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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall take all helpful suggestions and reflect upon them between now and the Committee stage. Reference was made to third country appeals; 40 per cent. of appeals succeed in those cases. Ninety-six per cent. of third country refusals concern people who have entered the United Kingdom from a member state of the European Union. It is absurd that applicants should be able to delay removal by arguing at appeal about the inherent safety of another European Union country as a safe haven for asylum seekers. The great majority of findings by adjudicators support the Home Office view that countries like France and Germany are safe. The evidence does not support the claim that 40 per cent. of asylum appeals are successful. That was suggested by the Refuge Legal Centre. On the contrary, 61 per cent. of third country appeals are dismissed and 22 per cent. are referred back, for reasons other than doubts about the inherent safety of the third country. The evidence also supports our assessment that doubts about admissibility owing to the passage of time are a major factor in referrals. Our assessment is that that has now become the most common reason for referral. Such delays are seldom attributable to the Home Office which decides safe third country cases within one-and-a-half days on average. The cases are not successful appeals; they are part of the problem which the legislation is intended to remedy.
It is a growing problem. For example, France, the safe third country to which we most commonly seek to return applicants, has recently stopped allowing extensions to the time limit for returning applicants specified in our agreement with that country. We believe that it is unacceptable that return to a safe third country such as France should be prevented in a significant number of cases simply because of the time taken on the appeal procedure.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that the 1993 Act was supposed to be the last Act. During the passage of what became the 1993 Act, the then Home Secretary was clear that there would continue to be pressures in the future and that there was no room for complacency. Since then, we have seen the sharp rise in applications which occurred in 1994 and 1995--a near doubling since the 1993 Act. The level of asylum applications is inevitably volatile and difficult to predict. It is unrealistic to imagine that legislation in that area can be set in stone, particularly when other European countries have tightened their legislation. Any responsible government would adjust the system further in the light of the sustained sharp rise in applications we have experienced.
Reference was made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to the Home Office intending to designate Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. My right honourable friend made clear the list of countries that we currently regard as meeting criteria for designation. Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania are not on the list.
Much was made of the benefit system. The previous benefit regulations were an open invitation to people from abroad to gain access to benefit by making bogus asylum claims. Asylum seekers will still be eligible for benefit provided they declare themselves on arrival. People who gain admission on the basis that they can support themselves should be held to that requirement, whether or not they claim asylum. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Renton. He referred to those people as "after in-country seekers". They will, after all, have had to obtain leave to enter from an immigration officer and in most cases also obtain a visa from an entry clearance officer before travelling here. They will have had to satisfy the officer about their ability to support themselves without recourse to public funds. Nevertheless, there is provision in the benefit regulations so that those who claim asylum after entry can receive benefit if they are genuinely trapped here by an upheaval which took place in their country of origin after their arrival.
Under the new regulations, benefit entitlement ends when asylum is refused by the Home Office. People do not retain entitlement while appealing against a benefit decision and the same principle will now apply to asylum appeals. We do not believe that it is reasonable to expect the taxpayers to go on supporting an asylum seeker after his claim has been duly considered and rejected, especially bearing in mind the very low success rate at appeal.
I was asked why the numbers of Home Office decisions fell dramatically from 34,900 in 1992 to 23,000 in 1993. Comparisons with output figures for 1992 are misleading. Thirty-eight per cent. of refusals were on non-compliance grounds, mainly refusals related to fraudulent multiple applications. Fifty-one per cent. of all decisions were grants of exceptional leave, mostly taken on pragmatic grounds. Productivity levels in the asylum division have increased by 160 per cent. since the 1993 Act was implemented and the policy of granting exceptional leave on pragmatic grounds was ended. The number of outright refusals--the most difficult and time-consuming decisions--is higher than it has ever been and over twice the number for 1993. The 27,000 decisions taken in 1995 exceed the annual intake that was anticipated when the 1993 Act came into force.
In January, the Home Office, for the first time, took over 3,000 decisions in a month. We are well on course to meet our target of at least 37,000 decisions. At the moment, that will still not keep up with the number of applications. Productivity improvements and the additional resources already ploughed into the system are essential, but they are not enough. Controlling the intake of new applications is crucial to reducing the backlog of undecided applications and keeping pace with current applications.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon referred to Home Office research. That research was a survey of people who had been granted asylum. That tells us nothing about asylum seekers. Only a small proportion of asylum seekers are granted asylum. Since the vast majority of claims are not valid, applicants must have other motives. Given the vast differences in average incomes, it is a logical conclusion that economic motives are indeed a major factor.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that it was necessary to have a quick determination process, to which I referred. In May last year we introduced a new short procedure for considering straightforward asylum applications. It is an accelerated determination process that allows us to reach decisions within four or five weeks, compared with nine months for other cases. All cases are considered fully and appeal rights are not affected. Even within that fast-track procedure, if in the course of examining an individual application it is thought inappropriate for the fast-track procedure, it is taken out and considered in the normal way.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and my noble friend Lord Renton referred to after-entry applicants. More applications made after entry are refused outright than port cases, which is contrary to what was said. In 1994, 70 per cent. of port applicants were refused outright, compared with 82 per cent. of after-entry applicants. In 1995, 75 per cent. of port applicants were refused, compared with 79 per cent. of after-entry applicants.
In relation to benefits, the important point is that people who claim after entry have been admitted on the basis that they will support and accommodate themselves in this country without recourse to public funds. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon referred to the Al-Mass'ari case. If he will forgive me, it is not appropriate for me to refer to that case in particular. On the general point, however, Clause 1 removes the adjudicator's power to refer cases back to the Secretary of State and is concerned only with cases that are unfounded other than on safe third country grounds. Clauses 2 and 3 deal with safe country cases. So there is no need for a reference back under Clause 1, because all cases to which it applies will have been considered substantively. If the special adjudicator disagrees with the Secretary of State, he allows the appeal and refugee status is recognised.
The right reverend Prelate also made reference to Kenya. In 1994 the refusal rate for applicants from Kenya was 100 per cent. We do not have figures for 1995 as a whole; but in November 1995, for example, all applicants from Kenya were refused, and a visa regime was imposed on Kenyan nationals last week. The number of asylum applications from Kenya has dramatically increased, as indeed the right reverend Prelate said. We believe that many of those coming here were driven primarily by economic motives--hence the need, regrettably, for a visa regime. There was no intention to prejudice the consideration of individual asylum applications. That will still take place. The visa position does not affect it.
The right reverend Prelate suggested that everyone's claim should be considered individually. Even when an applicant comes from a country that has been designated generally safe, his claim will still be considered on its individual merits. Designation relates to the Secretary of State's view of the position in the country overall, not in relation to any individual or group of individuals.
The Bill reduces asylum seekers' access to legal rights, legal representation and speed of process. That was suggested, again by the right reverend Prelate, and by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. The Bill does not lead to automatic refusal of any asylum claim. It does not detract from the requirements on the Secretary of State to consider all claims. It does not remove the right of appeal from any asylum seeker, although it makes the appeal non-suspensive where removal is to a third country within the European Union. It does remove the right to an in-country (that is, suspensive) appeal before removal to the country of origin. And it does not in any way detract from existing arrangements for free legal advice and representation.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to an increase in judicial review. The provisions in Clause 1 do not deny a right of appeal. They simply provide that people falling into certain categories have no appeal to the tribunal from the adjudicator. Appeal to the tribunal is already "only with leave", so it is not automatic. Most cases are refused leave and already seek judicial review of their refusal. So there is no reason to think that these proposals will result in a significant increase in judicial review applications. We believe that the chief adjudicator, Judge Pearl, shares that view.
Another point was that asylum seekers will not have time to check documents in order to claim. The provision allows appeals to be fast-track as without foundation when an applicant fails to produce a passport without giving a reasonable explanation, or fails to disclose, once he is in the United Kingdom, that his documents are false. That does not affect those who flee without documents or using false documents, only those who do not give an explanation or continue to rely on those documents once they have arrived in the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said that proposals in Clause 1 breach Article 3 of the refugee convention. Article 3 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of nationality in relation to the application of the convention. The convention says nothing about appeal procedures. So identifying particular nationalities for different treatment under Clause 1 cannot infringe Article 3 of the refugee convention.
I see that I am out of time, with a very large number of items yet to be discussed. Therefore, I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I resort to writing to them. I shall deposit letters in the Library so that all noble Lords can see both the points made and my response to them.
The Bill is predicated on the Government's longstanding commitment to maintain effective immigration control. Illegal working, racketeering and growing abuse of asylum procedures pose very real threats to that control. No responsible government could ignore them. Effective procedures and sanctions, whether on asylum or other aspects of immigration control, do not damage race relations. On the contrary, they are a necessary condition for preserving the good race relations that this country has enjoyed and, we hope, will continue to enjoy.
The Government remain totally committed to fair and non-discriminatory asylum and immigration procedures. We are determined to honour this country's well-known tradition of harbouring those who flee here in genuine fear of persecution. We intend to continue complying with our obligations under the 1951 convention. We believe that the Bill is not only compatible with those aims but essential if they are to be achieved. I commend the Bill to the House.