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Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I was the rapporteur of the Council of Europe committee that looked into this very point. It was found that many of the economic refugees who had been briefed by people who took money from them were absolutely pat in their answers to the questions that were asked. However, many of the genuine asylum seekers were confused and did not give the right answers.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, has, perhaps accidentally, made my case for me. If they are genuine refugees and are disturbed and have not been well briefed by agents--as the noble Lord rightly points out, many people who arrive at the immigration desk have been well briefed--it is the easiest thing in the world to tell the truth and say that they are here to seek asylum.
As the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, said, the discussion rather depends on how the questions and answers proceed. For example, one lady from Australia was here to visit for the first time since she had gone to Australia as a wartime bride. That came out in the discussion. Another man with a well-travelled passport worked for the International Planned Parenthood Organisation. Another couple were on their way to New York. They were here for a week and showed their onward tickets. There was nothing forbidding or frightening to prevent someone coming here for asylum from saying so, as indeed many do. Therefore, if the suggestion that they cannot do so is right, none would do so, but many do apply for asylum at the point of entry.
Another point that arises is the language difficulty. If an individual cannot speak English and there is no one immediately available in the line who can speak the relevant language the individual is taken to a special suite with a waiting room and a series of interview rooms. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that there is a well-oiled machine for finding an interpreter. Sometimes one is immediately available, because immigration authorities know those areas in the world from which people most commonly need the services of an interpreter. Sometimes it takes a few hours and the individual waits in the waiting room with a cup of coffee or whatever it may be, until an interpreter arrives. In a very few cases an interpreter cannot be found that day. In those circumstances, the person may be given temporary admission with an appointment to return to complete the formalities perhaps the next day. When the interview takes place, whether a few hours later or even the next day, with the interpreter present, the immigration officer can establish through the questions that I have already mentioned the length of stay and the reason for the visit. If the person is looking for asylum he or she can say so and the
I can stand at this Dispatch Box and say to those of your Lordships who are understandably concerned about genuine asylum seekers who pass through that hall at Heathrow that I saw absolutely nothing which would do anything other than reinforce in a genuine asylum seeker who had chosen this country as a safe haven his belief that he had indeed arrived in that safe country. Immigration officers are trained to look out for all kinds of people, including those who are fleeing. In particular, they want to help people who flee from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, to name today's horror hot spots. They have probably heard more harrowing tales than most of us; and they told me a few.
One understands that people may have had to invent stories in order to leave their homeland, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, said, they do not need to repeat them when they arrive in this country.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if they do not believe that they will be treated differently when they get here why do they seek to come here in the first place? That just proves my point. If these people have selected this country as a safe haven, surely they believe that when they arrive here they have arrived at a safe haven.
I underline that the issue before us does not actually concern asylum. Whether someone makes an application on arrival or after he has been here for three days, three weeks, three months or even longer, or whether he has entered legally or illegally, his claim for asylum will be treated fairly and judged according to this country's international obligations. I can assure my noble friend Lord Wolfson that there is nothing in what we are discussing today that will send back someone who is a genuine asylum seeker. We are discussing solely access to the benefits system. I have said on a number of occasions that seven out of every 100 cases are found to be genuine asylum seekers and asylum is granted.
I can tell the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that we want to improve the system. We have gone a long way to making considerable improvements. In 1994 there were 21,000 decisions; there were 27,000 in 1995; and we hope that there will be 37,000 this year. But if the numbers continue to rise the problem will become greater. We will have to run faster to stand still. Over the past six months there has been a considerable decline in the number of asylum seekers. We are beginning to make real progress with applications. That can only be to the benefit of genuine asylum seekers. In addition, we look sympathetically, in accordance with our long tradition as a safe haven, at those whose lives have been shattered by war and civil strife. Sixteen out of every 100 are so treated and are granted exceptional
The opposition amendment is presented as a modest change with limited consequences which will be of primary benefit to genuine refugees. I am afraid that that is not quite the case. While it remedies some of the defects of the amendment proposed three weeks ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham--I have rather missed her this afternoon as my normal sparring partner--it leaves a number of unresolved problems. It still rewards those who have entered illegally. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mackintosh, that there is no distinction between an illegal entrant and an illegal immigrant, as he suggested had been implied in the speech of my right honourable friend Mr. Peter Lilley. In both cases people enter this country in breach of immigration law either because they avoid control completely or because they deceive the immigration officers at passport control by means of false passports or whatever it may be.
With the best will in the world, when dealing with such a group it is just not possible to establish the three-day period. We can hardly be expected to take the word of someone who has already deliberately and knowingly broken the law. The organised racketeers of the asylum industry--I am afraid that they do exist--would soon tap a new and lucrative trade, providing people with bogus papers, helping to back their claim to have entered the previous day or the day before that. Even scrupulous pressure groups and lawyers would find much to dispute and litigate in a three-day decision. In practice, the only watertight way of operating a three-day grace period would be to exclude all illegals by demanding a stamped passport as proof of entry. Even that, I can assure noble Lords after my visit to Heathrow Terminal 3, would require careful scrutiny because forged and tampered passports do exist.
I do not believe that people who genuinely tell immigration officers that they are here on a visit, on holiday, on business, to study and will have no recourse to public funds while they are here will within three days decide to claim asylum with genuine reasons. Things do not change that fast. The reality is that they have used those reasons to gain benefit and then they change their position.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool may be confused, because if you need permission to enter you must either claim asylum or satisfy the authorities that you are here on business, as a tourist, to study or whatever it may be. The great majority of in-country applicants--excluding those who are here illegally--have said that they here on business, as tourists, to study. They would not get in if they had not said that. So, as I have said before, they have said something to the immigration authorities which just is not true. We should be encouraging them to tell the truth at the point of entry.
I do not like disagreeing with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry but I have to say to him that the statistics do not bear out his statistics that the great majority of people who claim within three days are genuine asylum seekers. As I said in my original speech, in comparison to the five in every 100 who are granted asylum by the Home Office, it is 3.5 in every 100 in the three-day group. The right reverend Prelate shakes his head, but I am afraid that those are the statistics for granting asylum during this three-day period.
The amendment is designed to appeal to those of your Lordships who basically agree with me that our benefit system is being abused by bogus asylum seekers but who are still concerned to do the decent, charitable thing in line with our common Jewish and Christian traditions. The amendment creates a confused and disputed borderline. It would cost at least £30 million a year. It would be more if the three days were to recreate the incentive to economic migrants that we fear it would.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that he was quite prepared to pay £30 million if it would keep Britain's good name, but what he seems to miss out is that we are paying a good deal more than that in order to keep our good name--because, as I have explained, many of the people who will claim at the port will not be found to be genuine, nor will they be granted exceptional leave to remain. So a good deal of the roughly £140 million--perhaps £100 million--in benefit expenditure that we envisage we should continue to have to spend will still be going to people who turn out not to be genuine asylum seekers, nor people who merit exceptional leave to remain. I believe that £100 million is not a bad price--it is a good deal better than the £30 million that the noble Earl was prepared to pay. I am going three steps further than he is in being prepared to contemplate paying benefit to people who do not turn out to be genuine.
Our proposal creates a clear and distinct borderline as far as concerns the benefits system. It says clearly that those who apply for asylum when they arrive here do not have to go into detail; they do not have to give a great story; they just need to say, "I am applying for asylum", and they will be allowed in. Their story will come at a later stage. That is all they need to do. That gives a clear-cut borderline for people getting into the benefit system.
As I have explained from the evidence of my own eyes, there is nothing to prevent an asylum seeker at the immigration desk on his arrival in this country, saying, "I have arrived in a safe country. I have planned and schemed to get here. Here I am. I am here for asylum". There is no reason at all. There is nothing here to justify the amendment.
As I explained, the statistics tell us that those who apply within three days are less likely to be genuine. So there is nothing there to justify the amendment. Those who have entered the country illegally will still be able, through a bit more illegality, to gain access to and to abuse our benefits system. So there is nothing there to justify the amendment. Further, there is absolutely nothing here, and in the arguments that your Lordships have heard, to justify this House overturning the considered decision taken by the elected Chamber. If the amendment is put to the vote, as I suspect it will be, I hope that my noble friends and other noble Lords who are prepared to look at the arguments in an open-minded way, and look at the facts before us, will join me in the Lobby.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful that in this long and keenly argued debate so much of the time has been spent on the merits of the issue rather than the proprieties of the relationship between this House and the other place. I am grateful that in the end the Minister himself conceded in his winding up speech that the issue of the three-day amendment had been before another place on only one occasion. He put into my mouth words about the quality of the debate which I do not think he will find when he looks in Hansard, because it would never be my intention to criticise the quality of debate in another place. I believe that we are in almost universal agreement--with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, who saved himself by accusing me only of an appearance of cynicism rather than cynicism--that it is entirely proper for us to do what we are doing today.
So let us turn then to the merits of the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, described it as a potential conflict between the head and the heart. I hope that he will think that most of us have argued the case for the amendment on the grounds of the head rather than the heart. Of course there have been references, although relatively few, to individual hard cases. In particular, those on the Bishops Bench who know what happens to asylum seekers when they arrive in this country and are faced with destitution have made well-argued and convincing attempts to show noble Lords what destitution can mean and what it would mean if the system were allowed to continue for very much longer.
But I do not believe that the arguments of the head should be neglected, because they are fundamental. In opening the debate on the first amendment, the Minister sought to claim that the orders had been successful because the number of applications had gone down. He
That raises a whole series of questions, which were best expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool when he talked about the difference between a soft touch and a brutal touch. When one changes regulations, in particular when entry conditions differ as between one country in the European Union and another, that will have an effect on the number of applications. After the passing of the 1993 Act the number of applications went down dramatically but then went up again.
The Minister has shown the House--and I do not dispute his figures--that in April, May and June the number of applications went down further. He is suggesting--and it may well be that it is a significant part of the argument--that that is because the possibility of benefit has or had been taken away. But surely it is not the number of applications which shows whether taking away benefits is right; it is the number of genuine refugees which matters. We simply do not yet know that. We do not know whether those who have been turned away or who have failed to apply for asylum are more or less likely than before to be genuine refugees and worthy of asylum in this country. Until we know that, surely, without being a soft touch, we ought to be pulling out all the stops that we can in order to avoid being the brutal touch in Europe. That is what we threaten to be. The test is not in the numbers; it is in the success rate.
We return to what are in almost all cases secondhand accounts of what happens at the points of entry. I pay tribute to the Minister for having gone to see what happens. That was the right thing to do and he was right to describe it to your Lordships. But, of course, what he saw was what happens everywhere at all points of entry. Ninety-nine out of every 100 people coming to this country needing landing cards--in other words, coming from outside the European Union--are genuine people who have genuinely obtained visas by telling the truth that they are coming here as visitors, tourists, students, business people or whatever. The 1 per cent., who are those in difficulty and those about whom we are talking are those who have to tell lies on their application forms for a visa, because they all come from countries which require visas. They then have to come to this country and say not only, "I am an asylum seeker" but also, "I told a lie when I stated on my visa application that I proposed to come here as a visitor", or a student or on business.
I do not know how many asylum applicants the Minister saw during his time at Heathrow's Terminal 3. But he and all noble Lords ought to put themselves in the position of people who, in order to leave their country, have to falsify some aspect of their relationship with their country of origin and the country to which they intended to go. That is the best answer that I can give to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, who seemed to believe that it was a conscious and rational decision to tell a lie at the point of entry. I suggest to your Lordships that that is far from being the case.
What is being done by this part of the legislation, what is proposed by the Government, is to cut a swathe through our international obligations on the spurious claim that those who apply after arrival in this country are less likely to be genuine refugees than those that apply at the port of entry. The effect will be that we will exclude people who are genuine refugees. Our reputation as a civilised country cannot support that.
I had genuinely believed that we had gone so far in meeting the Government's arguments that it might be possible to reach agreement without a Division today. I wish that were so, if only by a pause. I can tell from the Minister's speech that it is hopeless for the Government to say that the differences between us are not that great and that we could retain our reputation as a civilised country at a relatively low cost and without compromising any of the principles which they seek to achieve by this legislation. I have no such response. I must seek the opinion of the House.