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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I give my noble friend an assurance that the point will be given very serious consideration. He will have noticed that I made reference to a category of person who would be included; namely, somebody licensed to carry out humane killing.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, most of the points in the Statement will end in legislation. We must await that and discussion will then take place. I wish to raise one issue which does not require legislation. It is mentioned in section 25 of the Government's response on recommendations relating to school security. It states that:

Who will do that? Most local education authorities have no expertise at all in this field. Is it a matter of consulting the local police force? Will local police be geared to giving advice to individual schools? This does not require legislation but it requires swift action. What have the Government in mind?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble friend referred to school security in his Statement for Scotland and I shall not tread on his territory. At this moment there is a great deal of activity on the issue of security in schools. In the recent round of bidding for CCTV, money was specifically set aside and ring-fenced to help certain schools install CCTV as part of their security measures. As the noble Lord will know, every school is different. The requirements for security arrangements are also different. A great deal of guidance comes from

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the Department for Education and Employment. There is a great deal of discussion with school governors and with schools themselves. The local authorities are involved in those discussions. I do not believe that there has been more positive action and concern in relation to making our schools as secure as possible. The Dunblane incident is not the only recent incident. There have been some tragic incidents in our English schools. I am the sponsor Minister for Teesside. It is not so long ago that a man ran amok with a knife in a school in Middlesbrough. The matter is very close to the heart of the Government. We will continue to pursue security in our schools.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, my noble friend may remember that between December 1995 and February 1996, through a series of Written Questions, I exposed, and in correspondence with her I discussed, what I saw as the uneven, inadequate and indeed shambolic administration of the present firearm and shotgun certificate arrangements.

In particular, I proposed that one of the things needed was a national computer-held register of all those who hold either firearms or shotguns through certificates. I note that Lord Cullen in his Recommendation No. 7 goes very much in that direction. I note also that in response to that recommendation the Government use the word "support" rather than "accept". Recognising, as I am afraid I do, that in the past the Home Office has tended to be a somewhat constipated department so far as actually getting things changed is concerned, I hope that my noble friend will be able to assure me that there will be a proper, central computer-held register of individuals who hold all these weapons so that police forces can exchange information and we can be sure that unsuitable people do not hold them.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble friend reminds me of the correspondence that went between himself and my department and I am acutely aware of that particular point. He will also know that Lord Cullen addressed himself to many criticisms consistent with the ones made by my noble friend. Therefore, we give a positive commitment to addressing all those concerns. We more than support it; we shall be implementing it. Where we believe it is important to consult first, we shall do so.

On the point of using the computer, I genuinely believe that the technology is now in place to arrive at a registration scheme such as the one mentioned by my noble friend. I can assure him that that will be part of our discussions about this issue.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and declare an interest as a responsible gun owner. The Government suggest that they propose only a minor toughening up of Lord Cullen's recommendations on the private possession of pistols. Unfortunately, that is not so at all. The toughening up of Lord Cullen's proposals that they propose is extremely draconian and stands to deprive perhaps 150,000 law abiding and respectable citizens of their cherished pistols, many of which are of historical interest.

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The Government argue on page 6 of their response that these requirements are necessary to protect the public, without advancing any solid evidence for that claim. Let us remember that effective semi-automatic pistols of various calibres have been available for at least 125 years and until 1920 pistols could be bought by anybody without any licence at all. Yet, this is the first time--thank God!--that such a terrible event of such magnitude has occurred.

If the extensive yet less draconian changes recommended by Lord Cullen were adopted, there is no reason to suppose that a similar atrocity would occur for at least a further 225 years, if not longer. What would happen, after all, if 16 elderly and disabled people were murdered by a maniac armed with a pair of legally held shotguns, as is theoretically quite possible? Would the Government not then feel obliged by the logic of their present argument to ban all shotguns?

One paradox is that over the past five years almost certainly more people have been killed by decorative bull bars on the front of vehicles than have been killed by legally held pistols. Yet the Government have resolutely set their face against banning bull bars.

Yes, there is a great deal to welcome in the proposals, not least the banning of expanding ammunition and obtaining guns and ammunition by mail order. But I suggest the Government are going too far and it would have been better if they had stuck to the carefully thought out recommendations made by Lord Cullen.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord puts his personal point of view very strongly. One of the difficult aspects of being in government is doing what one believes is right. When all things have been considered, a judgment has to be made. I believe that the right judgment has been made. But, at the end of the day, it will be for Parliament to decide. I have no doubt that the points made by the noble Lord and others will be discussed during the passage of the Bill through Parliament.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, perhaps I may put a final question to the noble Baroness on consultation about the appeals procedure. She said that it is manifestly right to have consultation, and I agree with her. I should be grateful if she would write to me--I do not press for a response now--and tell me when the consultation period ends so far as that very important provision in the Government's proposals is concerned.

Baroness Blatch: Yes, my Lords.

Asylum Applications: Designated Countries

5.25 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Rea: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I oppose the order that we are debating. But,

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like him, I believe that the designation of any country as "in general" presenting "no serious risk of persecution" is an unsafe basis for policy on granting asylum. I suggest that it is likely to lead to unjust decisions.

At the Committee Stage of the Asylum Bill we spent some time taking to pieces the meaning of the words "in general". To summarise, the danger is that in so doing--I shall use the words--"the particular" will be missed. The fast-track appeal procedure will tend to bypass cases of any legal complexity where, for instance, it takes time to assemble evidence. Moreover, in just those countries where the observation of human rights is improving "in general"--I use the Government's words--the nature of harassment or persecution is likely to be most insidious and need the most careful consideration. As Alex Carlile said yesterday in another place, the fact that an asylum seeker has to argue against a "rebuttable presumption" that his claim is false constitutes a loading of the scales of justice against him.

Of the countries listed in paragraph 2 of the order, Ghana is the only one of which I have first-hand knowledge. I have great respect and affection for Ghanaians as a national group. They have provided some distinguished international civil servants and--generalising, of course--I feel that they have greater integrity than the citizens of some West African countries that I could name. Ghana was the first African country to gain independence in 1957 but democracy has been hard to achieve or maintain, as in other newly independent nations. President Rawlings seized power in a military coup in 1981 and become president after elections in 1992 which were given a qualified bill of health by some international organisations but strongly criticised by opposition parties in Ghana as fraudulent and rigged. The opposition subsequently boycotted parliamentary elections, leading to a virtual one-party state. The Ghanaian constitution calls for normal human rights to be respected. There is an independent judiciary and political parties are legal. There is also a Commission for Human Rights and Justice, but it is a government sponsored body which has not been known to criticise government policy, only individual cases of alleged corruption.

The president's rule seems externally to be basically benign, except when serious opposition is expected and then he can become very unpleasant. At the Committee Stage of the Asylum Bill on 23rd April this year the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, described two incidents in which Rawlings acted in a violent and foul-mouthed manner in front of others. In particular, at a Cabinet meeting last December he physically attacked and threw to the ground his vice-president, Mr. H. E. Kow Arkaah, a man 20 years his senior and a distinguished senior politician in Ghana. That gives a flavour of the strong-arm tactics used by the regime.

There have been several incidents in the past two years when demonstrations have been broken up violently with loss of life. Much publicity has been given to granting amnesties to former opponents of the regime over the past few years and it is probably true that there are now few convicted political prisoners in Ghana. On the other hand, there are prisoners in

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detention "while evidence is being collected". That is true, for instance, in the case of Alex Ofei--who, incidentally, is a British citizen--and five others, arrested on return from Britain where they had been students. They are accused of plotting to overthrow the government and have been held virtually incommunicado for more than two years. That is illegal under Ghana's constitution, which requires that if a detainee is not charged within a reasonable time he should be released unconditionally or at least subject to appropriate restrictions.

A letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, smuggled out of prison from John Kwado Owusu Boakye, one of those still held in detention says:

    "for 25 months in detention without trial is really the most damnable situation any human being can bear".
He also points out that his wife and child (now in Britain) have not been granted asylum and fears for their safety if they have to return to Ghana.

Time does not allow me to describe the many other examples of which I am aware that testify to the far from perfect human rights situation in Ghana. For instance, there is interference with press freedom; three journalists were arrested earlier this year for publishing material which was;

    "prejudicial to the interests of the state".

In the inter-tribal fighting in northern Ghana two to three years ago very large numbers of people--possibly up to 20,000--were killed and there are 113,000 refugees from Ghana in neighbouring countries, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. If there is

    "no serious risk of persecution"
why do they not return home? I can provide accounts of those and other episodes testifying to the doubtful nature of the regime and its adherence to the International Convention of Human Rights.

The country report from the Home Office justifying the inclusion of Ghana in the order is complacent and over-optimistic about the real state of political freedom and protection of human rights in Ghana. For example, it is premature to state that the government:

    "abides by the constitution or that ordinary Ghanaians enjoy freedom of speech and political assembly".

The evidence that I have described--as I have said, there is much more--suggests that the Government would do well to look again at the inclusion of Ghana in the order. But the best solution would be to drop the order altogether.

As a postscript I should say that I do not deny that many asylum seekers are driven to seek residence in countries of the north by poverty as well as political persecution. In the case of Ghana and some other African counties, poverty has increased as a result of the structural adjustment programmes of the IMF and the World Bank. If poverty increases, so does civil unrest. In response to that an authoritarian government--as we have seen, though Ghana is ostensibly a democracy, President Rawlings is a very authoritarian character--especially one that is insecure, responds by cracking down heavily on dissidents. That is one reason why, in

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the past decade, we have seen a large rise in the numbers of asylum seekers not only from Ghana but also from other countries in Africa.

The long-term answer to the increased pressure of asylum seekers is not to clamp down on those seeking asylum but to improve the terms of trade and lift the debt burden of the poorest nations from which the greatest pressure comes. But I agree that that is another story.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I do not have the advantage of having been to Ghana and therefore cannot answer the points made by the noble Lord in relation to its inclusion in the order. However, he made one point which rather played into the hands of the Government when he said that there is much poverty in Ghana. Bearing in mind the vast amount of poverty that exists throughout the world, the Government have had to be careful that we do not find people coming to Britain simply as economic migrants. Perhaps on reflection the noble Lord may feel that he did not strengthen his argument by making that point.

In opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, suggested that the principle of designation and therefore of the order was unlawful. But there is nothing new in it. Section 1 of the 1996 Act, which we dealt with in the summer, replaces Schedule 2, paragraph 5 of the 1993 Act and there has never been any suggestion that the idea of designation is contrary to our international obligations.

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