Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dubs: My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the statistics, can he say how many asylum claims there are now in the pipeline? I suggest that between 50,000 and 60,000 asylum claims are waiting to be considered and that that is the biggest incentive for people to come here and not the argument that we are getting soft.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, of course the backlog has increased, because no matter how hard I try to explain that we have put resources into dealing with the problem, even more come in. In the real world that is very difficult to tackle. The noble Lord need not worry because I have not finished with the statistics: there are a lot more to come.

The plain fact is that our benefit system offers a greater incentive to economic migrants than applies in other countries. Under current arrangements an asylum seeker in the United Kingdom has open-ended access to benefit and is generally accommodated in the community. How much more attractive that is to an economic migrant than, say, Germany or Holland where they are accommodated in a camp and benefits are mainly in kind; or in Belgium or France where benefit stops after a year. After six months in Britain an asylum

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1353

seeker can take work. In Denmark, France, The Netherlands and Spain asylum seekers are not allowed to work. So, as the rest of Europe has tightened up their procedures, we have seen our system becoming clogged up with a large number of false asylum claims. The burden on the system continues to grow as more economic migrants are drawn to the UK in preference to other European countries. By removing the incentive for economic migration, as we are doing in these regulations, we shall be able to ease the asylum process for genuine refugees.

Noble Lords should be clear that the overwhelming majority--I used the following figures on the last occasion and no one is countering them, with perhaps a slight exception as regards the two leading figures in the parties opposite--of claims are unfounded. Your Lordships will recall that I tried to simplify the figures away from thousands by simply saying that in 1994, for every 100 asylum seekers who came to this country, seven were found to be genuine refugees, 17 were granted permission to remain in the UK on humanitarian grounds (exceptional leave to remain) and 76 received an outright refusal. We are spending £200 million a year, which is rising rapidly, and over 90 per cent. of that goes to people who do not meet the criteria set out in the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Minister argue that all the cases that I indicated from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture were bogus cases? They were all refused.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not going to argue in detail about individual cases because I do not know the facts. I know the facts about some cases which received high profile treatment, but the facts are often not as reported. There is an appeal system. If the noble Baroness does not mind, I shall give my speech in the round.

The appeal system is not going to be removed and neither is the right for people to come here and seek asylum. One would have thought occasionally this afternoon that these regulations were actually going to stop people coming here and seeking asylum. They do not do that. They are tackling what we believe--but which quite clearly the Opposition do not believe--is an abuse of our benefit system.

I was going to try to be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, who asked me a question about exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. Where the conditions in a particular country are so difficult, Ministers have agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect individuals to return to that country for the time being. Those are the kinds of circumstances in which exceptional leave to remain is given. Countries which currently fall into that category are, for example, China, Liberia and Somalia.

I tried to work out in my mind what the difference was. I believe it is that if in a particular country a person is likely to be in danger, not individually but simply because there are a lot of bullets flying around, not necessarily with the individual's name on them, that

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1354

begins to lead people to believe that we should give exceptional leave to remain. A refugee is where a bullet may have his name on it.

We allow people to stay in this country on exceptional leave to remain in 17 cases out of 100. I return to the figure that I want to leave in your Lordships' minds for the rest of my speech. Three-quarters of them--76 cases out of 100--are actually found after the whole procedure has finished, including appeals and cases where the adjudicator decides that the original decision was correct, either not to warrant exceptional leave to remain or not to be genuine asylum seekers.

A great deal has been made of the time when people apply. That is one of the key changes we are making. Currently people can apply at the port of entry and when they are already in the country, having got in by saying that they were coming to visit, to be educated, to conduct business or whatever. Something has been made of the fact that they arrive and within a few days they decide to apply for asylum. That is not the case. In the first nine months of 1995, 63 per cent. of all visitors claimed asylum a month or more after arrival. The figures are these: those who applied within a month of arrival, 45 per cent.; between one and two months, 10 per cent; between two and four months, 15 per cent; between four and six months, 20 per cent.; and over six months after arrival, 10 per cent. Therefore, noble Lords can see that more than half of the asylum seekers actually apply at least a month after arrival in this country.

Continuing with the distinction between at-port and in-country applications, under these regulations anyone who arrives here and claims to be a refugee at the point of entry will be entitled to benefit while the Home Office assesses their claim. Seventy per cent. of claims are made by people who have entered this country claiming to be visitors, students or businessmen or who have entered illegally, only later to claim asylum. The bulk of these people have in fact convinced entry clearance officers in their home country and immigration officers at the UK ports that they intend to remain in this country for only a limited time and that they have sufficient funds to support and accommodate themselves while they are here. It is my belief that it is entirely reasonable to say to people that if they want to seek asylum in this country they ought to do it when they reach our shores.

I am told by noble Lords that that is an entirely unreasonable expectation and that people are too scared or disoriented, or lack knowledge of our procedures, and are traumatised, which is one of the words used by the noble Baroness on more than one occasion. The statistics do not bear that out. The noble Baroness tried to pluck your Lordships' heartstrings as regards children. The interesting fact about unaccompanied children is that the vast majority claim at the port. In 1994, 357 claimed at the port, 59 claimed in-country. In 1993, 245 claimed at the port and 30 claimed in-country. In 1992, 185 claimed at the port and only five claimed in-country. I do not believe that these statistics bear out the assertion of people being traumatised.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1355

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, in arguing this matter mentioned Zaire. I took the trouble to look at the figures for that country. The whole principle of the debate on which the argument by the Opposition is based is that people are too frightened or traumatised to apply at the port of entry. If they believe that we are that kind of country, I do not know why they come to Great Britain. However, that question was not answered. As regards Zaire, in 1994, of the 775 people who applied, 360 applied at the port and 415 applied in-country. That is pretty close to a balanced position. In the previous year, 635 people applied; 340 at the port and 295 in-country. The year before that, out of the 880 who applied in total 440 applied at the port and 435 applied in country.

I could go through, as I did on the day of the Statement, one or two other countries which draw out exactly the same point. However, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, kindly led me to Zaire as a country where people would be so traumatised and so distraught that they certainly would never think of applying for asylum on entry. The statistics simply do not bear out the noble Earl at all. I do not believe that if someone has identified the United Kingdom as a safe haven and if they have successfully misrepresented themselves to an entry clearance officer in their home country and they have found their way to this country, they suddenly lose the capacity to make the asylum claim which is actually what brought them here in the first place.

I believe, and I am sorry to say it to all noble Lords who have argued this case, that this stretches credulity a little too far. I am told also there is no evidence that in-country applicants are any less likely to be genuine than those who claim on arrival. The implication is that these regulations are based on the belief that in-country applicants are somehow more bogus. That has never been my case. I have never claimed that an in-country claim is less likely to be genuine. Rather it is my contention that the availability of benefit for in-country applicants, who actually form the majority of the applicants, provides an incentive for economic migrants to represent themselves as asylum seekers.

What we are saying is simply that those who wish to claim asylum in this country should do so on arrival. In saying this--this was a point my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree made, together with the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford--we do accept that there may be occasions when someone is trapped in this country by an upheaval in his home country. In these circumstances it will be possible for an in-country applicant to claim benefit on the same basis as a port application.

The great majority of asylum seekers appeal against the refusal of refugee status. Fewer than 4 per cent. of appeals are actually upheld, but the mere fact of having lodged an appeal allows the asylum seeker to retain entitlement to benefit until his case is decided. So in fact our generosity clogs up the system and causes the very delays that every noble Lord who has spoken has actually highlighted as a real problem in this situation. There is a clear incentive for a claimant to string out his appeal.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1356

Our purpose in these regulations is to remove this incentive in order to free up the appeal system. It can only be to the advantage of a genuine refugee and asylum seeker that the appeal system be relieved of this enormous burden of people who simply appeal because it keeps them here. And of course a British citizen who appeals against a domestic benefit decision receives no benefit during the course of the appeal. I just do not believe it is right that we, that is the British taxpayer, should be supporting this vast number of people who turn out to be without-foundation claimants, encouraging them almost to go through the appeals procedure so that they can keep on drawing benefits. The noble Earl's Motion, standing in his own name, would in fact reintroduce this very incentive for people to submit unfounded appeals.

I am asked what happens to the roughly three-quarters out of every hundred of those who come in who, at the end of the Home Office's consideration, are found not to be justified, having no exceptional leave to remain, and with no refugee status. How do they fend for themselves? I am going to turn that question round, because a little later three-quarters of them end up being refused totally and absolutely and then do not receive any benefit: no housing benefit, no council tax benefit. What do they do? Are the streets full of those people sleeping out at night? Of course not. This is a completely, if I may use the word, bogus argument because if there had been any justification noble Lords would have been complaining for years that the current situation, which would stop benefits after the end of the appeal system, was in fact uncaring, traumatising and all the other words we hear. Frankly, all the proposals before us are doing is actually bringing forward the time when the bogus asylum seeker will be deprived of benefits under our system.

If I may, I will now turn to a number of points raised by your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and in fact also the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has his own Motion down on this very point, referred to the safeguarding and protection of the children of in-country applicants. The welfare of those children is already safeguarded by the Children Act 1989, which provides that where children are in need local authorities have an obligation to protect them. This obligation extends to children of an asylum seeker, and these regulations in no way change the operation of the Children Act.

I am dismayed that people, in their haste to condemn these regulations, have chosen to overlook the safeguards we have provided. First, we have made it clear that existing claimants who are awaiting the outcome of an asylum decision or appeal will retain their right to benefit. Secondly, the children of asylum seekers will continue to have rights under the Children Act. Thirdly, we have recognised that local authorities may face additional costs in meeting their obligations under that Act and the homelessness legislation; and we have made it clear that we will discuss with them these matters and we will assist them with these costs once they have been identified.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1357

I should like to say the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that, regarding the UNHCR's point about our being in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, we do not believe that is the case. We are fully satisfied that there is nothing in these regulations that places the United Kingdom in breach of that convention.

We have had a great many arguments for and against the Resolutions and the Prayers, but I do not believe any of them have actually properly addressed the points that I have put over in advancing the case before the House this evening supporting these arguments. The blunt fact of the matter is that the facts speak for themselves: the increase in the numbers coming here as compared to Europe and the three-quarters of them that are found not to be genuine refugees. Indeed, the Social Security Select Committee in the other House said this:

    "The committee shares the widespread view that the growth in the numbers of unfounded asylum claims and their cost to the taxpayer is a serious problem that the Government is right to tackle".

Even Amnesty International towards the end of its report concludes:

    "It is not disputed that the Government faces serious difficulties in dealing with large numbers of asylum applications, many of which are not well founded".

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, even went a little way along that line too. She said that maybe a high proportion are economic migrants. A high proportion are clearly economic migrants and the figures show it beyond peradventure. We are saying that we have a responsibility towards the United Kingdom taxpayers. We have also a responsibility towards the genuine asylum seekers. What I am left not knowing is: would the two parties opposite actually allow people in and to claim and then pay them benefits endlessly without question? I am puzzled about that because anybody who reads or listens, as I have done, to the attack on the Government's policy is unfortunately led to the conclusion that if I have got it so wrong then they must be going to open up the system and pay a lot more benefits. I believe I have proved that there is an abuse of our system. It is an abuse we can stop, and it is an abuse that, once stopped, will actually help both the United Kingdom taxpayer and the genuine refugees. These regulations I think ought to be commended.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page