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5 Nov 2002 : Column 210—continued

Simon Hughes: The Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I sit with the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and other colleagues, pointed out that the documentation considered by the European Commission, in its assessment of applicant countries, contained good reasons for concern about human rights matters in all those countries. For example, the Minister will remember that for Estonia the Joint Committee listed the following causes for concern:

For the Czech Republic, the causes for concern include:

Those are just two examples. Although those countries are applicant countries, they will not satisfy human rights tests for all their citizens or residents. I share the Joint Committee's concern that we are making presumptions that are unacceptable on human rights grounds, because they will be rebuttable in theory but not in practice.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has provided the answer to his own point. The presumption is for the generality of people in a country, but it is rebuttable. The terms of the measure acknowledge the possibility that any particular individual may be able to establish, on grounds of his or her experience, that the general presumption does not apply in that case. As I have explained—and I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurances on this point—we want to certify only

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clearly unfounded claims. We do not want to certify individuals whose cases reach the European convention threshold. That is why we are taking great care in providing how certification decisions should be made, so that that eventuality is covered.

Fiona Mactaggart: If the Minister could give the House an assurance that she does not intend to certify the cases of Roma from the accession countries, many of us would have our fears allayed. I have cases from Women Against Rape and the Refugee Legal Centre involving Roma from many accession countries who have had their cases certified, but under the present arrangements, that certification has been overthrown and they have been granted asylum. It is the situation of the Roma in the accession countries that is causing the greatest concern to many of us.

Beverley Hughes: I have different experiences and I could cite different examples. In this country in the past few months, not a single application from a Czech Roma person has been successful. I do not claim that the Roma's circumstances are not difficult in some countries, but only in very limited circumstances will their claims reach the threshold of persecution or torture and inhuman treatment under the convention, or prove that the state in question cannot or will not protect them.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will wish to speak on the amendments he has tabled, and I will be happy to give specific responses to any questions that he has. However, I shall make some general points now rather than address each amendment individually. There are two groups of amendments, one relating to clause 82 and one to clause 101, which seek to achieve the same objective. They try to remove the human rights claim from the clauses. As was acknowledged by some Liberal Democrats in the other place, the amendments are wrecking amendments, because the clauses could not work if the potential to make a human rights claim is taken out. That would undermine the purpose of both clauses, because anyone making a clearly unfounded asylum claim could get an in-country appeal right simply by lodging an equally unfounded human rights claim. Therefore, we will not accept those amendments.

Mr. Malins: I shall not detain the House for too long, but I wish to pose one question to the House. What is a safe country? Hon. Members will have been on holiday to countries that were perfectly safe for them but which might not have been so for some of their nationals. Equally, I suspect that we will have been to countries where the reverse applies—where we might have been in some danger, but nationals were not.

The Government have to perform a difficult balancing act. They want to speed up procedures and at the same time they want to be fair. I understand that. I have a high regard for the Minister, so I shall tell the House that the Opposition have no difficulty with the Government's proposals on these matters. However, we do have a few queries.

We discussed non-suspensive appeals a little in Committee, with the Minister's predecessor. Matters have progressed since then. The Bill reached Report

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stage in the House of Lords in a slightly different state. The so-called Xwhite list" is set out in Lords amendment No. 188, and the prospect of the Secretary of State adding a state by order is very much in line with Conservative party thinking.

As always, however, the devil is in the detail. No hon. Member would want to send a person abroad to conduct an appeal if that meant that that person was being sent to severe danger and possible death. No decent person could ever want that, but it also makes absolute sense to speed the procedure up, so that a person whose case is unfounded can be told that he or she will be sent back to conduct an appeal from a country that is safe. Do we have bilateral agreements with the countries set out in Lords amendment No. 188 that mean that, following certification, we are able to send people back to those countries in the certain knowledge that they will be received and able to conduct an appeal from there?

I may be wrong, but my understanding is that we have bilateral agreements with Norway and Iceland. Do we have such agreements with any of the other countries? I do not think so, but I should be grateful if the Minister could tell me a little more about that.

We do not have long tonight for discussion of the nuts and bolts of these matters. I always enjoy discussing nuts and bolts rather than theory, but I hope that the Minister will give me—either this evening or in writing—a step-by-step guide to how the proposals will work in practice. All hon. Members feel strongly that we must make sure that a person who is certified and sent back to one of the listed countries should not be grossly disadvantaged. Such a person must be able to conduct an appeal, without prejudice or unfairness. If that person is not scuppered in that way, he or she will have a chance of mounting a proper appeal. I therefore want to ask the Minister a series of questions regarding the mechanics of certification and how the appeal procedure will work.

I shall deal first with certification. The phrase

crops up all over the Bill, but the House knows that the Secretary of State does not examine all the cases. He cannot do so. He delegates, and so the person who must be satisfied is the determining officer. The initial decision maker will be a Home Office official, and that is the person who must be satisfied in these matters.

The Minister has mentioned the special training and expertise that initial decision makers must have if they are to deal with these difficult matters. I asked a series of parliamentary questions earlier this year about initial decision makers. In January 2001, there were 761 initial decision makers in asylum cases in post, but the number had fallen in January this year to 697. I am sure that the number will have increased by now, and that the Minister will be preparing for the future by seeking to recruit more initial decision makers.

8.15 pm

In Committee, and subsequently, many hon. Members have told the Minister and the Home Secretary that it is vital to make high-quality initial decisions in asylum cases.

Mr. Mullin indicated assent.

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman and I agree on that, as do all hon. Members. It is very important to get

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matters right at the beginning, to avoid long-term problems. Getting matters right first time is very much in the interests of the Government and the country, and it is certainly in the interests of the asylum seeker.

In July, I asked the Minister what plans she had to increase and improve the training of initial decision makers in asylum cases. I was disappointed to be told that, at that stage, there were no such plans. I think that the position may have changed. Indeed, an answer that the Minister gave me later in the year suggested that there were moves afoot to Xmaintain and improve" the quality of initial decision on asylum applications. I am pleased about that. All the non-governmental organisations involved in this matter place great emphasis on getting the decision right at the beginning. Nowhere is that more important than in cases where the stakes are high, as they are for people who are to be removed from this country so that their appeals can be heard from abroad.

I want to ask a few questions about how the appeals will work in practice. In this country, if my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) or I were convicted of an offence in the court, we would go to our appeals in person. That has always been the tradition. We understand and agree with what the Government are doing, but the Minister must accept that the proposals represent a departure from the norm. It is not what we in this country have got used to in the legal or asylum systems over many years.

I want to put myself in the position of a person who arrives in this country and makes an asylum application. Let us say that I am from the Czech Republic, which is on the white list. I assume that an initial decision about my application will be made. How does that work? If the Minister cannot answer that tonight, I should be grateful if she could write me a note. After the initial refusal, I suspect that there will be a removal. Let us assume that I do not make any applications but that I am removed in any case. How quickly will that removal take place? Will I be at liberty in the period between the initial decision that goes against me and my removal, or will I be detained?

After the initial decision has gone against me, will I have the opportunity to take competent legal advice, either straight away or in the intervening period, however long that may be, about the prospects for my appeal and how it should be undertaken? Will I have to lodge all my appeal papers before I go? I will get a chance, I am sure, to see my lawyer before I go, but what about after I am removed, when I am in the Czech Republic? Are there any circumstances—I think that the Minister will confirm that there are not—in which the adjudicator can say, XI demand to see this person personally"? I do not think that that can happen, but we need it spelled out. What about my legal help and advice after I have gone, if I have gone?

In October, I asked the Minister about the circumstances in which asylum applicants from abroad who had been removed would be entitled to advice from lawyers, how they would get it, whether the lawyers over here would be publicly funded to give advice to people abroad and whether they would be publicly funded to travel abroad to take instruction, talk to witnesses or talk to the appellant himself or herself. That is a narrow question, but it is important for those who give legal advice and help to know, when someone is certified and

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removed, what the scope is for providing, in a sense, a full legal service. I was told in a written answer by the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), that the Legal Services Commission would authorise expenditure only in exceptional circumstances if an interview was absolutely necessary and there was no reasonable alternative such as communication by telephone, post, fax or video link. Sponsors, relatives or friends of a client based in the UK could also be used as a channel for instructions. Lawyers abroad could also be used as agents and paid out of public funds. Is the Minister saying that I could go back to the Czech Republic and consult a local lawyer in Prague who would then be paid by the Legal Services Commission? That is what seems to be suggested. In that case, what about the Legal Services Commission quality mark and standards?

These are not flippant questions but real ones. It will not be very long before, under these procedures, people become certified. When that happens, they will have to go abroad and make their appeal from there. It would be helpful for the House to have answers to some of these purely practical questions. If the Minister could write to me, a copy of the letter could be put in the Library. These questions are raised quite frequently with me by NGOs such as the Immigration Advisory Service, which I had the honour to found some 10 years ago. They could matter very much to people who might be affected by the Bill. I notice the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) nodding in agreement. I hope that means that I have not overstepped my mark in speaking from the Conservative Benches. I am sure that I have not. I pose these questions to the Minister because Members on both sides of the House are approaching the issue with humanity, fairness and decency.

In conclusion, we have no difficulty with what is proposed. We support the white list; we support the white list plus. I pay tribute to Lord Kingsland and to Baroness Anelay for the work that they and others have done in the other place. They found support and sympathy for many of their arguments from members all around their lordships' House. I hope that the Minister will accept our support for what she is doing. However, I hope that she will be prepared to say loud and clear that the Government will do everything as we would want it done to ensure that the system, which may be fast, is also patently and clearly fair.

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