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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right that we must have a decent appeals system, but I ask him to examine it from the other side as well. Individuals and families going through an appeals system, usually represented by legal aid, are dragged through a process in the belief that there is justice and a positive answer at the end. I mention the Ay family, who were dragged through the system in Scotland, when, quite honestly, the decisions taken at an early stage were the right decisions, but someonetheir legal representativessaw fit to drag them through a system with no decent outcome at the end. Some people use the appeals system for all the wrong reasons.
Mr. Gerrard: I am aware of cases where lawyers have given extremely poor advice about the chances of winning on appeal and dragged people through the system without helping them in the slightest, but the higher courts are not unskilled at quite quickly filtering out the cases with no merit at all. As I said earlier, I do not object to a basic one-tier system, provided that there is judicial oversight that allows cases that really matter to be looked at by the appellate courtsup to the House of Lords, if necessary.
The Bill goes further than any that I have ever seen in removing judicial oversight of the asylum system. I cannot help wondering what we would have said if this Bill had been introduced by a Tory Government. I recall what was said by the then hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) when the Tories were removing certain rights to appeal in 1992:
I believe that the Bill is insidious. Clause 2 deals with the criminal offence of not having travel documents without reasonable excuse. It seems to me that few asylum seekers have their own passportindeed, possession of one's own passport is sometimes taken by immigration officers to mean that the holder is not a genuine refugee, since the authorities of a persecuting country are unlikely to issue passports that will enable people to escape. In addition, agents bringing asylum seekers to the United Kingdom generally provide them with false travel documents, which they need to board the aircraft, ferry or train, and tell their charges to destroy or dispose of them.
Article 31 of the convention on refugees recognises the difficulties that genuine refugees are likely to face in attempting to reach a safe country. It prohibits the prosecution of asylum seekers who enter the country illegally provided that they claim asylum promptly and "show good cause" for their illegal entry. In 1999, the High Court denounced the immigration police and prosecuting authorities for their failure to implement that provision. In direct contravention of article 31, hundreds of asylum seekers who had entered the UK on false documents were being sentenced to prison terms of up to six or nine months. In response to the High Court criticism, the Government enacted legislation that provided a defence to the charge of possession of false documents. The Law Society has expressed the view that clause 2 appears to contravene article 31.
Clause 14 makes it a criminal offence to fail, without reasonable excuse, to comply with a broad range of demands that the Secretary of State might make in order to obtain documentation for a person's removal, including providing fingerprints or other biometric data, making an application to the embassy of the person's country, attending interviews and answering questions, and filling in forms "accurately and completely". It is hard to think of any other field in which failure to tick a box on a form or to provide fingerprints might result in imprisonment. The maximum sentence for the offence under the clause is two years' imprisonment.
The provisions relating to withdrawal of support have attracted the most media and public attention. They appear to me to be inhumane in the extreme. As the Home Office itself has acknowledged, the difficulty is that many countries of origin are simply not safe enough to send failed asylum seekers back to. Such countries, including Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Iraq, are the subjects of Home Office policy scrutiny. Nationals of other countries simply find themselves in limbo, unable to work or obtain support, yet never told to report for removal. It is feared that denial of support will result in whole families going underground to prevent children from being taken into care, leading to a swelling underclass of people working as sweated labour in inhuman conditions for virtually nothing, unable to obtain health care or send their children to school on pain of discovery and separation.
I am told that Government lawyers have warned the Home Secretary that the proposal to withdraw all state benefits from rejected asylum seekers will trigger human rights challenges in the courts. I am also advised that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, has protested to the Home Secretary about that proposal and about the provisions restricting access to the High Court to
The detailed explanatory notes accompanying the Bill make it clear that Whitehall will foot the extra costs involved in taking children into care, using savings made when rejected families leave Britain in the face of that threat. They also state that that could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment and a breach of the right to respect for private and family life under the European convention. However, I understand that lawyers have also advised the Home Secretary that if those people leave, their legal challenge on that basis will end as a result.
I cannot understand how that one-tier appeal system will improve matters. Before the Bill was published, it was not made clear that rights of appeal and review from the tribunal to the High Court, and from the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords, were also to be abolished. The "ouster" clause proclaims that no court may entertain proceedings questioning the tribunal's decision, even if there is a breach of natural justice, an irregularity or error of law, or any other problem. It is astonishing that we should be considering bringing in such an insidious Bill as this.
Mr. Heath : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an especially repugnant factor is that a Ministry of the Executive should be asking Parliament to accept that no decision that it takes should be subject to judicial overview? Does not that underline my argument that we need a Ministry of justice that is entirely separate from the Home Office's executive functions?
Mr. Llwyd: I agree entirely. In no field other than immigration is recourse to the higher courts prevented. Such prevention is, of course, in breach of article 13 of the European convention on human rights. The Court of Appeal has frequently spoken about the high constitutional importance of access to the courts. Senior judges are likely to oppose the attempt to deprive them of their supervisory role, especially in asylum cases, where the consequence of getting it wrong can be fatal. The Home Office and the immigration appeal tribunal have frequently got it wrong in the past.
The deprivation of access to the higher courts has to be seen in the context of the proposals to remove legal aid from asylum claimants, thereby reducing their access to proper advice. On the one hand, asylum seekers are told that they will be given one chance to persuade a legal body of the merits of their claim.
Jeremy Corbyn: I think that the hon. Gentleman is on to an extremely important point. Does he recall that when the Home Secretary opened the debate he said that there are 30,000 asylum seekers in London who receive benefit but are not given accommodation? That shows that people come to London because they see it as a place of safety, where there is a degree of community network and public charitable support for them that is denied in other parts of the country?