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Clause 2, as amended, has two safeguards that ensure that the offence is not inconsistent with a proper interpretation of the protection afforded to certain refugees under article 31. The first is the "reasonable excuse" defence, which would cover situations in which persons had no document when they began their journey. Secondly, subsection (5)(b)(iii), as amended, makes allowances for those rare situations in which a person's actions in deliberately destroying the document might be considered a reasonable cause for the purposes of article 31. I therefore believe that the amendment tabled to provide for article 31 is not necessary. In some
I shall comment briefly on the Opposition amendments. Amendment No. 99 is a probing amendment dealing with the burden that clause 2 places on an individual to prove that, on the balance of probabilities, he or she had a reasonable excuse for destroying the document. We have placed the burden on the defendant because where someone has a reasonable excuse for not having a document on arrival, the details of that story will usually be solely within the knowledge of that individual. In Committee, I gave the example of the person who had been smuggled on to a plane by a corrupt official and who had never had a document. It is clear that only that person would know the details of how and when that happened, so it is not unreasonable to ask the defendant to prove, on the balance of probability, that it did occur. I therefore believe it justifiable to require the defendant to prove that, and I am pleased to note that the Joint Committee on Human Rights also takes that view.
The Opposition have tabled amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to allow those who can produce another document that establishes their identity to avoid the offence in question. As I said several times in Committee, if a person satisfies us that he or she has never had a passport, or has a reasonable excuse for not having one now in spite of having had one before, clause 2 will not catch him or her, and nor is it designed to do so. However, where a person has disposed of or destroyed a passport and can provide no reasonable excuse for doing so, I do not consider it right that he should be exempt from the offence simply because he then produces some other documentalmost by definition, a lesser documentthat, he says, shows who he is. That immediately gives rise to the questions of why the person disposed of the passport in the first place and why he has chosen to produce some other apparent evidence of identity. We need to be serious in sending out the message that destroying documents is not acceptable.
Of course, if persons are making a genuine effort to identify themselves through the production of alternative identification, that might make us more inclined to accept any reasons given for their not having a passport, but as I have said, a person who has a reasonable excuse for not having a passport will not be prosecuted, whether or not he or she has other documents that might prove who they are.
If the amendments were accepted, people could try to advance a defence by producing any sort of document that they claim establishes their identity, nationality or citizenship. Given that such documents could come from any part of the world and from many different types of organisation, deciding whether they are genuine and whether they establish identity satisfactorily would be extremely difficult and resource-intensive for United Kingdom authorities. Considerable operational difficulties attach to identifying whether alternative documents are genuine or forged. In any event, Members will appreciate that a document such as a
Amendment No. 102 would create a statutory requirement for written guidance for the operation of the offence. As I said in Committee, we will produce such guidanceI intend to do so before the Bill is enactedbut I do not see a case for placing it on a statutory basis. I hope that my commitment is sufficient and that hon. Members will agree not to press the amendment.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I should tell the Minister straight away that Conservative Members welcome some of the Government amendments that have been tabled since our very constructive debates in Committee. We take the view that those who deliberately destroy their documents, thereby intentionally frustrating the system, should be punished. There can be no doubt that the House should send that message to people who arrive here on an aeroplane or a boat having boarded it with valid documentation but who, at some time during the journey or after landing, and before being interviewed by an immigration officer, destroy their documents. We are absolutely at one with the Government on that point.
The Minister said that we are dealing with offences of deliberately destroying documents. However, clause 2 does not say that; it is not headed, "Entering the United Kingdom having destroyed a document". It says:
As was said in Committee, millions of children are born in this world every year who never have any form of passport; likewise, tens of thousands of people who travel to this country to claim asylum have never had a passport. No doubt, there are also tens of thousands whose documents are destroyed, one way or another, en route. In many ways, I understand the concerns of bodies such as the Law Society, that argue that these measures may penalise genuine refugees and expose them to the risk of prosecution. Many of the strongest applications for asylum come from individuals who have been forced to enter this country with no documents or invalid documents. The mischief that we are trying to address is that of the person who, when attending before a Home Office official or an immigration officer, cannot satisfactorily prove their identity. The problem arises when it is impossible for officials to tell where people come from and they will not provide that information.
The clause has been improved since our proceedings in Committee. I broadly welcome Government amendments Nos. 48, 50 and 34 because they tackle some of the issues that we raised there. I hope that the Minister can confirm some of the comments that she made then. She said:
Mr. Malins: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend who contributed so well to our Committee proceedings. Of course, he is right. No immigration officer who conducts an interview will have Hansard in front of him or her. The immigration officer is faced simply with the proposition that the offence is committed if the person does not have the document. Throughout our Committee proceedings, we asked the Minister to come back with a better-drafted provision. The measure is sloppy because although it provides for an offence, stating that one is committed in specific circumstances, we have to rely on the Government to say that, despite the legislation, they will not prosecute in a specific case. The Minister owes us further explanation.
In Committee, I pointed out there are some 50 million unregistered births every year. That is approximately 30 per cent. of all births. The proposition that refugees, of all people, should be able to present passports is unreal. The Minister has failed to deal with that or to table a suitably drafted amendment.