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Westminster Hall

Thursday 13 December 2007

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Asylum Seekers

[Relevant documents: Government Response to the Tenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Seventeenth Report, Session 2006-07, the Treatment of Asylum Seekers,HC 790; and the memoranda received by the Committee from the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, Citizens Advice, the Asylum Support Programme Inter-Agency Partnership and the Asylum Appeals Project.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Alison Seabeck.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I should make it clear at the outset that our report did not deal with the question of who should or should not be entitled to claim asylum in the United Kingdom. Our sole concern was the treatment of asylum seekers, whether or not their applications were successful. We focused in particular on access to financial support and accommodation, the provision of health care, the treatment of children, and detention and removal. We also looked at press coverage.

In recent years, asylum seekers have been demonised. Failed asylum seekers are regarded as little more than criminals, but the overwhelming majority of them, including those whose applications fail, are seeking to escape from countries affected by conflict, violence and human rights abuses. China, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Somalia were the main applicant nationalities in the third quarter of this year.

Asylum seekers deserve to be treated with dignity, whether or not they are entitled to remain in the UK, and the European convention on human rights applies to everyone within the UK’s jurisdiction. Human rights cannot be denied to people who happen not to be British citizens. The Minister might want to confirm that human rights are universal.

It is worth looking briefly at the scale of the problem. Most asylum seekers stay in their region of origin and only a small minority ever reach the UK. The number varies and depends, for example, on the incidence of armed conflict in different parts of the world. The number of applications in the UK peaked at just over 84,000 in 2002, and fell to below 26,000 in 2006. Most applications—70 to 75 per cent.—are refused, and in 2006 some 18,000 asylum seekers and their dependants were removed. Compare that with South Africa, whose population is about the same as England, and which is now home to 3 million refugees from Zimbabwe alone. As far as I am aware, none has been returned.

The number of our asylum seekers is relatively small, yet the issue remains high on the political agenda. Stories of poor administration of applications have been the rule, not the exception, and the public believe that the system is spiralling out of control. A new
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casework system for managing asylum seekers has been introduced, and perhaps the Minister will tell us how well that is working.

The Government seem to start from the assumption that most asylum seekers who arrive here are economic migrants, and not genuinely fleeing persecution. Policies have been designed to deter would-be asylum seekers from coming to the UK, and to make life as tough as possible for those who do get here. The tabloid press add lurid colour by using individual examples to brand all asylum seekers as freeloaders who demand council houses and welfare benefits, to the detriment of the indigenous population. They paint the UK as a soft touch.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Is it the hon. Gentleman’s view, and that of the Committee, that the Government’s policies are designed to deter asylum seekers from applying to this country? I happen to share that view, but the Government contest it. I was not sure whether he was saying that that is the Committee’s view.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is a member of my Committee, and knows its views. He must wait for me to build up the argument, but he will find that I fairly reflect the Committee’s views.

The tabloid press have created a climate in which the human rights of asylum seekers are routinely abused, pretty well with impunity. As a civilised, democratic country, we are both legally and morally bound to protect the human rights of asylum seekers. Refusing an application—and consequent removal if necessary—and respect for human rights are not mutually exclusive.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend concede that among the many barriers facing asylum seekers or applicants to this country is the poor or appalling standard of legal representation that many are given? Lack of access to proper justice at the initial stage of an application means that unfair decisions are often made against genuine and legitimate applications.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I shall develop it later.

Our report was published in March this year, and we received the Government’s reply in mid-June. To put it mildly, my Committee was underwhelmed by the Home Office’s response. The Government failed to engage with the vast swathes of wide-ranging and compelling evidence demonstrating that the significant failings of the system are due not just to procedural inadequacies and incompetence, but to deep-seated prejudice towards asylum seekers, whose needs and rights are viewed as nothing more than an inconvenient hindrance to effective immigration controls. The Government’s sole, scratched-record response was to repeat their existing policy. Our concerns were compounded because, all too frequently, we found a yawning gap between stated official policy and its implementation on the ground. That view was more than supported by responses to the Government’s reply from a number of non-governmental organisations, which we have published on our website.

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A good example of the problems associated with support is the Government’s approach to section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. At present, asylum seekers aged over 18 and their dependants are entitled to support under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 if their case has not been finally determined and they would otherwise be destitute or be likely to become destitute. Section 9 of the 2004 Act provides for even that very limited support to be withdrawn as a so-called incentive to encourage asylum seekers to leave the UK. When the Committee scrutinised the original Bill, it warned that that was likely to lead to severe hardship and violation of human rights, particularly if children were taken into care because their parents had become destitute.

Nevertheless, the Government pressed on with a series of pilots. In the June 2007 evaluation, the Minister concluded that section 9 had led to

In other words, the Government’s policy had failed, but at the price of causing appalling hardship and serious human rights abuse. We heard of families dependent on food parcels from charities, and that at least four children were placed in local authority care as a consequence of that policy, no doubt at much greater expense to the public purse than if they had been given proper support. I am astounded to have to tell the Chamber that the Government have decided to retain section 9 on the statute book for use on a case-by-case basis.

Section 9 simply does not work, so how can the Minister possibly contend that it should not be repealed? How can he square his position with the Government’s claim in their response that

Does that doctrine apply only when the weight of the evidence supports the Government’s view and is not diametrically opposed to it?

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): My concern is women who leave abusive husbands or partners and seek accommodation in refuges. There is such a refuge in Birkenhead, but no funds are forthcoming locally to protect those women and their children. Does the report comment on that, and does it deal with the Government’s line that there is a moral hazard, and that if help is offered the number of people claiming that they are in that category will rise?

Mr. Dismore: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We did not specifically consider such cases, which is probably a failure on our part, but we considered the position of children and I shall refer to that later.

Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 enables asylum support to be withdrawn if the claim is not made as soon as is reasonably practicable. By October 2003—the year in which the Act came into force—that rule was responsible for 25 per cent. of all judicial review cases lodged with the High Court. In the 2005 Limbuela judgment, the Law Lords ruled that an
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asylum seeker’s rights against inhuman treatment could be seen to be broken if they had insufficient access to shelter, food or washing facilities. Yet the Home Office continues to use section 55 to deny support to those asylum seekers with accommodation, leaving many reliant solely on ad hoc charitable support.

In the third quarter of 2007, 207 asylum seekers were refused all support under section 55. My Committee believes that that policy does not comply with the House of Lords judgment and we have called for section 55 to be repealed, so I again ask the Minister to justify the use of section 55, if he can. Will he review the draconian impact of section 55 and publish the findings?

We have many other concerns about the rules for accommodation and support for asylum seekers and their implications. If asylum is not claimed at the port of entry, claimants must travel to offices in Liverpool or Croydon, which are possibly huge journeys for penniless people. The offices are open only from 9 am to 1 pm on working days. That is plainly unacceptable. The Government told us that they were considering changes, so will the Minister bring us up to date on what he has in mind?

We heard evidence of such delays in the processing of applications for support, and that people with a valid entitlement were left with neither money nor housing. We mentioned the case of an Afghan who waited five weeks for his due. The Government told us of improvements. They say that 40 per cent. of the most urgent cases are decided within two days, but that leaves 60 per cent. undecided for a longer period, leaving claimants with no financial support. That is morally unacceptable, inhumane and potentially breaks the right not to suffer inhumane treatment. How can the Minister reassure the House that steps are being taken to resolve that? When will all or at least most cases be dealt with within two days?

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised the question of legal support. The Government rejected our recommendation that legal aid should be available for representation before the Asylum Support Tribunal. There is plainly inequality of arms when the Home Office is routinely represented but the asylum seeker is not, despite probably speaking little or no English and having little or no understanding of the process.

Citizens Advice has subsequently advised us that a represented applicant is twice as likely to succeed at their appeal. The Government told us that the Lord Chancellor—presumably now the Secretary of State for Justice—could authorise exceptional funding for representation under the Access to Justice Act 1999 on the basis of a recommendation from the Legal Services Commission. I therefore tabled a question about the number of such requests authorised since 2004. Surprise, surprise, the answer was a big round number—zero. I urge the Minister to re-examine whether legal aid support could be offered to help people present their cases. Just how much would that cost when there are only 2,500 or so cases a year?

Jeremy Corbyn: I am sorry to detain my hon. Friend, but he has made a very valuable point. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that because of this system, many asylum seekers end up being the victims
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of the burgeoning industry of incompetent representation by unqualified people who often charge as much as £2,000 to represent somebody at a tribunal, knowing that the success rate is likely to be very low because they are unaware of the laws involved.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Committee expressed concern about the shortage of competent immigration advice. The Government acknowledged that the number of contracts had decreased significantly, from 644 in 2003 to 367 in 2006. Perhaps the Minister can give us the most up-to-date figures. We have received further representations from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, so will he say what the Government are doing to ensure that asylum seekers have the legal advice that they need?

Failed asylum seekers who are unable to leave the UK through no fault of their own can claim accommodation and vouchers for food and other essential living needs under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Citizens Advice estimates that the average time spent on section 4 support is nine months. The voucher system is inhumane, inefficient and does not adequately provide for basic living needs.

As an example, we reported the story of a Chinese lady forced to walk 3 miles across town to seek help from a charity, carrying her one-week-old newborn baby wrapped in a towel, because she could not even afford the bus fare, let alone the cost of a pram. We heard of a woman in Leeds who tried to use section 4 vouchers to buy nappies and toiletries for her baby; those vouchers were refused at Morrisons, Asda and Tesco. We recommended that the voucher system should be scrapped and that the appallingly poor standard of section 4 accommodation should be improved.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the corollary of the use of section 4 is often, as in the case of my Sudanese asylum seeker constituents Ahmed Kamal and Adam Jamal-Edeen, frequent moves throughout the country, which are very disruptive for the individuals and show an obvious lack of administrative control on the part of the Departments involved?

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention to illustrate the point. The fact remains that it is an inefficient system and inevitably far more expensive to operate than a more sensible, cash-based scheme would be. On the question of accommodation, we were told of a mother, father and three-week-old baby who were placed in a filthy, bug-infested room in Leicester. They were dousing their bedding with Dettol and sleeping on wet beds as a result, because of the large bed bugs—they took some to the charity involved to show people how big they were. Action has now been promised to improve accommodation standards, but our recommendation about vouchers was not accepted.

Improved support for the most vulnerable failed asylum seekers is promised. Can the Minister tell us what is going on after the conclusion of the heavily delayed consultation about introducing the necessary regulations? Can he also attempt to justify the assertion that the use of vouchers does not breach articles 3, 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights?

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Asylum seekers may apply for permission to work after they have waited a year for their initial decision, but delayed appeals attract no corresponding right. We recommended that permission should be granted if an asylum seeker has not been able to leave the UK for 12 months or more due to factors beyond their control. The Government’s response was to suggest that that would be an incentive for people to come to work in the UK illegally, but apparently there is not an incentive to ensure that the appeals are dealt with more promptly by the Government. Can the Minister justify his assertion that that would be such an incentive?

We found health care for asylum seekers, which has been featuring in the news recently, to be woefully inadequate. Although at present asylum seekers can register with a GP, the registration rules can be difficult to meet, particularly for people in temporary accommodation or sleeping rough. GPs are officially deterred from registering refused asylum seekers as patients. We heard of a Rwandan living destitute on the street. He had bowel cancer and a colostomy bag from a previous operation. The hospital trust refused to provide care without payment in advance, and the local GP refused to register him.

Refused asylum seekers are charged for hospital treatment to deter so-called health tourism by foreign nationals, but we found no evidence of health tourism. What we did find was that the systems were not in place to assess how many asylum seekers had actually been charged for health care and how many had actually paid the bills. Our suspicions were that the game was not worth the candle. We also found evidence of inconsistent application of the charging regulations: some people who were entitled to free treatment had been charged in error.

We were particularly concerned about the misapplication of the rules for hospital maternity services. Maternity care is classed by the Department of Health as “immediately necessary treatment”. It should be provided to asylum seekers without payment having to be made in advance. Too often, however, that guidance is not followed and pregnant women are deterred from seeking the health care that both they and their babies need.

Let us consider maternity risks. Newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees are seven times more likely to die than women in the indigenous population, and more than half the migrant women who died had major problems accessing maternity care. We heard of a young Chinese woman turned away by her NHS trust. She was told that unless she could pay several thousand pounds up front, it would not support her through the birth of her baby. She therefore gave birth at home with no medical care, and then both she and her baby were admitted to hospital as an emergency with serious health problems related to the traumatic birth. Once discharged, the hospital continued to send her bills, which frightened her so much that she left home. Her and her baby’s whereabouts are not known.

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