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Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. The Bill streamlines asylum procedures, strengthens immigration enforcement and restricts the social security and housing entitlement of those who have not established a long-term right to live in this country.
Clauses 1 to 3 extend the existing accelerated appeal procedure to a wider range of cases, enable the Home Secretary to designate countries where there is in general no serious risk of persecution, and make the right of asylum seekers to appeal against removal to a European Union member state exercisable only after removal. These are sensible, balanced and fair measures which many of our neighbours have already introduced with beneficial results. They involve no departure from accepted asylum principles. Nor do they conflict with our international obligations. We shall not return asylum seekers to the country where they claim to fear persecution without giving them an opportunity to explain their fears fully and, if asylum is refused, to appeal to an independent adjudicator.
I find it extraordinary that so many of the Bill's opponents continue to reject the evidence of widespread abuse of the asylum procedures. If the Home Office were refusing large numbers of genuine refugees, we would be losing large numbers of appeals. But only 3 per cent. of appeals were repealed last year. I remind the House that adjudicators are qualified and experienced members of the legal profession and are appointed by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. Over three-quarters of applicants are refused both asylum and exceptional leave after full consideration by both the Home Office and the adjudicator. And yet our opponents continue to refer to asylum seekers and refugees as if they were equivalent terms.
Noble Lords opposite have suggested we should improve the performance of the asylum system rather than introduce stricter procedures. The truth is that we need to do both, and that is what we are doing.
I remind the House that we are investing £37 million over three years in additional caseworkers and adjudicators. We have increased asylum staff eightfold since 1988 from 100 to 800. We have increased productivity by 240 per cent. since the period immediately following the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act. Last year we introduced a short decision procedure which enables straightforward cases to be decided in weeks rather than months, despite strong opposition from some of those who complain most loudly about processing delays. We are embarking on a major computerisation programme which will further improve efficiency.
The number of decisions and appeals has increased dramatically. Appeal determinations have risen from 2,400 in 1994 to 7,000 last year to a projected 19,000 this year. Initial decisions by the Home Office have risen from 21,000 in 1994 to 27,000 last year and we expect to take over 37,000 this year. But by last year the number of claims had already reached 44,000. That figure represents no less than a tenfold increase on the level of claims in 1988 and a doubling since as recently as 1993. That massive increase has come at a time when the level of claims across western Europe has actually halved. It is nonsense to suggest that application levels here reflect growing persecution around the world. What they do reflect is this country's relative generosity and therefore greater vulnerability to abusive asylum claims.
As my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said yesterday, we cannot go on swimming against the tide. Resources are not enough. We need to reduce the incentives which make it attractive to exploit the asylum system. That is why your Lordships were right to give approval to new Clause 11 which restores the power to impose strict benefit restrictions on asylum seekers. The previous benefit regulations, now reinstated by the Court of Appeal, are an open invitation to people from abroad to exploit the asylum system as a way of gaining access to benefit. The restoration of the restrictions will help to bring down backlogs and delays in the asylum system. That will be good news for genuine refugees. The House has inserted a three-day period of grace for those who fail to apply on arrival. We do not believe any leeway should be given to those who gain entry by deceiving the immigration authorities about their intentions. We shall therefore consider how to respond to the amendment when the Bill returns.
I should just like to put a thought in the minds of noble Lords about the three-day period of grace. Many of those entering this country do so by deception, some secreted away in vehicles. How is one to resolve disputes over from what time the three days' grace count, especially for those who continue the deception by claiming, following apprehension, to have entered the country within the previous three days? Where does the burden of proof lie? What does one say to someone who may have been here one month, two months, six months or a year, but on being apprehended claims to have arrived only in the past two or three days? That, I suggest, provides a considerable loophole for abuse. But it is not and never has been a concern of noble Lords opposite or those who supported the amendment.
Clauses 9 and 10 will enable entitlement to council housing, temporary accommodation and child benefit to be brought into line with equivalent social security entitlements. The case for alignment is very strong. It cannot be right that local authorities should continue to have a duty to accommodate people from abroad who are ineligible for income support and ineligible for housing benefit. The Bill is therefore good news also for housing authorities and council tax payers.
Clauses 4 to 7 introduce new offences, higher fines and additional powers of search and entry to combat the growing problem of immigration racketeering. Again, noble Lords opposite, who purport to support the Government's objective of clamping down on this evil, have tabled amendments to render our proposals ineffective or remove them altogether. On no occasion have they offered a proposal to deal with such racketeering.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, has not been present in the Chamber throughout this Bill. In fact he has hardly been present throughout the dealings in this Chamber. Noble Lords have tabled amendments to eliminate the clause altogether. They have opposed the two offences that we created for racketeering in the Bill. They have not proposed any amendment for dealing with racketeering.
On Clauses 4 and 5, for example, there have been attempts to remove the essential new offences of illegal entry by deception, facilitating the entry of an asylum claimant and obtaining leave to remain by deception. I am very glad that your Lordships resisted those amendments. But, again, I must put the question to noble Lords opposite: whose side are they on in these matters? Maybe we shall see the repeal of this Act in The Road to the Manifesto, I do not know--maybe not.
Illegal working takes away jobs which would otherwise be available to people with a right to work here, whatever community they come from. Most of our European neighbours already have measures in place. This country will remain vulnerable if we do not take comparable steps. But, again, noble Lords opposite throughout the Bill have not supported the Government. Indeed, they fought against the Government in seeking to address the growing problem of illegal working in this country. Over 10,000 people last year were found to be working illegally in this country--10,000 jobs which could have gone to those with a legal right both to live and work here. To continue to tolerate illegal working is, in our view, likely to damage good race relations. Our proposals in Clause 8 will be easy for employers to comply with. The Commission for Racial Equality has undertaken to help in preparing the guidance for employers; we are very grateful for that.
Whatever the difference of view between the Government and the Bill's critics, no one can deny that the Bill has received very close scrutiny during its passage though this House. I am most grateful to all your Lordships who have contributed to that process. It has been a productive process. We have listened to arguments and we have responded to concerns. Some significant changes have been made. We have made drafting changes to Clause 1 for greater clarity. We have accepted the recommendations of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee that the initial lists and designated countries of origin and designated safe third countries should require the affirmative approval of Parliament. We have agreed to retain an in-country right of appeal for asylum seekers whom we remove to a third country outside the European Union unless it has been designated by affirmative order. The Government have accepted your Lordships' wish to introduce a special safeguard for victims of torture, and I am especially grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and his colleagues, and others, for helping me to express that intention in a workable form in the Bill.
We have strengthened the safeguards in Clause 5 against prosecution of those providing bona fide legal advice on immigration matters, and we have changed the terminology in Clauses 8 to 12 to make it absolutely clear that they are not aimed at those who, although still subject to immigration control, have been settled in this country for many years. I should also like to thank noble Lords opposite, including my long-standing sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh; my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and his long-standing sparring partner, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis; the noble Earl, Lord Russell; and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for their courtesy. I recognise
I particularly want to thank again my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who has done sterling work on this Bill, covering a very sensitive area. I believe he has handled it sensitively but with that realism that only people in government have to face and not those who are armchair critics from a distance.--
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