Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

7.55 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, we have had, as the other place has had, a debate in which a vast amount of evidence has been brought forward from both sides of

14 Mar 1996 : Column 1019

the House. Very little movement of mind has taken place. That is the sort of situation in which we all need, on both sides of the House, to start thinking about our underlying assumptions because if debate is worth anything, it must, even if it does not make us agree, make us understand exactly what it is about which we disagree.

I shall begin by putting a few cards on the table and I hope that, before we are through the Bill, a few more people will do the same. About three weeks ago, I was walking round my local supermarket and I saw a couple. The man was in his seventies and the girl was about eight. Quite obviously, from the sort of double-vision effect of watching their faces, gestures and movements, they were blood relations. I took them to be grandfather and granddaughter. As I got closer to them and could hear them and see them better, I observed that one of them was German and the other was Indian. I stopped and thought that that is exactly what being British is all about. I agree with Lord Peter Wimsey that you must be British; there is no other nation that boasts of being mongrel.

Therefore, when I talk about the people of our country, I do it with that sort of assumption behind me. After all, in this House, we have the privilege of tracing our ancestry rather further back than many people are able to do. Therefore, we know that we are practically all descended from immigrants. In my case, that is from 1393; we were Bordeaux wine merchants. Even the most ancient of the aristocracy normally came over with the Conqueror, if not later.

There is one Hereditary Peer in this House who can trace his ancestry back on the continuous occupation of an estate to before the Norman Conquest; that is my noble kinsman Lord Stanley of Alderley. I hope that he is not about to dismiss the rest of us as immigrants because if he did, the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, might do that to the whole lot of us.

Therefore, when we talk about tolerance for immigrants, we are asking only to give to others the benefit which our ancestors have enjoyed in the past. I agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said about the use of the word "immigrant". I wonder why, in the definition of the word "immigrant", especially in relation to Clause 10, those who have exceptional leave to remain, who have in fact cleared all the hurdles, are still saddled with that stigma of being immigrant. I do not see what useful purpose that provision serves in relation to the stated purposes of the Bill. I would be most interested to hear an explanation in that respect.

I also believe that our obligation to those with a well-founded fear of persecution is like the obligation to pick up survivors at sea: a very strong obligation indeed. I therefore feel as I do about the case of innocent or guilty; namely, that the burden of proof on anyone who alleges that an asylum-seeker is not genuine is a very heavy one. I really would rather take the risk--and that is as high as I put it--that a number of people who are

14 Mar 1996 : Column 1020

not genuine are accepted rather than one who is genuine should get sent back. That is one of my priorities. I give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I am much obliged. I wonder whether the noble Earl would draw a distinction between those who before they come here, and while in their own countries, somehow claim asylum and those who do so on arrival at port and who are therefore very genuine. Is the noble Earl putting those who make an application as an afterthought in the same category as the genuine ones?

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to cover a point that I thought I would not have time to mention. First, one cannot apply for asylum from one's own country because it is practically true that, by definition, if you can, you do not need it. Secondly, the phrase "afterthought" was one that I nearly rose to intervene about when the noble Lord used it in his speech. It is very often not an afterthought; indeed, it is very often a considered decision. If I were advising anyone coming into this country, I would not necessarily advise them to claim asylum at the port. That is partly because it can be extremely difficult to do so without the aid of professional advice. Further, it can be extremely difficult to tell one's story if one has, for example, been a victim of torture.

I once had the very dubious privilege of being in the position of trying to persuade a rape victim to go to the police. I was not successful. I soon came to the realisation that I would cause her considerable mental harm if I continued to press her, so I did not. I imagine that the position of victims of torture is very much like that; and, indeed, in some cases, identical to it. So, no, I do not accept the noble Lord's use of the word "afterthought". I would be prepared to consider a time limit after entry, but those who wish to obtain professional advice before making their claims should, I believe, have every right to do so. I would not distinguish in the way suggested by the noble Lord.

We have heard a great deal this evening about numbers. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, pointed out that the numbers of people leaving this country are greater than the numbers entering it. One might add that one-third of the people entering this country are British people returning from abroad. Therefore, in the light of the habitual residence test, one begins to wonder whether they, too, will soon be classified as foreigners.

Our country has benefited immensely from its immigrants. I have in mind the Ugandan Asians about whom we have heard a good deal tonight. I happen to live in the borough which has the largest concentration of Ugandan Asians in the British Isles. Therefore, I can abundantly confirm that the decision taken by a Conservative Government to let them in has been greatly to the benefit of this country. I am very glad that they took that decision.

On the evidence at present available, I honestly do not know the scale of the problem, but that is not for lack of trying. The word "bogus", as it has been used from the Government Benches in the debate, means

14 Mar 1996 : Column 1021

"outside the scope" or "appearing to be outside the scope" of the present law. But anyone who is in this House when we debated the 1993 Bill will know that I am not happy with the present positioning of the goal posts. Therefore, a shot which is wide of the present goal posts does not necessarily appear to me to be a bad shot.

Similarly, I cannot automatically assume that everyone at present refused under the existing procedures deserves to be refused. Some of the refusal letters which have come from the Home Office give rise to a certain amount of surprise. There was one recent letter regarding a man from Zaire which said, "Since by your own testimony the soldiers who broke into your house were shooting wildly in all directions, I cannot accept that they had a deliberate intention of shooting your brother. Claim rejected". If someone was shooting wildly into my house, I would have a fear of persecution that was well founded.

The Minister may wish to intervene during the course of what I propose to say now. If she does, I hope that she will be kind enough to wait until I have finished. I refer to a case from Northern Cyprus where a man had a hundred severe scars across his back. A surgeon testified that, so far as he could see, those scars could have resulted from no other cause than torture. The Home Office letter of refusal said that it was believed that they had been inflicted deliberately at his request as part of a cynical conspiracy to gain entry into the country.

I said that the Minister might wish to intervene, but I should point out that I have heard her honourable friend Miss Widdecombe--and indeed, I am most grateful to her--making an apology for that particular letter of refusal. I do not hold Ministers responsible for the wording of the letter. However, it has been proved for centuries that whenever governments adopt a policy they have people under them who pursue that policy with a more injudicious enthusiasm than the government intend. That is a risk any restrictive policy runs. Indeed, it is a risk that this policy will also run. So long as that is there, I cannot identify the number of refusals with the number of bogus applicants.

Further, I cannot see any way in which the Bill will be more severe on applicants who are bogus than on those who are genuine. To my mind, that is the biggest condemnation of the Bill. Our legal obligation is to consider cases on an individual basis. But there is a potential divergence--and I shall put it no higher than that--between considering cases on an individual basis and developing a formula by which they should be considered.

That is true in relation to Clause 1. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, described it as creating a rebuttable presumption. I believe that we can agree on that. But when one is facing obstacles which are already so heavy, the addition of a rebuttable presumption may be like facing an opponent who is playing with loaded dice. There is at least a divergence between that rebuttal presumption and the requirement of individual examination. Where there is a divergence at the head of the river, there may be a very wide divergence further

14 Mar 1996 : Column 1022

down. Applying the same principle that policies are administered more injudiciously than they are conceived, I believe that the dangers here are very real.

The weasel words "in general" in Clause 1 are also words, no matter where they come from, which conflict with the requirement of individual examination. I say that because people are not persecuted in general; they are persecuted in person. My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby referred to the case of the Roma from Eastern Europe, many of whom had been quite viciously persecuted.

I also wonder whether the Government's diplomatic and consular resources are great enough to pick up a change in any of those countries on the white list when, perhaps, things shift and people do come to be, in general, in fear of persecution. If my party should catch the noble Baroness's party out in that respect, it will not be the first time. When the Bulgarian atrocities began, Disraeli tried to find out why he had been caught short. He concluded that it was because they had happened in August when the ambassadors were not at their posts, and so they had not warned him. He said, "The ambassador returned to Vienna three days ago; the rest are at God knows what waters, probably Lethe". I believe that the Government need to be very sure that they will be alerted in time to changes.

As regards Clauses 2 and 3, I listened with care to what the noble Baroness said, but let me ask her to imagine the situation in reverse. Let us think the unthinkable and imagine that this country has become one from which the noble Baroness needs to escape because she has a well-founded fear of persecution. Let us suppose she has a son or daughter in Australia and wants to go there. It would, I think, be a quite unwarrantable interference to require her to stop for ever in Dubai because it was the first safe country in which her plane touched down. I think this measure will also have the effect of discouraging people from allowing planes to touch down if they come from countries where people have a well-founded fear of persecution. We shall have a real game of pass the parcel going on among the airlines. I also do not see how an appeal can well be pursued from another country.

In Clause 4, deception is of the very essence of claiming asylum. It is--if a claim is genuine--vitally necessary. In this context I simply cannot share the Government's condemnation of it. It is no more immoral than I and my contemporaries used to think it was to climb into college after midnight. Clause 7 revives the sus laws. I know that the Home Secretary was not yet involved in politics in 1981, but there are plenty who were who can tell him what the sus laws led to. He ought to listen.

I now turn to Clause 8. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, quoted part of the advice from the CBI which is not quite as favourable in whole as it is in part. The CBI would be,

    "opposed to provisions which would require employers to verify the authenticity of documents. This would transfer the primary obligation for immigration control to employers and would place a wholly unreasonable burden on business".

14 Mar 1996 : Column 1023

British Airways will understand those remarks. The CBI also warned that,

    "delays may be encountered in waiting for documents showing a national insurance number to be obtained, thus stalling the recruitment process. It is therefore essential that, wherever this proves necessary, individuals can quickly obtain other documentation from the relevant Government agencies for transmission to the employer".
That is a warning that needs heeding. The CBI also refers to one point on which I hope the noble Baroness will be able to promise action before this Bill is completed. The Data Protection Registrar has taken the view that national insurance numbers should,

    "not be used by employers for purposes other than tax and national insurance contributions. Since the proposals clearly envisage the use of this information for another purpose, the data protection implications should be clarified".

As regards the social security clauses of this Bill, in my view if the people are entitled to be here they are entitled to the same social protection as the rest of us. I really do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that because of the fear of the actions of Right-wing parties we should therefore treat these people differently from others. I do not think the noble Baroness said we should treat them differently from our own people, but she used a phrase with a slightly similar implication.

I said that we have all been immigrants once. After the Conquest the Normans so much feared the disruption they had caused that they levied a collective fine on the hundred every time one of them was found dead in suspicious circumstances. We, as heirs of those people, really cannot countenance the idea that one gives in to intolerance like this. If we are to keep the peace--which I think we agree comes first--we must insist that all those who are entitled to live here are entitled to be treated equally. I do not see that that is compatible with these clauses.

I do not see, either, how we are to keep up the principle of universality of child benefit combined with Clause 10. If Clause 10 goes on to the statute book, I shall expect to see the abolition of universal child benefit in the next Conservative manifesto, and I shall say so at every convenient opportunity. There is a great deal more wrong with this Bill than I can say at this time of night. I hope to say some of it before the Bill is through.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page