Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, feels, for reasons he has eloquently given, that Amendment No. 17 would not meet the problems to which he has adverted, perhaps I may recommend that he looks at Amendment No. 59, also in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, as that amendment refers specifically to guidance on the length of detention.

I believe that all your Lordships are concerned about what may give the impression of an unlimited power to detain. Certainly, those of us who have met the remarkable members of the voluntary groups who try to visit detention centres are very much aware of the concern expressed by them about the mental effects on people of not knowing--or, indeed, of not having any idea--of the length of time for which they might be detained. At the heart of this group of amendments lies concern about detainees not being given regular information on how long their detention will continue despite the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has said, they have committed no crime, have been charged with no offence and have been found guilty of no offence of any kind. I give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. One appealing facet of Amendment No. 17 is subsection (2). As far as I can see, there is no provision on whether the guidance becomes justiciable in Amendment No. 59. I believe that that would be unfortunate because such cases sometimes become protracted and difficult. I should not wish to see the guidance become justiciable.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, will address that issue. My impression was that it would not become a justiciable matter, but the noble Earl will no doubt say whether or not that is correct. I believe that the word "guidance" would not normally carry the implication of being justiciable, but I may be wrong.

In this group of amendments, I should like to refer also to Amendment No. 60 which stands in my name. That amendment limits to 72 hours the period that a detainee can spend in prison. Again, in that regard, I advert to the fact that those who deal with detainees are particularly concerned about their being sent to prison. Obviously, many of our prisons have no adequate resources for dealing with detainees, especially those who may be going through a period of extreme nervous strain; who may in fact be the victims of torture; and so on. As many of our prisons are, in any case, over-crowded, they are the last places to which detainees should be sent.

Rather than suggest that there should be no admission to prison at all, we included a limit of 72 hours because we recognise that there may be

2 Nov 1999 : Column 772

immediate situations that cannot be dealt with by a detention centre. Certainly, it would be extremely encouraging if the Government could give us some indication that, wherever possible, they will avoid sending to prison an asylum seeker or refugee and that, where that is absolutely unavoidable, it will be made clear that it must be for the minimum possible time.

To save time perhaps I may also refer to Amendment No. 28, which is an amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, to which he will no doubt speak. In the Committee and the Report stages of the Bill I was particularly concerned about the history of torture. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, will remember that I tabled an amendment on this issue at an earlier stage.

The Government have been responsive on issues of torture. Indeed, I received a letter from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, on the subject. He said that the Government recognised that wherever possible those who had been victims of torture should not be detained. That is on the face of the letter.

However, when one looks at the material that has just been supplied to us, and at the section entitled,

    "Reasons for Detention and Bail Rights",

which was not available for the Committee stage, it is plain from the list of reasons given for detention and the list of factors on which the decision has been made that there is absolutely no reference whatsoever in the entire document to situations where as far as possible detention should be avoided.

Some noble Lords may have seen this document which indicates the reasons why people should remain in detention. There are examples such as likely to abscond; insufficient reliable information; release is not considered conducive to the public good, and so on. They are all reasons why someone should be detained. Then there is a list of the facts that have to be taken into account in deciding on detention, such as having previously absconded, or attempted to use deception, or failed to give satisfactory answers to an immigration officer's questions. They are all reasons why someone should be detained.

We believe that that should be balanced by reasons why, in certain cases, as far as possible detention should be avoided. That is why, throughout these proceedings, we have argued that a history of torture should be seen as a ground why someone should not be detained unless there are exceptional circumstances. We may add to those reasons one or two other reasons such as the existence of a serious medical condition or the existence of dependants outside the detention centre. We believe that the Home Office immigration officers should reach balanced decisions on whether or not to detain someone.

Perhaps I may put in brackets that I believe that this country has the highest proportion, by a substantial margin, of asylum seekers in detention of any country in the European Union. We want to avoid detention because it is expensive as well as extremely hard in

2 Nov 1999 : Column 773

terms of its psychological impact. Perhaps I may suggest to the Home Office that they add another section to,

    "Reasons for Detention and Bail Rights".

I applaud them on the section on bail rights, which is excellent, but perhaps there could be a section that deals with reasons why, in certain instances, there should be only very exceptional reasons why such a person should be detained. Again I underline the incidence of a history of torture, as the noble Earl does in his amendment. I believe that is a humane argument and one that has the support of people on all sides of the House. I beg the Government to consider this matter, given that they have already given assurances to see whether that may be done.

Lord Renton: My Lords, although one sympathises with the motive of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, in moving the amendment, it seems to me that the Government cannot possibly answer the questions that he asked. Not long ago it was announced in the press that there were 100,000 cases of asylum seekers whose cases had not been dealt with. The facilities available until now for dealing with such cases have been so limited that the number has grown steadily over the past two years. As a result, the Government will not be able to tell for a while how those facilities can be improved and increased. Until there is an improvement in the system and the facilities have increased, it will be impossible for the Government to answer the question.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he accept that while the backlog is still growing, the numbers detained on any particular day is under 1,000?

Lord Renton: My Lords, yes, but we have to bear in mind also that there will be further applications from time to time. The Government cannot possibly anticipate how many applications there will be.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that one reason for the huge backlog is the failure of the Government's computer system, which the other day was mentioned, yet again, in the press. I telephoned Siemens to ask how they were getting on with the trials and I was told that it was none of my business. I explained to them that I was a Member of this Parliament and that I was to take part in the debate on the Immigration and Asylum Bill and they told me to "get lost" in an extremely contemptuous manner.

When a company that is employed by the public sector to implement a system that is supposed to improve the casework performance of the Home Office replies in that way one should have great anxiety about its performance. We know that the system was handed over for trials in June but we do not have the faintest idea how those trials are progressing or whether the roll-out will take place next spring as promised. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply

2 Nov 1999 : Column 774

could say something about the state of play on that computer system, which may help to alleviate the anxieties expressed also by the noble Lord, Lord Renton--justifiably so.

I want to speak to Amendments Nos. 26 and 27. In this group we have a rather heterogeneous collection of amendments. These two amendments ensure that the Secretary of State cannot deny an applicant a routine bail hearing by regulation. The amendments preserve the power to adjourn hearings, but remove the power to take away rights to a second hearing. They amend provisions added to the Bill by government amendments tabled on Report.

The subsections in question provide for the Secretary of State to make provision modifying the application of Clause 41 in cases where a routine bail hearing is adjourned to enable medical reports to be obtained or "for any other reason". It states that the regulations may in particular provide for there not to be a second routine bail hearing in such circumstances.

I take issue with the Government on that because we believe that there always should be a second bail hearing within 30 days. The reasons for that were demonstrated by the discussion we had on Report. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, suggested that an adjournment would last for only a minimum of 21 days. However, he also indicated that it would be possible to continue an adjournment from time to time to await medical reports. As the Bill stands, there is a real prospect of such detainees not having two hearings within 21 days and possibly having to wait for several months for a second consideration of their detention by a magistrate or an adjudicator. The prospect of cases in such circumstances having to be adjourned continually appears to disadvantage those identified by the Government in the White Paper as those whom they were especially reluctant to detain, such as those with evidence of torture or physical or mental illness.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, has written to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. In that he said,

    "we cannot give an undertaking that nobody who claims to have been the victim of torture will be detained. In all cases we must be satisfied that the person will comply with any conditions attached to the grant of temporary admission or release or bail. Where there are substantial grounds for believing that a person would not comply we must reserve the right to detain".

He continues:

    "However, inevitably there will be circumstances, for example where the resumed first routine bail hearing is heard at the same time as the second hearing would be due to be heard. It is obvious that in these limited circumstances a second reference would be a waste of time and resources. It seems sensible for the regulations to make provision for this".

That is precisely the point at issue. We say that there should always be the right to a second bail hearing and that if a medical report cannot be obtained within 21 days, that is an additional ground why a person should be released on temporary admission. We object fundamentally to the idea that a person claiming to be a victim of torture and who is nevertheless detained on

2 Nov 1999 : Column 775

arrival has to experience several adjourned hearings because medical reports are not available expeditiously.

We urge the Government that they retain the second bail hearing or provide that in circumstances of this kind the applicant is invariably released. I hope that with these arguments the noble Lord will reconsider what he said to the medical foundation and make provision for an invariable second bail hearing.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page