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8.15 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I first declare an interest in that until last June I was director of the Refugee Council and therefore I had six or seven years' direct experience of working with and on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. It is therefore hardly a surprise that I approach this Bill without enthusiasm, and in fact with a high degree of dismay.

I wish, first, to say a few words about some of the general issues that have emerged from this debate, before I discuss more specific aspects of the Bill. I believe that every European country--and many others beyond Europe--are wrestling with the issue of how to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. The way we deal with it will be an indication of our commitment to

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human rights, and it will test our commitment to human rights not only in the next two or three years but well into the next millennium.

I fully accept that the issue of asylum seekers and refugees is one with which it is difficult for a liberal democracy to deal because there will always be difficult and hard cases and there will always be pain and anguish in terms of how a particular asylum application is dealt with. My bottom line is that what we need above all is a fair system for determining individual claims which ensures natural justice for the claimant; which ensures that the claimant has reasonable help by way of professional legal advice and interpreters; and a system which allows appeals in-country, and which does not prejudge the result of an application until that application has been considered. It is on that test of natural justice that I find parts of this Bill wanting, and indeed parts of our existing approach to asylum seekers and refugees wanting.

We have talked about figures and I shall comment on statistics later. Few of the world's asylum seekers and refugees reach western Europe, and few of those reach this country. Therefore we are dealing with what, in global terms, is a large number--I believe 20 million was the figure that was given, but I believe that it is higher--but a relatively small number in terms of western Europe, and a smaller number still in terms of this country. We need openness and accountability. My noble friend Lord McIntosh referred to some of the decision-making in Brussels which is undertaken not through the machinery of the European Parliament and the European Commission, but through the more secret discussions which take place in the Council of Ministers. Although some of those discussions have resulted in provisions in this Bill and in other measures in recent years, other decisions of the Council of Ministers are, unfortunately, not revealed to us at all.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. As regards the provisions in the Bill, there is a list which is published periodically which contains every single resolution and recommendation emanating from those in the Council of Ministers when they meet with representatives of other governments. Under Title 6 of the Maastricht Treaty these are listed and the texts are available, if one wishes to obtain them.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I understand that quite a few of those texts are available. I do not wish to take up the time of the House this evening in arguing about the niceties of Brussels decision-making except to say I am satisfied that a number of decisions made by the Council of Ministers do not see the light of day. As I have said, I accept that some of the decisions are published in the way that the noble Baroness has just mentioned, but I do not believe that holds good for all the decisions.

I have often wondered about Conservative Central Office hand-outs. Just occasionally they are found on photocopiers. I have not seen any documents on a photocopier on this matter. I hope that I am not being unduly suspicious if I suspect that I have heard one or two Central Office handouts read this evening. I shall read Hansard tomorrow to confirm that.

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I should like to mention my experience in relation to in-country and port applications, which are a key feature of the Government's approach. I remember meeting Bosnians who had come to this country under the government scheme. They did not come as in-country or port applicants. However, the point at issue holds good for others. Some of them had been through the most appalling experiences, yet many were unable to say anything about it for days or weeks afterwards, and some never did. Others wanted to talk. We may ask ourselves why people do not say at the port of entry "I am an asylum seeker and these are my experiences". That is not a realistic way to consider the matter. If people have been through the most appalling and brutal experiences under some of the most oppressive regimes of the world it is not surprising, and it is a normal human reaction, that they do not wish to talk about those experiences. They may never want to explain what happened to them, or may not do so for years. That is one of the reasons I believe that in-country and port applications are in favour of people claiming after they have entered the country.

I have always believed that the concept of an asylum seeker and a refugee is different in a very principled way from that of a migrant who claims immigrant status. That is because the concept of a refugee stems directly from the 1951 United Nations Geneva Convention, an instrument that we have signed, along with all other west European countries and many other countries. It is that that should determine why we approach refugees and asylum seekers differently from people who seek to migrate for economic reasons. Economic reasons for migration are not unworthy, but usually they happen not to qualify one to enter this country or most other west European countries.

Because the definition of a refugee is linked to an instrument that we have signed under the auspices of the United Nations, it requires a particular and separate approach. For that reason I regret that we link asylum seekers and immigration in the Title of the Bill. That is why the debate today has ranged from one to the other in a way which does not pay full regard to the concept of human rights.

I should like to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, as well as praise him. I shall take issue with him first. He belittled the argument of my noble friend Lord McIntosh that the way to deal with the difficulty that we face is to have a quicker system for determining asylum claims. I should like to reject what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said.

If anybody can come to this country in the knowledge that it can take months, if not years, to reach a decision about an asylum claim, that itself is surely an incentive for some people to make such a claim. That can be done in the knowledge that it will take a very long time before anything is done about the claim and the person is refused entry. I do not say that that is the case in respect of all claims; far from it. However, it seems to be a serious weakness in our system that we have a large number of outstanding claims. I thought that the figure

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was 66,000, but I now understand that it is 84,000. The fact that there are so many outstanding claims provides some incentive to some asylum seekers.

In a more fundamental sense, that undermines the integrity of our asylum determination process. If people are in this country for a long time it is surely far more difficult for us to remove them if they fail the test of the Geneva Convention. That is bound to be the case, and it was one of the reasons given by the Government some years ago for trying to speed up the process.

I understand that in Germany some years ago they came to the conclusion that they had to tackle the backlog of asylum claims. They did so dramatically by appointing a large number of individuals. Some noble Lords said that that would be a costly enterprise. I think that it probably would not. If the majority of asylum claimants receive income support and other help, it does not take very much arithmetic to see that a quicker, but fair, determination of asylum claims would, in anything other than the very short term, save substantial sums of money. It would also provide a better basis for our approach to dealing with asylum seekers and be consistent with human rights. I give way to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for giving way. His argument falls. Throughout the debate we have referred, and he did so himself, to the growing number of economic migrants all over the world. I do not believe that people come here because they can live on benefits for nine months or a year. They come here because they think that they will eventually be able to stay.

The more you have a process for people to go through, the more people will come, if you do not at the same time limit the numbers who come in the way that is suggested in the Bill. The figures I quoted from other European countries which have done that prove that it works.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I have to reject the noble Lord's argument. If he examines the records of other European countries he will see that those which have speeded up the process of asylum determination have managed things better than those which have long periods of delay.

I should have thought that it was incontrovertible that a period of perhaps two years' delay before a decision is made, allowing time for an appeal, is bound to undermine a proper system of asylum determination.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It seems a pertinent moment to intervene on that particular point.

What do the noble Lords opposite intend to do about the delays that are not due to administrative processes? A great deal is being done both to improve efficiency and to deal with more applications. What will they do about the delays which are caused by applicants? Applicants often contrive delays, for example, where they are being advised, their papers are not ready, they ask for more time, the solicitors and others advising them plead for more time. If the noble Lords will take

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no measures at all and do not support the Bill, what will they do about those delays? Much of the delay in the system is due to that kind of problem.

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