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Lord Avebury: I am very sorry about the way in which this matter occurred. As the noble Baroness knows, until I walked into the Chamber this afternoon, I was not aware that the four amendments had been grouped together. I tabled them individually and it was clear that my intention in doing so was to have a separate debate on each of the countries concerned because it will not be possible to do so later.
Baroness Blatch: I accept entirely the personal explanation which the noble Lord gives. We have been in touch constantly with the noble Lord's parliamentary office and until I walked into the Chamber today I thought that the groupings had been agreed. I am afraid that the noble Lord must take up the matter with his office.
I do not accept that the Bill should list countries whose designation is prohibited. If the Secretary of State considers a country unsuitable for designation, he will simply not designate it. If Parliament is not content with an order tabled by the Secretary of State, as I said earlier, it can vote against it.
We have accepted the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee that the initial designation order should be by affirmative procedure in both Houses. Therefore, we shall have an opportunity to debate the suitability of the countries listed and to vote on the order. Any subsequent order will be laid before Parliament under the negative procedure.
The noble Lord's proposal would also undesirably blur the distinction between primary and secondary legislation. Conditions in countries of origin may change over time. Countries which are unsuitable for designation at present may become much safer in the future. That is why we need the flexibility provided by secondary legislation.
If we did construct a list of countries where there are at present significant risks of persecution or danger to people living in them, it would not be the list suggested by the noble Lord. Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan are examples of countries where repressive regimes or major upheavals have made it necessary to grant asylum
The situation in the countries we intend to designate is one of substantial safety and security. That does not mean that they are entirely without problems, as I said earlier, or that genuine cases of persecution will never arise. It would be unrealistic to insist on universal safety and, indeed, such a requirement is unnecessary, given the safeguards which will continue to apply under the Bill. Designation will allow us to deal more quickly and effectively with the great majority of applicants who do not qualify for asylum. But the procedures used will enable exceptional cases, such as the very small number from the seven countries that qualified for asylum last year, to be selected out for more detailed consideration. And, of course, all refused claims will continue to attract a right of appeal to an independent adjudicator.
I do not accept that Bulgaria is unsuitable for designation. Considerable progress has been made in the establishment of democracy, particularly following the April 1990 Law on Political Groups and Parties. Bulgaria's National Assembly is a democratically elected body and recent elections have been declared free and fair by international observers. Bulgaria is a party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bulgarian Government are committed to obtaining membership of the European Union, as my noble friend said. We do not accept that past mistreatment of minorities by the former communist regime justifies a presumption of future mistreatment. We recognise that there is discrimination against some minorities within local communities, including the Roma minority. But the Bulgarian Government have taken steps to address these problems and to prosecute offenders. Last year, 99 per cent. of applications for asylum were refused. Although the vast majority of Bulgarian asylum applications are unfounded, each application is considered individually and asylum will be granted when the circumstances warrant it.
Bulgaria's present problems are mainly economic, with fairly high unemployment and inflation, a high budget deficit, foreign debt problems and a rising level of crime. It would appear that the economic situation coupled with greater freedom of movement has contributed to the number of asylum applications.
Considerable progress has been made in the establishment of democracy in Bulgaria, particularly following the April 1990 Law on Political Groups and Parties. Chapter 2 of the constitution, which took effect on 13th July 1991, establishes the basic provisions for Bulgarian citizenship and fundamental human rights. Furthermore, it commits the state to the provision of basic social welfare and education and to the encouragement of culture, science and the health of the population.
Freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave it are constitutionally enshrined and not limited in practice. Every citizen has the right to return to Bulgaria. A number of former political emigrants were granted passports in 1994 and returned to visit or live there.
There are many ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. In July 1991, the country adopted a new constitution which provides for individual rights, equality and protection against discrimination. Bulgaria still has some progress to make in its treatment of minorities (particularly the Roma/gypsies), and racism and xenophobia still exist, but much progress has been made across the whole range of human rights since the fall of the communist regime.
There is some resentment of gypsies and incidents against them such as illegal detention, search and seizure and general harassment are known to occur. It has been reported that the police are frequently either the perpetrators of violence against such people or fail to intervene when attacks are instigated. However, the Government have introduced reforms in order to address many of these problems, including investigating and prosecuting charges of excessive use of force by police; programmes to hire gypsies as police officers; programmes to improve relations between the Romany community and local police, and job and literacy training for gypsies. Where ill-treatment by local authorities and communities continues, there is no evidence that this is condoned at a national level. Popular feeling does exist against gypsies but this is not condoned at a national level and perpetrators of attacks are prosecuted if caught.
I could go on about Bulgaria. As we have said, there is certainly a case for individuals to prove their case and provision is made for them in the proposed system, but to say that Bulgaria is as bad as the picture painted by the noble Lord is rather over-stating the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the streamline consideration. That refers to the short procedure introduced by the Home Office last year. It does not require legislation and does not detract from full consideration. It involves shorter intervals before interview and between interview and decision. That is consistent with all that I have said previously on the amendment.
Baroness Elles: Before my noble friend sits down, will she confirm that Bulgaria is a member of the Council of Europe and is now a high contracting party to the European Convention on Human Rights? Anybody persecuted in Bulgaria has the right to go to the European Court and appeal against any persecution or violation of rights against individuals.
Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to my noble friend for making that point because she is absolutely right. I made the point that Bulgaria is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. That is a point very well worth making.
Earl Russell: The noble Baroness is correct about the Council of Europe. It is true also that Russia is now a member of the Council of Europe but I might be anxious if I were a Chechen living in Russia. I am perfectly well aware that we have not designated Chechnya. But the point to which I return over and over again, because the point in logic keeps recurring, is that the fact that a country may be safe for the majority of its citizens does not mean that it is safe for all of them. I should like to
Baroness Blatch: I must say unequivocally that we have never stated that any country is absolutely safe for all its citizens. That is one reason why we have used the words "in general". We make a presumption that even those countries which are designated will necessarily have well-proven cases of people who have a well-founded fear of persecution. The system is geared to sort out the genuine asylum seekers from those who have come from countries where there is in general no threat to the population. However, we have never claimed that there is any country which is wholly safe for all of its people.
Earl Russell: If the Committee will forgive me, I have nearly wound up. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for those comments because they advance the job of defining the points at issue. But we are here subjecting the nationals of some countries to a different procedure from those we use for the nationals of other countries. I think that on Second Reading the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, used the phrase I am about to use. We have a rebuttable presumption that claims from those countries are less likely to be well-founded than those from others. I should be grateful if we could have an explanation of how that is to be squared with Article 3 of the UN convention which states,
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