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Earl Russell: My Lords, it is a convention of parliamentary life in this House that we express ourselves with as much decent moderation as we can manage. For that reason I begin by thanking the Government for the concession they made over the timetable for these regulations to allow them to be freely debated in both Houses. However, I hope it is understood on that side of the Chamber, as it is on this, that decent moderation is harder to achieve on some occasions than it is on others. For us, this is a very difficult occasion indeed on which to achieve it.
First, I join the noble Baroness in expressing my regret that the Government rejected the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee--not, I regret to say, for the first time. That is an expert committee and it deserves attention. I also express my regret that the Government, having felt that they had to proceed with the regulations, did not embody them in the Bill as, with the concession on the timing, they could perfectly well have done. That would have made it easier for the opinion of this House to be expressed upon them.
The Minister relied very heavily on the Government's arguments about bogus refugees. I rather agree with my honourable friend Mr. Alton that we are dealing with bogus refusals. I sat through the whole of the debates on the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill. I shall never be able to bring myself to understand the idea that anyone who does not pass the tests of that Bill is a bogus refugee. In expressing that view I may be speaking for a considerable body of international and legal opinion.
I deeply regret the decision to withdraw benefits from people who do not declare themselves at the port of entry. It is rather like telling somebody who is in the water and on the point of drowning that he must explain how he got there before he is allowed to clamber into the boat. It is not in the real world. In particular, people who have been the victims of torture--too many of those with whom we are dealing--are often in an extremely confused state. Indeed, amnesia as a result of torture is perfectly possible. Such people may find it difficult to tell their stories.
It could also be difficult for reasons of language. How many in this Chamber know the word for asylum in Bulgarian? I for one certainly do not. It is also extremely difficult, even for those such as myself who have rather
The refusal of benefits to those who do not apply at the port of entry is not only a danger to asylum seekers; it is also a slap in the face to the voluntary organisations which put a great deal of time, effort and conscience into attempts to assist those who are in need of help. Many people are entitled to take offence.
I hear what the Minister said about the withdrawal of benefit pending appeal and putting people in the same position as British citizens. I do not need to remind the Minister of what was said on that issue when we discussed it at considerable length and with very considerable heat during the Jobseekers Bill. The Minister thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, had expressed herself rather more freely than was proper. I entirely understood why the noble Baroness spoke in that way. By praying that in aid, the Minister invites the reply that two wrongs do not make a right.
There is also a considerable difference between the cases. A person in this country who is refused benefit may have relatives and friends. He may know all kinds of things, such as where to find the Salvation Army, which a Bulgarian asylum seeker does not know. He has a great many ways in which he can make shift, which somebody coming to this country for the first time without knowing the language does not have. So even though both cases are wrong, in my opinion the latter is a great deal more wrong than the other.
I am glad that there is help for local authorities. What is the cost of that help likely to be? I heard what the noble Baroness had to say about the cost of taking a child into care. Will the Minister confirm that there is no plan to repeal Sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act?
The Minister attempted to occupy the high moral ground. Let me reply by attempting to occupy the practical ground and ask what in fact will happen next. These people have been refused benefit. They have appealed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, confirmed to me in a Written Answer just before Christmas, the Government cannot deport them. I am grateful for that answer. The Home Office has surely not yet forgotten the case of In Re M.
These people will not be in a position to make their way home at their own cost, even if they were able obtain entry when they got there. That is especially true when those people are the economic migrants about whom the Government express so much anxiety. They cannot go away. They cannot work in the first six months and will often find it extremely difficult to work thereafter, especially if they know no English. So they are trapped here. They cannot work; and they do not have any benefits.
What will happen to them? They may, of course, beg. They will, I am certain, become a call on private charity, but that is likely to be such a burden that all those who oppose these regulations should, in propriety, declare an
Once again, humanity is the best policy. If the Government cannot answer the question of what will happen to the asylum seekers from whom benefit is withdrawn, they should postpone the implementation of regulations until they can.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I must say that I have heard a few extravagant reactions to Statements in this House, but this afternoon takes the prize. I should like to go back and put the figures in the Secretary of State's Statement in a more simple form, which might help bring home to the Opposition the real facts.
Taking 1994, of every 100 applicants for asylum, four were successful, 17 were given exceptional leave to remain and 79 had their applications refused. Needless to say, almost all appealed--sensibly, in their own interest, because it keeps them on benefit. Three appeals were granted, 61 were dismissed and 15 were withdrawn. So, at the end of the day, seven out of 100 were accepted as genuine refugees, 17 were given exceptional leave to remain and 76 were refused asylum. Members of this House and other people who comment on the issue should try to hold in their heads those simple figures when they come to judge what will happen as a result of the Government's actions.
Of course, the Social Security Advisory Committee took the views of various bodies. I looked at them but I did not notice that the British taxpayer was among them. One of the problems of government is the need to take the interests of the whole country into consideration.
We listened to and read carefully what the Social Security Advisory Committee said. The noble Baroness breathlessly quoted parts of it. That was largely directed at the transitional arrangements and, as I explained, we have considerably altered the transitional arrangements from those we originally envisaged for the reasons I mentioned. I believe therefore that many of the problems posed by the committee which relate to the transitional arrangements have now been removed. Those people currently on benefit will continue to receive that benefit--13,000, as I mentioned in the Statement--until the next stage of their appeal or application is heard.
The noble Baroness described asylum seekers collectively as being "vulnerable" and "frightened", and said that it was too dangerous for them to return to their own countries. But my original figure of 100 must be borne in mind. Out of 100 only seven were considered to be genuine refugees; indeed, 76 were refused. What the noble Baroness says therefore is not the case.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness discussed the question of port of entry. In future, if somebody comes to claim asylum in this country and applies at the port of entry, he will be allowed benefit until the first decision is made by the Home Office. That is the new arrangement that we are putting in place. It relates only to those people who apply from "in-country".
To listen to the noble Baroness, it would not surprise me if most of your Lordships thought that hardly anyone applied at the port of entry. But that is not true. More than one-third apply at the port of entry. Therefore that rather sets aside the suggestion that the immigrants are so scared when they come to Heathrow that they are too frightened to ask a British immigration officer for asylum. Indeed, during the transitional period of November and December the numbers applying at port of entry actually increased. The noble Earl and the noble Baroness should at least try to obtain some mathematical basis for their extravagant statements.
The noble Earl would like everyone, both British citizens and asylum seekers, to be allowed to keep their benefit during the appeal process. That may be all very well for the Liberal Democrats, but the rest of us have to work out how much that will cost the taxpayer. Just as we experience it with asylum seekers, people would appeal simply in order to stay in benefit. That is exactly what happens.
Remarks were made about the regulations; that we are trying to smuggle them through. The regulations were laid today and that will allow debate before they come into effect on 5th February. One of the problems we encounter in the whole business of judging asylum seekers is the weight of numbers. As we have attempted to put more resources and people into helping to make decisions quickly, the actual numbers coming to this country have increased even further. The whole system has become overwhelmed. One of the reasons why it takes time to process applications is that so many are bogus.
Beyond that, when we reach the appeal stage, the number of appeals which are interrupted, asking for adjournments while they are on-going--the reason is often simply to spin out the process in order to continue to receive benefit--is also increasing. We must remember that three-quarters of those applying are not actually granted permission to stay in this country as refugees or exceptional leave to appeal.
The system I am outlining this afternoon is a perfectly fair and reasonable one. It deals with the problems that we are facing and that other countries face and are dealing with in a similar and related manner. We hope that it will reduce the incentive for people to come here and live on benefit. It will reduce the incentive especially for those who come here telling our immigration officers that they are coming for a holiday or a visit and, after a few weeks or months here--perhaps when it is time to go home--they promptly decide that they would like to claim asylum.
As I said at the beginning, the noble Earl and the noble Baroness failed to take the figures on board. Their extravagant language would be much more appropriate if three-quarters of applicants were found to be asylum seekers rather than the other way around.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us are glad that the Government have had the courage to tackle this matter? For a considerable time it has been an obvious and growing scandal that people come to this country largely drawn by the attractiveness of our social security system. They claim to be refugees whereas, as the Minister said, only a comparatively small proportion of them in fact are genuine refugees; most of them come to this country because they believe it to be a nice country in which to live with a generous social security system on which they can live quite happily. I am glad that the Government have had the courage to try to tackle the problem, conscious as they must be of the fact that a great deal of emotion will be raised on the subject. We heard a little of it earlier this afternoon.
Will my noble friend the Minister spell out in a little more detail what the financial savings resulting from the new arrangements will be for the British taxpayer? He mentioned £200 million. Either the noble Baroness or the noble Earl said that, because of other charges that will arise, the reduction in costs to the British taxpayer will be much less. I shall be grateful if my noble friend will put clearly before the House what the Government anticipate will be the financial saving as a result of the regulations.
It must be clear that at the moment we are spending a good deal of British taxpayers' money on cases for which there is little justification. It will be interesting and important for your Lordships to have in mind when we consider the regulations exactly what the Government contemplate the saving will be. My view is that it will be substantial. I believe that the British taxpayer resents being taxed to provide support on a general scale for a large number of people in respect of whom it is not justified.
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