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Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Even if the quality of the first decisions became perfectsuch a system does not existone would still require the ability to review those decisions, because human beings make mistakes. We will always have a need to do that.
Mr. Oaten: I agree. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman makes a stronger argument that I do. Having established the principle, I was trying to move on to a practical argument on the numbers game, but frankly, in dealing with issues of principle and justice we should not get into the numbers game, because even one or two cases of injustice would be unacceptable.
I want to draw the Minister's attention to what Mr. Justice Collins said in the recent case of R (Konan).
The judgment was made on 21 January, and it is worth noting what Mr. Justice Collinsa judge at the front line who made a judgment on the very issues in questionsaid in that case:
I offer a third argument to the Under-Secretary for why we need to keep the existing process in place. If the principle underlining the current arrangements and the practical day-to-day cases are not sufficient reasons for having judicial review, surely another compelling argument in its favour is that it has been proven to be a useful tool for testing law and making it better. I should have thought that, occasionally, the Government would welcome that opportunity because some asylum and immigration issues, and some interpretations of the international conventions, are complex. The conventions have been described as "living instruments"they are constantly tested and amended. It is a long-established principle that everyone in the system should be able to refer such convention changes to a higher court for clarification and guidance. For the
Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the numbers game, is it not the case that in 2002, the divisional court threw back 260 cases as having been wrongly decided under the high test that had to be applied? If the Bill had been enacted at that time, all those people would have gone back to possible persecution, or even death.
Mr. Oaten: The hon. and learned Gentleman uses those numbers to make a powerful argument, but even if only one rather than 200 people were affected, the principle of referral would be worth defending not only for the individuals concerned, but because it could be a useful tool to allow the Government and agencies to test and develop new law.
The Government have suggested merging the various stages of the system into a tribunal. I shall especially focus on the power of the president because those of us who believe in the ability to test such matters would want an individual who could help us to access advice from a higher court. However, the Government's proposals restrict the power of the president, or rather give him so much power that he does not have to be bound by any higher court to which he may or may not choose to refer cases. At the moment, the Bill gives the president incredible power to decide whether to refer a case up. The fact that he or she will not be bound by a court's decision is unacceptable.
In Committee, the Under-Secretary said that he thought that it would be very unlikely that the president would seek advice yet ignore it. As a general principle of good practice, I would prefer a measure to provide for that to be in the Bill, rather than relying on an intervention in Committee. Surely we should make good law in this country under that principle. However, an additional problem is that there might well be cases in which the president would be reluctant to refer a case to a higher court. One can imagine that league tables might be produced, so the president could think that referring cases on would be seen as a criticism of tribunal staff. The measure represents an unsatisfactory means of providing the ability to refer cases to a higher court for rulings. Paragraph 54 of the report published a couple of days ago by the Constitutional Affairs Committee says:
Finally, I should like to refer to the way in which tribunals will operate and their ability to review their work, irrespective of the president. The internal review systems suggested by the Government seem to be weak. In the majority of cases, it will only be possible to accept written evidence for the purposes of review, and oral
Surely the way forward would be to introduce a system that does not require a lengthy process and does not, in the first place, lead to the current number of wrong decisions. Liberal Democrats support the Government's intention of speeding up the system, but we disagree with the route that they are taking. We want better quality decisions to be taken in the first place, which requires better information on each relevant country, improved decisions and better training of individuals. The Government should consider putting in place a package of measures to try to speed up the system and produce better decisions before introducing more draconian measures that change the judicial process.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): In reminding my hon. Friend that all the provisions will affect not only asylum applicants, but immigration applicants, will he note that the Constitutional Affairs Committee recorded that the Government cause more delay to immigration applications than applicants?
Mr. Oaten: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful argument for examining different systems before starting to mess with the principles of evidence. Select Committees and others have plenty of evidence that could give the Government ideas about ways to speed up and improve the system. As the Select Committee on Home Affairs said:
Of course, the Government have already put in place measures to speed up the system, because they clearly want to avoid delays in cases going to a higher court, which we support. For example, they put in place a four-week system to determine whether they could speed up the process by making such a change. That has been in operation for about a year, which is a short time, but the evidence on that new system will not be evaluated or assessed because it might not be needed if their new proposals bed down effectively.
The Government's intention of speeding up the process is worthy, and we would support a speeded up and fair process, but they seem to be prepared to break with long-standing principles that go way beyond immigration and asylum to achieve that. Will the Under-Secretary reflect that rather than trying to get a few quick headlines in the Daily Express and the tabloid papers, it would be better to reject the option of making the proposed changes and to put in place practical measures for the next year to find out whether they
Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I shall be brief because I appreciate that several hon. Members wish to speak. In all the dreary and depressing history of this Administration's assaults on fundamental civil liberties, this measure is the worst by a streak. It is literally incredible that we should come to the House to contemplate removing all the protection of the law from a vulnerable minority who face the possibility of persecution, torture and death.
The measure would never get through this House, let alone the other place, if it affected British people. The only reason why it is being advanced by the Governmentotherwise, the Government themselves would not surviveis that it applies to foreigners.
In putting this proposal forward, not only are the Government guilty of an iniquity in the House, but they have turned their back full-square on the long theology of the Labour movement, which has always maintained that justice is not an individual right given to individual people, but a universalthat it applies to us all, and is our greatest collective asset. A diminution of others' rights is a diminution of our rights; what diminishes them diminishes me, and diminishes all of us in this place.
That is why I could never, never vote for anything that even resembled clause 11. I hope and trust that there will be many who will vote against the Bill in the Lobby. I do not suggest for a moment that we will succeed, but when we vote in that way, we will be passing a message to the House of Lords that those who vote according to their conscience in the House of Commons are universal in their determination to defeat that part of this legislation.
We all accept that this is not a numbers game, but a matter of the highest possible principlebut while we are talking numbers, I should point out that in 2002, even given the enormous difficulty of obtaining judicial review and a successful application before the divisional court, the divisional court threw back 260 casescases in which decisions had been made that should never have been taken by any reasonable tribunal. Under the regime that will exist if this Bill becomes law in its present form, the people behind those 260 cases, and all their families, would have been sent back to face persecution, torture or death.
That is the enormity of what we are being asked to pass. It is my abiding faith in the Houses of Parliament that leads me to believe that at the end of the day, the measure will not passthat ultimately, it will not pass through this House, and will not pass through the House of Lords either. If we do pass it into law, it will be an object of shame both for this House and for this Government, which they will never, in history, survive.