Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I intervene briefly on the constitutional and parliamentary situation. Your Lordships heard the other considerations admirably and indeed movingly presented.

What has happened is that your Lordships carried an amendment. The other place disagreed with that amendment so that at the outset there is a collision. The Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, spoke of the elected Chamber as though election were the sole source of political legitimacy, particularly when the Chamber was elected many years ago and quite inconsequent of the issue before your Lordships.

The Minister suggested that the amendment was unprecedented. On the contrary, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, would have been fully entitled to ask your Lordships to insist on the amendment passed last time, it having been only once considered by the other place. That is a generally accepted constitutional parliamentary precept, though it is not one which I am prepared to accept. I do not believe "the other place" is the right term. It is almost always "the Government".

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, put forward a compromise which meets the points made by the Secretary of State in the other place. That is entirely in accordance with precedent and with practice. The

22 Jul 1996 : Column 1199

amendment seeks to narrow the difference between the two Houses, and I hope your Lordships will accept it in that spirit. It will be open to the Government, if they wish, to fine tune the difference still more, though it seems to me, as at present advised, that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, met the point that the Secretary of State made.

I repeat that what the amendment is doing is seeking to minimise and, in the end, to eliminate the difference between the two Houses. That is entirely in accordance with parliamentary propriety and with your Lordships' role in the constitution. On the contrary, if noble Lords were to accept that once the elected Chamber has expressed a view that is an end of the matter it would be an abnegation of your Lordships' role in the constitution; indeed, it would concede a good part of the argument that is at present being levelled against your Lordships' Chamber. For those various reasons as well as the powerful arguments that your Lordships have heard from the Front Benches on my right and from a former Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Carr, I hope that your Lordships will support this amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, it was far more important that your Lordships should hear that magnificent contribution than anything from me. It is crucial to realise that the greater number of those whose applications for admission to asylum have been accepted are people who could not bring out the truth about their position at the point of entry. That is not because they are congenital liars. I know a number of these people; I have met them and many of the people working with them in the Churches and voluntary agencies. They will echo the minister from the United Reformed Church who was movingly quoted to us. It is absolutely clear that at that time they cannot properly articulate. They may even have prevaricated with a British embassy abroad in order to get here at all.

But numbers of those applying within three days have had their applications accepted. They have been recognised as genuine refugees who are absolutely within the terms of the Government's guidelines. It is extremely important to acknowledge that fear is a vastly paralysing and inhibiting emotion. Many people watching refugees arrive have seen the kind of state they are in. To criticise and cavil at them in those circumstances for not being totally honest is fatal. The three days provide precisely the kind of security which the right person will be able to use. They will be able to come to their senses and express their application properly within the time. That is the whole spirit of the amendment. Surely, most of us who have had anything to do with these people personally will eagerly accept the amendment.

4.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has made a speech as valuable as that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I have no higher praise. I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Runcie, and the right reverend Prelate, how deeply grateful I am to the Christian Churches for what they have contributed in this debate in helping to restore my pride in my country.

22 Jul 1996 : Column 1200

We have had a fascinating debate. I was particularly struck by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley. What he said is in effect the words of Article 31(1) of the UN convention: people should not be penalised for illegal entry if thereafter, without delay, they put in a claim for asylum. The noble Lord is able to produce agreement out of dispute. He is able to spot the point of reconciliation in argument. His speech illustrates why I still believe that politics is not merely a skill but an honourable profession. I am most grateful.

To the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, I shall quote the remark made in this House by the first Lord Shaftesbury in 1675:

    "My Lords, if you grow useless, you will soon grow burdensome".
I listened with care to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to restrict applications to the ports. But, regrettably, what the noble Lord is proposing is illegal under international law. It is illegal under Article 31(1) of the UN Convention on Refugees, which I quoted a moment ago.

Lord Elton: My Lords, perhaps I may clear the noble Earl's mind. I have not proposed anything except that the Minister shall make a clear exposition of certain points, which, I hope, cannot be illegal.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I am glad to hear that he was not in fact, as I imagined he was, proposing a restriction to the ports. That we cannot do not only because it is illegal, as incorporated in British law by Section 2 of the 1993 Act, but also because the Home Office, by its own admission, in speaking to the Social Security Advisory Committee, states that it is not able to keep a continuous 24-hour watch on all ports and airports. In those circumstances it is cruelty beyond compare to penalise people for not doing what the Home Office has not made it possible for them to do.

The Refugee Council found that 57 per cent. of people who did not benefit because they did not claim at the ports failed to do so out of ignorance. There are a great many other good reasons for not claiming at the ports. There is the need for advice, which has been touched on many times. The Refugee Legal Centre, representing people on appeal, says that its success rate is 20 per cent. compared with the normal rate of 3 per cent.--in other words, the chance of success is multiplied more than six-fold. That is one good reason for making an application in-country.

I heard the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, and I take the point he makes. But as my noble friend Lady Seear has told me many times, in politics one must choose the lesser of two evils. The noble Lord has drawn my attention to an evil, which I accept. However, I believe that starving innocent asylum seekers with a genuine claim is a worse evil. It is on that issue of priority that I take my stand.

The Minister made a great deal of the attraction of our benefits. He overrates them. There are two points here. The first is quantity and the second is access. In terms of quantity our benefits are now down to the

22 Jul 1996 : Column 1201

mid-EU level, below the Netherlands and, to my surprise, I discovered, below those of Ireland. So people who come here because of the quantity of our benefits are misinformed. In terms of accessibility, refugees to this country now have worse access to benefits than in any other European country except Greece.

When the Minister boasts at having reduced the number of applications since January, he comes perilously close to appearing to admit the central contention of the Court of Appeal that the withdrawal of benefits threatens the right to seek asylum itself. That is a finding which the Government have not yet taken on board.

If, as the Minister claims, people who are deterred from seeking asylum here seek it in other countries in Europe, it means that we, by making ourselves less attractive and sending people to other countries, are not only performing a hostile act against those other countries but are also infringing the principle of the level playing field. The Minister knows how the European Union feels about that. My noble friend Lady Williams quoted a draft EU directive which would make illegal what the Government are now proposing to do. As things stand the Prime Minister needs another quarrel with the European Union as he needs a hole in the head.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I supported the Government last time with a heavy heart. I did not vote on the merits of the amendments in isolation but in the context of the Bill as a whole, balancing the Government's intentions overall. However, I recognise that the amendment that we are considering today has been restructured.

The Bill is to be applauded for getting to grips with the situation as it stands. However, the question is whether the root cause has been addressed. The unacceptable delays created by current procedures must disappear, preferably speedily. If that were done, I believe that it would greatly obviate the need for the benefits proposed in the amendment. However, I can reconcile myself to the backdating of claims in the event of a successful application. That is a good point. I have listened to the steps that are being taken to expedite current applications. However, I wish to press for further clarification. Are there any plans to introduce further procedural overhauls or is it considered that sufficient has been done? For my part, I do not want to see people on the streets as a result of cumbersome procedures. I should like those concerns to be allayed before I decide which Lobby to enter.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page