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13 Dec 2007 : Column 150WH—continued

Problems in accessing GPs and secondary hospital treatment inevitably lead to asylum seekers using often hard-pressed accident and emergency departments as their only form of health care, by which time their illness may have become far worse and more demanding and costly to treat. That is unacceptable for the asylum seeker and a burden on the NHS, but there is also a
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potential impact on public health if asylum seekers with infectious illnesses are not treated expeditiously. We heard of one asylum seeker who collapsed and was taken to accident and emergency. He was diagnosed with HIV and treated for a number of diseases, including tuberculosis. He was then given a bill for £5,000. He was discharged and then, not surprisingly, vanished and did not receive ongoing treatment. The outcome of his TB treatment is unknown.The policy of forcing asylum seekers into A and E also breeds prejudice against them if others in the A and E department believe that they are having to wait longer because the queue is full of asylum seekers as a result of that policy.

We concluded that the justification offered for making refused asylum seekers pay for health care was weak and that the UK could be breaching its article 14 obligations not to discriminate on grounds of nationality. We recommended that primary and secondary health care should be free to all those who have made a claim for asylum while they remain within our borders.

The Government response acknowledged that there are problems in health care provision for asylum seekers. A review is in progress, but recent press reports suggest that the Government seek to go even further and prohibit asylum seekers any access to GPs or other primary care or hospital services apart from accident and emergency. That is exactly the opposite of what we recommended. It fails to meet our country’s human rights obligations, puts public health at risk and is unjustifiable due to its impact on overstretched A and E services, which would inevitably receive more asylum seeker patients, again feeding prejudice against them. Can the Minister point to any hard evidence to support the case that failed asylum seekers will leave the UK if they cannot get access to health care? More importantly, can he reassure us that the recent press reports of what would be an absurdly foolish direction for the policy review are wide of the mark?

Mr. Stewart Jackson: On a perhaps tangential point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that prejudice against asylum seekers would have been ameliorated somewhat if, several years ago, the National Asylum Support Service procedures respecting the dispersal of asylum seekers had been undertaken with more local consultation and more transparency, both here in the House of Commons and with local authorities?

Mr. Dismore: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s point matches the points that I am making. There were certainly problems with the dispersal procedures at the beginning, and a lot of asylum seekers still gravitate towards London anyway, but I am not entirely sure that the matter meets my points about health care.

We also recommended specifically that the Government should provide free treatment for HIV/AIDS to asylum claimants while they remain in the UK, and that no person in the final stages of a terminal illness should be deported if they would not have access to medical care to prevent acute suffering while they were dying. We were told of a 38-year-old Chinese man whose refugee status had been denied, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia and who needed treatment urgently, but whom no GP in his area would register.

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Our recommended course of action may be necessary to meet our duties under the European convention, but it should also be implemented on grounds of common humanity. The Government have agreed that they would not seek to deport someone in such circumstances as I have described, and I welcome that, but no special concessions were made for asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS. What does the Minister see as the implications of that stance for the nation’s public health?

I also suggest that if an HIV/AIDS sufferer is deported, chances are that in his home country he could well become dependent on treatment, if it is available, provided by non-governmental organisations supported by international development aid, including aid from our own Department for International Development—in other words, treatment paid for by the UK taxpayer anyway. Government policy shows a lack of joined-up thinking and undermines our otherwise impressive international commitment to help to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS in the developing world.

On a number of occasions, as in our report, the Committee has called on the Government to withdraw their reservation in respect of immigration and nationality matters to the UN convention on the rights of the child. The convention is intended to ensure that the rights of the child are always paramount. The UK’s reservation undermines that key protection and is plainly wrong. We reject the Government’s claim that full application of the UN convention would undermine our immigration control. The reservation leaves asylum-seeking children with less protection of rights unrelated to their immigration status, and we believe that it must be withdrawn.

Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a duty on public bodies in discharging their normal functions to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and to ensure that services are provided with regard to that need. Among the bodies excluded from that duty, however, are the Border and Immigration Agency, the National Asylum Support Service and immigration removal centres. We recommend that section 11 should apply to those bodies. The Government plan to develop for them a code of practice for safeguarding children, but can the Minister explain why the protection of children by the BIA and related organisations should not be put on a statutory footing?

We criticised the inadequate support and accommodation available to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and the strain on local authorities. Authorities whose areas contain major ports of entry experience disproportionate demand. The Government have acknowledged that, and proposals for improvement have been subject to consultation. Will the Minister report on progress?

We recommended that a formal system of guardianship be required for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to meet the requirements of the EU reception directive, but the Government rejected our view, claiming that separated children are provided with appropriate support by local authorities. I urge the Minister to reconsider. A more formal system would be more appropriate and cost-effective in ensuring that children get the support they need. Our recommendations concerning children could be taken up by the Children and Young Persons Bill. Although the Bill requires that an independent person should
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visit all looked-after children, the requirement excludes asylum-seeking looked-after children. Why are those children to be excluded from measures that the Government believe are necessary to help other looked-after children?

Where a child asylum seeker’s age was in dispute, we took issue with the use of X-rays and other medical evidence in reaching a decision. The view of the Children’s Commissioner is that X-rays are not helpful in assessing a child’s age. The Government acknowledged that more work was needed on the matter, particularly following detailed research by the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. Will the Minister provide us with an update?

During our inquiry, we visited Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. Subsequently, we have received disturbing letters from a women’s group there about conditions at the centre, especially since the contractors managing it changed at the start of the financial year. If that is the case, how have the recent problems at Yarl’s Wood been resolved?

We identified a clear gap between Government policy and practice on the ground. In general, the Government’s view is that their policies and procedures comply with the European convention on human rights, but we found plenty of evidence of potential human rights abuses. For example, vulnerable adults should be detained only in exceptional circumstances, but we found evidence of detention without any assessment of vulnerability.

The detention system often makes little or no assessment of the welfare of children, whose detention can last for lengthy periods. When we visited Yarl’s Wood, there were 32 children at the centre, seven of whom had been there for more than 28 days. Although the Government state that every effort is made to minimise the disruption and distress caused to children, there is strong evidence that that does not happen in practice. We heard of a family subjected to a raid in which officials barged into their home at 6 am. The 11-year-old son was asleep, but his parents were not allowed to wake him up—the officials did so, which proved very traumatic for the child. At the detention centre, the boy was so frightened that he locked himself in the toilet, refused to come out and would communicate only by notes under the door. The family were eventually released, but any knock on the door now terrifies the boy.

Only asylum seekers who are readily removable should be detained, but we found that, when the decision to detain an asylum seeker is being made, insufficient attention is given to considering whether that person can be removed. We heard at Yarl’s Wood that one woman was released in December 2006, after 23 months—almost two years—in detention.

We found problems with the health care and legal advice available to detainees. We were even told of two cases in which breastfeeding mothers were detained separately from their babies. We were also concerned about inadequate judicial oversight, particularly in relation to the duration of detention. We were told of an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who spent 10 months in detention and was twice threatened with illegal removal. Once he was even taken to Heathrow in handcuffs, despite the fact that his case was still before the court. Luckily, he borrowed an immigration official’s mobile phone and called his
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solicitor, who obtained an injunction to secure his return, but he was then classed as a difficult case and certain sanctions followed.

Our criticisms about the speed with which detention is effected and the dawn raids on families with which we are all familiar have been made by others and are well known. At Yarl’s Wood, we met a Pakistani man, his wife and their eight and 10-year-old children who were detained at 6 am. They were moved around between detention centres, involving an eight-hour journey from Scotland to Yarl’s Wood in a freezing van with only one stop at an airport on the way. We spoke to a Jamaican woman who had been in the UK since 2000 and was detained with her eight and 10-year-old children—30 police officers had arrived to detain them.

There are far too many reports of excessive force and lack of sensitivity in removals. At Yarl’s Wood, I talked to a woman with a seven-month-old baby. She and the child were taken to the airport at no notice—she was given no chance to get a jumper for the child, change its nappy or collect any baby milk. After a night at Heathrow, she was not removed, but returned to Yarl’s Wood.

Although the Government’s response explains that immigration officers are trained in conflict management, it makes no mention of the private contractors who are often responsible for removals. Perhaps the Minister will explain what is being done to ensure that they do not use excessive force and that performance targets do not lead to unnecessary or poorly planned removals. Will he also explain what the Home Office is doing to ensure that its detention and removal policies are implemented?

The main and overarching conclusion of our report is extremely disturbing—even, I would say, shaming. We found that the result of Government policy towards asylum seekers is widespread destitution. All too frequently, the circumstances are so bad that they breach the article 3 convention threshold for inhuman and degrading treatment. That applies at all stages of the asylum process, from when individuals make a claim to consideration of the claim—and the period after refusal, should they be unable to return to their country of origin.

Many witnesses told us that they were convinced that destitution is a deliberate tool in the operation of immigration policy. I regret to say that we were persuaded, on the overwhelming weight of evidence, that the Government have indeed been practising a deliberate policy of making that highly vulnerable group destitute. Such deliberate use of inhuman treatment is utterly unacceptable. We have seen and heard of far too many cases in which the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers and those refused asylum falls well below the requirements not only of international law, but of our traditional British common-law values and legal principles of humanity.

That is a serious charge, and it is not made lightly. We reached that view only after hearing many witnesses, reading volumes of evidence and visiting Yarl’s Wood, where we could talk freely with detainees, including their detained children. The accounts of their treatment were deeply depressing. Such things should not happen in a civilised society.

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The Government rebut our conclusion, claiming that

However, that assertion cannot stand against the evidence given to our inquiry. I urge the Minister to reflect on our findings, the array of evidence and the transcripts that we published, as well as the arguments that I advanced in the report and repeated today.

I plead with the Minister to reconsider his view that that we respect the human rights of asylum seekers in this country. Any civilised society should be able to treat asylum seekers with respect and dignity, even if they are refused leave to remain and are to be removed.

The final issue that we considered was the role of some of the press in demonising asylum seekers. We are very concerned at the negative impact of such relentlessly hostile reporting. We recommended that the Press Complaints Commission should provide practical guidance to the media on the reporting of asylum issues, and that the Home Office should encourage newspapers to act more responsibly. We also recommended that Ministers should use measured language when discussing asylum matters. The Government response dwelled on the positive impact expected from the restructuring of the Home Office and the creating of an overarching communications strategy for the Department. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he thinks that that has worked out in practice. From my reading of the tabloids, it seems somewhat unlikely.

In conclusion, asylum seekers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the UK. Victims of abuse and ill treatment in the country of origin, they come to the UK in search of sanctuary and a better life. We fully accept that many may not have a genuine claim to asylum and ought properly to be denied a permanent home here. However, that does not permit us to treat them so poorly or to abuse their human rights.

Our inquiry’s findings were stark but clear: our country routinely abuses the human rights of asylum seekers. In our view, asylum seekers are sometimes treated so appallingly that we fail to meet our obligation under article 3 of the European convention to protect them from inhuman treatment. Worse, that is the inevitable consequence of asylum policies developed over recent years.

Self-evidently, treating asylum seekers humanely may not be a popular cause, but meeting our human rights obligations does not mean accepting more asylum seekers into the country. Human rights are universal; they apply equally to us all. Who knows when we might need those rights ourselves? Observing that principle is not only the law, but the right thing to do.

Whether the Minister likes it or not, an asylum seeker, failed or otherwise, is not a file of papers or a Home Office reference number. The asylum seeker is a human being, possibly even an orphan child whose parents have died from AIDS or were killed in one of the many conflicts in the developing world. That human being’s only fault is to take at face value the Government’s assurance that those fleeing death, torture and persecution are welcome. Contrasting the meanness and nastiness of our current record with the more generous historic tradition of decency and fair play shows that asylum seekers are clearly not welcome at all.

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3.5 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, the debate is not about who is or is not given refugee status; it is not about the decision-making process. We may have very different views on how efficient that process is, whether decisions are fair and how many people should or should not be given refugee status, but irrespective of those, I hope that we would agree that while such people are in the United Kingdom, whether they are given asylum or refugee status or whether it is decided that their claims are not justified and that they should be removed—whatever the conclusion—we should ensure that they are treated humanely and that their human rights are upheld.

Parts of various Acts specifically relate to destitution—section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, and section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Section 55 of the 2002 Act allows support to be refused to someone who has claimed late. The Government’s view in their response is that support is not refused to anyone who does not have alternative support, but that does not match the evidence that I have seen of people refused under that provision. Although the numbers involved are relatively small, as my hon. Friend said, it is one of the decision-making areas that is most challenged—and often successfully challenged—through judicial review.

Section 9 of the 2004 Act has so far been applied only as a pilot. The review undertaken by the Border and Immigration Agency said that it was not effective as a stand-alone measure, but it then said that reforms or enhancements to the arrangements for voluntary return might suggest that it should be retained. The Government have not yet given a real decision on that, and they have the power under a later Act to repeal section 9. The very fact that that power was given indicates that they had doubts about whether it is effective. Otherwise, why take the power to repeal it?

The BIA review did not seem to conclude that section 9 was not effective on a stand-alone basis. It suggested that the provision did not have much effect, and that when it did it was probably negative. The review compared a cohort of people being dealt with under section 9 with a similarly sized cohort who were not. It found little difference in the number who applied for voluntary return; it found little difference in the number who were removed; but it found a significant difference in the number of people who disappeared. Of the 116 cases in the cohort being dealt with under section 9, who should have been reporting to the immigration service or making contact with asylum support officials, 39 per cent. were no longer in contact at the end of the pilot, whereas in the control group it was just over half that number.

It seems that section 9 has a negative effect, encouraging people to disappear. On that basis, it is difficult to see why section 9, which is very clear and simple in providing for the withdrawal of all support, would be any better in an enhanced system of voluntary removal. Indeed, I think that its effect will be exactly the same as in the pilot. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us when we might expect a decision
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on the future of section 9. If it is not going to be used, let us use the powers that are in place to remove it from the statute book.

I have heard the argument that there is no policy of enforced destitution, but there is no question but that destitution has been the consequence—

3.10 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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