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Baroness David: I thank all those who have spoken in support of the amendment. Quite a number of people have done so and I am very grateful for that. I am very disappointed with the Minister's response. It is the children who have slipped through the net and have not been noticed, about whom we are concerned. I believe that the boy from Zaire had been here since 1994 and he had somehow slipped through the net. His immigration status had not been satisfactorily dealt with. That is the sort of case we do not want to let slip through.

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If the wording of the amendment is being criticised, I intend to have it looked at. I shall take the amendment away for the time being. I shall come back with it because it is a very reasonable one which will help a certain number of children who are not referred at the moment and who have slipped through. I am sure that the criticisms of the wording of the amendment will be noted. I shall certainly return at Report stage with a slightly differently worded amendment which will take account of the Minister's response.

I still believe that it is a very disappointing reply. We are asking for a very simple thing which will help the children. The panel is very ready to deal with these situations and to help the children. As I say, I am very disappointed. I shall take the amendment away and see whether I can bring something back which will be more acceptable to the Minister.

Baroness Blatch: I do not know how many times I have said it during the course of the day, but I am surprised that the noble Baroness has not accepted my word that unaccompanied children who apply for asylum are referred to the panel, the social services, education and all the other agencies. Is the noble Baroness actually citing the case of a child entering the country in 1994, seeking asylum and not being referred until 1996? Is she saying that the child slipped through the net? That means that perhaps the authorities were not even aware of the person being in the country. How can the Government possibly respond to a problem which they do not even know is there? The noble Baroness must explain how the child was made known in 1994 and not referred to the panel until 1996.

Baroness David: The point is that they had not applied for asylum. They may have been here.

Baroness Blatch: But we did not know about it.

Baroness David: Indeed, and that is the point. We do not want to have children here on an illegal basis. That is the whole point of the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: If we do not know that they are here, we cannot refer them to any panel, statutory or otherwise. Unless we actually know that they are here, how can any measure in this Bill help?

Baroness David: I am not saying that the Government can do it. In this amendment we are asking the local authority, or whoever knows about them, to refer them to the panel. I am not saying that it is the job of the Home Office because it may not know about this. If the child is with foster parents, or something like that, or in the care of the social services, they must know about it. But they may not have taken the action to give the child proper asylum status. That is what we want to try to put right in this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Clinton-Davis moved Amendment No. 5l:

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause--

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Secretary of State's assessment of country

(" .--(1) The Secretary of State shall make available to any asylum applicant or appellant on request his assessment of the conditions in the country of nationality or habitual residence of the applicant or appellant, provided that in the preceding 12 months at least 50 asylum applications were made by applicants from that country.
(2) Any assessment provided in accordance with subsection (1) shall include information on general political circumstances, on abuses of human rights by the national government or any other person and on the legal system.").

The noble Lord said: We seek here greater transparency on the part of the Secretary of State. We want him to publicise his assessment of conditions in the countries from which asylum seekers originate. I believe that that is a perfectly reasonable thing to expect. The UNHCR sets out in its handbook guidance for the states which interpret the 1951 convention. I shall not quote that because the Minister is very familiar with it. The essence of it is that a knowledge of conditions in the applicant's country of origin is an important element in assessing the applicant's credibility.

The Government made some moves in another place because Ann Widdecombe, the Minister of State at the Home Office, said in Committee (at col. 89 of Hansard on 11th January 1996) that the Government had undertaken to provide Parliament with country briefing papers prepared by the Home Office about conditions in countries which are to be designated. She also said that in deciding whether that fear was well founded, asylum case workers would rely on information provided by the individual and by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and on updated information on the conditions prevailing where the man lived, including on the country in which he lived and the particular geographical area from which he came. That is all very fine.

The problem is that taking, for example, Nigeria, the way in which the Home Office went about its business of assessing the situation was wholly defective. In 1994 the American State Department reported of Nigeria:

    "The Government routinely detains human rights monitors, journalists and political opponents throughout the year for publishing statements critical of the government".

Of course, it got much worse than that - with attacks on trade union activists, on political activists and on anybody who criticised the Nigerian Government. Then we had the arrest and ultimately the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa. At that very time when Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were being detained, the Home Office, with its all-pervasive wisdom, was telling immigration officials that there was no evidence that Ogonis faced persecution from the Nigerian authorities for membership of MOSOP. That is extraordinary and outrageous. It shows how defective the judgment of the Home Office can be. But perhaps it is not the judgment of the Home Office; it may be the judgment of the Foreign Office. In any event, it is the judgment of the Government and they must face up to that responsibility.

When the matter was raised in another place, the Minister chose not to reply to that point. I believe that it is important that the Government should not only make country assessments in countries to be designated

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available, but that they should provide the maximum information in the most public way. The material should be made available not simply to Parliament by putting it in the Library; it should be made available to applicants and appellants so that they can assess how relevant it is. They should be in a position to challenge inaccuracies. That is simply not the case at present.

It is interesting that in a recently published report, commissioned by the Asylum Rights Campaign, a special adjudicator is quoted as having stated in a determination of an asylum appeal:

    "In this case the Secretary of State 'understands' that if an individual is not politically active and is only involved in trade unions, he has no reason to fear persecution. I find some difficulty in following that argument and I do not know where he 'understands' it from"--

that is, where the Secretary of State understands it from. I think that we should all like to know where the Secretary of State understands it from.

I have a case at present involving a Nigerian. The Secretary of State says, "I have no reason to believe that this man is at risk", in a situation where he has been actively involved in this country over some years now against the Nigerian Government--against that dictatorship. The Government must be much more frank and open because it can be a matter of life and death. It is not satisfactory for the Government to live in a make-believe world and to say that somehow or other most people are okay in Nigeria and have little to fear. That is not the case. The Secretary of State knows that and I fear that in this respect his conduct has not been up to the highest standards that we expect of a Home Secretary. I beg to move.

11.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury: I support the noble Lord's amendment and underline the fact that the Home Office has, to my knowledge, published only two country assessments. Those assessments relate to Nigeria and Ghana. It would be very helpful if we knew the background to the department's thinking on many other states from which asylum seekers arrive in this country. I am afraid that the knowledge of the Home Office is grossly inadequate. I reach that judgment on the basis of the standard of the replies given by the noble Baroness in the individual country debates held last week. Some of those misstatements have been repeated in a letter from the noble Baroness that I received only this morning. I did not bring the letter with me and I do not read it out. But I remember two statements in particular. One was that the National Human Rights Commission in India had jurisdiction over Kashmir. I had pointed out to her in last week's debate that it was specifically estopped from looking at human rights violations in that territory. The other statement was that the International Committee of the Red Cross had access to places of detention in Kashmir, whereas only recently it had been forced to withdraw. The knowledge of the department as to the situation in that territory is grossly inadequate.

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We have already heard about Nigeria from the noble Lord who moved the amendment. We also touched on this matter last week. The Home Office had to withdraw the first instalment of its country assessment on Nigeria when it was heavily criticised, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will remember in a pamphlet published by the Refugee Council under the title Beyond Belief: The Home Office and Nigeria. That contained a long litany of errors and omissions in the Home Office's document, some of which we had already taken up. For example, it was said that the National Consultative Assembly was an elected body for the majority of delegates. It had to be pointed out to the Foreign Office and the Home Office that only 300,000 people voted for the elective seats on the National Consultative Assembly but that a third of the seats were nominated by the military head of state, General Abacha. It was that kind of omission and distortion of the facts which gave a totally misleading impression of the state of human rights in Nigeria and the likelihood that anybody would have to seek asylum from that country. It is not surprising that, given that the wrong impression has been created by the Home Office document, during the first four months of 1996 there has not been a single asylum application from Nigeria accepted in this country. I believe that applicants are entitled to know what is being said about these countries so that they can contest the misstatements of fact and errors by way of omission that lead adjudicators in some cases to reach the wrong decisions.

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