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Mr. Woolas: There is a counter-argument and this is a very difficult area of public policy. There are some circumstances in which asylum seekers, and failed asylum seekers, can work. The Government take the view that extending the right to work to people claiming asylum has the disadvantage of encouraging the pull factor—our research backs this up—and would significantly outweigh the advantages referred to by my hon. Friend. There is also the political judgment on whether it would be socially equitable for the domestic work force—that is a very elaborate way of referring to British jobs.
Damian Green: I have a few questions on the reception document. Will the Minister clarify what “subsidiary protection” means? Does it mean that a new class of people is allowed to come here, as well as those seeking refugee status, and what numbers are we talking about annually?
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Selby, has the Minister considered the effects of the interaction of the six-month labour market limit with the cost of visas under the points-based system, and indeed the current absence of any visas for unskilled workers, under the points-based system? Will that not encourage people who use the asylum system as a way into the UK labour market?
If we made it easier, under the asylum system, to be here for six months and then get a job, which would be easier under the Government’s current policy, would the Minister not be worried that that would encourage people to use that route into the UK labour market, particularly given the current conditions of the points-based system?
Mr. Woolas: If I have understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, if one were to say that six months would give a rights to work entitlement, that would see a significant increase in the number of people using the asylum route either to get settlement or to stay in the UK. It would also—this is a key argument—encourage delay within the asylum process, because the finishing line would be the six months, not the decision to grant or not to grant. The Committee knows my views on some of the tactics used by some of the legal and other representatives to delay the system, and one could indeed argue that there would be an incentive to abscond for six months.
The mid-term people who do not get the full rights under the 1951 convention are those who are described as getting subsidiary protection but who are not classified as refugees. Under the qualifications directive, one of the three directives to which I have referred, those people have that status because they cannot be returned due to certain individual circumstances in their own countries, rather than the general situation. They are therefore given an intermediate status that is recognised under the qualifications directive.
Paul Rowen: I would like to ask the Minister about the Eurodac proposals. Under the current regime, data are stored for two years, but the new directive proposes to reduce that to 12 months. Will he explain why the Government do not support that and want the two-year requirement to be retained?
Mr. Woolas: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for spotting that. The simple reason is that we think that two years is more effective. Personally, I would go much further and do not see that it would result in any infringement of liberty. Policy makers need to set their face against what is in many cases a sinister approach from organised crime, which often exploits those people. I have been advised that the reduction to 12 months is in line with the Dublin proposals, so some are arguing for 12 months because it will bring the figure in line with their own policies, but we see no reason to reduce it. Indeed, if anything, we would want to increase it.
Damian Green: I, too, would like to ask about the Eurodac system. If the Minister does not consider the further expansion of the retention of data for longer periods to be any kind of threat to freedom, he will certainly find that the Opposition do, and I suspect that the same is true of the Liberal Democrats. I assume that that is why the hon. Member for Rochdale asked that pertinent question, which I, too, had planned to ask. Will the Minister tell the Committee how many fingerprints the UK has already put into the Eurodac system?
Mr. Woolas: With regard to the privacy aspect, it is not the case that those people do not have rights, because they have rights under the European convention. We are talking about asylum seekers, so this is nothing to do with the debate we had in the House yesterday during Question Time. I suspect that the Liberal Democrats will probably oppose an extension and that the Conservatives will probably agree with me, but perhaps I am being unfair.
I am afraid that I do not have precise figures on fingerprints but offer to write to the hon. Gentleman about that. All asylum claimants have their fingerprints taken and that database is then available through Eurodac, so the answer to the question is the total number of claimants. Within the European Union, however, 17 per cent. of asylum claimants are duplicates who have claimed, for example, in both Greece and the UK, and that figure includes triplicates who may have claimed, for example, in Greece, the UK and Ireland. That number, whatever it is, is the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I am afraid that I do not know what it is off the top of my head.
Paul Rowen: The Minister talked about the changes in the directive that laid down clear rules about keeping people in detention and set out the reasons why people have to be detained. Why does he feel that that is not adequate protection? Surely we should use detention only when a speedy decision and a speedy exit are on the way. Do we not have far too many people in detention centres awaiting a decision on asylum? It is the UK Border Agency’s failure to deal with that that is the problem, not the fact that those people have to be kept in detention.
Mr. Woolas: I understand the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I do not accept the premise. There are many reasons why the UKBA is not able to operate without detentions, some of them to do with the statutory framework that Parliament has put upon it and some of them to do with the European convention and the 1951 convention.
I will, if I may, put on record this important policy point, which the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to address. In 2003 the Government introduced the detained fast-track system, which was seen as a deterrent against unfounded asylum claims. As we saw people using the asylum system to make unfounded claims as a route into the country, that policy was introduced. Nearly 7 per cent. of cases per year go through that independent system, of which 95 per cent. are found to be groundless. That backs up my argument. In around 75 per cent. of those 95 per cent. of cases, the individuals are removed from the country within six months. The fast-track system is the right system because the only way ultimately to reconcile a proper and fair asylum system with abuse, is to process claims as quickly as possible, commensurate with being fair. Current detention powers, which do not require automatic judicial oversight or authorisation, are in line with article 5 of the Human Rights Act 1998, and individuals can apply for bail to an immigration judge.
These proposals would create a two-tier detention system, with asylum seekers being treated more favourably than others, and that could encourage foreign national prisoners—within this category of people detained are foreign national prisoners— [Interruption.] “Too many”, the hon. Member for Ashford says. We have had many debates on that issue. The proposed system could encourage foreign national prisoners to claim asylum to benefit from the more favourable provisions. Specific time limits on detention would increase the incentive for asylum seekers to play out time to ensure their release, and thereby jeopardise our ability to remove those who had made unfounded claims. Significantly, the system would also put pressure on the tribunal service.
I hope that that satisfies the hon. Member for Rochdale and convinces him that our attitude towards the proposals is consistent. He probably disagrees in principle with the policy and I respect that, but we are applying it consistently with the proposals.
Damian Green: I have a couple of questions on the “new Dublin” proposals, the updated Dublin proposals. First, I understand the Government’s concern about the dependent relatives clause. Will the Minister tell us how wide, under this document, the definition of dependent relative would be, so that the Committee can assess how big an effect that would have?
Secondly, will the Minister explain the interaction between the Dublin process and what is still regrettably going on in Calais? He will know that many people, in as much as they understand the Dublin process, will wonder why individuals who wish to claim asylum in the EU and have got as far as northern France—a friendly, democratic country and a member of the EU—do not claim asylum there. Why are any of them trying to come across the channel to claim asylum here?
Mr. Woolas: That is a very good question, which I am sure the whole Committee will support.
On the family reunification and children point, I will explain why we do not support the revised provisions to widen the definition of dependent relative. Member states resisted similar provisions during the negotiation of the existing Dublin regulation, interestingly enough, and the Commission has come back with these proposals. The arguments we used then, we think apply now. It is often difficult to determine whether alleged family members are related as claimed or dependent on others. The hon. Gentleman will know from his experience that not everybody tells the whole truth. Many family cases can be difficult to decide due to the absence or poor quality of documentation from countries of origin and, indeed, a lack of consistency in the verbal statements taken by our officials through interviews. This, of course, is not confined to transfers under the Dublin system but applies equally in the context of the whole immigration and asylum policy. By defining the notion of family more widely we believe we would unwittingly make the problem exponentially more difficult. There is a serious point—which I know the hon. Gentleman supports—regarding the exploitation and trafficking of children who are allegedly related to the claimant. That is a very difficult area of public policy. It was for those reasons that we rejected the wider definition.
On the relationship with northern France, the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point that backs up our argument—we debated this in public recently on the BBC. People trying to get through the channel tunnel have, on the whole, chosen not to claim asylum in France which, to my mind, shows that they are not genuinely seeking escape from persecution, as defined under the Geneva convention. Our co-operation with the French prevents most people coming through the tunnel. This package of proposals, if adopted correctly, can help that situation—particularly through Eurodac and the third-country Dublin proposals—and encourage the French to use them. I reassure him that people trying to get into the UK who are apprehended in northern France by our officials or French officials are fingerprinted. He raises a good question which is why we need to revise the situation.
Paul Rowen: On the same issue of vulnerable groups, perhaps the Minister could tell us how many cases the UK Border Agency has dealt with in the last 12 months. Does he not accept that the proposals in this document for treating them as a separate category—rather than treating them as part of the same group of asylum seekers—would speed up the process and be a benefit in sorting out an issue?
Mr. Woolas: I am not sure I follow hon. Gentleman’s logic that if one dealt with vulnerable groups as a specific category, one would be able to deal with them more effectively. Am I allowed to throw the question back, Miss Begg? If the answer is not satisfactory he may choose to ask it again.
The Chairman: Order. He can ask another question, yes.
Paul Rowen: I am looking at page 51 of the document and it states there under the heading “Legislate” that policy option a)
“would ensure that vulnerable groups including unaccompanied minors undergo a specific, accelerated procedure for determining responsibility”.
In my view that would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage.
Mr. Woolas: I confess that I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman. The page 51 that I am looking at is clearly a different page 51. I will explain our policy on the issue, which might answer the question.
The Commission and member states are trying to address the deficiencies in dealing with asylum claims from people with special needs, and the proposal requires member states to establish the procedures outlined by the hon. Gentleman. First, member states must identify applicants with special needs, and, secondly, those states must ensure that such applicants receive support through the asylum procedure. If members of the Committee are interested, we have put the guidance on the website, so they can judge cases. I will not quote the website address for the relevant page, because it is nearly as long as the document under discussion, but it is under the UKBA guidance section.
Considering our procedures and guidance, we believe that we already operate a perfectly good system for identifying, looking after and coping with those with special needs. If there is such a need, we can, and do, refer the matter to social services, and the application forms themselves afford asylum seekers a further opportunity to declare special needs, including medical requirements. We therefore believe that the proposal for member states to establish an identification process will put our front-line staff in a difficult position.
Victims of rape, torture and trafficking—the hon. Member for Rochdale deals with such cases in his advice surgery—are naturally reluctant to discuss their experiences until they have established a rapport with someone, which would not be possible with a screening and interviewing process. Our current system allows self-referral and integrated access to health care for asylum seekers, including those with mental health disorders—some genuine cases involve traumatised people—and we consider that to be a better way of dealing with the issue. The Commission’s intention is right, but in practice the UK perhaps functions better than some other states. Indeed, putting the Commission’s strict criteria up front might jeopardise our ability to provide help to people who need it. There is a balance, but I think that that is the answer.
The Chairman: If there are no more questions, we will move on to debate the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 16913/08 and Addenda 1 to 3, draft Directive laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, No. 16934/08 and Addenda 1 to 3, draft Regulation on the establishment of ‘EURODAC’ for the comparison of fingerprints for the effective application of the Regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection, and No. 16929/08 and Addenda 1 to 3, Regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one Member State by a third country national or a stateless person; supports the Government’s aim of making more efficient the arrangements for identifying the Member State responsible for determining a claim for international protection (and, where appropriate, for removing to that country the person applying for protection); and supports the Government’s aim of ensuring that minimum standards for the treatment of those seeking protection in the EU support the maintenance of an effective asylum system that grants protection to those who need it and identifies and swiftly returns those who do not.—(Mr. Woolas.)
5.23 pm
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