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The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful for the sympathy and appreciation expressed by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. I agree that for those with children and grandchildren there is an especial pain in such an event, but I suggest that there are few, either within or beyond this House, who, if not parents or grandparents, are not uncles or aunts, or are not in some way connected with children.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that all of us welcome the fact that there is to be a judicial inquiry into the circumstances of this incident? Is he also aware that none of us would take the view that it is sensible to reach any quick decisions on what changes of policy there should be consequent upon this tragic situation? Following what the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, said, is the Minister aware that there have been discussions between the Home Office--I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, here--and the Association of Chief Police Officers on the question of psychologically damaged people who possess firearms? Is the Minister aware that all of us hope that the discussions which have been taking place will proceed with the utmost speed?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for underlining the most important message of all, namely, that we do not rush into instant judgments until all the details and facts are known. As regards the second point, the Government are well aware of the discussions regarding the holding of firearms by those who may have a record of either psychological weakness or some criminal event in their lives which is not unconnected with that. This is a difficult and complicated area but the Home Office and other departments, and those with whom they are consulting, are seeking a solution to it.

Lord Swansea: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not the firearms used by Hamilton were legally registered on a firearms certificate? On the assumption that they were, given that Hamilton had been refused membership of a gun club, why, then, was he issued with a firearms certificate?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the best course for all such detailed questions is to forward them to Lord Cullen who will consider them with the patience and the time that is required.

Asylum and Immigration Bill

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, I beg to move that the Asylum and Immigration Bill be read a second time.

The Government attach the highest priority to maintaining good race relations. As my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have emphasised on many occasions, we believe in a tolerant society; in equal rights for all those who are lawfully present; and in respect for their diverse cultures and backgrounds.

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It has consistently been our view that effective immigration control is a necessary condition for achieving that aim, and that this entails a readiness to deal with abuses and to operate a fair and objective system. We are determined to honour our obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and the 1981 Convention on Torture and Cruel or Inhuman Treatment. We do not, and will not, remove people to countries where they have a well-founded fear of persecution or where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be tortured. Those are the principles underlying this Bill. I must also stress that nothing in the Bill will change the immigration status of anyone who currently has the right to come to this country to live.

The Bill has three objectives: first, to strengthen our asylum procedures so that abusive claims and appeals can be dealt with more quickly; secondly, to combat immigration racketeering through stronger powers, new offences and higher penalties; and, thirdly, to reduce economic incentives which attract people to come to this country in breach of our immigration laws. The Bill would erect a stronger defence against unauthorised employment and provide powers to restrict entitlement to housing and child benefit.

Britain has a long and honourable tradition of giving refuge to those genuinely fleeing persecution. But our asylum procedures are becoming increasingly clogged up with abusive claims. Last year only 5 per cent. of applicants were granted asylum. Even allowing for those not qualifying for asylum but granted exceptional leave to remain on compassionate grounds, 79 per cent. were refused. Only 3 per cent. of appeals to adjudicators against refusal of asylum were allowed. In 1994, it was 4 per cent.

Claims have been rising sharply for two years. Last year we received nearly double the number of asylum claims that were made in 1993, when the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act was passed. As a result, the number of applicants awaiting a decision or appeal has now reached 84,000. On average, a new applicant can expect to wait 18 months for the completion of his case. Delays and backlogs of this magnitude undermine immigration control. Merely by uttering the word "asylum", an applicant who does not meet our immigration rules can fend off removal and secure a sometimes prolonged stay in this country. The longer the delays, the more attractive it is to make an abusive asylum claim. But the greater the number of claims received, the greater the delays incurred.

We would have been in an even more difficult position without the 1993 Act. The Act permitted significant improvements and streamlining. Average decision times for new claims are still only half what they were before the Act. But the scale of abuse and the near doubling of claims since 1993 make further legislation unavoidable, and urgent.

Critics of the Bill have suggested that the Government should increase resources and efficiency rather than introducing stricter procedures. The truth is that we need to do both, and that we are doing both. There has been a massive increase in resources. The number of asylum

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caseworkers has been increased eightfold, from 100 in 1988 to nearly 800. We are now investing an additional £37 million over three years in even more caseworkers and adjudicators. We have also improved efficiency.

As a result, the number of decisions taken has been increased from 21,000 in 1994 to 27,000 last year. In the coming financial year we expect to take over 37,000 decisions. The output of the appeal system has more than doubled in the last year.

These are dramatic improvements. However, they have still been outstripped by applications. Last year the number of new claims reached 44,000. The problem cannot be solved by resources and efficiency alone. Further strengthening of the legislation is needed. We must send a clear message that abusive claims will be dealt with robustly.

The recent experience of our European neighbours supports that view. Most of them have already introduced measures similar to the ones we are proposing. Germany and the Netherlands are examples of countries where stricter procedures since 1993 have been followed by substantial reductions. Over the past two years, the number of claims has more than halved in the main western European countries, but in this country it has nearly doubled. The Government are not prepared to allow this country to become a soft target for those intent on abusing asylum procedures.

The House will wish to know how we shall achieve that. First, we need to extend the mechanism for sifting out manifestly unfounded claims. Parliament has already endorsed that principle. The 1993 Act enables certain claims to be certified as "without foundation". That triggers an accelerated appeal. If the adjudicator upholds the certificate there is no secondary appeal to the Immigration Tribunal. However, case law has largely limited the use of the special appeal procedure to cases where we intend to remove a person to a safe third country. The Bill therefore introduces wider criteria for its use.

Clause 1 will allow the Secretary of State to certify a claim when refusing it if the grounds cited do not fall within the terms of the 1951 convention; where the claim is manifestly untrue or the evidence fraudulent; where the grounds cited no longer apply; and where asylum is only claimed after refusal of leave to enter or commencement of removal action. The existing "frivolous or vexatious" category would be retained.

There is no question of the Bill's enabling us to certify every claim we refuse. Examples of cases which would fall within the criteria are claims openly based on poverty or unemployment at home rather than fear of persecution; claims based on events or facts which are shown to be untrue; the large group of Pakistanis who claimed asylum because of membership of the Pakistan People's Party and who appealed against refusal even though that party had since become the Government of Pakistan; or immigration offenders who make no claim for asylum until action is taken to remove them.

Growing numbers of asylum applicants arrive undocumented, having destroyed or disposed of the passports on which they travelled. That makes it more difficult to assess their claims, to identify those who

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have travelled via a safe third country and to effect removal if asylum is refused. The immigration rules already make clear that destruction of documents damages credibility. Clause 1 will enable such claims to be certified unless a reasonable explanation has been offered. Those who travel on fake papers will not be adversely affected provided they declare them on arrival, but failure to do so would attract a certificate.

Clause 1 will also enable the Secretary of State to designate countries of origin in which it appears to him that there is in general no serious risk of persecution. Some countries generate large numbers of asylum claims but few, if any, genuine refugees. We see no reason why refugees from say Iran or Iraq should have to wait longer for a decision because we have to give equal time and weight to the thousands of unfounded claims from countries such as India and Poland.

Caseworkers and adjudicators would be able to take account of the fact that the applicant was a national of a designated country. Claims by such nationals would attract the accelerated appeal procedure and, if the adjudicator upholds the Secretary of State's decision, the appellant would not have an avenue to the immigration tribunal. Designation would not however amount to a blanket ban on asylum claims. Each case would still be considered, and those refused would still have an appeal.

We would designate countries which generate significant numbers of claims and from which a very high proportion of claims prove to be unfounded. Designation would not amount to a declaration that we necessarily regard countries to be universally safe or to have political and judicial institutions that function to western standards. That would be unnecessary and unrealistic. We could not possibly accept an obligation to apply such standards, and no such obligation exists in international law. We propose to make a judgment as to whether the general level of risk to people living in a country is sufficiently low to warrant designation. The words

    "in general no serious risk of persecution"
convey that policy objective.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary would of course liaise closely with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The countries they currently regard as suitable for designation are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Poland and Romania. Last year the refusal rate for those nationalities was 97 per cent. or more.

Designation orders would be laid before Parliament. I am grateful to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee for its report of today, recommending the affirmative rather than negative procedure for designation orders. Discussions in another place did not convince us that that was appropriate. Nevertheless, I shall reflect on the report. We shall provide Parliament with our assessment of conditions in each candidate country. The Bill will enable us to cancel designation if conditions in a country deteriorate, or add a new country to the list if conditions improve.

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The Government have consistently taken the view that asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. It is our policy to return asylum seekers to safe third countries if they have travelled here through such countries, or if there is evidence that the third country will admit them. Parliament has endorsed that policy, because it is written into the immigration rules.

However, the right to appeal before removal often makes it impossible to apply the safe third country principle effectively. By the time the appeal has been completed the third country is often no longer prepared to re-admit the appellant.

Clauses 2 and 3 would therefore make appeals against removal to certain third countries exercisable only after removal. Under a government amendment adopted in another place that will now only apply to third countries within the European Union. Cases involving European Union member states account for 95 per cent. of third country refusals. Over 80 per cent. relate to France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. It is unacceptable that removal should be delayed while applicants seek to dispute the safety of such countries.

There is nothing unusual in requiring immigration appeals to be exercised from abroad. It has long been the case, for example, that a person refused leave to enter because he does not have the necessary entry clearance can appeal only after departure or removal.

We propose an order-making power to enable other safe third countries to be added to the list in due course. Such an order would be laid before Parliament. Countries such as Canada, the USA and Switzerland, which have proven safe asylum procedures, would be candidates for designation as safe third countries.

Where removal is to a third country not in the European Union or not designated in an order, the applicant would, as now, have a suspensive in-country appeal before removal could take place. Other obstacles to the effective operation of our asylum procedures would be removed by Schedule 2.

Clauses 4 to 7 are designed to help the general enforcement of the immigration control, and in particular to tackle the growing problem posed by immigration facilitators and racketeers. It is encouraging to note that this part of the Bill attracted almost universal support when it was considered in another place. Differences were concerned with detail rather than with the principle of the proposals.

By facilitators or racketeers I mean those who assist others to evade the immigration control. They are motivated solely by personal gain, for which they target groups of people who, as a consequence of limited education, poverty and social circumstances, are little equipped to resist their promises or to afford their expensive services. But once caught these people and their families are liable to exploitation for fear of being exposed to the authorities; so the evil can be a continuing one.

The sole weapon currently available is the offence of facilitating the entry of an illegal entrant. The limits of that offence were exposed by two judgments in this House in 1993 which held that action could be taken

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against the racketeer only where the people whose passage and entry he had facilitated were treated as illegal entrants. If they are not treated as illegal entrants there is no case to answer under the existing legislation. The situation after entry is even worse, as there is no existing offence which deals with facilitating the acquisition of leave to remain.

Clause 4 creates a new offence of obtaining leave to remain by deception. Clause 5 provides two new offences. The first is an offence of facilitating the entry of an asylum claimant. Seeking asylum is not now, and will not become, a criminal act. But we believe that steps must be taken to deter those who exploit asylum seekers. To protect those who genuinely assist refugees, specific defences have been included in Clause 5(2) to target it firmly at profit-seeking racketeers. The new offence will not arise where there is no personal gain or where the assistance has been provided as a consequence of employment by a bona fide organisation whose purpose is to assist refugees.

Secondly, Clause 5 creates an after entry facilitation offence. It will allow for speedier and more successful prosecution of racketeers such as proprietors of bogus educational establishments and organisers of marriage rackets. It will also enable us to combat those who deal in the provision of falsified asylum applications and with forged documentation.

The Bill has been amended in another place to exclude from the offences in Clause 5 anyone advising an immigration applicant who is not a party to any deception of our immigration control which may be being practised. Thus bona fide legal advisers or others will be specifically exempted. But anyone who is party to a deception will be caught by the new offence, and I think rightly so.

The Bill makes other provisions to strengthen immigration enforcement powers. It also extends bail rights so that all detained illegal entrants would be able to apply for bail.

Clause 8 addresses the problem of illegal working. We take the view which was shared by many respondents to our consultation document that illegal working cannot be condoned or ignored. It takes away jobs which would otherwise be available to people with a right to work here, from whatever ethnic background. The ethnic minority communities have nothing to fear from Clause 8. On the contrary, they stand to gain--as does everyone legally living and working in Britain.

The Government do not accept that the scale of illegal working is insignificant. In 1994 the Immigration Service detected more than 10,000 people working here illegally. This is obviously not the full picture. We cannot, because of its very nature, determine the full size of the problem. But we do not believe that it can be viewed with complacency.

Concern about illegal working is shared by most of our European partners. They already have measures in place which aim to address it. We are undoubtedly vulnerable if we do not attempt to control illegal working when other countries do.

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Our proposals focus on the role of employers--because employers control access to the labour market. But we want to keep the burden on employers to a minimum. This has generally been acknowledged and welcomed by employers and by employers' organisations.

Our proposal is to create a new summary offence. An employer will be guilty of an offence if he employs an immigrant aged 16 or over if that immigrant does not have valid and subsisting leave to remain in the United Kingdom--or if his leave prohibits him from taking the employment in question.

If that were all we were proposing then employers would have real cause for concern. However, we are proposing that employers should be safe from conviction--and in practice from prosecution--if they have taken one of a number of steps before taking on a new employee.

In many cases the defence would be made out without an employer having to do anything which is not already done as a matter of routine. In other cases employers might need to see and copy evidence of a national insurance number; and in a proportion of cases employers might need to see and copy passports or other documents.

A number of people have expressed some concern about the possibility that our proposals would or could lead to some employers deciding to "play safe" when recruiting new staff. We take those concerns seriously. But we believe that the fears are without foundation.

The proposals are straightforward. Employers will be able, very easily in most cases, to satisfy themselves that they will not be liable to conviction. Nor is there any incentive for employers to discriminate on racial grounds. We expect all employees to be treated equally. Members of ethnic minorities will continue to be able to compete for jobs on merit alone.

It will be important for employers to have appropriate guidance and advice about what they will need to do under these arrangements. This is a point which was reinforced by many of those who responded to the consultation document. A crucial part of that advice will clearly concern the avoidance of recruitment practices which are discriminatory, or which might appear to be so. The Commission for Racial Equality has agreed to provide its assistance with the drawing up of such guidance. We are very grateful to the commission for that. We will be starting to discuss what will be required very shortly. However, I can say now that ensuring that checks are made on all new employees will represent an important safeguard in this respect.

Clause 9 enables us to restrict entitlement to accommodation under the homelessness legislation and the allocation of a council tenancy.

Following restrictions in benefit entitlement of persons from abroad, which were introduced by the Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996 last month, and earlier benefit changes in April 1994, there is now an imbalance between entitlement to benefits and entitlement to housing assistance. This places an unacceptable burden on local housing authorities. Clause 9 addresses that imbalance. Our broad purpose is to ensure that any person who

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requires leave to enter or remain, under the 1971 Immigration Act and who does not have entitlement to housing benefit, should also be denied access to housing assistance.

We have tabled information about the groups of immigrants who will be affected. The main ones are those who are present without leave, or who have limited leave granted on the understanding that they will not have recourse to public funds. Asylum seekers who claim after entry or whose applications have been refused by the Home Office will no longer have entitlement to housing assistance. Asylum seekers will be ineligible for council housing.

Clause 10 restricts entitlement to child benefit. The same reasoning applies. We need to bring child benefit into line with the other non-contributory benefits such as family credit, access to which by people from abroad was restricted last month under the Social Security Amendment Regulations. Those benefits are now limited to people who are resident or settled in this country. They are no longer available to those who have been given limited leave on the understanding that they will not claim public funds, to those who are present without valid leave, or to asylum seekers.

There is no justification for treating child benefit any differently. In order to align it we need primary powers, which Clause 10 provides. The Delegated Powers Committee has asked how those powers will be used. I have just given an outline of this but we will table a draft statutory instrument to assist the House.

There has, outside Parliament and in another place, been some very unbalanced criticism of this Bill. There is absolutely nothing improper in strengthening our asylum procedures against the current very high level of abuse; in declaring the evident fact that some of the main countries of origin do not give rise to a serious risk of persecution; in expecting asylum seekers to pursue their claims elsewhere if there is a safe third country for them to go to; in protecting employment opportunities for people entitled to live and work here; in taking tougher action against immigration racketeers.

This country has a good record on race relations, and a tradition of harbouring people who have fled here from real persecution abroad. This Bill is not only consistent with those principles. It is essential if we are to continue to implement them effectively. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Baroness Blatch.)

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