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6.59 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, this Bill is to be welcomed, not only because it should eliminate much of the abuse--fraud, in effect--which causes much disenchantment throughout the country, but also because it aims to protect the rights of the innocent and underpin the long and worthy tradition of this country of generosity towards fellow human beings regardless of race, creed and colour.

It was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, when he referred to previous legislation, that once legislation is in place, it does not really need to be examined every so often to see whether it needs to be revised, amended, or added to. This, I fear, is unrealistic. The world changes and the truth is that other countries have so tightened up their legislation that we are now in danger of being overwhelmed by those who cannot meet the conditions of other countries' immigration Acts. Hence it is most important that we look at our existing legislation to ensure that we are not being unfairly

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targeted by people who are not genuine asylum seekers but rather economic migrants. I am sure that economic migrants are the real reason for the backlog of dealing with the genuine asylum seekers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe said.

I applaud the motives of the Bill, and I support it. However, as occurs with so much proposed legislation, I find that costs could fall on innocent employers and others. During progress of the Bill we must ensure that those costs are kept to a minimum without losing sight of the admirable objectives.

Costs of proposed measures are not always immediately apparent. In the case of this Bill, I believe that that is so. For example, only this morning I received a six-monthly update from a charity for the homeless with which I am associated. Reading through the report of the director, I came across the words:

    "Changes in legislation in regard to Benefits for Asylum Seekers are threatening to us. However it is too soon to say what the effects could be overall. Our principal concern is that our ethos is to offer help first, and ask questions later. We may now be forced into a position of asking questions first, and restricting help to those without means of support".
In other words, the work of the charity will be increased as the staff will be taking on the work of the law and order or immigration authorities. That will not only be a difficult task for them, but will also cost money in terms of time and effort. It is a small point but it illustrates the problems that we can build up by aiming for an honourable objective without due cognisance of the possible consequent burdens on people not necessarily in the "front line".

The Bill has very wide scope; and looking at it I wonder whether it offers a chance to put right two particular pieces of legislation under which shipping companies and airlines currently incur huge costs--in my opinion, unjustifiably so.

At this point, I must declare an interest. Like my noble friend Lord Hesketh I am involved in the air transport industry, being a director of British Airways plc. The legislation to which I refer is the Immigration Act 1971 under which all transport carriers--on land, sea and air--are liable for the first 72 hours of detention costs for people detained by Immigration, even when they have a passport and visa.

The second piece of legislation is the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act 1987 under which the carriers are "fined" for bringing in someone who does not have documents but whom Immigration decides to let in.

Perhaps I may crave the indulgence of the House to explain this a little more fully. Some months ago, under the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act 1987, British Airways was fined £2,000 for flying an incorrectly documented passenger to Heathrow. The passenger was flying with her mother who had the correct documentation. But that did not matter. Nor did the fact that the passenger in question was a babe in arms.

If that sounds crazy, it is because the situation is crazy. While some noble Lords might find this argument somewhat marginal to the core concerns raised by the

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Bill, I would urge them to consider the very real cost to our transport carriers of the inflexibility of the immigration system in creating this sort of problem.

Quite properly, the current system protects bona fide immigrants and identifies some illegal travellers. But, quite understandably, carriers find it hard to swallow the small number of quite iniquities injustices and I believe that it is now time to ease them. This Bill, I suggest, gives us that opportunity.

All transport carriers have the responsibility to make sure that their passengers entering the UK carry a valid passport and visa. But they do not feel that their check-in agents around the world--they are often young and frequently not employed by them because local monopolies dictate that the monopolies employ their own staff at check-ins--should have to act as unpaid immigration officials with all the responsibility but no authority.

Forgeries, expired visas, and people arriving at Heathrow, or at ports, having destroyed their documents on board their aircraft or ship, cost the carriers many millions of pounds every year. For airlines alone it is reckoned to be just under £10 million. But the carriers acknowledge that when they get it wrong, they have to accept the costs.

However, the carriers are also charged when they do not get it wrong. Recently a passenger arrived at Gatwick from the Caribbean with correct documents and a valid and paid for return ticket. The return portion of the ticket was "open" allowing the passenger flexibility as regards the date he wished to fly home. When he was stopped at Immigration, it was discovered that he had very little money on him and he did not show any pressing hurry to decide there and then when he was likely to return home. For three days he was kept at the immigration centre, and then repatriated. The airline was obliged under the current provisions of the Immigration Act 1971 to pick up the Bill of £400 for detention costs and to provide a seat back to the Caribbean on a fully booked flight which resulted in further cost and embarrassment for the poor unfortunate other passenger who was "bumped" in order to make space for the deportee.

The airline industry in this country pays almost £1 million a year in detention costs and there is absolutely nothing the airlines can do to stop it. How can they second-guess whether an immigration officer will question the deeper motives of an apparently innocent traveller? Alternatively, should the airline always ask passengers to empty their pockets, wallets and purses before they are accepted for a flight to ensure that they are bona fide travellers?

In this Bill we have an opportunity to consider alleviating the burden of costs relating to the detention of passengers for reasons beyond the operators' control.

Perhaps I may refer again to the babe-in-arms story. The story had a happy ending for her. The babe was given leave to enter the UK with her mother. However, the airline did not share the happy ending. It had to pay a £2,000 fine under the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act. I defy anyone to explain the logic of that.

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If the passenger is actually let in, why should the shippers and airlines have to pay a fine? The only party to benefit from the leniency of the immigration authorities in the case of the babe-in-arms was the passenger who got the airline into the situation in the first place.

I am not getting at the immigration authorities. I greatly admire and respect the work that they do. It is an unenviable job. I also admire and respect the work done by our airlines, who carry millions of people. But we must not impose too onerous a burden on carriers which are demonstrably careful; and through the Bill we have an opportunity to address some of those aspects.

I refer to the Bill in the terms of the costs that it creates. If we wish to be highly competitive not only as regards our charities, which do not need additional costs, but also in our transportation, we should address this issue. Other than that, I believe that it is a good Bill, and I commend it.

7.9 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the Bill before us is overdue and should stand the test of time. The message from the United Kingdom is clear. Genuine asylum seekers are welcome to seek refuge here, but if they are coming to abuse the system, and are unable to substantiate a claim, this country, with regret, is unable to facilitate.

The Bill is not racist, as some commentators would have us believe. I would be the first to say if it is. The need for employers to check credentials is appropriate personnel department housekeeping which also happens to be in the interests of this nation for a number of differing reasons. However, I look forward to hearing more on issues relating to the withdrawal of certain benefits and on how that would impact on current asylum seekers and their families.

Additionally, I believe it behoves the Government to eliminate any confusion surrounding the new regulations. Racketeering and bogus advisers are a menace and should be dealt with firmly. The problem is as much abroad as here. Lack of procedural understanding makes people vulnerable. So called experts who purport to offer "fix-it" strategies at normally great cost are a root problem. What could our posts do to help sort out this problem?

The Home Secretary's criteria for selecting those countries considered not giving rise to a serious risk of persecution are clear, and seem perfectly sensible. I accept the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee's findings that initial selection by affirmative resolution is preferable.

On a related matter, perhaps I may ask the Minister what has happened to the numbers of asylum applications from those countries since January this year, when the legislation received widespread publicity.

Before my concluding remarks, perhaps I may identify myself with much of what the noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, had to say and take his vision one step

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further. If only a mechanism could be found to encourage asylum applicants to return home to help the development of their country when conditions permit.

Finally, the Prime Minister has just returned from an anti-terrorism conference in Cairo.

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