Joint Committee On Human Rights Seventeenth Report

2. Memorandum from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux

Thank you for your letter of 23 April, inviting our comments on the human rights implications of the above Bill.

I attach our briefing to MPs for the Committee stage of the Bill in the House of Commons, which sets out our principal concerns. To our mind, the following provisions of the Bill are particularly likely to have human rights implications:

Part 2 - accommodation centres

In effect, residence in the proposed asylum accommodation centres will be compulsory, with those who refuse to accept the 'offer' of a place being disqualified from all other forms of welfare support; for destitute or soon-to-be destitute asylum seekers, this will not be much of a choice. Furthermore, the children of residents will be denied access to local educational services, and the proposed location and residency conditions of the pilot accommodation centres lead us to conclude that residents will in practice have little or no access to other local services (such as legal advice providers) and little if any ability to engage in purposeful activity off-site. With some regret—we were initially somewhat attracted to the idea of accommodation centres—we have concluded that, all in all, the accommodation centres as proposed will in fact be de facto detention centres.

Clause 34 - asylum seeker: form of support

The proposed denial of all support to those who decline to accept dispersal by NASS to the regions appears to us to raise issues around the right to family life. In our experience, many of those who opt for subsistence support only do so because they are disabled, are pregnant or with a new-born child, or are suffering serious illness, and wish to remain with family or friends who can help them to deal with their situation.

Clause 48 - bail

As we understand it, the provisions of Part III of the 1999 Act were devised to ensure compliance with Article 5 of the ECHR, and it is deeply regrettable that these provisions have never been implemented. The fact that the number of asylum seekers held in detention has increased substantially since 1999 cannot in anyway justify the abolition of a much needed legal safeguard against the possibility of arbitrary and unlawful detention. On the contrary, the case of implementation of Part III grows with the opening of every new detention centre. Compliance with basic human rights norms does not always come cheap, let alone free, but if detention of asylum seekers is genuinely used only where demonstrably necessary to ensure removal, then we can see no reason why routine bail hearings, as provided for in Part III of the 1999 Act, would significantly interfere with the efficiency or efficacy of the asylum determination and removal processes.


This briefing has been prepared for the Committee stage of the Nationality, Immigration & Asylum Bill in the House of Commons, and should be read in conjunction with our briefing for the Second Reading of the Bill on 24 April 2002, and our response to the February 2002 White Paper Secure borders, safe haven.

We have a number of serious reservations and concerns about the Bill's provisions in respect of:

    —  accommodation centres (Part 2);

    —  other support and assistance for asylum seekers (Part 3), and

    —  the repeal of Part III of the Immigration & Asylum Act 1999, the very welcome but still not implemented provisions in respect of bail rights for detained asylum seekers (Part 4)

    —  Immigration and Asylum Appeals (Part 5)

Part 2 - Accommodation Centres

Having previously adopted a cautiously positive stance on the proposal to establish asylum accommodation centres,[153] we are deeply disappointed by Part 2 of the Bill. The details of the proposed legislation appear to us to provide for the establishment of de facto detention centres.

Not only does the Bill provide for the exclusion of resident children from local educational services, but those needy asylum seekers who refuse the offer of a place in an accommodation centre or breach their conditions of residence will not qualify for other forms of support (such as NASS dispersal accommodation and subsistence support). These concerns are heightened by the fact that most of the eight sites shortlisted for the four pilot centres are in rural or semi-rural locations.

In short, residence will be compulsory (the only choice being for asylum seekers to go without welfare support of any kind), and residents will largely be confined to the centre, with little or no access to local services and little if any ability to engage in purposeful activity off-site.

In our view, asylum accommodation centres should be of modest capacity, should be located within or at least close to centres of population, and should provide residents both with effective access to local services and with ample opportunity to engage in purposeful activity off-site. Independent legal advice and representation should be provided on-site, but residents must also have free access to off-site providers of such advice and representation.

Even if the pilot accommodation centres are judged to be a success, it will be many years before more than a tiny proportion of all needy asylum seekers can be accommodated in such centres. The latest available information indicates that, in addition to the more than 65,000 asylum seekers and dependants currently supported by NASS, some 55,000 asylum seekers and dependants remain supported by local authorities (under interim provisions due to expire by April 2002 but now extended to April 2004), and a further 12,000 asylum seekers (plus dependants) remain supported by the mainstream welfare benefits system.[154]

Accordingly, with a proposed 3,000 places in total the pilot centres would accommodate just two per cent of all needy asylum seekers and dependants at any one time (i.e. considerably less than the "ten per cent" claimed by Ministers). This means that it is essential to address the failings of NASS, which will continue to be the main provider of welfare support to asylum seekers for many years to come, whatever the outcome of the pilot.

Part 3 - Other Support and Assistance

For the foreseeable future the vast majority of needy asylum seekers will be accommodated and/or supported by NASS. We are therefore deeply disappointed by the absence from the Bill of any significant measures to improve the NASS-administered support system, which remains characterised by extreme delay and error on the part of NASS, compounded by the inaccessibility of NASS to both supported asylum seekers and their advisers.

The Government has dismissed our February 2002 report—Process error: CAB clients' experience of the National Asylum Support Service—as evidence only of "past problems" in the performance of NASS that no longer persist. However, the ongoing experience of CABx suggests that these problems have not yet been remedied, and that NASS' service standards remain unacceptably low. An annex to this briefing sets out four case examples from the current or recent caseload of CABx (please contact NACAB for updates).

On the basis of the extensive experience of CABx since April 2000, we believe that it is essential for NASS to establish adequate local 'drop-in' services for supported asylum seekers, so as to provide a responsive and accessible service at a local level. In the dispersal areas (and other areas with a high density of NASS supported asylum seekers), these services should be provided from dedicated NASS outlets, but in other areas they could, for example, take the form of a regular NASS clinic in local Benefits Agency offices.

Clause 34 - asylum seeker: form of support

We strongly oppose Clause 34, which provides for a power to make regulations restricting the provision of NASS subsistence support to those dispersed to NASS accommodation. In other words, Clause 34 would abolish the current option of applying for (and receiving) NASS subsistence support only (i.e. without receiving, upon dispersal, NASS provided accommodation).

This would not only be unfair and unjust, but would almost certainly prove to be counter productive. In some cases, it would result in the undesirable separation of asylum seekers from friends or relatives able to accommodate but not financially support them, causing unnecessary distress to the asylum seekers concerned and increased accommodation costs to NASS.

In other cases, Clause 34 could result in the denial of all welfare support to those asylum seekers who, for perfectly understandable reasons (such as, for example, their disability, serious illness or pregnancy), prefer to stay with friends or relatives rather than be dispersed. This would cause economic hardship to all those concerned, increase poverty and social exclusion, and thus undermine the Government's wider strategy for refugee integration.

Almost 40 per cent of the more than 65,000 asylum seekers and dependants currently supported by NASS have opted to receive subsistence support only.[155] Accordingly, the number of individuals who would be adversely affected by Clause 34 is substantial.

We urge the deletion of Clause 34.

Clause 37: Failed asylum seeker

We welcome Clause 37, which provides additional powers to support failed asylum seekers pending removal. Currently, the scope for NASS to provide support to such individuals is extremely limited.

Clause 43: International projects

Inter alia, Clause 43 provides a power for the Home Secretary to establish a refugee resettlement programme, under which an apparently very small number of persons recognised as refugees whilst still abroad could be accepted for resettlement in the UK.

We would welcome the establishment of such a resettlement programme, so long as it did not lead to the emergence of a two-tier asylum determination process, with those who arrive at the UK's borders independently being regarded as 'queue-jumpers' and therefore 'undeserving' of the UK's protection, whatever the merits of their asylum claim. Unambiguous assurances on this point should be sought from Ministers during the Committee stage.

Part 4 - Detention & Removal

Clause 47: Detention centres: change of name

The proposed re-naming of immigration detention centres as 'removal centres' is inappropriate and would cause unnecessary confusion and anxiety on the part of many detainees. Most of those asylum seekers detained under Immigration Act powers at any one time are still awaiting either an initial decision on their asylum by the Home Office IND or the outcome of an appeal to the IAA. Clearly, in the vast majority of such cases, removal is not an imminent prospect.

We urge the deletion of Clause 47.

Since 1997, the Home Office has repeatedly declined to issue the statistics on this point that were issued frequently under the previous government. Ministers should be asked to provide such statistics during the Committee stage.

Clause 48: Bail

We are appalled by Clause 48(6), which largely repeals Part III of the Immigration & Asylum Act 1999 - the very welcome but still not implemented provisions in respect of automatic and routine bail hearings for detained asylum seekers. The implementation of these provisions is essential to ensure compliance with Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the CAB Service has repeatedly urged the Government to bring them into force as a matter of urgency. The fact that the number of asylum seekers being held in detention has increased substantially since 1999 does not in any way justify the abolition of a much needed legal remedy against arbitrary and unlawful detention.

If detention of asylum seekers is genuinely used only where demonstrably necessary to ensure removal, then there is no reason to believe that routine bail hearings, as provided for in Part III of the 1999 Act, would significantly interfere with the efficiency or efficacy of the asylum determination and removal processes. We note that, on second reading of the Bill, both the Home Secretary and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State indicated that the provisions of Part III of the 1999 Act have been used to frustrate or delay the removal of failed asylum seekers. This is patently not the case, as the provisions have never been implemented and thus cannot have been so 'exploited'.[156]

We urge the deletion of Clause 48(6).

Clause 49: Reporting restrictions: travel expenses

We welcome Clause 49, which will allow NASS to meet the reasonable travel costs of supported asylum seekers who are required to travel to a reporting centre so as to comply with a reporting requirement imposed by IND.

Clause 50: Induction

Whilst we welcome and support the new policy emphasis on inducting asylum seekers into the support and determination processes, we are not convinced that the proposed 'induction centres' and associated processes, as currently being piloted in Dover, offer more than marginal improvements on the existing, emergency accommodation-based processes.

Ministers have described the proposed 'induction centre' processes as "the key to increasing the efficacy and effectiveness" of the asylum support system as a whole.[157] However, we struggle to see how four briefings of 30-45 minutes each, a medical check and an on-site means test will significantly improve the overall efficiency of a system that, as noted above, remains characterised by delay and error on the part of NASS, compounded by the acute inaccessibility of NASS to both supported asylum seekers and their advisers.

Furthermore, we are deeply disturbed by the new requirement on asylum seekers (not in the Bill) to sign a declaration that they understand the asylum determination and support processes, and their obligations under those processes, before they leave the 'induction centre'. We are particularly concerned that asylum seekers are likely to be asked to sign the declaration before having access to independent legal advice, which is not provided on-site in the Dover 'induction centre'. The Government has not justified or explained the purpose of this requirement. The Government has stated that "at present" there are no consequences of a refusal to comply.[158] However, we fear that a signed declaration may be used to justify action detrimental to the individual concerned at a later date (for example, following a minor transgression of reporting or residency conditions, or an omission due to inadequate explanation, or poor understanding of what are very complex rules). Ministers should be asked to provide firm assurances about the purposes and use of the signed declaration during the Committee stage.

Part 5 - Immigration and Asylum Appeals

The fact that further substantial changes to the immigration and asylum appeal systems are seemingly under consideration without being set out in the Bill makes it difficult for us to comment meaningfully on this Part of the Bill.[159] However, we would like to draw attention to one matter raised by the Home Secretary's statement on Second Reading on 24 April: family visitor appeals.

The CAB Service has consistently opposed the fees charged to appellants under the (otherwise very welcome) family visitor appeal mechanism established in October 2000.[160] We therefore warmly welcome the Home Secretary's announcement, on 24 April, of the 'abolition' of these fees.[161] In our view, the fees were racially discriminatory and thus wrong in principle, and could not be justified on any administrative, financial or other grounds.

However, as we understand it, the 'abolition' of the fees will be effected by Regulations only, leaving the power to impose such fees intact (s.60(6)(a) of the Immigration & Asylum Act 1999). We are urging the Government to bring forward an amendment to Part 5 of the Bill that would repeal s.60(6) of the 1999 Act, and would welcome the support of members of the Committee.

Annex: NASS-related cases from the recent caseload of CABx

NACAB has recently submitted the following cases to ministers for investigation by NASS.

Case 1

The asylum voucher supply of a single Somali woman who sought assistance from Manchester Central CAB on 24 October 2001 had run out on 16 October 2001. Despite repeated interventions by the bureau over the next five months, the client's supply of regular vouchers was not restored until 8 March 2002. On one occasion a NASS official claimed that the client had "left the country", on another the adviser was put on hold for 50 minutes before giving up, and on numerous others the bureau was told that vouchers would be sent out to the client "within five days". Throughout this period, the client received no welfare support and was financially supported by relatives.

In early January 2002 the client gave birth but, as of 12 April, she had still not received any additional vouchers for her child; the bureau has had to make three separate 'change of circumstances' applications for these vouchers, with NASS officials claiming not to have received the first two applications, despite these having been both faxed and posted to NASS.

Case 2

An Afghani man who sought advice from Oldham CAB on 22 February 2002 was in possession of a NASS Form 60, dated 18 January 2002, stating that his earlier application for NASS accommodation and subsistence support had been accepted; however, he had not yet received any regular vouchers. After first claiming that the client had been granted Exceptional Leave to Remain and therefore no longer qualified for support, NASS insisted that the client submit a fresh application for support; this was done on 6 March, but as of 12 April NASS had not responded and the client remained without vouchers.

Case 3

A Yugoslavian single mother with two young children who sought assistance from Stoke-on-Trent CAB on 18 January 2002 had been dispersed from London and placed in NASS accommodation in October 2001, but had since not received any regular vouchers. Despite repeated interventions by the bureau over the next six weeks, it was not until 8 March that NASS insisted that the client submit a fresh application for support, resulting in the client going without regular vouchers until 10 April.

Case 4

A 70-year-old Somali man who sought assistance from Kentish Town CAB on 22 January 2002—the day after NASS introduced new arrangements allowing for Benefits Agency staff to fax requests for missing Form 35s to NASS—had been granted Exceptional Leave to Remain in September 2001 and had had his NASS support terminated on 5 November. However, he had still not received a Form 35 from NASS and the Benefits Agency, seemingly unaware of the new arrangements, was refusing to process his application for welfare benefits.

Over the next few weeks, the bureau contacted NASS on seven separate occasions, and on each occasion was told that a Form 35 would be sent out to the client. However, on 12 March, NASS claimed that a Form 35 had been sent out and signed for in November. The client states categorically that he did not receive the Form 35 and, as of 12 April, NASS had not responded to the bureau's request for a copy of the alleged signature of receipt.

153   See: The CAB Service's response to the February 2002 White Paper on immigration, nationality & asylum, NACAB, March 2002; and Refugees and asylum seekers: a CAB Service briefing, NACAB, October 2001 Back

154   Source: Hansard, House of Commons, 15 April 2002, col. 769w Back

155   As at 31 December 2001, NASS was supporting a total of 65,630 asylum seekers and their dependants, of whom 25,310 were receiving subsistence support only. Source: Asylum Statistics: 4th Quarter 2001, Home Office, February 2002 Back

156   "At the moment, there is an automatic right [to a] bail hearing ¼ it has therefore been used as a method of ensuring that people could avoid being held temporarily while their removal from the country was being organized", David Blunkett, MP, 24 April 2002, col. 358; "Automatic bail hearings ¼ interfere with our attempts to achieve a fast and efficient process and ¼ are simply another cause of delay", Angela Eagle, MP, 24 April 2002, col. 431 Back

157   Angela Eagle MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, House of Commons (Westminster Hall), 12 March 2002, col. 246WH Back

158   Hansard, House of Commons, 18 April 2002, col. 1167w Back

159   See: 'Notes to editors' in Home Office news release 093/2002, 12 April 2002 Back

160   For further information, see: Family visitor appeals: the first year, NACAB, December 2001; Family visitor appeals: the first eight months, NACAB, July 2001; and Family visitor appeals: parliamentary briefing, NACAB, October 2000 Back

161   House of Commons, 24 April 2002, col. 356 Back

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