Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Disclosure and Use of Personal Health Information Bill [H.L.]

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make provision for the collection, use and disclosure of personal health information. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.-- (Lord Walton of Detchant.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Business of the House: Standing Order 38

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order 38 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with today to enable the Motion standing in the name of the Lord Dubs to have precedence over the Chemical Weapons Bill and the Family Law Bill.--(Viscount Cranborne.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security (Persons From Abroad) Miscellaneous Amendments Regulations 1996

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations (S.I. 1996 No. 30) be annulled.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we believe that the regulations we are debating this afternoon are rather shocking. They deliberately remove benefit from some of the most traumatised and troubled people to arrive in this country and that will leave them destitute. Why? Well, the Government occupy a world of some very simple propositions. The Government believe that the number of asylum seekers has increased without good cause and that almost all of them are bogus. The

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1312

Government claim to know that because they say 70 per cent. of the applicants apply for asylum status once they are in this country and, accordingly, they are eating up the benefit bill and need to be deterred and the best way of doing that is to refuse them benefit. That is the Government's view. It is very tidy.

In this House--and, indeed, in the country--I believe that we are fortunate. We live under the rule of law; we have never been invaded; we have never had enemies on our land; and we do not fear government. In fact, many of us in this House are government. We do not fear terrorists; we do not fear police; we do not fear officials and we do not fear the dark. We know our rights. We are sure that the system is on our side. How do we begin to comprehend the situation where an asylum seeker comes from, or what it is like to arrive here confused, terrified, perhaps unable to speak English, often in broken health and desperate for the safety of anonymity? How can we comprehend that? Which of us has experienced that?

These regulations are chilling, not just because of the benefit income they refuse to defenceless people but because, in my view, they reveal a lack of imaginative understanding of what seeking asylum is all about and of what it means to be on the wrong side--the dark side--of the official system. Government, almost because they are government, can never understand that. That is why we believe that these regulations are founded on a set of propositions, every one of which is incorrect, and which together are indefensible and whose consequences are morally wrong.

Let us look at the Government's arguments. Their first proposition is that the number of asylum seekers has risen without good cause and therefore most must be bogus. The United Nation's High Commission for Refugees states in its evidence to the Government's own independent Social Security Advisory Committee,

    "In our view the rise in asylum claims may be more rationally seen as a consequence of unprecedented scale of global conflict which produces refugee flows. Moreover refugee recognition rates must be analysed with considerable caution. A narrow application of the refugee definition will reduce the number of successful applicants but lower figures are then tendentiously used as evidence that bogus claims are increasing thereby justifying further restrictive measures. We believe that there are many dangers in such a self-justificatory and secular analysis".

Those are the words of the UNHCR, not ours. In the first six months of 1995 this country recognised just 5 per cent. of those seeking asylum as refugees, though of course it granted exceptional leave to remain to others. France and Germany recognised twice as many; Italy and Switzerland three times as many. Are we really saying that our asylum seekers are less genuine than theirs? Is it not more likely that our criteria are already more stringent than theirs, just as the UNHCR suggests?

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness might help the House by putting her figures into context and by telling the House

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1313

how many asylum seekers seek applications in some of those states--for example, Italy--so that her percentage can be put against a figure.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am happy to try to give the House those figures. The latest complete figures I have are for 1994 when the figure for Germany was 127,000; for the Netherlands 52,000; and for the UK 42,000. I do not have the figures for 1995 but for the previous year Italy had a figure of 1,800, coming down from 31,700 in 1991. Nevertheless, the figure for Germany of 127,000 is twice our number of acceptances, and the position is similar in France. I do not have the figures for 1995 but I have given the complete figures for 1994 and they show that in Germany, France, Sweden and Switzerland both the absolute figures and the proportional figures were well above those of the UK.

Of course there is a proportion--perhaps a high proportion--of economic migrants for which this country cannot take responsibility. Of course we accept that a country must protect its borders and cannot permit unlimited entry. However, the right way to do that is to have fair but fast decisions on applications for asylum status. Instead, as at December last, 15 per cent. of those who applied in 1991 had not even had their initial determination heard. The figure was 15 per cent. in 1992; 15 per cent. in 1993; 25 per cent. in 1994; and 25 per cent.--but that is more understandable--in 1995. Nearly 70,000 people--some of whose applications were lodged before 1991--have not had even their original application heard.

I am sure that the Minister would welcome another foreign comparison. Germany in the first six months of 1995 heard 112,000 applications. This country in the same period managed just 12,000. Would the Minister care to comment? Perhaps he would not. Precisely because we do not resolve asylum bids on asylum grounds we instead are trying with these regulations to deter asylum bids on social security grounds. Because we do not--and will not--hear the applications when we should, we instead try to deter the applicant by denying him any means of financial support. In all fairness, whose fault is that--the person who seeks asylum or the system which will not hear his application on time, as is the case here? If we want to cut the social security bill, we should do so by hearing and determining applications speedily and then, but only then, denying benefits to those who do not merit them, not by withholding benefits indiscriminately from those who are genuine and those who are not, which is the Government's policy.

I now turn to the Government's second main proposition. The Government say, "We know that most are bogus because they apply for asylum once arrived in this country". The Government say that those applying at port of entry will receive benefits because they are true asylum seekers and that only those who apply once they are in the country will be denied benefits because they are bogus. I suggest that the Government are wilfully refusing to understand what it means to seek asylum and they are equally wilfully

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1314

ignoring the advice of their own Social Security Advisory Committee. That committee states at paragraph 38 of its report to the Government,

    "There are many valid reasons why people do not make their asylum claim immediately on arrival. Lack of knowledge of the procedures, arriving in a confused and frightened state, language difficulties or fear of officialdom may all be insuperable barriers to making any kind of approach to the authorities at port of entry. Many intending applicants will quite reasonably want to get help and advice before making their claim. We are told by refugee organisations that there is a common fear that making an asylum application while still in port is more likely to result in immediate deportation or being held in detention. For these and other reasons it is easy to see why for the majority of asylum seekers it appears much safer to make their claim from inside the UK".

I emphasise that these are the words of the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee. I suspect that what I have described is what each and every one of us would ourselves do in a similar situation.

The majority of asylum seekers--the Refugee Council says this applies to up to 80 per cent. of its clients--apply for asylum within a month of arrival and most do so within a week or so of being here. They are not holiday makers, tourists or visitors who are staying here after their money runs out to enjoy the delights of our social security system. Their first priority was to enter the safety of our country; their second was to get in touch with an organisation to help them; and their third was to seek official permission to stay. They did all of that within a couple of weeks of being here. Can anyone truthfully say that they were wrong?

Yet these regulations erect a distinction between application on arrival and application in the country. That distinction is, I believe--to coin a phrase--quite bogus. If the Government were right that those who apply at port of entry are genuine and those who apply when in country are not, virtually all those who gain asylum status or exceptional leave to remain would be from those who apply at port of entry. That would follow logically, would it not? Yet precisely the reverse is true. A lower number of people and a lower proportion of applicants gain refugee status at port of entry whereas a higher number and a higher proportion gain refugee status and exceptional leave to remain once they are in this country. Therefore by the Government's own criteria there are more likely to be genuine asylum seekers among those to whom the Government are denying benefit than among those to whom, under these regulations, they will continue to grant it. That is perverse, and it is wrong. Yet the Government are proposing tonight income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit to all in-country applicants. We know that they need the money because those are means-tested benefits without even a threshold of a capital limit. If asylum seekers had other means of support, they would not be eligible for any of those benefits. The old, the young, children, families, the sick, pregnant, disabled, and in some cases those who have been the victims of torture, will all be left without any means of support, in the belief, I suppose, not that they are less deserving than port applicants--the Government's own figures indicate that they are probably more deserving--but presumably in the seedy

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1315

hope that such action will deter asylum seekers. They will therefore not come. Therefore the benefit bill will fall.

Are we really saying that we shall deny income support to traumatised children from Somalia in the hope and expectation that it will deter those from applying who are terrified of torture in Iran?

There is likely to be some 2,500 new applicants each month. If they are terrified enough they will still come; and precisely because they are terrified they are more likely to seek asylum once in this country as they fear otherwise that they will be turned away on arrival. What are they supposed to live on when the little money they have runs out and they wait the eight, 12 or 15 months, or the two or five years, to have their original application heard by the Home Office? How will they buy food? How will they keep warm? Where will they sleep? Do we expect them to join the rough sleepers? Do we expect them to huddle under Waterloo Bridge? Do we expect them to steal, to break windows, sell drugs or go into prostitution? They have no home to go back to in this country. Those applicants have no means of supporting themselves because they are not allowed to work for the first six months.

What can they do? What should they do? What do they do? Many will have children traumatised--perhaps deeply--by what they have been through. What will we be doing to them? Under the Children Act 1989, though government may walk away from those children, the local authorities cannot do so. What social security will not do, local social services will have to do. Will we take children into care and offer them dingy bed and breakfast accommodation, church halls, warehouses, with the spaces partitioned by flapping sheets on ropes, or tents?

As Save the Children has said:

    "These proposals will devastate every aspect of children's lives causing homelessness, ill-heath, poor development, loss of education, family breakdown and emotional distress".

Are we deliberately going to let that happen to children because their parents did not tidily fit our regulations? Is that what we are willing to do?

We are utterly opposed to the regulations. They are morally repugnant. By convention we cannot vote against the regulations; nor can we amend them. Hence on today's Order Paper we have two Motions which we ask the Government to accept once the regulations have been implemented. We on these Benches will support the Motions in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that benefits should continue while appeals are being heard, and of our noble friend Lord Dubs in arguing that at the very minimum we should protect the position of children so far as we can. Our Motion will bring the children of asylum seeking families to a similar position to that of our own 16 and 17 year-olds: that though denied benefits as of right they should be eligible for discretionary hardship payments as regards living on or off the streets. We do not believe that the children of asylum seekers should be treated more harshly than our own. For centuries this country has been a sanctuary

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1316

for those in distress. Virtue has been rewarded because yesterday's asylum seekers have become today's entrepreneurs.

Perhaps I may conclude with a final quotation from the Social Security Advisory Committee--the Government's own independent advisory committee--which states:

    "The reality of the proposals is that thousands of men, women and children will be left with no means of providing themselves with food or shelter. Many will have no option but to live on the streets of our major cities and ports. Health professionals have warned that, given the vulnerability of many asylum seekers due to their already precarious physical or mental health, some will die".

The advisory committee continues:

    "We do not believe that solution should be found by putting at risk of destitution many people who are genuinely seeking refuge in this country among whom may be some of the most vulnerable and defenceless in our society".

It is not too late for the Government, encouraged by this House, to think again. Otherwise some 30,000 to 40,000 troubled, traumatised and destitute families next year will be living on and off our streets. We can make a modest difference tonight if your Lordships choose to support the Motions.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations (S.I. 1996 No. 30) be annulled.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

3.26 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, as I understand it, we are using a procedure similar to a grouping in Committee. Although there is only one Question formally before the House, we are debating a grouping of three Motions: that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham; my own; and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We on these Benches support all three, each to the degree procedurally appropriate to its status within the conventions of the Chamber. I wish to speak to all three in turn. However, because my Motion and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, do not cover the whole field of regulations I speak, first, to the prayer in the name of the noble Baroness.

I listened to the debate on the regulations last Tuesday in another place. Almost the moment I entered, I was extremely surprised to hear myself being ticked off by name by the Secretary of State for agreeing with my honourable friend Mr. Alton that we are dealing not with bogus refugees but with bogus refusals. Since it is appropriate to respond to a Minister in another place, I should like, if I may, to begin by replying briefly to the Secretary of State.

First, the figures that he used were concerned only with those accepted for refugee status, and left out the 15 per cent. who are given exceptional leave to remain. That means that on his figures the genuine go up from 4 per cent. to 20 per cent. which is a significant change.

Secondly, I must repeat that I cannot regard the criteria used in the 1993 Act as satisfying me as a way of distinguishing between the bogus and the genuine. I accept, of course, in the words used by one of Henry VIII's bishops in commenting on one of that monarch's more wayward acts, "I take it for law because the lawyers so said. But my reason digested it not".

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1317

Perhaps I may take one example. If I were a Bosnian Moslem living in Mostar, watching the Croat forces closing in, I might have a well founded fear of persecution. But to apply for asylum in this country under the terms of the 1993 Act in order to secure freedom from persecution by Croats I should have to walk from Mostar to the British consulate in Zagreb. My Lords, my reason digested it not.

There is, too, what has been described among immigration officers as a culture of disbelief. It so happens that the subject arose over drinks after my postgraduate seminar last week. I hasten to assure your Lordships that it was not I who introduced it. It was introduced by an articulate New Yorker with a Cambridge PhD who has been living for 10 years in this country. She has been married to and living with an Englishman long enough to have a daughter about to enter primary school. She was stopped at the airport, detained for questioning for many hours and threatened with deportation under the primary purpose rule. As soon as she raised the subject, she produced an outpouring of indignation from every overseas member of that seminar. They had all had similar experiences, all had friends with similar experiences.

From the point of view of our national interests, one of the most serious was a Canadian businesswoman coming to this country on her company's business. The company had neglected to get the paperwork fully completed, the kind of thing one would have thought a simple phone call might have settled. She was deported to Canada at Her Majesty's expense. That company has probably now taken its European Union business elsewhere. Noble Lords will understand why I speak of a culture of disbelief and why I do not accept that everyone who fails a Home Office test is therefore necessarily bogus.

It is also crucial to me that the regulations make absolutely no attempt to make a distinction between the genuine and the bogus; they apply to all equally. In the words of paragraph 30 of the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee:

    "The proposal to address the perceived problem of economic migrants through the benefits system by financially penalising all but a minority of asylum seekers, without regard to the strength or validity of their claim, was seen as arbitrary and unjust".

I cannot help sharing that perception.

The question whether an asylum seeker is genuine or bogus is not one which can be addressed by any formula. It is about individual motives and it must be addressed by individual examination. According to Article 1 of the UN Convention on Refugees, it must be addressed by an individual hearing of claimants. No other way of dealing with bogus asylum seekers is even so much as relevant to the question. I do not know how many asylum seekers are bogus. I am prepared to believe that some are, but the question cannot be addressed by these regulations.

The only attempt to distinguish within the regulations is the discrimination against those who apply at the port of entry. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has saved me a little time by pointing out that more of those who apply in the country are accepted than of those who

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1318

apply at the port of entry. So the Government do not believe their own distinction. In that case, I should like to join them: neither do I.

Apart from the points about language which I have made, one often needs help with handling government forms. I know that the Department of Social Security does its best with forms, but none of us always understands them. None of the postgraduates in my seminar with whom I was talking last week would have dreamed of applying at the port of entry. They did not have sufficient confidence in those who would have judged them.

I do not know whether any of your Lordships have ever tried to persuade a rape victim to tell her story in public. I have; I was not successful. Some of the applicants are literally rape victims, especially a number who come from Zaire, I understand. But other victims of torture may have similar difficulty in telling their story. Like the Social Security Advisory Committee, I should be prepared to discuss a time limit for claiming asylum after entering the country. However, the attempt to make all people apply at the port of entry is insensitive to the evidence and is impractical.

I shall touch on two small points. The first is that the interim payments under the urgent cases rules for people caught by the habitual residence test are being stopped. Since those who have failed habitual residence tests include the niece of my late noble friend Lord Byers, who used to be our leader on these Benches, we believe that the net is catching too much. We must return to that on another occasion. Secondly, as for the rules about sponsorship, I do not understand why the Government have not made allowance for the case of sponsors going bankrupt, which may happen, as with everyone else. A bankrupt sponsor cannot be held to maintain the person for whom he was originally able to answer.

I turn to my Motion. Procedurally it is the type of Motion that will become known as an "Allen", after the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who moved one on 5th December 1995. It makes no attempt to stop the passage of the regulations. It asks the Government, following the passage of the regulations, to ensure that asylum seekers have visible legal means of support and that they have the right to pursue their appeals. When I was working in the Record Office of your Lordships' House last October, I happened to come across a Private Bill from 1610. It said:

    "It is notorious that a sentence may be and is suspended by an appeal duly made to a superior judge. ... It is incredible that any judge should proceed without regard of such appeal".

That was not said with reference to the present regulations, but I agree with every word.

When my honourable friend in another place, Liz Lynne, used what Conservatives described as "the argument of destitution", cries were heard from the Benches opposite of "Rubbish!". I shall offer the Minister a sporting chance. If he can show me that asylum seekers who are denied benefit have some other legal way of maintaining their livelihood, then he may convince me that that argument is rubbish. I cannot be convinced simply by the bare assertion; I have to hear of something else which may appropriately be done.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1319

The Government's answers so far have been a little uncertain. The Secretary of State in another place said (at col. 239 of Hansard for 23rd January):

    "the vast majority have contacts over here".

I should like to know whether that is based on evidence from any study, or is it the Secretary of State's conjecture? If it is evidence, I shall listen to it. If it is conjecture, I beg leave to dissent from it. Many of the Germans who came over here in the 1930s and 1940s, to whom my parents and my wife's parents used to give hospitality, were without any contacts in this country. If that can happen to Germans, I believe that it can also happen to Somalians. I should want evidence before I was moved to doubt that. Can the Minister show me any?

On 11th January, in answer to my noble friend Lady Seear, the Minister said that they could,

    "go back to their own country or find some other way of looking after themselves".--[Official Report, 11/1/96; col. 276.]

The Minister will have to be a little more specific if he is to convince me that the argument on destitution is rubbish. As for going back to their own country, it is a little like the test of ducking witches. The guilty witch floated and lived and the innocent witch sank and was drowned. I always thought that that was a bit unfair. In much the same way, the genuine refugee may be able, if he came with savings withdrawn, to go elsewhere. But the economic migrant who has no money and whom the Government so much dread will not be able to leave this country. The Government cannot deport such people. The case of in re M stands in the way. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, admitted that there is no plan for deportation.

The Government could, in return for voluntary withdrawal of the asylum claim, finance returning people to their own countries. I have not heard of any government plan to make money available for that purpose. If I hear of any, I will think again. Until I do, I believe the majority of people concerned will be unable to leave this country. They must therefore find some way of living here, or else be left, as we fear, homeless and destitute on the streets, and probably constituting a health hazard in the process.

What else could happen to them if they are not to be destitute? They might be put in detention. I do not regard that as a desirable solution. It may yet turn out to be the least bad option if these regulations go ahead. But it is not in the interest of the taxpayer. The figures, as the noble Baroness gave me them on 20th December, are: £540 a week in a detention centre; or, if you are a little cheaper, £449 per week in a prison. But I do not advise the noble Baroness, given the present state of prisons, to put in a further 13,000 inmates at one time. I should hesitate to repeat the comments that prison governors might see fit to make on such a proposal.

Applicants are not allowed to work in the first six months; and after that it is difficult, especially if there are language difficulties in the way. Begging is an uncertain and undesirable option. I shall not be reassured if the Government say that they will not starve because they can beg. There is, of course, crime. But I

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1320

am sure that it was not the Government's intention that they should make a living by crime. There is private charity, and great efforts are being put into that provision. But it will not help that many of the charitable organisations that have housed refugees, paid for out of housing benefit, are in danger of going bankrupt as a consequence of these regulations. That will have knock-on effects on the treatment of other sorts of homeless people in other contexts. There is the possibility that UNHCR might feel the need to open refugee camps in this country. But again, I think I may safely assume that that was not the Government's intention.

We still have left the local authorities, whose spending, unlike that of the Government, is capped. Their liability to rehouse refugees lasts, if the asylum Bill passes in its present form, only until the Bill becomes law. Therefore we should be left only with liabilities under Sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act. That is not an income/maintenance provision. Foster care for a child, which is a lot cheaper than residential care, can cost for a 16 year-old up to £6,750 a year. That cost is independent of what happens to the parents. So if that were the route, it would waste a vast amount of public money and at the same time create gross hardship. That seems to me to be the worst of both worlds.

Perhaps I have missed something. If so, I am sure the Minister will tell me what it is. But if I have not, it is my conclusion that I am not prepared to use starvation as an instrument of policy.

3.44 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, first, I declare an interest. Until last June I was director of the Refugee Council and therefore for a number of years had a day-to-day involvement with some of these issues. I believe that Britain's treatment of refugees is a test of the sort of country we are and of the commitment we have to the human rights of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

Perhaps I may give just a few words of background. Over the past few years, the United Kingdom has taken a smaller proportion of asylum seekers than any other European country, save possibly France in the past couple of years. For a long time Germany took 60 per cent. of Europe's asylum seekers--took, not kept, them. For a long time Britain has not given asylum seekers the full level of income support but only 90 per cent. of it. There have been successive waves of legislation and changes in immigration rules in order to make things more difficult for asylum seekers. Now we have another proposal and a Bill that will presumably reach this House before too long.

Why are the Government doing all this? It seems that there is only one argument: "Let us make it pretty unpleasant so that people will not even want to arrive here". That is a distasteful approach by any standards. Many organisations which have day-to-day involvement with refugees--I refer not only to the Refugee Council but to Save the Children, which was mentioned, and many others--are desperately concerned about what

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1321

will happen. They have made it very clear, and I speak from personal experience as well, that if an applicant is refused refugee status, that does not mean that there was no justice in the claim--although that seems to be the argument on which the Government are hanging this measure. It may well be that people who are refused refugee status are given exceptional leave to remain--an admission by the Government that it would not be appropriate for that individual to be sent back to the country from which he or she came. There may be third country refusals when the Government have not said to an individual, "You have no basis for your claim", but have simply said, "You spent some time in another country; that is where your claim should be determined". But in the meantime, the Government say, such people do not have any rights.

I do not argue that every asylum seeker has a claim for refugee status under the 1951 convention. All I argue is that surely we should as a country have a system of natural justice whereby we determine each asylum claim fairly and properly, and whereby we allow the asylum seeker to live tolerably decently while that process is going on.

It is perfectly clear that the Government have in their own hands the best remedy for the difficulties in which they find themselves; namely, to cut down the long delays in getting an asylum claim heard and decided, and to do so, not by truncating the process of deciding asylum claims, but by having enough staff to do the job properly. That approach would pay for itself very quickly. When there are 50,000 to 60,000 people waiting for their claim to be considered, it is a signal to those in other countries who do not have a soundly based claim to say, "Well, it takes so long I might as well have a year or two there". However, I contend that many people do have a soundly based claim. My evidence is based partly on statistics but partly on the fact that people come from countries with a history and record of oppression, turmoil, persecution and war--countries such as Zaire and Nigeria. People come from a large number of countries where conditions are such that it is no wonder they flee to safe countries--of which this country is merely one.

I am concerned that the Government seem to be saying, as a justification for these proposals, that not many people are awarded full refugee status anyway, so while the process works its way through it does not matter too much if some of them are denied support to sustain themselves. I argue, in contrast, that surely in a country that believes in human rights, every individual's claim is important and every individual's right to proceed with a claim in decent circumstances is important. After all, that is the basis of the UN Convention 1951.

The UNHCR has come out very clearly in this instance--and it is not given to public pronouncements because its method is to deal privately and discreetly with governments--against the Government's proposals. Perhaps I may quote from what it said:

    "A country's recognition rate of refugees may more often reflect the narrowness or liberalness of that state's application of the refugee definition than the legitimacy or otherwise of individual claims".

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1322

Perhaps I may make a comparison before and after the implementation of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. In 1990 the number of people not allowed to stay on any basis at all was 17 per cent. In 1994 the number of refusals had gone up to 75 per cent. To a large extent the reason is not in determining refugee status, although there has been some difference in that, but largely in the other category of exceptional leave to remain, to which I have already referred. In 1990, 60 per cent. of applicants were given ELR, but in 1994 the number had fallen to 16 per cent. ELR is discretionary status, which the Government give, as I have said before, because they recognise that it is not appropriate to send an individual back, even if they technically deny refugee status. It is the difference in ELR, which is directly under the Government's control, which has led largely to the dramatic increase in the rate of refusals and which in turn seems to be why the Government are saying, "These people are not genuine". If the Government approve the answer, they can hardly claim objectivity for it.

Reference has already been made to the Social Security Advisory Committee. I do not want to take up the time of the House by quoting again what it has said, except to say that my understanding is that its comments on this proposal have been the most starkly negative on any proposal that has ever come before the SSAC. It said bluntly that the proposal should be withdrawn.

Noble Lords have already referred to the good reasons why not every asylum seeker may make a port application, although many make one in the country within a short period of arriving here. It is an understandable human reaction, even if they had full knowledge of the Government's proposals. But it is very likely that people will be in ignorance of those proposals and will inadvertently put themselves into the position of not being entitled to any benefit or other basis for support.

The Government's own figures have made the position very clear. In each year between 1992 and 1995 as regards in-country applications, a larger percentage were given refugee status than from port applications. So there is no support for the Government's view that people make in-country applications because they do not have as good a case as those making port applications. The available figures for each year deny the Government's contention. There is enormous concern that there will be great hardship caused by these measures to children, families, lone parents, pregnant women, people with disabilities, the elderly and those who have suffered torture.

Perhaps I may deal with two specific points before I conclude. The Government, through the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said some weeks ago that there was a parallel between not giving anyone income support if they have been refused an asylum claim and they are appealing against it and the normal refusals and appeals on social security grounds. I argue that there are a number of reasons why that parallel is not valid.

First, I understand that there is backdating on domestic social security cases but not for asylum seekers. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1323

There are far longer delays in going through the asylum determination process and the appeals process than in appeals to the normal social security tribunals. In any case, the appeal would be against the Home Office and not against the DSS. Secondly, a person already living in this country and making a normal social security appeal is far more likely to have friends, a supportive family or some personal resources, whereas the pattern for many asylum seekers is that they come to this country with virtually no belongings at all except perhaps the contents of a plastic bag.

I refer briefly to the Motion standing in my name which deals with one consequence only of these proposals; namely, the hardship affecting children or families who have children. I am very concerned that if the proposals are given effect many asylum-seeking children or the children of asylum seekers will suffer severe hardship. If the House were to pass my Motion and that in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, there would be no damage to the main thrust of the Government's proposals. I wish that there would be but there would not be. The Motions would merely be lessening some of the more appalling consequences of this measure.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, this is obviously an emotional issue and anything to do with immigration in the present confused and unhappy state of many parts of the world is understandably emotional. But the Government have to respond not only to emotion but also to secure that the wellbeing of this country and its economy is fully supported. I ask your Lordships, before coming to any final judgment on the matter, to study the statement by the Secretary of State attached to the report. I do not wish to detain your Lordships for any undue length of time, but I shall quote from it two short passages. Paragraph 4 says:

    "The Government recognises that genuine refugees do not come to the UK to obtain social security benefits but to escape persecution. Their rights to asylum will not be curtailed in any way by these regulations or the Bill. And those who make their true intentions clear when they arrive in this country, and seek asylum at the point of entry, will continue to have access to benefits while their claims are considered by the Home Office".

There then follows perhaps the most important passage of all, which states,

    "However, well over 90 per cent. of those claiming asylum are eventually found not to be genuine refugees".

That is a finding of fact and those who wish to ease restrictions, as all the three previous speakers wish to do, have to face this.

We have a considerable number of people wishing to come to this country and claiming to be refugees. But it is found as a matter of fact that 90 per cent. of them are not genuine refugees. Obviously, there are many people who want to come to this country because it is a good country to live in and because, although I do not expect noble Lords opposite to accept it, it is a country with a good government. It is a country with a very fine system of social security and services for which I can claim having played a modest part because I was responsible

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1324

for them for quite a number of years. Therefore, it is a country which attracts a lot of people who are in no sense refugees and are not necessarily coming from countries where there are refugee problems. Therefore, it is necessary for any government to operate carefully and secure that only genuine refugees are admitted as such.

When it comes to a point, which noble Lords opposite must face, that 90 per cent. of those who claim to be refugees are as a matter of fact not found to be genuine refugees, it simply is not good enough in the light of that just to say, "You must relax restrictions and you must not impose restrictions". The restrictions have to be imposed, or we shall be simply swamped by a large number of immigrants who come here because it is a good country to come to and because they want to enjoy our social services and our social security system, and who like to call themselves refugees in the hope that that will secure their entry into this country.

Therefore I ask your Lordships to think very carefully indeed about this matter before coming to any final decision or any final vote. It is very important for government--and it is government's job--to secure proper control of entry into this country. We cannot afford to be swamped with immigration. We cannot afford to have unlimited numbers coming into this country: nor is there any justification for it. We are not, after all, the only country to which refugees from those countries which are in an unhappy state have to go. There are many other countries; but it is significant that so large a proportion of those who claim to be coming here as refugees are not found to be coming as refugees but are in fact simply taking advantage of the situation and of the emotional side to it, all in order to try and "dig in" and establish themselves here.

Therefore, with great respect to noble Lords opposite who take a different view, and fully understanding the humanitarian and sensitive approach which they are showing, I beg of them to think very hard indeed as to whether it would be possible to relax in any degree whatever what the Government propose. My own view is that if controls of this sort are necessary, if the well-being of this country and its people is to be properly supported and maintained, it is necessary to do what the Government propose to do. I, for one, will support them.

4.3 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, widespread dismay and anger has been expressed by Churches, refugee organisations, immigration bodies and other significant groups about the Government's proposals to withdraw benefits from some categories of asylum seekers. Indeed, I do not remember an issue in recent times which has given rise to such a volume of briefing papers. There is, I believe, deep outrage in many quarters at these regulations. It is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has just made clear, that emotions be substantiated by facts. If my contribution this afternoon seems cerebral it is not because there is no passion in the Churches or in myself but because argument is also important.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1325

I was slightly dismayed to find that my own speech bore a striking resemblance by those uttered by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. As I reflected upon this it seemed to me that the reason for that is that the figures speak for themselves. Each of the speakers in this afternoon's debate has referred to figures and therefore I think we must look at those figures. If there is a certain element of repetition in my own contribution I ask forgiveness, but I do think that these points need to be made.

The Government invite us to believe that there is a small minority of asylum seekers who are genuine and that the remainder are bogus, economic migrants whose aim is to better their standard of life by gaining admission to this country. Withdrawing benefit will mean that such economic migrants will go elsewhere. To return once again to the figures, the 1995 figures at which I have been looking and for which I have accurate figures only for the months January to September, show that in every 100 determinations in that year four were granted refugee status and 19 were given exceptional leave to remain. That is a total of 23 out of each 100. In previous years the proportion has been similar: that is from a total of about 1,000 applications resolved.

This is not a small minority but a substantial proportion, 23 per cent., who are shown to be genuine applicants, either refugees or people meriting stay in this country, on the basis of their applications. What, then, about the 77 per cent. remainder? Are they all bogus? We are invited to say yes, and one of the arguments given is that they come from so-called safe countries. My memory is that when I had an exchange of views with the Minister on the 11th January on this matter he invited me to look at actual figures and to study such countries as India and Pakistan. I have done that and have discovered that in the period from January to September 1995 10 applicants from Pakistan were given refugee status and another 15 were given exceptional leave to remain, while from India 30 applicants were granted exceptional leave to remain.

These are small numbers, but they are enough to disprove the claim that these are safe countries, all of whose applicants can be regarded as bogus. And what of those whose applications for asylum status are rejected? This does not mean, as noble Lords opposite have already said, that they are bogus. Some of them may indeed be so and, human nature being what it is, people will always seek to abuse a system. It is to be expected that some will abuse the asylum system and that the checks have to be such that those abusers will be rejected. But there will be others whose claims are rejected not because they are bogus but because they are unable to satisfy the tight requirements of our own asylum procedures. They are genuine asylum seekers; they come from motives of fear and not of greed, but they will not know until they are here whether their claim will be accepted. That does not make them bogus.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has already referred to the statement from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I have noted precisely that statement and have noted that this recognition rate may have as much to do with the state of our own

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1326

refugee application system as it has to do with the legitimacy or otherwise of individual claims. I hope that we can move away from this language of "bogus". Again to quote the statement from the High Commission for Refugees:

    "In our experience such simplistic terms are emotive, and undermine an appropriate perception and response to the problems of refugees."

The Government propose to withdraw benefit from all asylum seekers who make their claim in-country and not at the point of entry. I can add very little to what other noble Lords have already said, except perhaps to give actual figures. In 1994, of those granted refugee status 300 were port applicants and 530 were in-country applicants: that is both a larger absolute number and a larger proportion. The 1995 figures for the months I have already quoted, January to September, show that 285 successful port applicants were determined and 670 in-country applicants; an even greater imbalance. The greater number of those who are granted refugee status have sought it by means of an in-country application.

If this is the case and if it is indeed true, as these figures undoubtedly show, that in-country applicants are more likely to be granted refugee status, why is this one of the groups from whom benefit is being withdrawn? The statistics simply do not support the argument. The withdrawal of benefit from those who appeal seems to me to be a straightforward attempt to dissuade them from appealing. Once again, given that a significant number may succeed on appeal--indeed almost as many as on initial application--why is this group targeted for removal of benefit?

Of course it is the Government's responsibility to look with great rigour at our expenditure, and in particular at expenditure on these benefits, but the savings which are being made here on benefits are made at great cost. I believe that we need to reflect upon that cost. Let me give just one example. Oaklands Refugee Services, a Roman Catholic and Anglican project, which provides accommodation and related support to newly arrived asylum seekers, comments that the bulk of its income derives from housing benefit. Indeed, in that respect it is not unlike other projects to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, made reference. It receives top-up funding from charitable trusts and business. But if benefit were stopped, Oaklands would be forced to refuse further referrals and, in due course, evict existing residents when their housing benefit ceased. Many of those people would end up sleeping rough on the streets, just at the time when they are most vulnerable.

It is widely agreed that the way to reduce the level of benefits is to shorten the length of time the asylum procedure takes. I referred earlier to the dismay and anger felt by many people and groups in relation to these proposals. They offend against our sense of moral responsibility to the many who genuinely seek asylum in our country. We want the regulations annulled.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lord Dubs and the noble Earl,

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1327

Lord Russell. In so doing I declare an interest. I am an asylum seeker. I was brought to this country as a child by parents seeking asylum.

I was born in Lithuania. The threat that caused my parents to leave and to seek asylum was the threat of occupation by Russia or Germany. They knew that being Jewish would lead to persecution by the Nazis. My father was a bit of an intellectual and indeed a religion school teacher. He knew that that was punishable by deportation to Siberia by the communists.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said that the regulations would not stop those facing persecution from entering. But would an immigration officer have understood the position of my parents in 1937? I doubt it. Would Lithuania have been on a white list in 1937? Probably.

My father earned his living by selling yarn for a Manchester cotton-spinning mill. It was through that connection that he was able to bring his family to Manchester and to seek asylum. Applying for a visa would have been out of the question; nor could he have applied for a visa in a third country without putting all his family in danger. I strongly suspect that, were the proposed regulations in force at that time, we would not have been admitted. That may be a cheerful thought for those noble Lords with whom I have crossed swords; but to me the government regulations give rise to the feeling that, but for the grace of God, there go I.

We all have our childhood memories and mine are very much bound up with being an asylum seeker. One vivid memory is the pride that my family and friends took in British institutions and British ways. No destructive criticism was allowed of those British institutions and ways. We were proud to identify with a British sense of decency and fair play; we were proud of the Royal Family; we were extremely patriotic. We were grateful and anxious to put something back into the pot whenever we could. That attitude was not confined to my family. In conversations over the years with people in similar circumstances to mine, many have told me that that too was their experience. That is confirmed by the many interviews of this past generation which are in the National Sound Archives. So asylum seekers are not always scroungers; they bring benefits if we give them a chance.

Nevertheless, with the Bill we are faced with the prospect of people who have been or who are likely to be persecuted abroad being forced to sleep on the streets and beg for food purely because they have the temerity to seek asylum. The Minister said that if one asks for asylum at the port, one will be able to claim social benefit. My noble friend Lady Hollis responded to that.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page