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Lord Brabazon of Tara: I am afraid that I did not hear anything from either the noble Lord or noble Baroness on that matter. No doubt when the noble Baroness comes to wind up, that point will be reinforced. However, I did not hear anything that would convince me that they wished to deal with the cost of bogus asylum seekers.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I begin by acknowledging the need for the Government to do something to curb the very large number of asylum applications, 90 per cent. of which turn out to be judged invalid. They also have to do something to end the extraordinary delays in processing asylum applications and the appalling backlog of over 64,000 cases awaiting adjudication, with all the pain and uncertainty attached to that situation. I am bound to say that it stretches credulity to say that that backlog is due simply to unexpected increases in the number of applications. Frankly, it seems to me that an additional factor is that too little was done too late to invest in the necessary wherewithal to keep on top of the demand and to keep the system working smoothly.
Be that as it may, the Government are absolutely right to insist that we cannot go on as we are. I welcome also the transitional arrangements recently announced by the Government by which those who have already made their asylum claim will keep their benefits entitlement until their claim is adjudicated.
Having said all that, many of us in the Churches and voluntary organisations still feel that not all of the criticisms made by the Social Security Advisory Committee have been taken seriously, let alone answered. We have continuing anxieties that the proposed changes will deprive some genuine asylum seekers of the means to pay for food and shelter--and there are genuine asylum seekers. I think that we should concentrate a little more on them and their needs rather than on how to keep out those who are not genuine.
Moreover, we believe that the proposals are too inflexible to take account of foreseeable cases of acute hardship. Noble Lords will be aware that religious leaders have made representations to the Government at the highest level about those concerns, and that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with Cardinal Hume, has had discussions with
Perhaps I may highlight some of the problems as we see them. The Government have refused any period of grace whatever once somebody leaves the port. From that moment onwards, any person seeking asylum will not be entitled to benefits, irrespective of his or her financial circumstances and needs. It seems wrong to draw no distinction between someone who, for instance, applies for asylum after three years having completed their studies at university and someone who applies for asylum within days of arriving in the country.
It is true that people should declare their wish for asylum on arrival at the port, but the Government have been unable to refute some of the cogent reasons given by the Social Security Advisory Committee as to why so many asylum seekers do not immediately declare their intention at the port even if their claim is perfectly genuine. Some cannot get a visa to travel here by claiming to be a refugee, so they simply have to create a story and to stick with it. It is understandable that they stick with that story until they are in the country for fear of being deported if they change their story at the port before getting in. One can add to that the fact that they may have no idea of how to apply for asylum and desperately need help and advice to know what to do.
To that confusion add fear and sometimes acute language difficulties and one can readily see that it is inevitable that a continuing significant proportion of people with well-founded claims for asylum will not disclose them at the port and then, without any entitlement to benefit, will be at real risk of unwarranted hardship themselves and of imposing extra hardship on others who may feel obliged to look after them but who themselves have inadequate means. I am most unhappy about airy claims that all those people would probably be looked after by friends and relations. In some cases, they are deeply and rightly suspicious of people from their country who are over here. Others come from places from which there is not yet any critical mass of immigrants to this country offering networks of support. Moreover, imposing on friends and relatives can impose worse overcrowding and poverty on some of the poorest families in our society. Surely that is not a proper basis for deliberate policy-making.
Similar considerations will apply to some of those who lose their entitlement to benefit when the initial adjudication is made against their claim and who may have great difficulty in keeping body and soul together while they exercise their legal right to appeal. Therefore, the Motion tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is to be welcomed.
The Government have made the concession that those who apply for asylum in-country following a major upheaval in their home country will be entitled to benefits. That is to be welcomed. However, here again the Government have not responded to the probing questions of the Social Security Advisory Committee.
The same point is true of the proposals relating to sponsored immigrants. Let us take the case of an elderly lady who arrives here as an immigrant, sponsored by a younger relative. After a couple of years or so, the young relative unfortunately becomes mentally ill and is hospitalised or has kidney failure, or suffers a stroke, or is run over, or sees his business collapse--of course, these are exceptional cases, but they happen--and because the old lady has not yet been here for five years, she has no entitlement to benefit. How is she going to live? The Government have not given a satisfactory answer to that question.
We are talking typically about vulnerable people, such as old ladies, who will have absolutely no entitlement to a basic means of livelihood. The litmus test of any society is the way in which it treats the elderly and the vulnerable. That is what Church leaders mean when they speak about "insufficient flexibility" in the proposals to allow for hardship cases which are not only predictable but inevitable. Many people in the Churches and the voluntary organisations who acknowledge that major problems exist which any government would have to address nevertheless feel that the proposals are not a sound basis on which to proceed because they cannot cope with the many predictable cases of hardship. The proposals cry out for more understanding and more flexibility.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest in that I am the President of the Refugee Council. I was chairman for some five years, and in the past week I have been made president. I feel very privileged and honoured to have been put in that position. The speech that we have just heard encapsulates many of the concerns which have been expressed not just by the Refugee Council but by many bodies which are directly affected, day in and day out, by these problems.
No one in their right mind supports serious abuses of the position affecting bogus asylum seekers. I was going to say "genuinely" bogus. This, nevertheless, is one of the meanest, most unprincipled and unscrupulous pieces of legislation that I have ever come across in quite a long period in another place and here. I am ashamed of it. I am ashamed of it not because I suffered the same problems as my noble friend Lord Haskel directly, but my grandparents confronted major difficulties when they came to this country. I am ashamed of it because I should have hoped that the Secretary of State himself would not have sought to divorce himself from the experience of his own family, but he chose to do that
I am not prepared to acquit the Government of the charge of engaging in political motivation to try to secure an electoral benefit. I cannot omit the fact that it was a Conservative research director who said not very long ago:
Is that irrelevant? Yes, the background to all this is emotive. It has been emotive and pejorative language which has been used by both Secretaries of State involved in this issue (Mr. Lilley and Mr. Howard) to milk votes, to stimulate popularity with the bigoted. If the Government had approached this matter in a reasonably anodyne way; if they had stated the problem, one could have understood that. But they played for applause, and the game has been given away.
This is a case of shameless opportunism, designed to whip up prejudice. The constant reference to asylum seekers as "bogus" illustrates what I mean. The constant use of the term "a soft touch" illustrates what I mean. I cannot believe, from my knowledge of the situation, that people coming from some of these countries in travail settle around a table and say, "How are we going to get to Britain where we can milk the social services system?". Life is not like that. They may not know it, but life is not like that.
I only hope that Conservative Party Members in another place and here are not confronted themselves at any time with that situation, although they might learn a great deal from it. I do not begin to believe that they understand the pressures which were referred to by the right reverend Prelate. I am a political realist. I do not expect great shows of compassion from the Secretary of State for the Home Department or Miss Widdecombe. That would be like expecting a large family from a eunuch.
What I want to do is to ask the Minister some personal questions. I have, as he knows, a high regard for him personally, though not for the case that he will present tonight. Is it not a fact--this has been said over and over again, and the Government must answer this point--that over and above the 4 per cent. who have been given refugee status, 15 per cent. of applicants receive exceptional leave to remain for humanitarian reasons? Were those 15 per cent. at one time regarded as bogus? The Minister shakes his head. Why not? Of course it makes a huge difference, does it not, to the statistics that we have heard over and over again that only 4 per cent. of the claimants are genuine.
Is it not a fact that, even within the Government's own thinking, since the regulations apply right across the board, some genuine asylum seekers may be caught if they apply in-country? Will the Minister reply to that question in due course? If that is right, is it not probable
How are such people--including those who may ultimately, perhaps under this regime against all the odds, succeed on appeal--to be expected to survive as nearly 3,000 asylum seekers a month are to be denied benefit? That is a crucial point. We have not heard from the Minister in another place what is the real answer to that.
Why do the Government persist in their "soft touch" propaganda when it is clear that few asylum seekers believe that Britain's streets are paved with gold--as they find out to their bitter experience when they arrive? They do not receive the full rate of income support, as my noble friend Lady Hollis illustrated so vividly earlier. Is it not a fact that the Government's policy is designed deliberately to undermine rights of appeal which are critical to any society which bases itself on the rule of law?
How are these people expected to live, to survive financially, while waiting for an appeal which can take anything between 14 and 21 months? What is to happen to them during that period? How do the Government square their assertions with the fact that one out of 10 asylum seekers obtained refugee status in 1995 following appeals, having presumably been depicted in the interim by the authorities as "bogus"?
A number of noble Lords referred to the fact that there are ample statistics to suggest, contrary to what the Government have asserted, that in-country applicants are more likely to be proved to be genuine than port applicants. Why is it that the statistics illustrate clearly that they are much more likely to be accepted as genuine refugees? I return again to the point raised by the noble Prelate--
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