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6.24 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill. Britain has for centuries been a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution, torture or worse in their own countries. In the 16th century we gave refuge to the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. In the 19th century and in the earlier part of this century Jews from eastern Europe came to Britain to escape first the pogroms and then the Nazis. More recently, Britain was the first European Union country to respond to the UN's latest call to take in more Bosnian refugees fleeing murder, rape and torture in the former Yugoslavia.

Members of this House are well aware of our nation's proud tradition of providing a haven for those fleeing persecution. Indeed, we glean much satisfaction from it. Genuine refugees come to Britain because it is a beacon of liberty and because our democratic institutions respect human life and dignity. I am sure that the Government will do nothing to jeopardise that proud tradition. The question, however, is how we go about it and how we ensure that our asylum procedures are fair and not hindered by widespread abuse. The number of asylum claims in this country is fast rising and there is a great deal of evidence that the system is being abused by undeserving claimants. Perhaps I may refer to the figures again. Last year, 43,965 applications were made for asylum in this country compared with 32,830 in 1994. That is an increase of 34 per cent.

Even if all the applications were genuine--which is certainly not the case--it would be a considerable problem. But the fact is that the vast majority of asylum

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seekers are bogus. They have not come to Britain in search of sanctuary from persecution, but in pursuit of a materially better life. That is by nobody's definition suitable grounds for granting asylum. Last year the Home Office found only 5 per cent. of claimants to be genuine refugees. It deemed 79 per cent. of cases bogus.

Abuse of the system not only harms the efficiency of the immigration department to process claims quickly; it is flagrantly unfair to genuine refugees who have to wait in line with the undeserving because their claims are clogged up in the system. Genuine refugees often arrive in a traumatised state. They have undergone a great deal of anguish and suffering. The last thing they need when they arrive here is to have to wait for months on end in a bureaucratic log jam as claims are dealt with by overworked officials.

Our present asylum system is wide open to abuse. Many asylum seekers enter Britain as students, tourists and businessmen on the understanding that they can support themselves while they are here. They claim asylum often just before their visas expire or before they are about to be deported. One example I wish to bring to your Lordships' attention is the case of a Ghanaian who arrived in the UK as a visitor in 1988. He stayed on long after his initial visitor's visa had expired and was served with a deportation order in August 1994 from which he absconded. The day before he was due to be removed, in June 1995, he claimed asylum.

In 1994, 3,800 asylum seekers arrived in Britain without documents. I understand what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said. However, some applicants destroyed their documents and then claimed that they were from more dangerous countries than was actually the case in order to increase their chances of success. I welcome the Bill's proposal to fast-track the appeals of asylum applicants who, without a reasonable explanation, come here lacking a genuine passport.

Last year, 1,800 Ghanaians applied for asylum here, 99 per cent. of whom were rejected outright. In 1994 the immigration department rejected 99 per cent. of cases from Poland and Romania. It is clear therefore that some countries where there is no serious risk of persecution produce vast numbers of bogus asylum claims.

I welcome the fact that Clause 1 will allow the Home Secretary to do as Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have done and designate certain countries where no serious risk of persecution arises. It is only right that claimants from countries on the designated list should face a rebuttable presumption that they are undeserving cases.

The Opposition parties have refused to look objectively at the issue of rising asylum claims. They find it difficult even to accept that there is a problem of abuse in our asylum system. By refusing to support the Bill, they signal that they are unwilling to take firm action to deal with the difficulties in our asylum system.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, will the noble Baroness allow me to intervene? I hope she will forgive me but her last remarks seem a little unfair.

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On this side we have repeated that we recognise that there are problems and that some people try to come in improperly and illegally. We simply plead that there are also very genuine cases which need to be taken into account in the Bill.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I accept what the noble Baroness says. But the message that comes over both in this House and in the other place is that the Opposition parties do not face up to the facts. I am delighted to hear what the noble Baroness says.

Critics of the Bill accuse the Government of playing the policies of race for electoral purposes. That is not only wrong; it is offensive. The Government are tackling a legitimate problem. If we were to leave the abuses of our immigration and asylum system unchecked, the numbers of asylum seekers would continue to grow at an unmanageable rate. That would be both extremely costly to the British taxpayer and detrimental to harmonious race relations.

Throughout western Europe, asylum procedures have been tightened. As a result asylum applications have fallen. Last year, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Elles, asylum claims fell by 10 per cent. in western Europe but rose in Britain by 33 per cent. I do not hear allegations against formerly socialist Spain, social democrat Denmark and Finland or Christian Democrat Germany or Holland that by tightening their immigration rules they are practising the politics of race. The German Government, to take one example, have not introduced a designated list in order to win votes. They introduced the list so that German immigration officials could sift out asylum seekers abusing the system more effectively and tackle what has been an immense problem for Germany.

Britain has good race relations. We on this side of the House will do nothing to jeopardise those good relations. However, when there are high levels of immigration and increasing numbers of bogus asylum seekers or indeed illegal immigrants are working without a permit, all that is fostered is resentment and prejudice. If you have been on a waiting list for a council house for months, and sometimes years, and a bogus asylum seeker gets a council property before you do, you naturally feel unfairly treated.

The lesson from Europe is clear. Soft immigration policies and consequent rising immigration have led to the growth of nasty, far Right parties, such as Le Pen's National Front in France, Hitler's Freedom Party in Austria or--

Earl Russell: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness's remark about nasty, far Right parties. But does she agree that nasty, far Right parties are not dealt with by appeasement?

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I agree completely. That is why the Government want to do something about the illegal abuse of our asylum laws.

Over the past 17 years we in Britain have consistently had a firm but fair immigration policy. That has served to keep immigration within manageable limits and has preserved good social relations within ethnic groups.

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I commend the Bill to the House. I believe it will give immigration officials the powers they need to tackle the abuse in the system. It will benefit genuine refugees and serve to keep our race relations harmonious. For those reasons, I support the Bill.

6.35 p.m.

Lord Reay: My Lords, it seems to me to be a disproportionate outlay of bureaucratic effort and public money for 800 officials to be at work processing the applications of asylum seekers for what has been estimated as up to £500 million a year to be spent in benefits on those waiting for their cases to be heard when only 1 per cent. will be accepted, as in the case of Poland and Romania, 2 per cent., as in the case of Ghana, and well under 10 per cent. overall, including successful appeals.

It is not as if a wave of persecution had swept across the world. On the contrary, one of history's greatest persecutors, the Communist Party, has only recently been swept from power in dozens of countries, including many from whom today's asylum seekers are now for the first time free to come to Britain and make implicit accusations against the governments of their home countries which are probably for the first time in decades unjustified.

I have no doubt at all that something needs to be done. Indeed, Mr. Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, stated at Third Reading in another place that no one doubted the need to tackle the problem of bogus asylum seekers and what was at issue was how it should be done.

Despite the 1993 Act, the problem, as my noble friend the Minister explained to the House, gets worse. There is a rising backlog of cases awaiting determination, now standing at 84,000. At the rate decisions were taken in the last year for which we have figures--25,000 in a year--they would take over three years to process. With benefits available, the longer the queue the greater the attraction for many applicants. The fact that other countries in the same position as ourselves--France, Germany and the Netherlands--have taken corrective action, intensifies the attractions of the country that has not.

And those attractions may be added to by the substantial, though falling, number of those seeking asylum who are granted exceptional leave to remain. For that, in some eyes, will add to the success rate of asylum seekers. It may be the case that, if the Government succeed in bringing down the number in the queue, there will be less need in many cases to grant exceptional leave to remain. I shall be grateful if my noble friend the Minister, in winding up, finds herself able to comment on that speculation.

The measures the Government are taking are very selective and discriminating. The Government have tried with great care to deal with the identified problem without offending the principles and our traditions of hospitality and humanity. But the judgment is very difficult to make, as the fact that we have to have this Act so soon after the 1993 Act proves. Time will show whether these measures are adequate.

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From some quarters the Government have been accused of being too eager to legislate. If anything, they have been too reluctant. This country has acted late, after other countries; and our first efforts have not been strong enough.

Of course we should play our part, as so many noble Lords said, when there is persecution abroad, as we did when persecution took place in the France of Catharine de Medici and Louis XIV, in late 19th century Czarist Russia and in Hitler's Germany.

I have heard it asserted that the Government have been mean-spirited in their immigration policy, for example in the numbers that we have taken from the former Yugoslavia compared to those taken by other countries.

We all have our special ties and responsibilities. For example, we never closed our open frontier with the Republic of Ireland when that country became independent, even after we had introduced the first controls on Commonwealth immigration in 1962. It was a remarkable phenomenon reflecting our unique relationship with that country. In 1966, not long before both our countries joined the European Community, there were three-quarters of a million people resident in this country who had been born in Ireland.

Our special ties with the Commonwealth are also strongly reflected in our immigration record. By the time restrictions came to be imposed under the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, around three-quarters of a million new Commonwealth immigrants had arrived in this country. Still today some 50 per cent. of acceptances for settlement come from Commonwealth--predominantly new Commonwealth--countries. Also of course, there is the shadow of Hong Kong for whose population or elements of it we may find ourselves at any time having to make some form of special arrangement.

We are not free to take in everyone or anyone, even those who we think would be the greatest asset to our country. We are bound by obligations which derive from our past.

I do not expect that any possible future Labour Government would repeal this legislation, despite what the Labour Party says today. Like my noble friend Lord Renton, I look back for evidence on the way in which the Labour Government accepted and then extended the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. In a similar way, the Liberal Government which came to power in 1906 (one has to go further back to find an example of similar behaviour by a Liberal Government), having violently objected to the Balfour Government's aliens Act of the previous year, referred to by my noble friend Lord Pilkington of Oxenford--an Act which for the first time brought to an end the open door liberal policies on immigration which had persisted for most of the 19th century--once in power, not simply kept the legislation but extended it, eventually, when the 1914 war came, introducing in a draconian manner controls on alien immigration which have largely survived to this day. So I do not believe that any party behaves much worse than any other or even very differently from another, once it finds itself in power and having to deal with the kind of problems which the Government face today.

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The Bill cannot hope to foresee every eventuality. We shall keep returning to the subject, I have no doubt. Certainly I do not believe that any final tidying up is possible. As I said, I hope that we shall always maintain our tradition of asylum. I certainly do not believe that either our tradition or our reputation has been put under any threat by this cautious, necessary and responsible Bill.

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