation Act there will be payments. That, of course, comes after the tunnel is open and the trains are running.
On my right hon. Friend's second point, I undertake--I shall take official advice--to reflect on the need to issue, or to have issued by Union Railways, fresh advice. There will be a new letter to all those affected who live over tunnels, not only to set out the best scientific evidence
Column 1070we have on settlement and re-radiated noise, but to explain precisely what the rights of the owners of the properties are. I shall read the record to ensure that I have covered my right hon. Friend's point. I hope that he is satisfied with that answer. Thirdly, I also believe that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent have deployed powerful arguments in relation to the definition of properties that will or will not be seriously affected by the safeguarded route. That must be a matter of judgment--I understand that-- but it is in a category wholly different from whether a property is affected by the hardship scheme or not outside the safeguarded zone.
I understood my right hon. Friend to be referring to the safeguarded zone and to properties that might or might not be seriously affected. He has deployed powerful arguments there, and I shall reflect on whether it might be sensible to seek to clarify the position and perhaps--I can give no commitment from the Dispatch Box--whether there might be some reference to an independent party to establish whether a property or land is or is not seriously affected.
Fourthly, there is the question of the land outside the safeguarded zone. Not only properties affected by noise above the threshold may qualify for the hardship scheme ; in some cases, others will qualify. I refer my right hon. Friend to paragraph 4.4 of the document issued by Union Railways.
Union Railways must define hardship, because this is a voluntary ex gratia scheme. However, I take my right hon. Friend's point about the noise threshold. The higher the threshold, the fewer properties will be purchased : we shall therefore pay close attention to the advice offered by local authorities.
I look forward to a debate later in the year--but, I trust, before the House rises for the summer recess--on noise thresholds, for which we shall seek the House's approval.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Before I call the next speaker, I must notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act :
British Railways Act 1994.
I have notified you, Madam Deputy Speaker--and the Minister--of the wish of my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), if he arrives, to speak briefly. We shall keep an eye on the time, so that everyone can have a say.
The asylum issue has acquired growing political importance. The newspapers seek to portray all who seek asylum as economic migrants, bogus asylum seekers or ne'er-do-wells. We should recognise, however, that, over the centuries, waves of people have fled from religious or social intolerance, political oppression, violence or wars, and have sought safety and sanctuary elsewhere. Centuries ago, people fled from this country to others ; successive waves of people have come here from elsewhere in Europe.
Our history would be very different but for those waves of migrants. The social history of much of London, and many of London's achievements, can be traced to people who have fled to escape oppression. Jewish communities have come from Russia and Nazi Germany ; people have come from the low countries ; more recently, others have fled from oppression in different parts of the world. The world is now in great turmoil. Many people are unable to speak freely : they fear the knock on the door at 4 am, and being taken away by the police. They also fear that, if they went to a police station and made inquiries about friends or relatives who had been taken away, they too would be arrested. People languish in fetid prisons around the world ; those people seek asylum and safety. We should never underestimate the enormous step involved in leaving one's own country, possibly never to return or to see family and friends again, and possibly unable to pursue a career. We should bear in mind the importance of that fateful decision. I know of people who, in their own countries, were professors, doctors and leading academics ; now they are sweeping the streets of this capital city, unemployed or washing up in restaurants. Although such jobs are valuable and useful, those people could be doing something better suited to their skills.
Asylum seekers come from countries with oppressive regimes and a lack of human rights, where people are often in social danger. We should also bear in mind the foreign-policy impact : the policies adopted by the British and United States Governments--and a number of others--in regard to oppressive regimes are double-handed and full of double standards, to say the least. While people were fleeing from Chile during the Pinochet years, the British Government were selling arms to that same dictatorship. The Zaire regime has been supported by the west because it has carried out the wishes of the International Monetary Fund and the World bank, and the west has chosen to ignore many of its human-rights abuses.
Like many others, this country is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva convention, which guarantees a place of safety to people in legitimate fear of persecution on political, religious or social grounds. However, the record of the British Government--and that of Britain as a whole--is not particularly good. We tend to view history through
Column 1072rose-tinted spectacles ; we tend to say that we knew about all that went on in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and supported the victims of Nazi oppression.
That is not true : too many Jewish people were not admitted to other countries as the Nazi holocaust developed. Too many were not granted places of safety. I think of those poor people who died on a ship in the Black sea because no one was prepared to take them in at a crucial time in their lives. Our record is not as wonderful as we like to make out.
There has also been what I call the deterrent factor--the way in which, over the years, British Governments have sought to deter people from seeking asylum here ; the way in which the visa regime was introduced in 1984, aimed particularly at Sri Lanka ; the way in which Members of Parliament were not allowed to intervene to stop deportations at that time. A large number of Tamil people sought safety elsewhere, but, not unnaturally and not unreasonably, a number of them chose to come to Britain : Sri Lanka was once a British colony, after all, and many of them had significant family and educational ties with this country.
Another deterrent was the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987--an attempt, in my view, to pass immigration and asylum control in part to the airlines. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 increased the fines to £2,000 per case, and a great deal of money has been paid as a result.
The legislation has also acted as a spivs' charter. It is possible to go to any travel agency in Istanbul and obtain a single ticket to London for about £100 ; but for a Kurdish person fleeing from Turkey to seek asylum in this country, the fare is not £100 or £500, but more like £1,500. That means that the airline can pay the fine, if there is one, as well as the cost of sending the person back to Turkey if he is not admitted to this country. That does not strike me as a whole-hearted adherence to the principles of the 1951 Geneva convention ; it strikes me as the exact opposite.
Last Christmas, some Jamaicans arrived in this country for a holiday. Their treatment presents an appalling vista. They were detained at the Campsfield detention centre, and many were deported. I understand that--despite questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West--the Home Office is still unable to say how much it cost to send those people back to Jamaica. We need some answers from the Home Office, and some openness.
Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) : My hon. Friend mentioned the Campsfield detention centre. As he will know, a number of people have been on hunger strike there. One of them, a constituent of mine, is an asylum seeker. She has now ended her hunger strike, and has collapsed. Her family want her to be taken to hospital, but to date that option has been denied her. Is it not disgraceful that someone who is clearly ill and in need of hospital treatment--as opposed to medical treatment at Campsfield--should be denied it ?
Mr. Corbyn : It is not only a scandal ; it is at variance with what I have been told by the Home Office and Group 4 about the treatment of people in that detention centre. The other day, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West was able to go inside the centre : no doubt he will speak about that shortly. I shall return to the subject in a moment ; first, however, let me make two other brief points.
Column 1073I have explained the way in which the law in this country--the use of the third-country option--acts as a deterrent to people seeking asylum. There is a growing trend in the Home Office not to grant asylum, but to grant exceptional leave to remain ; that means that people cannot be joined by their families for at least four years. People from Somalia who have sought asylum here, knowing that their families and loved ones are languishing in refugee camps somewhere in that part of Africa and cannot even contact them, are experiencing heartache and misery.
Those who are able to settle in this country often have great difficulty in obtaining housing, and some difficulty in securing educational opportunities. The Government should recognise the specific needs of those refugee communities in their funding of local authorities--especially those in the north and east of London, such as Islington, Haringey, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets. Likewise, the Government's cut in section 11 funding has meant enormous problems in many schools, where English as a second language needs to be taught.
It must be clearly understood that people who seek asylum do so because they are forced into it. They are high-achieving and determined, and seek to make an enormous contribution. One can think back through history to all the contributions made by refugees. An interesting report has been written for the Detention Advice Service by Kathy Lowe entitled "Britain's Forgotten Prisoners". It says :
"Use of detention powers by the Home Office and immigration authorities has reached its highest level ever. Also increasing is the length of time detainees are being held--up to 18 months in some cases. In 1991, detained asylum seekers came mainly from Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. Only 4 out of 21 countries involved were in Europe. The following year, the largest groups detained came from India, Zaire, Nigeria and Ghana."
It appears that, as asylum seekers now come from south Asia and Africa rather than Europe as in the past, the attitude of the Home Office has changed a great deal, and there appears to be a race motive.
The report produced for the Detention Advice Service makes a number of proposals that give a great deal of support. It quotes from the reputable organisation, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, on the support that should be given to detainees. Tragically, they are not given that support.
A survey of 125 asylum detainees between November 1993 and January 1994 shows that there were 122 males and three females, mostly aged under 30. The majority were Christian, although their nationalities varied, with the largest numbers being from Algeria, Angola, Nigeria and Zaire. In most cases, they spoke only the language of their own country.
Furthermore, 27 were in detention centres, 95 were in prisons, one was in a police station and the detention place of two others was not stated. A number of detainees had been moved several times, and nearly half had been moved at least twice. More than 25 had been detained for more than six months or up to a year. None of the detainees had a criminal record, had been to a court, or had a charge against him. They were imprisoned at the pleasure of the Home Office under the powers conferred upon it by the immigration Acts. When my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West and I asked a series of questions about what is going on at
Column 1074Campsfield, where the majority of those asylum seekers are held, we discovered that the Home Office was first informed of the hunger strike on 18 February--more than a month ago. No public statement has been issued by the Home Office on that issue. It has taken persistence by a number of hon. Members even to get answers to questions here.
According to an answer that I received on 18 March, guidance based on prison service procedures is issued to staff at Campsfield house. It says :
"An immigration detainee refusing food for more than three days is offered advice and treatment by the Campsfield House medical team and this is repeated on a daily basis as part of the detailed monitoring . . . Treatment would be administered only with the individual's consent."
It does not say whether detainees have a right to go to hospital, but I should have thought from the wording of the answer that they should have such a right.
On the same day, I asked about the origin of the detainees held at Campsfield house
"by (a) country of origin, (b) those held for less than one month, (c) one to six months and (d) more than six months."
The information given was that 139 of the 179 on hunger strike were held for one to six months and 11 for more than six months. An answer that I received on the same day beggars belief. I had asked the Minister :
"how many detainees of Campsfield Detention Centre are (a) asylum seekers, (b) appellants against refusal and (c) awaiting deportation".
The answer was unbelievable. It said :
"The information requested is not readily available and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost."-- [ Official Report , 18 March 1994 ; Vol. 239, c. 895, 894 .]
If the origins of those people are known, and if the Home Office knows where it put them, how on earth can it claim not to know their status ?
A hunger strike is an extremely big step. Potentially, it ends in death. It is a cry for help and a cry of desperation. The Minister would do well to look at a report written by Ghada Karmi and others for the North-East and North-West Thames regional health authorities' ethnicity programme on "Suicide among Ethnic Minorities and Refugees". The number is not higher than the national average of suicides, but one must consider the question of asylum seekers in this country who commit suicide.
A letter sent by the Refugee Legal Group to the Home Secretary on 24 March said :
"Despite the Home Office's undertaking to speed up consideration of asylum claims, many of those on strike have no reply on their asylum claims for several months. Indeed, as at 21 January 1994, more than 80 people had been detained in excess of six months. Others have been refused asylum on grounds which, at times, range from the debatable to the patently unfair. To our knowledge, none has been given an adequate reason for their detention, and there is no effective right to appeal against those reasons before any sort of independent court or review body. This is . . . in breach of . . . Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights". It also leads to despair and desperation among those on hunger strike.
I received a letter out of the blue on 17 March from Group 4 Security, which told me that it was not force-feeding people on hunger strike. I was glad to hear that claim. Nonetheless, an awful lot of psychological pressure is put on hunger strikers, including separations, moving to prisons and, I understand, offensive remarks made to individuals.