First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 7 July 2003
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Asylum (Designated States) (No. 2) Order 2003
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Asylum (Designated States) (No. 2) Order 2003.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Pike. The subject that we are dealing with will be familiar to those Committee members who were involved in a debate that we had in March on the first designated states order, which added seven countries to the list of countries to which the non-suspensive appeal provisions in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 Act apply. I will not repeat all of the ground that I covered on that occasion, but there have been some developments during the intervening four months, which I think that the Committee will find a helpful context to its consideration of today's order.
In May, the asylum statistics for the first quarter of 2003 were announced. They showed a 32 per cent. drop in applications compared with the first quarter of 2002. The main explanation for that fall was the range of measures that we have been introducing to cut down on abuse of the system and to improve its efficiency. Those measures included, for example, enhanced border controls and new benefit arrangements. More recently, we have been piloting a fast-track procedure at Harmondsworth, where decisions on asylum claims and appeals against refusals can be determined in a matter of weeks.
The implementation and the gradual expansion of the non-suspensive appeal process should be viewed against that wider background. It is one of the important ways by which we can reduce unfounded claims, and that is its purpose. By doing so, we can greatly accelerate the process, thereby reducing support costs. The process also provides a disincentive for those people who have no genuine protection needs trying to use the asylum system. That will lead to enhanced public confidence in the overall asylum system, a reduction in intake, and a consequent reduction in resources that we want to use to improve performance in other areas. We have kept the operation of the non-suspensive appeal provisions for the 17 countries listed in section 94 of the 2002 Act under constant review. Those 17 countries can be divided for convenience into the initial 10 European Union accession state countries and the seven countries added by the order that took effect on 1 April this year.
The position in relation to the EU accession countries remains pretty much as it was when we debated the first order on 11 March. The key points are that intake from those 10 states continues to be
Column Number: 004
about 80 to 90 per cent. down on the October 2002 figures. A significant majority of those refused asylum have left the United Kingdom and decisions continue to be subject to rigorous quality control, which is a key feature of the process. The seven countries added by the previous order were Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova and Romania. The non-suspensive appeal provisions have been in operation in those countries for three months, so it is too soon to judge the impact on intake, but a reduction of about 25 per cent. has occurred in the early months. The high quality of decision making and the ready availability of legal advice apply to the new set of countries and the first set.
For all countries, the courts and appellate authorities are continuing to uphold challenges to those decisions. No appeals or judicial review challenges have yet been successful. The robustness of the decisions taken in non-suspensive appeal cases bears out the statement made by the Court of Appeal in the January 2003 case of ZL and ZV that
''there is no reason why the fast track procedure at Oakington should not afford adequate opportunity for asylum seekers to demonstrate, where this is the case, that they have, or may have, an arguable case''.
Our overall assessment of the non-suspensive appeal powers is that they are continuing to work well and are making a significant contribution to our asylum strategy. The number of applications to which they are being applied—about 300 a month—has been modest in relative terms. That has been intentional, because it is right to roll out those new powers in a carefully managed way. Now that the provisions have been around for eight months, a further modest extension is appropriate.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Will the Minister give us the figures for the number of appeals from abroad in relation to the two groups of countries that were the subjects of the first two pieces of legislation? Will she give us figures for the last quarter or the period after the order was made, and the year before? That will enable us to appreciate the difference that took place when the non-suspensive appeal regime came into operation.
Beverley Hughes: I shall certainly give the hon. Gentleman those figures before I finish speaking.
We are carrying out the extension in two ways. First, we are applying the non-suspensive appeal powers in section 94 of the 2002 Act to a small number of clearly unfounded claims made by residents of non-designated countries. We had not made use of those powers until June because of our wish to concentrate on the claims from nationals of listed countries. The procedures are working well and we have decided that we have reached the stage at which we should start to make full use of the powers, although we will initially certify only those claims most obviously without any merit, and that is consistent with our carefully managed approach to non-suspensive appeals.
However, our primary emphasis in relation to non-suspensive appeals remains the list of designated countries. The second element of the extension therefore involves the expansion of that list to
Column Number: 005
include the seven states contained in the draft order. Section 94 of the 2002 Act contains a provision to add countries to the list by a form of affirmative order, but only when the Secretary of State is satisfied first, that there is, in general, in that state no serious risk of persecution of persons entitled to reside in that state or part; and, secondly, that removal to that state or part of persons entitled to reside there will not, in general, contravene the United Kingdom's obligations under the European convention on human rights.
In considering which states might be included in the second order, we took that legal test as the starting point. As before, we also took account of other factors, such as the asylum grant rates, the outcome of appeals and the country information that we publish. We have not looked to find a set of countries that have a common link, other than their suitability for inclusion in the order against those criteria.
On that basis, the seven states that we have decided to include in the draft order are: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. We are satisfied that those seven are states in which there is, in general, no serious risk of persecution and to which removal would not, in general, breach the United Kingdom's obligations under the European convention on human rights. The statistical evidence bears that out. In the first quarter of 2003, asylum grant rates on initial decision were less than 2 per cent., except in the case of Bolivia, for which the figure was 6 per cent., based on a small number of decisions.
As with the seven states added by the first order, and with the initial 10 EU accession states, it is not the case that the countries are totally safe for every single person. No state could claim to meet that test. Inclusion on the list reflects a general level of safety, not a total absence of any possibility of mistreatment. That is why we continue to give every asylum claim from a resident of a designated country full consideration on its merits. A claim would not be refused, or certified as clearly unfounded, unless we were satisfied, after individual consideration, that the claim fell to be refused and certified. This is borne out by the fact that 4 per cent. of decided claims—claims that we feel should be refused—are none the less not certified, which means that they can go through a suspensive appeals process in which an adjudicator examines them. That is a measure of the caution and careful management that we are exercising.
Simon Hughes: Will the Minister explain where the criteria for choosing the countries come from? The recent human rights report on Bangladesh by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for example, states that the FCO regularly raises human rights concerns with the Bangladesh authorities. How can it start with the presumption that human rights are adequately protected in Bangladesh? What is the threshold—it may be 2 per cent.—that the Government are using? The threshold is not consistent between Departments of State.
Beverley Hughes: No. There is no inconsistency. We take up Bangladesh's treatment of certain people when such issues come to our attention, but it is, none the less, a safe country for the vast majority of people. Bangladesh has signed and ratified all six core UN
Column Number: 006
human rights treaties, it has a parliamentary system and its constitution provides for an independent judiciary.
In thinking about those issues, the hon. Gentleman must also bear in mind that although some in Bangladesh may have an issue they are not necessarily the people who are getting to the UK and claiming asylum. If such people were to claim asylum in the UK, it would be granted because of the safeguards in the system. The quality of the process will ensure that that happens. Very small numbers of people get here from Bangladesh and receive grants under the current system. Most applicants claim fear of persecution but the system finds that they are not in fear of persecution.