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5 Nov 2002 : Column 214—continued

Fiona Mactaggart: I have two issues of concern relating to certification connected with white-list countries and people who may lose their rights of appeal under clauses 82 and 84.

I raised the matter of certification in June and was reassured to some extent by the response of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who said that he wanted to ensure that the possibility of review was readily available. He continued:

I referred to Roma in an earlier intervention. I have had a number of cases presented to me by the Refugee Legal Centre and by Women Against Rape. I do not

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know the dates of all these cases, but most of them are of recent origin because in all cases—and the episodes complained about happened in countries including Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—there have been certificated appeals which, under the present law, can be appealed against. The applicants have appealed and have been granted asylum. In many cases, applicants have been subjected to rape and their assailants have colluded with state forces, including the police. That seems to be exactly the sort of pattern to which the Home Secretary referred. There is an issue about the way in which the power exists to mediate the exercise of the certification process. Were the Home Office to do that in the case of the Roma, I believe that much concern would be mitigated.

I am further concerned by the way in which clause 84(2)(c) is interpreted. Can the Minister give an assurance about its interpretation? Under this provision, if someone had had a right of appeal which they had not exercised, they could lose that right of appeal. At present, there is a way of testing that earlier before an adjudicator. Under this provision, someone can lose their right of appeal if they

That would apply to someone who made an application, then made a fresh application and did not appeal against the refusal of their earlier application.

I understand why the Home Office has introduced this clause. Some people exercise their right of appeal in a flawed way and use that to get more rights of appeal. I am fundamentally in favour of only one right of appeal. The present arrangement whereby people can spin out many appeals is ineffective; it creates cynicism about the immigration and asylum appeals process and is wide open to abuse.

In some cases, however, people were not aware of their original right to appeal and I am concerned about them; for example, they might have moved—we all know how asylum seekers are pushed around the country—or they might have had a bad adviser. Some advisers are corrupt and cheating.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many of our constituents receive incompetent legal advice at the start of the process, so the damage has been done, however good their legal advice at the appeal stage. Justified cases are lost at appeal owing to the incompetence of earlier lawyers. People need the right of access to good-quality advice at the very beginning, but increasingly that does not happen.

Fiona Mactaggart: My hon. Friend makes a slightly different point, but he is right: we need to ensure that people have better access to advice. I hope that they can receive that advice in accommodation centres not only because they need it but because it helps the decision-making system to work well.

8.30 pm

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady is an expert in this matter. I am sympathetic to her argument about a single appeal, but does she agree that an appeal cannot be

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exercised fully and properly if, in many cases, it is made from abroad? The appeal will have to take place in this country if we are to ensure that it is properly carried out, wherever it comes in the process.

Fiona Mactaggart: I agree, especially as regards people who, if they lost their appeal, could be removed to countries that are not even on the white list and where some groups are subject to the most grotesque violence. That is why I am concerned about these provisions.

At lunchtime today, I received a letter from a colleague of the Minister in response to questions that I had raised. The letter stated:

I shall be overwhelmingly happy if the Minister assures me that the interpretation of paragraph (c) will always be that if people chose not to exercise their substantive right of appeal earlier, the Home Office will allow an adjudicator to determine whether the appeal should treated as out of time. People who had well founded fears but who did not exercise their appeal at an early stage could thus have their appeal considered.

Mr. Gerrard: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The critical point seems to be the immigration officer's leeway in deciding whether to certify the case. Perhaps some guidance could be produced, so that if there were failings on the part of the legal adviser that had nothing to do with the applicant, they could be taken into account when deciding whether to certify.

Fiona Mactaggart: In effect, that is what I am suggesting. The clause provides that one of the grounds for certification is that the substance of the appeal could have been raised at an earlier stage had the applicant chosen to do so. The decision about that issue of choice does not have to be dealt with in the Bill; in practice, it can be covered by instructions to immigration officers. However, the point is substantial. We need to ensure that the interpretation of the Bill is such that cases that ought to have a right of appeal can have that right. If the Minister can give us that assurance, the serious injustices to which the measure might give rise will not occur.

Simon Hughes: This debate is important. As the Minister and the Conservative spokesman observed, we debated the principle of a non-suspensive appeal that would have to take place outside the United Kingdom during earlier stages of the Bill, but there was never a white list proposal.

Like other colleagues, I remember debates on this issue when the Conservatives were in power and the Labour party was in opposition. The Labour party was very critical of the principle of a white list—the idea that one listed countries in advance with presumptions—and opposed it, as we do. I have not changed my view with the change of Government, and I know that some colleagues in the Labour party have not done so either.

I am not convinced that the argument that the Government have given their Back Benchers is terribly persuasive. A parliamentary Labour party briefing on the amendments came into my hands yesterday, as these things sometimes do. It poses this rhetorical question:

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It then gives an answer in an attempt to persuade Labour Members:

There is some truth in that, in the sense that there are new applicant countries to the European Union, but there are not many more asylum seekers. The number of those seeking asylum in western Europe has dropped by half over the past 10 years. So the argument for having a white list now, which was opposed by the Labour party only five years ago, is not borne out by the facts.

The Minister was right to say that some of the amendments tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends and me go to the heart of the principle of whether appeals should occur outside the country, and to the heart of the principle of a white list. That is because we are opposed to appeals abroad and we are opposed to a white list. We have not changed that view, so we shall try to amend the Bill to create the legislation that we wish it were.

For the record, I should like to list the Liberal Democrat amendments, as the Minister referred to the amendments generally, although that is not a criticism. We have tabled amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 154, amendments (a) to (f) to Lords amendment No. 157, amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment No. 179, amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment No. 184, amendments (a) to (d) to Lords amendment No. 188 and amendments (a) to (c) to Lords amendment No. 215. Some of them are parallel, in that they apply similarly to similar clauses. I shall not go through each in detail.

Mr. Letwin: Hallelujah!

Simon Hughes: I agree with that response, and I am sure others do too. The Minister is right that the amendments would omit in part from the purview of the Bill applications for human rights asylum as opposed to other bases of claim. As an alternative, they would not limit the category to serious-only cases, and would prevent the Government from adding other countries—one of the criticisms, this—to the list by secondary legislation.

Of course it is a good idea to have an advisory panel on country information, but it is less of a good idea if that panel does not have an obligation to give advice. There is the hint of a good thing without delivery of that good thing, as there is not as yet any obligation in the Bill to consult. That is also a matter that has been raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others.

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