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Immigration and Asylum Bill

3.19 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time. There is a good deal of further work to be done and I think I serve the House best by being fairly economic in what I say at this stage.

There have been considerable consultations and I am pleased that many of the letters from your Lordships to my noble friend Lord Bassam and myself have acknowledged the fact that we have listened with great care and introduced some helpful amendments to the Bill.

We have a long tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution. We are determined to uphold that tradition. We need to bear in mind, however, that the immigration controls which we inherited are under growing pressure. The number of asylum applications has increased 10-fold over the past 10 years to over 46,000 applications in 1998. Seventy-one per cent of asylum decisions in 1998 were refusals. This year has seen even greater pressures. Over 51,000 applications were made between January and September--

Lord Henley: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord would care to pause for a moment. We have to discuss the amendments before there are speeches on the Motion that the Bill do now pass. I wonder whether the House agrees that it would be a good idea to go through the amendments after which we may hear the noble and learned Lord unless the noble and learned Lord feels that it is necessary to speak at this stage?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am perfectly happy to do that. I believe that the custom has been to have a short opening speech, to hear the amendments,

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and thereafter to have the closing speech. I am perfectly happy, indeed, rapturously pleased, to sit down at this stage, my theme, plainly, having already been accepted.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I have been a Member of the House for a number of years--slightly longer than the noble and learned Lord--and my understanding was that it is usual to take the amendments first. Certainly, my noble friends are looking forward to discussing their amendments and then hearing what the noble and learned Lord will put forward.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is quite true. The noble Lord has been in this House, to date, a good deal longer than I have.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 4 [Accommodation for those temporarily admitted or released from detention]:

Lord Avebury moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 3, line 39, after ("the") insert ("voluntary").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, in moving the amendment I shall speak also to a number of other amendments as set out on the Marshalled List. We are considering Clause 4 and Schedule 13. I must begin by saying that we do not like Clause 4. That is why we have tabled an amendment which seeks to delete it. But we have tabled also a number of further amendments which deal with the detail, and the devil in the detail, to be found in Clause 13.

Clause 4 allows the Secretary of State to provide accommodation for persons granted temporary admission, released from detention or released on bail from detention. The new amendment to Schedule 13 tabled by the Government gives the Secretary of State power to impose any restrictions as to residence that he chooses to prescribe in regulations. There is absolutely no limit on what the Secretary of State can do. There is not even a requirement that the restrictions must be reasonable.

One such restriction specifically foreseen in the government amendment to Schedule 13 is that the person concerned should be required to reside in accommodation provided under Clause 4, and the regulations may prohibit him

    "from being absent from that accommodation except in accordance with the restrictions imposed on him".

What that means has been the subject of a number of conflicting reports. When my noble friend Lady Williams and I first raised the matter on Report, as recently as 18th October, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, had not the faintest idea as to how Ministers were going to use the dispersal powers in conjunction with temporary admission. He said off the cuff:

    "People will be free to come and go, subject to any other conditions that are imposed".

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A moment or two later he received a note from the box, and modified his initial reply by saying,

    "The note that I have says the idea is that those concerned will be required to reside overnight but will be free to come and go during the day".--[Official Report, 18/10/99; col. 753.]

I must ask the Minister who is to reply how it is that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was left in the position of having to answer this question when certainly the guts of the press release must have been already available within the department at the time. It is unfair to have put the noble and learned Lord in that position. The press release about Oakington, issued three days later on 21st October, put the matter the other way round:

    "The applicant will be required to reside at Oakington";


    "in certain circumstances applicants would be able, with prior approval, to leave without escort for specific purposes and periods".

The norm, then, is that an applicant must reside constantly in Oakington. He may go out to Tesco's, to the doctor's, or whatever, without an escort only with special permission from Mr Jack Straw. He then has to return within an hour or whatever the time specified in the restrictions. If he misses the curfew, he risks being transferred to prison or to a detention centre. I respectfully suggest that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, inadvertently misled the House when replying to questions on Report. I do not blame him. The habit of the department has been to produce a blizzard of amendments at the last minute before every stage of this Bill and it is impossible for Ministers, let alone Back Benchers, to know everything that is going on within the department.

According to the Guardian of 22nd October, every asylum applicant arriving at Dover without papers, or at Stansted, regardless of whether he has papers or not, is to be bundled off immediately to Oakington. I ask the Minister to confirm that, and to explain why those arrival points are being singled out for special treatment.

The purpose of the new facility at Oakington, and presumably others which may be constructed in the future, is to facilitate prompt consideration of an asylum claim, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, on 29th October. The imposition of other restrictions is now applied only by the government amendment to the schedule to persons sent to institutions such as Oakington. If that was the real intention, the location of the new centres should be convenient for access by the agencies advising asylum seekers, unless, of course, the intention is to reach a first decision without affording the applicant access to legal advice.

I do not believe that that is the case. I spoke to representatives at the Refugee Legal Centre just before entering the Chamber. I was told that the Home Office had asked its representatives to examine ways in which they could provide support facilities for people at Oakington. Their first reaction was that considerable resources would be required, that these were difficult

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to estimate and that the number of firms capable of dealing with asylum cases in the Cambridge region was very small.

The Refugee Legal Centre faxed me a map showing the location of firms which, I understand, have applied for franchises. There are only two in the immediate neighbourhood of Cambridge. I should like the Minister to explain whether it is the intention that franchised firms, or the Refugee Legal Centre, will send representatives to Oakington, or whether, as another alternative which has been considered by the RLS--although it has not put forward any firm proposals--there will be a permanent RLS office located on the site of Oakington. That seems to me to be the better alternative, because the throughput will be extremely large. There will be a maximum of 400 residents in Oakington at any one time. The Minister has said that, on average, they will be there no longer than seven days. Therefore the rate of processing applications will be extremely intensive and will require a scale of resources which will certainly not be available to the franchised firms in the neighbourhood, even if it were possible for their few representatives to spend all their time on the site.

The press release says that applicants will remain at Oakington for,

    "short periods of about seven days while their claims are being considered".

We all know that the Home Office's perception of time is highly elastic. The second amendment to the schedule gives the Secretary of State power to make an applicant stay in Oakington for up to 10 days, giving a leeway of three days. That is meant to be for discussion purposes only. If the Minister says that under extreme circumstances it might be necessary for a person to be kept there for a couple of weeks then, of course, we could consider the argument. However, I suggest that it is quite unacceptable for there to be a totally open-ended power requiring an applicant to stay in one of those places indefinitely, particularly when one considers how the Home Office uses its existing powers of detention to keep people in prisons and detention centres for months, and in some cases for over a year.

Finally--and I believe that my noble friend will amplify what I have to say on this point--Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 are intended to give effect to the very strong recommendations in the 27th Report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. The recommendations include that conditions such as are mentioned in Schedule 13 should be imposed only for prescribed purposes and only where they are reasonably necessary and for the single purpose which has been stated so far in order to avoid public order disturbances. I beg to move.

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