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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is not our practice to reveal the content of private discussions between the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor or, indeed, between any other Ministers and those outside. As to the issue of the Monetary Policy Committee discussions, yes, of course, the noble Lord is right. He has read the minutes, as I have, and clearly it is a serious issue. However, as he said, the Governor concluded that intervention would be no use. He went on to say that the sheer size of the currency markets, where more than 1 trillion dollars' worth of trading takes place each day, makes it difficult for one central bank to change any one exchange rate for very long. As to the Government's view of exchange rates, we do not publish a running commentary on them.

Lord Peston: My Lords, in view of the fact that the Chancellor is still responsible for economic policy, even though operational responsibility has passed to the Monetary Policy Committee, does my noble friend agree that whether or not the Governor publishes a minute of his meeting with the Chancellor, it would be a most absurd state of affairs if my right honourable friend the Chancellor did not discuss the exchange rate inter alia? It is one of the fictions of British government that you have to pretend that all Ministers are idiots by saying, "There is no way I will tell you what we have been talking about or what was said". That does not matter because we are not idiots in your Lordships' House and are perfectly well aware of what they must have been talking about. The pity of it is that we do not have a new tradition which enables Ministers to say, "Yes, we did talk about those sorts of things because that is what we do".

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the proper reply is that I can neither confirm nor deny that the Chancellor discussed exchange rates with the Governor. Clearly Ministers are not idiots, any more

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than your Lordships are idiots. They would expect those matters to be discussed and would not expect me to reveal the detail of which matters are discussed.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, given that nowadays neither economists nor central bankers have much of a clue what determines exchange rates and, indeed, are reaching the conclusion that the inflation rate is far more influenced by the new technology than by jiggling around in the short term with interest rates, which may aggravate the situation and have a counter-effect, is it not time that the Monetary Policy Committee experiment was thoroughly reviewed and the committee given a new and much narrower mandate before it wanders off into areas over which it has no control and no idea of what the result of its actions will be?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, if we read the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee of 9th and 10th February, we see that the discussion on the exchange rate was carried out before the committee turned to its immediate policy decision. In other words, it was an opening run round the course, just as we have in your Lordships' House from time to time on these matters.

What is conspicuous about the minutes of that discussion is the degree of disagreement which is evident from different committee members. They differed in their preferred assumptions. Views differed as regards the possibilities. It is right for the committee to discuss those matters but it is evident that there is no consensus among members of the Monetary Policy Committee or anybody else.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, can my noble friend recall the time, particularly in 1968, when we used to think that the weak pound was a very bad thing and we longed for a strong pound? Is it not a fact that many factors determine the strength of the currency? First, are people not attracted to this country because we have a strong and stable economy? Is it not also the case that we have had a stable pound against the dollar over a very long period of time? Instead of moaning about the strength of the pound, would it not be better for business and commerce to get on with the job of becoming more productive and exporting a lot more?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am relieved to find that I can agree with my noble friend. He expresses government policy very closely indeed. Of course, we do not underestimate the difficulties, particularly for manufacturing industry, of a strong pound. But it is true that a strong and stable economy is likely to encourage a strong pound. The Monetary Policy Committee discussed that in its consideration of a risk premium. I do not believe that we should reach the conclusion that a strong pound is a painless result of the success of our economic policies.

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Lord Barnett: My Lords, I assume that the official Opposition agree with the Shadow Chancellor that there should be an independent Bank of England and Monetary Policy Committee. Indeed, I see the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, is nodding in agreement. In those circumstances, they will no doubt agree that the Government should not interfere with a so-called independent Bank. We know that the Chancellor and the Governor have discussions and no doubt they discuss the exchange rate. It would be rather surprising if they did not. But there are those--perhaps on the Opposition Benches--who want to see the pound weaker in line with the euro. They perhaps think that is a good thing. Or do they? I do not know. But this question is directed at my noble friend and not the Opposition. Would it not be helpful if we knew whether the Chancellor agreed on the question of the exchange rate and, in so far as interest rate changes affect it, whether they agree with what the Governor said yesterday; namely, that the present interest rates should not be changed for a while in order to ensure that the exchange rate is helped?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I thought that I had already said in an earlier Answer that we do not provide a running commentary on short-term changes in exchange rates. If my noble friend is thinking in the longer term, we have acknowledged the difficulties which a strong pound imposes on, in particular, our manufacturing industries. But we believe that we should stick to our long-term policies of price stability and high levels of growth and employment.

Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Bill [H.L.]

3.7 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to consolidate certain enactments relating to the powers of the courts to deal with offenders and defaulters, and to the treatment of such persons, with amendments to give effect to recommendations of the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Government Resources and Accounts Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Business of the House: Debates this Day

Lord Carter: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I beg to move the Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper.

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Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Elton set down for today shall be limited to three and a half hours and that in the name of the Lord Walker of Worcester to one and a half hours.--(Lord Carter.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Electronic Communications Bill

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury of Turville, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the order of commitment of 22nd February be discharged and that the Bill be committed to a Grand Committee.--(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Asylum Seekers

3.8 p.m.

Lord Elton rose to call attention to the case for policies towards asylum seekers that are both effective and humane; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion before us draws attention to the case for policies towards asylum seekers that are both effective and humane. The subject is far too large to cover in a single opening speech. Therefore, I warn the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, whose maiden speech I warmly look forward to, not to model anything he says on my performance today. I look forward with almost equal interest to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, from whom I used to receive 15 letters per week when I was at the Home Office. No doubt his position has changed a little since then.

Efficiency means swift decisions and humanity means right decisions and good treatment. We can demonstrate easily enough that our policies are neither efficient nor humane. Last year, the number of people in this country who had applied for asylum and were waiting to know whether or not they would be allowed to stay was 102,000. According to the Office for National Statistics, that is more than the population of Gloucester. Many had been waiting for over three years. To wait for six years is not unusual. I know of at least one case that has been running for 10 years. The backlog is made up of all applicants for asylum, at whatever stage of the screening process. The telescoping of that process under the new Act should bring final decisions forward earlier. But on its own it will not reduce the number of asylum seekers still in this country.

Thus far the problem is quantifiable, but as so often in life, things become less simple as we study them. Home Office Report CM 4431 shows that from 1990 to 1998 inclusive there were 302,970 applications and that 222,975 decisions were made on them. Of those,

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153,970 were refusals. So far so good, provided your mental arithmetic is agile. But when one's eye travels further across the table one sees that the total number of those who are either removed or known to have departed came only to 27,365 leaving 126,000--more than the population of Gloucester--unaccounted for and, as they had made their anxiety to live here very plain, probably--though not certainly--still resident in this country.

The picture would be pretty foggy if that were all, but it is not. The table clearly states that it excludes all dependants. At Tinsley House, Gatwick, last week, among the passengers on a recent flight from Afghanistan via Moscow, I saw how numerous such dependants can be. I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will tell us the real position regarding numbers, or at least the average ratio of dependants to applicants.

If we carry our inquiry forward to the published figures for the first two quarters of last year, the picture becomes foggier still. While still excluding dependants, they show that, under the normal process, 4,210 refusals were made. Ninety were made under a scheme to clear the backlog. However, this table gives no hint of how many of those 4,300 were removed or had gone of their own free will. Can the Minister arrange for these figures to be published in the annual report from his department? Can he confirm the worrying statement I have seen that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate no longer has the resources to remove more than the 1 per cent of refusals already in custody and a mere 4 per cent of the whole of the remainder?

The IND's ability to implement refusals will be thoroughly tested when the backlog clearance programme bites in earnest. That will coincide with the increased output of decisions, and therefore refusals, under the streamlined procedures brought in under the Act on 1st April. Unless that programme amounts to no more than a blanket permission to remain (in which case we should be told) there can surely be only one of two consequences: either there must be an equal increase in removals or refusal will become even more of a technicality that even larger numbers will ignore, so that we have an even greater illegal population in this country. If so, I think that we should be told.

The question of removals is critical. Asylum seekers naturally seek the comfort and support of their fellow nationals wherever they can find it. Which of us would not do the same if the roles were reversed? The Government, recognising their need for support and society's need for them to develop quickly into stable communities, believes that they should settle in "clusters" of similar origin. They require, rather than encourage, them to do so; to spread them, they disperse them round the country.

If great trouble is to be avoided, the clusters must be developed quickly into stable communities integrated with the surrounding population. Home Office Bulletin No 3 on the subject reports that over 860 individuals had been dispersed by 23rd January, but they were mostly unaccompanied children. In the

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4,000 places pledged by local authorities so far, very few are for families. A cluster of bored, single, unemployed foreigners, who cannot speak English, is not the sort of neighbour most of us would want, nor would it offer a suitable home for those who are allowed to stay.

We want to see stable, law-abiding communities. The police are charged with establishing good relationships with the groups. This urgent work is exceedingly difficult because many come from countries and circumstances where the police are hated and feared, and with good cause. Community policing is, therefore, at its most important, most difficult and, because of the need for translators, its most expensive.

Yet it is from the midst of such groups that those who are eventually refused leave to remain must be removed. The more the cluster policy succeeds, the fiercer will be the community reaction against forced removals. As the number of overstayers and refusals increases, the number of removals will have to increase.

At present, the police are expected to support the IND in the work of removal, but that is entirely inappropriate. It means immediate destruction of all their work on community relations, which may have gone on for years rather than months, and makes future policing not only more difficult but quite possibly dangerous. Do the Government recognise the need not just for an effective implementation of refusals but for a non-police agency, presumably the IND--unless they can find a means of adequate supervision of a contractor--to provide it, and for the resources to do so? Will they use the experience now being gained in the operation of youth offending teams to build multidisciplinary teams of a different sort to help the clusters to mature and integrate?

The policy of dispersal into clusters could be a good one, but will only work if properly funded. The Home Office grant to local authorities for this purpose is £210 million for the current year. The policy is still entirely voluntary and therefore working only on a small scale. However, the Local Government Association tells me that, even so, this is already £165 million less than it has cost its members. Can the Minister explain the difference and tell us whether their calculations allow properly, for instance, for the educational needs of young asylum seekers? Surely they must. We know from our own young that children with nothing to do quickly become criminals. If the Minister's answer is that costs will be met automatically through the standard spending assessments, will he go further and recognise that teaching children who do not speak a word of English is more expensive than ordinary education and goes beyond the standard cost? The same applies to the large number of people who need adult education: first in English as a second language and then in skills, if we are to have viable communities left behind us.

Could the Minister also tell us whether in setting the levels of support to asylum seekers direct, the Government recognise that their needs may go beyond what can be bought with a voucher and can cost more

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than £10 a week, so that there will be a healthy market in vouchers sold at a discount by those in need of cash? A tiny improvement would be made if the Government accepted the plea of the Refugee Council that when a refugee pays for goods with a voucher worth more than their value, the shop should give change rather than pocketing the difference.

I return to the local authority shortfall. I draw your attention to the case of Kent, which is already facing an extra £3 on the community charge to pay for unaccompanied minors. That charge should fall to the Department of Health, the noble Lord will be pleased to hear, and not to the Home Office. But will it be met? (The Minister must answer for the whole Government.) If not, why not? Can he tell us what provision is now being made for them in preparation for next year? It must surely be an aim of policy to distribute the burden of this influx evenly between all authorities. At present it bears heavily on a few.

Kent is a good example. Service stations there are a popular decanting point for lorry loads of illegal immigrants. If a lorry decants, for instance, 30 illegal immigrants outside the port area in south-east Kent, it will take 15 uniformed police officers at least two hours to apprehend them and complete the legally-required processes. That is the entire strength at present available to provide uniformed patrols in the whole of the south Kent area. It is only when they claim asylum that the seekers cease to be a police responsibility and can be taken out of cells which, incidentally, are entirely unsuitable for holding family groups.

On that subject, can the Minister give favour to the widely canvassed idea that every immigrant should be given a clear statement of his rights in his native language, so that at the first interview, which is crucial to later hearings, he shall be properly interviewed and give the relevant information? That would make it easier to get rid of those who should not be here, and much better for those who should.

The task the department faces is changing and unquantifiable. The definition of a "genuine refugee" changes from day to day. The ruling in Shah and Islam last year extended the definition of a,

    "social group for 1951 convention purposes",

to include the wives of Muslim husbands threatened with violence under the sharia law. I suspect that is a very large population in the world. And in the department's open plan office at Gatwick I saw a large notice saying, "not Germany or France". That is a reminder that recent judgments in European courts have led our own to rule that it is unsafe to return certain classes of asylum seekers, under the Dublin convention, to either of those countries as they would eject some that we think should not be returned.

The current media focus on undeserving cases receiving significant benefit from public funds results in it being all too easy to do as a number of newspaper editors would like us to do and assume that all asylum seekers are cunning, undeserving scroungers, well able to get a secure and comfortable living back home. But the child given a ticket at Entebbe airport, and

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accepted by an adult stranger as a means of checking in overweight luggage without charge, has no home to go back to. That abuse was curtailed by making carriers responsible for passengers arriving without proper permission to enter Britain. But many such are already here. Young men from many distant lands with no known family, taken into care and then left alone with no adult friend, are described by a senior worker with the City Parochial Foundation as the lost souls of society. They may not qualify as refugees, but there is nowhere else for them to go.

That brings me to the emotive words "soft touch", which I shall not use because they carry more sense than they should. The fact is that we are a worryingly popular destination. This is in large part due to the lengthy processes that must be gone through before a final refusal, during which time asylum seekers build up ever more compassionate grounds for indefinite leave to remain, and partly due to our complete failure to implement all but a fraction of refusals. It is widely known that once people get here they have a good chance of staying, whatever the system decides. The Government are tackling the first issue; they should tackle the second. The rapid return of fraudulent asylum seekers is the best way of discouraging others. Therefore the backlog exercise must, sadly, be given a lower priority than new arrivals.

Why are we turning applicants away? Because they do not fit a definition drawn up half a century ago to deal with the aftermath of the world war; because they are what we call "economic" refugees. We should be irresponsible if we did not ask ourselves to what we are returning them. The world is becoming polarised, not just between free countries and dictatorships but between rich and poor. We consider ourselves free and, unquestionably, are among the rich. Four hundred and seventy countries have a purchasing power per head less than one-tenth of ours. As a free country we accept the victims of dictators; as a rich country we turn away the victims of poverty.

We cannot welcome them all to share our wealth, nor do I suggest any such thing. But modern communications mean that we can no longer be unaware of them and mere compassion means that we cannot ignore them. No one can enjoy growing fat when people almost next door are starving. If we cannot help them here we must help them at home, and at some cost to ourselves. The latest report of Voluntary Service Overseas shows that this is no longer an unfashionable view. The climate of opinion is changing. That must be another debate, but it is an important one.

We have a duty. If anyone wants to join this society, it should be just and honourable. If we ignore the plight of the millions that are starving elsewhere in the world, it is neither. I look forward to hearing the Government's reply and the intervening debate. I beg to move for Papers.

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3.24 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, reminded me of the agreeable correspondence we used to have when he was a Minister. I share his happy recollections of the letters we used to exchange and I listened with interest and a high degree of agreement to everything he said this afternoon.

I suppose that none of your Lordships will argue that our policies towards asylum seekers should be less than effective and humane. The Government will say that although what they are doing at the moment is neither, they have set in motion legislative and other changes which are needed to put that right. When the Immigration and Asylum Act comes into effect and we have the IND's casework computer properly in operation, they will say that they will deliver the firmer, faster, fairer decision-making that was promised in the White Paper. In the mean while, are the Government acting as effectively and humanely as they can in the circumstances we face of the sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers, or are they making policy on the hoof to deal with each new problem, as happened in the case of the gypsies from eastern Europe and, most recently, with regard to the Afghans who arrived here by chance on the hijacked plane? The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned them and I shall spend a little while discussing their case as an example of what is wrong with the system at the moment.

I take it that it is common ground also that Afghanistan is one of the most unpleasant dictatorships in the world. The ruling Taliban have committed a large number of extrajudicial killings, including the massacre of 5,000 people who were mostly ethnic Hazara civilians, after the takeover of Mazar-i-Sharif. The human rights situation for women remains extremely poor. Violence against women is a problem throughout the country. Women and girls are subjected to rape, kidnapping and forced marriage, and Taliban restrictions against women and girls are widespread, institutionally sanctioned and systematic.

There are 2.6 million registered refugees from Afghanistan living outside the country, according to UNHCR, and in 1998--the last year for which we have figures available--1,600 decisions were made on asylum applications submitted by Afghans here and all but 65 of them were given either refugee status or exceptional leave to remain.

Bearing that in mind, what should we have done when the hijacked Afghan plane arrived at Stansted? The plane landed on 7th February; the crisis ended peacefully on 10th February, and the following day the Home Secretary said that he would determine personally any applications made for asylum by those on board. He then went on to say that, subject to all legal requirements, he would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable. It would seem inconceivable, he said, that persons on the flight could have intended to claim political asylum unless, of course, they had been complicit in the hijacking.

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Mr Straw is wrong to have decided what he would like to do to those people en masse when he was in the position of having to decide, in his judicial capacity as Secretary of State, whether each of the individual applicants had a good case under the UN Convention on Refugees. He was wrong to say that he would decide all the cases personally when he could not possibly have the time to read all the papers of 74 applicants and apply his mind properly to the question of whether or not they fitted the criteria of the convention. He was wrong to imply that if the passengers had no intention of seeking asylum when they took of from Kabul, their applications were flawed in some way. The circumstances of their arrival in the United Kingdom have no bearing, legally, on the determination of their cases.

At the same time, Mr Straw made arrangements which were designed to ensure that as many as possible of the passengers were induced to return by fair means or foul. What the IND normally does when it has an influx of people it considers should be detained is to grant temporary admission to an equivalent number of people detained in some other place. Presumably that is what happened in the end when the Afghans were transferred to Tinsley House from the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-the-Marsh. Presumably the purpose of having them in the Fire Service College was to prevent them having access to proper advice while the Immigration Service brought psychological pressure to bear on them to make sure that they wanted to go back to Afghanistan.

On the Sunday morning, 13th February, it was reported that only 17 of the 142 hostages wanted to return. By the time the plane left Brize Norton at 1 a.m. the following day, that number had increased to 72. On the Sunday, those traumatised people were held incommunicado in Gloucestershire. I made attempts to try to contact them via the Chief Immigration Officer at Stansted; but that only resulted in a call to me over my Sunday lunch from Ms Barbara Roche who assured me that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) would be there to look after the arrangements for those who requested voluntary repatriation. However, it was not the duty of the IOM to satisfy itself that the decisions had been well informed and made without coercion.

From the inquiries that I have been able to make of those who deal with Afghan refugees, it is not customary to detain them on arrival, except in very rare cases where nationality is at issue; for example, if an immigration officer has reason to suspect that the claimant is really Pakistani, he may refuse to grant temporary asylum (TA) while the person's origin is checked. But there was no objective reason in this case for the detention and those who wished to apply for asylum should have been given TA immediately.

What actually happened was described in a statement by Mr David Fazel, the only Afghan speaker who was called on to interpret at the Fire Service College. He arrived there on Saturday evening in time for a briefing that was given by Mr Bill Fleming of the IND, who explained that instructions had been given by the Home Secretary to make sure that the

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Afghans understood that they were not welcome here in Britain. They were to be told that whoever returned on the plane would be sure of a warm reception from the Taliban. However, if they did want to apply for asylum, they would not be staying in the comfort of the Hilton Hotel or even in the Fire Service College; they would be held under lock and key as prisoners in a detention centre for periods that might be upwards of a year; and at the end of that time they would almost certainly be sent back whether or not they liked it.

Mr Fleming said that the Home Secretary had told him that he would be a happy man if 50 of these people returned; if 75 went back, he would be very happy; and if 100 could be persuaded to do so, he would be over the moon. Perhaps he, Mr Fleming, might even be knighted, and all the staff involved in the exercise would receive generous bonuses, he said.

When the hijack victims arrived--

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