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Miss Widdecombe: Better you than me.

Mr. Straw: Yes. I have to administer an oath of homage, which new bishops have to make to Her Majesty, that was written by Queen Elizabeth I and has remained unchanged ever since. The oath refers, by implication, to those who have converted to Rome, and promises them a dire fate--as was befalling them, one way or the other, in the 16th century.

Various other delights awaited me. I had not properly realised that the Home Office was responsible for burials, or that we were somehow princes of the Channel Islands and of the Isle of Man.

I had also not comprehended--I do not remember it ever being mentioned in the House, in all our fascinating debates on immigration and asylum--that, in 1990, the previous Government had signed the Dublin convention. Hon. Members should mark that the previous Government

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signed it at the height of their Europhobia, when Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister. Although I have yet to discover who was responsible for appending his or her name to the convention, the previous Government did sign up to it--which, happily for them, did not come into force until October 1997. I think that they had realised that, by then, they would be long since gone.

Mr. Clappison rose--

Mr. Allan: He signed it.

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) signed it, I shall give way.

Mr. Clappison: The Home Secretary may not be aware of the fact, but the Committee Hansard for the 1996 Bill shows that the then Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), not only specifically mentioned the Dublin convention but welcomed it.

Mr. Straw: I look forward to consulting the record. I am happy to say that I was not a member of that Standing Committee. As the late Enoch Powell once said, the best way to keep a secret is to speak it in a Standing Committee.

The convention came into force in October 1997. Its purpose is not a problem and may have been given a general welcome, but its wording is a major problem that has caused immense difficulties in the European Union. It is already difficult to find sufficient evidence to show that a particular member state is responsible for individual asylum seekers. The added hurdle of disputes about the safety of member states makes matters even worse.

There are many hundreds of Dublin convention cases in a growing judicial review backlog. They are held up behind a series of test cases in which the courts are examining whether it is reasonable for me, as Home Secretary, to consider whether a member state of the European Union will abide by its obligations underthe 1951 convention. A range of questions about the application of the asylum procedures in other member states and their interpretation of the 1951 convention can be at issue. In each case the representatives of the asylum seeker argue that an alleged deficiency in the other state's procedures makes it unreasonable for me to consider it a safe third country.

The scope for finding new points of detail in the laws and procedures of other member states on which to seek to delay removal is almost unlimited. An applicant's representative might point to a new report by a non-governmental organisation that alleges that an aspect of the procedure in another member state is defective. A case can be held in limbo for a year or more while it works through the courts. During that period it is impossible to progress the case of any applicant raising similar grounds.

As a result, almost all removals to a particular member state are delayed for at least the time that the case takes to get through the courts. We also find that no sooner has a case concluded in our favour than the applicant's representatives find another issue on which to challenge the decision and we are back to square one.

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During our debates and in discussions outside the Chamber, but within the precincts of the House, many hon. Members have said that we need to process applications quickly and enforce the decisions. I agree, but in case after case the delay is caused not by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office, but by the fact that in this country, much more than in any other EU state that I can think of, particularly as the courts have developed the concept of judicial review, the opportunities for making one appeal and piling it on another have become disproportionate to the mischief of judicial maladministration, with which the courts are trying to deal through the process of judicial review.

If that pattern continues indefinitely it will be a constant obstacle to the effective operation of the Dublin convention. Around a third of all cases are presently delayed in that way.

The consequences are serious. There is an obvious risk of damage to our immigration control. The longer that an asylum seeker is in the UK, the harder it generally is to effect their removal. Over the coming years there could be considerable costs associated with that. In our debates on the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 it arose that under section 2 it would be possible for people to be returned to one so-called safe third country--the definition was not originally limited to EU states--and then leapfrog back to a fourth, fifth or sixth country. Later, on the Floor of the House, we were able to secure support for changes to section 2, which certainly improved its operation.

Prior to the 1996 Act, asylum seekers who were to be returned to member states had an in-country right of appeal, and it has been suggested that reintroducing such a right might solve the problem. As my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) made clear in Committee, that would not prevent applicants from finding issues on which to apply for judicial review after their appeal, which in my judgment would only add to the delay. The cases often involve very detailed comparisons between our asylum system and that obtaining in other states and there would always be scope for raising new issues after appeal.

I believe that the proposal is justified by the safeguards in the Dublin convention--which were obviously not in force when the 1996 Act was passed--and the need to make the convention work effectively, as well as the high standards of asylum procedures in other member states. Such provision is not without precedent in other member states.

Germany is well regarded for its application of human rights. Since the war it has been almost rule-bound in its consciousness of the need to observe human rights, and its basic law has a structure of constitutional courts. In Germany, however, other member states are considered safe third countries as a matter of law. It is also notable that other member states simply do not experience anything like the same amount of litigation over these issues. Their courts are prepared to accept that member states can be regarded as safe third countries.

Ms Abbott: This matter was discussed in our proceedings on the 1996 Act. Is not my right hon. Friend aware that there were serious problems with people being

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returned to France who were then passed directly to Zaire and Congo? There have been occasions when EU member states have not proved safe for genuine asylum seekers.

Mr. Straw: I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed. I have examined in some detail the arrangements that apply in France. The French authorities, and the police in particular, tend to treat people who are regarded not as asylum seekers but as wholly illegal immigrants--they are called "sans-papiers"--in a fairly peremptory way, but that does not apply--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman should face the Chair, not the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).

Mr. Straw: Indeed. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The French do not treat asylum claims in so peremptory a manner. The French office for the consideration of asylum claims, OFPRA--I apologise to the House for the fact that I cannot recite off the top of my head what that acronym stands for--is a highly respected organisation, and if one reads the French press, as I do from time to time, one will quite often see stories about the length of time that it takes to deal with asylum cases. It applies itself strictly to the law.

We do not intend to return asylum seekers unless either their case has already been dealt with, in which case it falls to the other member state to take appropriate enforcement action, or there is an undertaking that it will be dealt with.

Mr. Allan: Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that there has been a successful challenge against the Government on the ground that the French do not treat non-state parties as persecutors under the refugee convention, whereas we do? In France, persecution by Islamic militants would not be recognised as it is here.

11.30 pm

Mr. Straw: Whenever there is an international convention--and this applies also to the European convention on human rights--there will always be some difference in the interpretation of that convention within the domestic law of the individual countries. That is called the margin of appreciation. The hon. Gentleman takes an interest in such matters and if he considers the interpretation of the European convention, he will notice significant differences between countries.

We are assisted in the interpretation of the European convention on human rights because we have what amounts to an international court that is able to determine what margin of appreciation should apply. There are many defects in the jurisprudence--but not in the original purpose--of the 1951 refugee convention, one of which is that there is no way that the margin of appreciation can be defined internationally. Different member states define it differently and it is open to argument which way is right.

There is a substantial argument that says that the interpretation applied by France, in respect of non-state parties, and by Italy, Germany and Switzerland--which has a good record on human rights and refugees--is much

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closer to the original intentions of the framers of the1951 convention than that of our courts in one or two cases.

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