Select Committee on European Scrutiny Fourteenth Report




COM(01) 181

Draft Directive laying down minimum standards on the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States.

Legal base:Article 63 EC; consultation; unanimity
Document originated:3 April 2001
Forwarded to the Council:18 May 2001
Deposited in Parliament:20 June 2001
Department:Home Office
Basis of consideration:Minister's letter of 9 January 2002
Previous Committee Report:HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 22 (18 July 2001)
To be discussed in Council:No date set
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Not cleared; further information requested


  2.1  The aim of the proposal is to harmonise the assistance granted to asylum seekers while their applications are being considered, and to ensure that applicants have "a dignified standard of living" (paragraph 6 of the preamble). It is one of a number of measures intended to set minimum standards in relation to asylum seekers as a first step towards establishing a common procedure and a uniform status for those granted asylum in any Member State. We have already considered, but not cleared, the Draft Directive on minimum standards in asylum procedures[15] and the Draft Regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national[16]. The draft Directive on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third country nationals and stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection is the subject of a paragraph in this Report[17]. A draft Directive concerned with subsidiary protection is in preparation.

  2.2  As the proposal's legal base falls within Title IV of the EC Treaty, the UK had three months from its formal publication to decide whether to opt in to the measure (in accordance with the provisions in the Protocol on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland annexed to the EC Treaty and the Treaty on European Union). The Government opted in to the proposal on 9 August 2001.

  2.3  When we first considered this draft Directive in July, we decided to ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office (Angela Eagle) some questions on it, and to keep it under scrutiny until we received her response.

  2.4  Our sister Committee in the House of Lords has published a report on the document after undertaking a short inquiry[18].

The Minister's letter

  2.5  The Minister has now written to us. She begins by apologising for her delayed response (caused by a breakdown in communication within the Home Office), saying:

"Contrary to the impression this delay must give, I would like to assure you that as I promised when I gave evidence to your Committee in October, the Home Office is taking steps to improve its performance on parliamentary scrutiny and is in the process of setting up new procedures which will ensure that these sorts of delays do not occur in future."

  2.6  The Minister then turns to our questions. We had asked for her assurance that, where UK standards were currently higher than those proposed (as in access to education and health care, for example), there would be no move to lower them. She replies:

"The UK has always expressed its commitment to maintaining meaningful standards in this Directive and the other directives in the minimum standards package... The aim should be to prepare the ground for the future common asylum system, and in doing so the standards set must ensure that asylum seekers can expect similar standards of treatment, regardless of the Member State in which their application was being considered, guaranteeing a dignified standard of living..."

"The Government does not accept that it follows that should this directive set minimum standards lower than those existing in a Member State then that State will proceed to lower standards to that of the directive. Member States currently suffer no constraints in the standards they set other than to meet their international obligations and those obligations will remain in force. This directive will be more constraining than liberating in that respect as it provides restraint by setting a minimum threshold where previously none existed."

  2.7  We asked the Minister whether there were areas where she considered that the minimum standards had been set at too low a level, and, if so, whether the UK would press for them to be raised. She replies:

"The draft Directive has proposed a number of compromises in areas in which there is currently a great deal of discrepancy between the practices in Member States. The current wording of the text will encourage Member States with less-developed reception arrangements to build upon and improve existing conditions. Whilst it is vital to ensure that meaningful minimum standards are set, we must take care not to set unrealistic targets that prove too difficult for Member States to reach political agreement on if we wish to deliver implementation of the minimum standards required by the Treaty of Amsterdam within the deadlines set out by the Tampere European Council."

  2.8  We asked the Minister whether there were areas (in addition to access to the labour market, an area she had highlighted in her earlier Explanatory Memorandum) where provisions in the draft Directive diverged significantly from current UK policy and practice. In response, the Minister cites the definition of family members of an asylum applicant. The definition in the draft Directive includes family members who may not be dependent on the asylum seeker but "have undergone particularly traumatic experiences or require special medical treatment" (Article 2 (d)(iii)). The current UK definition is the spouse or minor dependant of an asylum seeker (and, in exceptional circumstances, an aged dependant parent). The Minister also tells us that the UK does not currently have an independent office for the hearing of complaints and resolution of disputes about material support provided to asylum seekers (as required by Article 18). She continues:

"Other Member States have also expressed concern regarding the current text of this draft Directive in the above areas as it also diverges [from] their policies and practices. The Government therefore anticipates that numerous amendments to the wording of the text will be required before political agreement can be reached. The UK intends to continue to play an active role in negotiations at the relevant Council working group in order to ensure that UK interests are adequately represented in the Reception Directive."

  2.9  Finally, we asked whether the Government had concerns about the graduated approach to reception conditions and the potential for reception conditions to be reduced or withdrawn as a result of negative behaviour. The Minister tells us that the Government does not support this approach. She explains:

"The graduated approach was primarily incorporated into the draft Directive to allow for Member States who operate fast-track admissibility sifts on manifestly unfounded cases. This means that some Member States do not allow cases fulfilling certain criteria to be admitted into their asylum determination procedures. The UK does not operate an equivalent to this particular type of procedure and will not need to apply a graduated approach to reception conditions. Member States have varying opinions on this issue which may lead to amendments in the text...before political agreement can be reached. If these are significant, we will, of course, deposit the new version of the text for scrutiny."

  2.10  The Minister goes on to say that, in the UK, the present grounds for terminating support are wider than those in the draft Directive, covering the breach of any condition of support (including damage to accommodation). Unlike the draft Directive, there is no provision in the UK currently for reduction of support following a breach — only suspension or withdrawal of support is envisaged. She then explains that, whereas the draft Directive appears to allow reduction or withdrawal of support three months after access to the labour market has been allowed (which would be inconsistent with the UK practice of considering such reduction as soon as someone has found a job), this is not what is intended. The purpose of the provision is simply to ensure that support is not withdrawn as soon as someone has been authorised to seek employment. The proposal needs amendment to make this clear.

  2.11  Finally, the Minister states that the Government does not consider it appropriate to threaten reduction or withdrawal of support to enforce behaviour (such as making sure children are sent to school).

  2.12  The Minister undertakes to keep up informed about the progress of negotiations as we requested.

The House of Lords Report

  2.13  In its Report on Minimum standards of reception conditions for asylum seekers, our sister Committee sets out a number of opinions, as a result of its inquiry. On several issues, including the very broad definition of family members, and the sensitivity of the employment provisions, it agrees with the Government. It considers that there should be an explicit reference to the European Convention of Human Rights in the text, possibly in the preamble. It also considers that the draft Directive should address the conditions under which asylum seekers are detained, and suggests that the UNHCR Guidelines[19] would be a useful basis on which to develop rules at the European level. Given the Government's intention to phase out the voucher scheme, the Report recommends that, if "vouchers" were included in the draft Directive only in order to accommodate the UK, all references to them should now be deleted.


  2.14  We thank the Minister for her response, and accept her apology for its delay. However, given that delay, we are disappointed that she has not already honoured her undertaking to keep us informed of the progress of negotiations. We would be surprised if some changes have not already been agreed to the text during the months in which we have been waiting for her letter.

  2.15  We are also disappointed with her first two answers, both of which seem to us unnecessarily opaque. We hope we are right in assuming that the first contains the assurance we sought; we take her second answer to mean "no". In contrast, we find her answer to our last question clear and helpful.

  2.16  Since the Explanatory Memorandum was produced, the Home Secretary has announced changes to UK asylum policy and procedures. We ask the Minister to describe for us how these proposed changes mesh with the provisions in the draft Directive.

  2.17  In relation to the proposal, the Minister herself thinks that " numerous amendments to the wording of the text will be required before political agreement can be reached". We wish to be kept in touch with this process. If new texts are produced, we shall expect them to be deposited as quickly as possible and certainly well before any substantive discussion of the measure in Council. If texts are not available, we shall expect to be kept informed of changes by the Department.

  2.18  We shall keep the document under scrutiny until we have the Minister's response and until its final shape is clearer.

15  (21792) 11622/00; see HC 28-v (2000-01), paragraph 8 (7 February 2001). Back

16  (22428) 9074/01; see HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 22 (18 July 2001). Back

17  (22885) 13620/01; see paragraph 1 of this Report. Back

18  Minimum standards of reception conditions for asylum seekers: Eighth Report from the Select Committee on the European Union, HL Paper 49 (2001-02). Back

19  UNHCR Guidelines on applicable criteria and standards relating to the detention of asylum-seekers. Back

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