First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 11 March 2003
[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]
Draft Asylum (Designated States)
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Asylum (Designated States) Order 2003.
This is the first occasion on which I have served on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway, and I am sure that proceedings will be chaired efficiently.
I shall start by briefly setting out the context. All Members will be aware of the recent publication of the asylum statistics for 2002, which demonstrated the need for robust and radical measures to reduce the number of asylum claims. The Government, anticipating the scale of the problem, have already taken steps to bring about what I am confident will be a significant reduction in intake in 2003. Those measures include the closure of the Sangatte camp through joint working with France; the extension of our border controls as they operate on French soil; dealing with late claims through new benefits arrangements; the acceleration of decision making, with 76 per cent. of new substantive asylum applications received from April to September last year decided within two months; enhanced contact management procedures, including the introduction of the application registration card, with a fingerprint, the start of induction centres and an expanded network of reporting centres; and, although we need to go further, a steady increase in removals.
The primary factor that challenges the current system is that there are too many unfounded asylum claims. In 2002, about two thirds of claims were refused outright at the initial decision stage, and only about 10 per cent. qualified for asylum, with another 20 to 25 per cent. getting other forms of leave, not necessarily connected with protection needs. Even taking into account the outcome of appeals, only a tiny minority of applicants for asylum are granted status as a refugee. A significant proportion of the rest of the claims are clearly unfounded.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I apologise for interrupting the Minister in her first few words. On this important matter, will she give us the figure—for whatever year is most convenient—for those who succeeded on initial application, plus appeal and judicial review? I am talking not about special leave to remain, but about the actual asylum application.
Beverley Hughes: I will certainly see whether officials can hand me the figure for 2002 during the course of the debate.
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We must deal with the situation. A great deal of unnecessary cost is incurred. Support costs alone amount to over £200 per family per week; resources are taken away from assessing the claims of applicants who are refugees and need our protection; and the credibility of the asylum system in the eyes of the public is being destroyed. For all those reasons, people who genuinely need protection are harmed. People's views of them become coloured by their views of the system as a whole. Our publicised targets commit us to significantly reducing unfounded asylum claims.
It is in that context that we need to consider the non-suspensive appeal provisions of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. The Act contains two elements relating to dealing with unfounded asylum or human rights claims. First, it provided that a clearly unfounded claim be certified such that a person could appeal against the refusal of their claim only after they had left the United Kingdom. Secondly, it identified 10 states from which the majority of claims were clearly unfounded. It provided for such claims to be certified and included a mechanism for adding to the initial list of 10 states through the affirmative resolution procedure.
I hope that the Committee will agree that we have taken a sensible approach to implementing the new powers. We have devoted our energies to applying the powers to claims from the 10 listed states and assessing how effective they have been during a four-month period. So far, all the evidence is that the provisions have been successful and fair.
The first key test is whether the number of claims from the 10 countries has reduced. It has not only reduced but reduced dramatically. In September and October last year, the two months before the powers came into force, claims from the 10 listed states were 265 and 275 respectively. In November, the month during which the powers took effect, the number of claims started to decline, and there were 240 for the month as a whole. In December, there were only 90, and according to early management information that has not yet been published, January's figure was less than half of December's.
The figures speak for themselves. They support the view that nearly all the claims made by residents of the 10 countries are unfounded and that people stop applying when they know that their unfounded claims will be dealt with fairly but quickly and that they will not be able unnecessarily to extend their stay in the UK.
The second test is whether the procedures that underpin the measures are working properly. A question that, understandably, was frequently raised during debate on the provisions was whether we would have procedures in place that would ensure high-quality decision making. I believe that the procedures have stood up to that test. All claims are properly considered, and all applicants have access to legal advice and an opportunity to provide evidence to support their claim. All decisions are checked by at least two officers, both of whom have been specially trained on the non-suspensive appeal provisions.
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Under the provisions, the fact that a person is a resident of a listed country does not mean that the caseworker approaches their case with a closed mind or a foregone conclusion. Cases are not automatically certified. A decision on certification is taken only after the claim has been investigated and assessed objectively. As one would expect, the majority of claims are certified because of the general safety of the countries from which the applicants come, but about 2 to 3 per cent. have not been certified. That testifies to the open nature of the process and the fact that it will identify genuine claims.
In the case of ZL and ZV in January, the Court of Appeal headed by the Master of the Rolls unanimously dismissed a challenge to a decision of the High Court not to grant permission for judicial review of a certificate. In so doing, the Court dismissed claims that the procedures at Oakington were not up to the mark. I am pleased that the court took that view. We have always said that the fail-safe of the non-suspensive appeals process is the opportunity for individuals to seek judicial review of a certificate if they consider their claim to have been incorrectly certified.
The third test is whether the procedures are holding up to legal challenge. I have already mentioned the approval of the procedures. Only 20 to 30 judicial review applications have been formally lodged since the process started, and none has yet been successful. According to the most up-to-date figures, 20 appeals from people who have left the country have been heard. Of those on which decisions have been made, 12 have been dismissed and one has been withdrawn. We are awaiting the outcome of the remainder. Again, the figures speak for themselves.
Simon Hughes: The Minister presumably would not argue that the opportunities for legal advice and representation and proper consideration of an appeal are the same if one is outside the country as they would be if one were inside the country. Does she have any evidence that people abroad have adequate facilities, compatible with those they would have in this country, to obtain advice and representation?
Beverley Hughes: I think that the figures suggest some comfort. I did not tell the hon. Gentleman that 52 appeals have been lodged and 20 have been heard. That reflects a fair proportion of the total number of principal applications, which suggests that, because of the legal advice people receive here, if they want to appeal when their case has been considered there are mechanisms for them to do so.
The final question is whether we are removing those whose claims have been rejected. Again, we are. A significant majority of those who have been refused have left the United Kingdom. I am not complacent about all that evidence, but I have no hesitation in saying that both the concept and application of the non-suspensive appeals procedure has been successful and fair. I have taken some time to set out the facts because, understandably, hon. Members will want to ask about them when considering any extension of the scheme. It is important for the Committee to know the background facts.
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Last autumn, discussions about the merits of non-suspensive appeals were, inevitably, speculative. Potential concerns were raised and we gave assurance on how we would address them without being able to say what would happen in practice and what the results would be. We now have those results and they make the case that the operation of the system of non-suspensive appeals is sound, fair and, arguably, even stronger than before.
Having spent four months monitoring the scheme, it is now time to consider whether it should be extended to other states. A pre-requisite for any country to be added is that it meets the test that is set out in the 2002 Act. That is a two-part test. The Secretary of State must be satisfied, first, that there is in general in that state or part of it no serious risk of persecution of persons entitled to reside there and, secondly, that those people will not in general be subject to contravention of the United Kingdom's obligations under the European convention on human rights.
We have considered a number of possible candidates that we believe meet that test, and we have taken account of the statistical evidence at decision-making and appeal stages in addition to country information. We have considered the number of applications received from countries and we have had regard to our intention to continue with the measured expansion of the non-suspensive appeals process. Therefore, we have not felt obliged to include in the draft order every state that might meet or does meet the legal test.
Bearing in mind all those factors, we decided that seven states should be included: Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro. We are satisfied that in all those seven states there is generally no serious risk of persecution and that removal to them would not generally breach our obligations under the European convention on human rights. The statistical evidence bears that out. In 2002, all but one of those states had asylum grant rates of less than 5 per cent., and although it was slightly higher in Serbia and Montenegro, considerable improvements have occurred there more recently. The granting of exceptional leave, when the special cases of unaccompanied children are excluded, is also very low.
We do not assert that those seven states are 100 per cent. safe for every resident. No state can claim that and we never argued that to be the case for the 10 EU accession countries. However, they are places where persecution and human rights breaches are very rare and for those reasons those 10 states merit inclusion on the list.
I have already mentioned the procedural safeguards applying to the consideration of claims from residents of listed states. Those same procedures will, of course, be in place for the additions to the list. When a claim is held to be not clearly founded after individual consideration, it will not be certified. When a claim is held to be well founded, as some will be, leave to enter or remain will be granted.
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The order is a sensible and measured step towards the increased use of non-suspensive appeals and I commend it to the Committee.