Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may press her on one point. The noble Baroness said that the Government will bring forward an amendment at Report stage in order to ensure that the victims of torture are referred to on the face of the Bill. I am very glad to hear that. Is she willing to explore the possibility of that amendment being applied also to Clause 2?

I take the point that few people may come within the category of victims of torture likely to be removed in that way. In that case, the amendment would have little effect. However, in view of the widespread concern on the matter, will the noble Baroness state whether the government amendment will extend to Clause 2 as well as Clause 1?

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Before the noble Baroness responds, perhaps I may raise the possibility of the short procedure being extended to other countries. It was announced by the Home Office on, I think, 16th March of this year. Can the Minister

30 Apr 1996 : Column 1566

tells us whether the safeguards which she told us applied to people who conceivably might be victims of torture would still apply if the short procedure were extended beyond the group of countries on the designated list?

Lord Avebury: Before the Minister finally replies, perhaps I may raise this point. If she is prepared to consider an amendment to Clause 2, will she differentiate between countries through which an asylum seeker has passed? As she described, the majority of these cases fall into the category whereby someone has entered Britain via a European Union state and might have claimed asylum on the way through. In other cases, the person arrives in this country as effectively the first country of asylum because any other territory through which he passed was not a safe country. The Government propose to send the individual to an allegedly safe country through which he has never passed. I realise that there are not many such cases. However, I asked the noble Baroness's honourable friend, Miss Widdecombe, whether there was any intention of applying the Dominica technique to other asylum seekers, apart from Dr. al-Mas'ari. She said that the Government would do so if the circumstances made that seem expedient. I wish to place a barrier on the removal of asylum seekers who may have been subject to torture to a third country which falls into that category.

I would prefer that the Government do not have the power to send individuals to allegedly third countries outside the European Union. But since we are now referring to these particular asylum seekers who have been subject to torture in their countries of origin, and since the right reverend Prelate has asked whether the Government are prepared to consider any amendment to Clause 2, it would be wholly within the spirit of the Government's objection that the vast majority of such people come through safe third countries if such an amendment applied only to third countries through which those individuals had not passed. I hope that the Government might take that point on board before Report stage.

Lord Hylton: Before the noble Baroness replies, perhaps I may, first, apologise that I was in Russia during the first day of the Committee stage. I apologise too that I was unable to listen to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon moving this important amendment.

Does the Minister accept that Turkey is a country with a recently documented record of torture? Will she also confirm that Turkey has experienced very nearly 12 years of very serious armed conflict, which has led to enormous displacement of population and extreme abuses of human rights? Does she agree that torture has to a considerable degree become institutionalised, and anybody detained by the security services in that country is at some risk of torture? Will she tell the Committee whether any abusive applications for asylum in this country have been received from people coming from Turkey?

30 Apr 1996 : Column 1567

9 p.m.

Lord Dubs: I shall make just a few comments in relation to the Minister's remarks before she replies. I am disappointed that she thinks some of us do not listen to the safeguards that the Government apply to--

Baroness Blatch: I said, "did not believe".

Lord Dubs: The Minister says that we do not believe the safeguards. We should have to discuss which ones they were. Certainly, where there are safeguards which protect an individual asylum seeker, I welcome them, as I am sure do other Members of the Committee.

If we do not believe all the safeguards, it may have nothing to do with the Minister's remarks. It may be because we have some experience of the Government's practice over the years as regards asylum seekers. There is sometimes a difference between the way asylum seekers are treated and the Government's statements as to what the policies are. That is where disbelief sets in. I do not cast any aspersions on what the Minister says. It is a matter of how the policy is implemented down the line. There are too many examples of how it has been implemented for some of us to sit back and say that everything is all right.

A second point made by the Minister to which I wish to draw attention was that there was a safeguard in the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. Although Britain has lost more immigration cases in the European Court of Human Rights than any other European country, possibly second to Italy--the Minister says that that is not so; but the fact is, we have lost a large number of immigration cases over the years. The problem is that it is a long process. Many asylum seekers may have been removed and returned to the country from which they fled. In those circumstances, fighting a case is very difficult.

Thirdly, none of us condones or supports abusive applicants. They undermine the concept of asylum, which is a fundamental human rights concept. It is easy for governments to say that applications are abusive even before there is any evidence of that. The Minister herself has certainly not said that. However, I must remind her that some of her colleagues over the years have, as it were, denied that asylum seekers had any basis for their claims even before those individual cases had been considered. There is extensive chapter and verse which I and many of my noble friends could quote to support that assertion.

I turn to the substance of the Minister's remarks. There is a real difficulty. She said that such cases are not considered substantively. The problem with removals to safe third countries is precisely that; namely, the Government on their own admission do not consider those cases substantively. I have serious doubts as to what that means in terms of the adequacy of their scrutiny. I fear that many are barely considered at all. The difficulty is that as a result of a case not being considered substantively, victims of torture may not be identified by officials. That is surely one of the main concerns in relation to Clause 2 and the way it operates.

30 Apr 1996 : Column 1568

The Minister talked about the tradition of safe third countries and said that it was a long-standing principle. I beg to differ. It is a long-standing principle that individual asylum seekers who have spent a considerable period of time in a safe third country should be returned there. By "a considerable period of time" I mean weeks or months. That has been the practice for many, many years. I cannot remember the date when the Immigration Rules were changed; I believe the policy emanated from one of the secret committees in Brussels. However, what has happened in the past two or three years is that the Immigration Rules themselves incorporated a change, and certainly the practice then became that if an asylum seeker spent any period of time in a safe third country en route to Britain--I mean circumstances such as being in transit at an airport, or spending just two or three hours driving across part of that country--that is now the basis for applying the safe third country rule. That is what causes concern.

Nobody says that if an asylum seeker spends three months in France, he or she should then be accepted into our asylum procedures here. What I am saying, however, is that if somebody happens to spend half an hour in transit at Charles de Gaulle Airport, it seems against this principle that that individual should be sent back to France without any firm guarantee (as we shall cover in relation to a later amendment) that the individual will then be allowed to have his or her claim fully considered by the French authorities. It is the absence of that further safeguard that makes us concerned that the effect of these proposals is that victims of torture--and, as later amendments will show, other asylum seekers as well--may be sent back into danger. There is a loophole here which the Government's assurances have not dispelled.

Baroness Blatch: A very large number of questions have been raised. I shall try to address myself to all of them. First, I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, just said. I have never made the claim that he condones abuse of the system. However, if one looks at the amendments tabled to this Bill, many seek to make abuse of the system easier; and some not only make it easier but create even more loopholes which make it possible for abuse to be increased.

In regard to the other point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about simply landing in another safe country, travelling to another safe country, and then coming on to this country, we do not concede--nor indeed do our courts--the principle of seeking asylum in the first safe country on the assumption that the person fleeing for their lives or from a fear of persecution should seek haven in the first safe country that they come to. That is the principle on which the propositions in the Bill are made.

The safe third country principle has been repeatedly endorsed by our own courts. It applies when a person has had an opportunity to claim in a third country. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to Judge Pearl and the al-Mas'ari case. The judge held in the al-Mas'ari case that it is lawful to send an asylum seeker to a country with which he has no connection where

30 Apr 1996 : Column 1569

appropriate. Of course, he took a different view about a particular country in that case, but the principle of sending persons to that country as a safe country was considered lawful.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about Turkey. First, I made it clear in another part of the Bill--I believe on the first day of Committee--that Turkey is not a country that we were considering adding to the list, for some of the reasons given by the noble Lord. In 1995, 50 applicants were recognised as refugees; 35 were granted exceptional leave to remain; and 910 were refused. But I am not in a position to say on what basis those refusals were founded. Certainly there were 910 refusals.

Again, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the ECHR. His point was absolutely taken about the length of time. But however long the process, we shall not remove a person until Strasbourg has made a determination and completed the work in considering that case.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page