Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Is he aware that the system that we currently operate was introduced by his own government when in office? Has the noble Lord estimated how much it would cost the Government if we were to detain all asylum seekers and applicants, given that, according to the figures the noble Lord used, currently there are 100,000 cases outstanding?

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I accept the point that the noble Lord makes and that the initial cost would probably be a lot higher, but eventually it would reduce dramatically because we would not have

1 Mar 2000 : Column 584

104,000 unprocessed asylum seekers being paid for by the taxpayers. It would surely reduce the very large number of asylum seekers coming into this country.

Can the Minister say what records are being kept to monitor the movement of asylum seekers and those who fail to be granted asylum? Can he say whether the Government are actively removing from this country all bogus asylum seekers?

4.47 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, like other speakers, I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in opening up this important and topical subject for debate today. Current attention in the media tends to concentrate on two aspects of asylum policy: first, that Britain is regarded world-wide as a "soft touch", if the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will forgive me for using those words, and that our problems with asylum seekers are worse than those of other countries; secondly, that our main aim must therefore be to keep people out since letting them in adds to pressures on our social services with no compensating benefits.

I hope that this debate will have helped to put both these impressions into perspective. It is probably true that our long-established minority communities, our reputation as a haven for refugees, our generous benefits system, our appeals procedures, and the virtual absence of any after-entry controls, make Britain an attractive destination, although I am bound to say that some of the points made by noble Lords this afternoon, including those made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, make me wonder quite what is Britain's attractiveness for asylum seekers.

But let us put this into perspective. We need to compare our figures with the very much higher figures for Germany, even though I understand that we exceeded German numbers in December for the first time, and also the higher per capita numbers for the Netherlands and France. We also need to remember that 80 per cent of all refugees remain in the developing world. Other noble Lords may be as surprised as I was to learn that Iran has the largest refugee population in the world with more refugees than all 15 European Union countries put together.

Of course we should continue to take steps to keep out those whose claims for asylum are unfounded, and to prosecute those criminals who are duping and fleecing hundreds of illegal immigrants through clandestine networks. According to the International Organisation for Migration, those networks are probably responsible for attempts to smuggle up to 1 million people in a multinational business worth 8 billion dollars. Visa regimes, and the screening of passengers before embarkation, must no doubt continue to play a part in immigration control. But it is important that our national reputation for generosity to refugees and genuine asylum seekers, without which many of our forebears in this House--like, indeed, the maiden speaker, the noble Lord, Lord

1 Mar 2000 : Column 585

Joffe--would never have ended up as British citizens, is not eroded by necessary attempts to keep out the bogus and illegal.

Britain has a long and honourable tradition of providing asylum to people seeking refuge from persecution. As a leading member of the international community and upholder of its values, with a growing reputation for a multiracial, diverse and entrepreneurial society, it is vital that we maintain that tradition.

We should also bear in mind the fact that ageing populations in the European Union (and especially in Germany and Italy) mean that, despite the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, increasing numbers of workers from outside the European Union will be needed in the future. The United Nations Population Division has estimated that the European Union may need as many as 159 million immigrants by the year 2025 to balance our ageing populations. It is quite probable that many of those who are currently seeking asylum in this country could contribute their skills to economic growth and social stability. Should we not be looking for mechanisms to enable them to enter this country by legitimate means rather than via the asylum route?

Most importantly, we need to put this problem into the context of our wider European and foreign policies: our human rights obligations, including those under the 1951 Geneva Convention; and our international developmental policies towards those countries, of which Mozambique is a terrifying current example, which are staggering under the burdens of man-made and natural disasters. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Department for International Development takes into account the source of our main refugee flows--Somalia, the former Republic of Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka--in prioritising our aid policies. Reducing migration pressures must, after all, play a major part in eradicating poverty.

Finally, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that we are making the best use of European political co-operation and our diplomatic representation abroad, both bilaterally and multilaterally, in addressing these problems. It is clearly important that visa regimes should be efficiently and promptly administered. But visas do not only stop those not entitled to come here; they can also discourage the flow of genuine visitors and legitimate businessmen, with the consequent negative impact on trade and investment prospects.

Having myself had experience of some diplomatic posts in which the visa section comprised well over half our home-based staff, I know how important it is not to let migration control dominate our bilateral relations. That is perhaps especially true of our relations with European Union accession countries, which are probably the greatest current source of abusive asylum claims among non-visa nationals but which will be our full partners in the European Union within two or three years. Are we doing enough to explain to and co-ordinate our immigration policies

1 Mar 2000 : Column 586

with those governments from where the main flood of asylum seekers comes? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about the prospects for greater European co-operation and harmonisation in this field, following the decisions of the Tampere European Council last October, and for developing a global approach with our European partners for effective and humane immigration and asylum policies.

4.55 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, Latin is not often quoted in this House. However, two Latin words come to my mind: sum timida (I am as timid as a timid woman). Following learned speeches and the memorable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, I may wonder why I speak. However, I am a kind of religious acolyte of the noble Lord, Lord Elton: where he leads I am bound to follow.

The subject of the debate is one of the most difficult of the issues discussed in this House. The moral, legal and administrative issues are hopelessly intertwined. On the moral side, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is well qualified to give a lead. I attend every week the prayer group inspired by him; and, naturally, I therefore join the queue of people supporting the noble Lord's Motion.

I shall not deal with the problem about who should be let in. Other learned people have spoken on that. Starting from the standpoint of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I ask: is there a Christian approach to the question? In the Gospels we are told that Christ told us, "I was a stranger and you took me in". It would be hard to follow that literally in our home or in the state. Nevertheless, I am sure we are all happier in our conscience if we believe that in this ever more prosperous country--I am glad to think that it is now more prosperous than it has ever been--we have a large share of the attempt to help those who are persecuted abroad.

What is persecution? When I was at Eton--100 years ago, or thereabouts--I was told by a friend near the end of my time there that I was the most unpopular boy in the school. It may or may not have been true. I thought that he was. But I was not persecuted. I was captain of the house football team which won the school cup; and I was near the top of the sixth form. I doubt whether I would have gained admission to Winchester or Harrow as an asylum seeker.

A contemporary of mine was teased unmercifully, partly because he was very bad at cricket. We were a cricket-mad house. My housemaster was a famous cricketer. The late Gubby Allen was cricket captain, after whom the stand is now named at Lords. Plum Warner, another cricket captain, like Gubby Allen, and captain of England later, used to visit us the whole time because his son was in the house. My poor friend was very short-sighted and no good at cricket, so he was teased unmercifully. So he might well have said that he was persecuted. He went on to become Lord Chancellor and more distinguished than any of us. Undoubtedly, the limited persecution we afforded him

1 Mar 2000 : Column 587

may or may not have benefited him, but he was the object of persecution at school and made good in a big way later. As regards persecution, someone has to decide. I do not question the machinery, but the process takes a long time. I know the keenness of the Minister, the Government and everyone else to speed up the process.

I am not concerned to decide who is persecuted--I leave that to other better informed people--but I should like to know what happens to the people while they are waiting for a decision to be made. As one would expect, we are given advice from the Bishops, from the Minister and from many other people, but the Minister will tell us how the process can be speeded up.

In the meantime, people are waiting one or two years and what is done about them? My Church, the Roman Catholic Church, has expressed its anxiety under various headings and I have given the Minister notice of them. The first is poverty. What about the poverty of the people waiting throughout the interminable period while they are being examined? I am informed that their standard of living is only 70 per cent of what is regarded to be the minimum in this country. Is that Christian?

The second is the voucher system. It is not clear who invented it and we claim that the Conservatives did. Whoever invented the system, it has few friends among those who care for the unfortunate asylum seekers. A number of experts will speak on the voucher system and all that goes with it.

The third heading is dispersal. Will the people scattered throughout the country be well looked after? The Minister may tell us that they will be, but it seems doubtful. Will they receive legal advice if they are scattered all over the place? Those and many other problems are associated with asylum seekers. Will resources be made available to the areas which take many of the people?

I have given the Minister notice of those questions and I felt it right to raise them. They are in the minds of so many people. I know that the Minister is a serious and compassionate man and that he will give careful answers. He may run out of time and be unable to deal with my questions in detail, but I know he will deal with the debate in a thorough fashion.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Carr of Hadley: My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Elton for bringing forward the Motion. I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on an outstandingly and deeply experienced maiden speech. It is more than the usual form of words to say that we hope to hear from him often in the future.

I particularly welcome the wording of my noble friend's Motion; the inclusion of the words "effective and humane". They are essential to a consideration of the subject. We have a long and proud tradition of accepting people from other countries who are in trouble and distress. Not only can we be proud of that on humanitarian grounds, but it has benefited us economically and socially. When I was Home Secretary many years ago, I had the privilege--I will

1 Mar 2000 : Column 588

say "privilege"--of having to cope with the Ugandan Asians. They have certainly proved the economic benefit which people from abroad can bring to this country. Even now, 20-odd years later, I receive letters and Christmas cards from Ugandan Asians in various parts of the country telling me of the economic success they are enjoying and the economic benefit they are bringing to those among whom they live.

However, modern conditions have made the acceptance of this duty and privilege much more difficult to bear. I am glad that among our contributors today is the noble Lord, Lord Wright, who, with his Foreign Office experience and knowledge, greatly stressed the need for action within the foreign policy field. We must get out there and try to deal with some of the problems which give rise to the flood of people coming to this country. No magic will take it away, but it ought to be an important part of our policy to bring to bear all the pressure, help and persuasion we can to those in other countries whose actions--or lack of them--affect the pressure of the onward flow to this country.

Today, I want to stress the fundamental importance of the quick decision. We must get rid of the huge backlog. It is not a subject we can bandy about with party political credits or debits. Governments of both parties have tried and failed. When I was Home Secretary 25 years ago, I did not believe that all the mistakes had been made by my predecessors or now by my successors. It is a hideously difficult problem. However, we must get rid of the backlog because a long waiting list encourages a longer one. People can see that once they arrive here they have a chance of refuge for a few years before being sent away. That must be an incentive if you are in a hopeless condition in an unfriendly country.

We must think about the problem anew. Perhaps I am about to say something which can be criticised on moral as well as practical grounds, but I believe that we need to draw a line under the existing queue and start again with a new queue when the new operation begins on 1st April. We should say that from that date a quick decision will be made on everyone--within two or three months at the most--because, if we continue to add to the existing queue, we shall increase the belief that people can come and stay. That is not only depressing to those who come and provides bad opportunities to the least conscientious of them, it is also a depressing factor for our own population.

I do not mean that having drawn a line under the queue they should be forgotten about. I am saying in broad and un-thought-out terms that one team of people should work on the old queue and another should work on the new one. Then at least from April onwards everyone coming here will be decided about quickly and not added to the bottom of an over-long queue. I realise that one can find moral and practical difficulties in the suggestion, but they need to be overcome. I have thought about the problem a good deal over the years and I see no hope in adding people to the queue and then trying to reduce it.

1 Mar 2000 : Column 589

Furthermore, I am convinced that more resources are needed. We shall not get quick decisions until we have allocated more resources. More resources in the short run are the only way of saving money in the longer run. Before and after my ministerial career I have been a businessman and that suggestion comes easier to me than to Ministers and politicians and even easier than it comes to the Treasury. I have believed for a long time that the amount of money we waste by taking short-term rather than long-term financial views is beyond calculation.

I believe that all of us, on all sides of the House, should be prepared to bring pressure to bear on the Government and to support them in providing a large temporary influx of resources in terms of people, and therefore money, to tackle the problem of those waiting. I am sure that until quick decision-making is in place we shall not get rid of the worst problems of the present situation.

That brings me to the present policy of the Government, which I approve in principle, of dispersing those who are waiting for a decision. Yes, I agree with that policy, but I believe that dispersal should take place only after a decision has been made. I do not believe that dispersing asylum seekers prior to a decision will be helpful. I believe that it will spread discontent and exacerbate the difficulties of dealing with the queue. People will have to travel to an interview when it is time for them to be seen. I believe that dispersal before a decision is made is very dangerous. Once a decision has been made, then dispersal should of course take place. If people are allowed to stay, their dispersal should be guided as far as possible to areas where others from their own country have already settled. That means--again, I return to resources--that the local authorities of the areas to which the asylum seekers are going must be given adequate financial help.

I know that local authorities have always complained to governments that they do not receive adequate financial help. I believe that that is probably true. One should consider the feelings of the local population. They will not tolerate resources allocated to local authorities for their benefit--that is, for their homes and for schools for their children--being diverted to newcomers. Therefore, when dispersal takes place, the local authorities must be given adequate resources to meet the extra expenditure which the Government imposes upon them.

This debate could continue for a long time in a number of areas. I want to make one small point which has been brought to my attention by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I came into contact with that organisation many years ago. It does the most magnificent work for the people whom it helps. It is somewhat concerned about the possible effect of strengthening the number of local representatives who try to stop people from coming to this country. While it understands the need for that, it also sees a great danger: if in the areas from which they are trying to escape it is known that people are being interviewed, that draws the attention of the authorities

1 Mar 2000 : Column 590

in those countries to the very people who are most at risk of persecution. The organisation is not saying that that has occurred but, in strengthening the local questioning of people, it asks the Government to take particular care to do so in a way that does not draw those people to the attention of the authorities from whom they are trying to escape.

I hope that we shall find that this is a matter on which all parties can unite, above all in providing adequate resources to tackle the problem. I end as I began: only when we carry out a big attack through adequate resources in the short run shall we have any hope of solving the problem in the long run.

5.13 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for calling this timely debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Joffe on his eloquent speech. Following on from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Carr, it will be extremely useful to have an expert on queues to keep pushing on this issue.

Listening to the debate this afternoon, I was struck by the thought that much of the problem is one of perception. I once lived by a housing estate in south London off the Old Kent Road. It was one of the largest housing estates in Europe. When I consider this matter, I try to understand how someone living in that area would perceive the problem: someone who is insecure about housing and employment and who may never have been beyond these shores. Of course, to someone such as that, strangers who speak a tongue which they do not understand, who have a culture which they do not know and who have a different religion, could be seen as threatening.

However, again, as my noble friend Lord Joffe said, we could see those incomers as a wonderful resource for the future, perhaps meeting our future employment needs. Therefore, the issue is quite largely one of perception. I believe that it is very much a job for the Government to do all that they can to persuade people and to give reassurance. For example, I believe that people should be more aware of the appalling experiences that genuine asylum seekers have undergone in their own countries. I am sure that many more people would be prepared to do without a little of what they have--for example, to pay an extra few pounds on their council tax--if they felt more sympathy for those entering the country.

In many different ways, I believe that it is necessary to tackle this problem by engaging the resident population. Earlier, we spoke of the need for English tuition in schools and the desperate shortage particularly of one-on-one tuition for young people who cannot speak any English. Surely there is a way to harness the local population in that type of work. It would save money and would provide a way of integrating local people and newcomers. I know that the Government recently published an integration document. I am sure that they have taken this matter seriously. However, I believe that the matter needs to be very strongly pushed.

1 Mar 2000 : Column 591

Why is it particularly important to adopt humane policies towards unaccompanied children and young people who seek asylum? Last year I talked to an 18 year-old woman from West Africa. She was living in the Centrepoint hostel in Soho for young homeless people. We had talked for some while. I asked her what her home country was like. That led to her describing to me what had become of her sister. Walking in the street, her sister had been stopped by a gang of soldiers. A game of chance followed. Either she would lose her hand (a "handy"), her arm (an "army") or she would lose her life. The sister was murdered. As she told me this story, the young woman wept.

A young Somali man of about 18 years of age--an upright young man who had been sleeping on the streets of King's Cross for two months--told me that his parents had been killed. He should not have been on the streets; he should have been met at the port of entry. I did not manage to find out from him why he fell through the system, but it was quite clear from his state of exhaustion that he had been on the streets for two months. His parents had been killed. As for his brothers, he had no idea where they were but he feared the worst for them. He had been so long without sleep and was under such stress that he found it hard to concentrate. Intelligent as he clearly was, his mind would begin to wander after a minute or so.

Normally, the hostel's maximum length of stay is three weeks. There is a curfew and residents are obliged to leave the hostel between 9 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. during the day. Residents are not allowed to spend more than half an hour in their rooms before lights out. The two public areas are noisy and cramped. Yet, asylum seekers are staying there for three months or more. There is a severe lack of available accommodation into which young homeless people may be moved, and that most especially affects young asylum seekers.

I believe that we should treat humanely all young people who seek asylum from persecution. We need to treat all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people with care because they are a long way from home and are very vulnerable.

For the protection of the young seeking refuge, it is most important to have effective asylum policies. It is extremely difficult for a child or young person to cope away from his family and in an alien country. I have seen young men from Africa and the Balkans degenerate as they attempt to grow up without parents. Parents sometimes send their children to the United Kingdom because they know of the economic opportunities here. I know that it is a difficult matter but I believe that they should be discouraged from doing so.

The first priority must be to give those children and young people the support that they need when they are here. But the second priority must be to go to their home countries, as my noble friend Lord Wright and the noble Lord, Lord Carr, have said. We must be proactive and inform parents of the difficulties that their children will face, growing up without parents in England. They may end up in children's homes. Sadly, we know how inadequate those homes can be. Oxfam

1 Mar 2000 : Column 592

and Save the Children are already making efforts in that direction but I am sure that they need more support than they are receiving at present.

The Refugee Council urges that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people should have fast-track assessments. Given what has been said already this afternoon, that may seem rather too much to ask. But, if it is safe for a child to return home, it is best that that is done at an early stage. That is less disruptive for the child. After some time--and again, this has already been mentioned--it becomes extremely difficult to tear the child away from the new environment into which he has settled. Will the Minister tell the House whether there will be a fast-track assessment for unaccompanied children and young people? Does he agree that family reunion here and in the home country are both extremely important goals?

So policies towards asylum seekers need to be effective for the sake of asylum seekers. They also need to be effective to protect the under-privileged of our own society and to prevent ethnic hatred. At lunch today, I was speaking to my secretary, who has a house in Kent. She is concerned about whether her local authority must meet the costs in connection with asylum seekers. She wanted to know whether she, in Kent, would have to take responsibility for asylum seekers arriving in this country rather than the burden being shared with the rest of the taxpayers in Britain. Already, I sensed a feeling of resentment and memories of a friend whose jewellery was stolen by some immigrants. That spiral of resentment, fear and hatred may be extremely quick to establish itself.

I hope that the Government will take every possible measure to reassure those living in the inner cities that they are not threatened by the incomers. They should do everything they can to unite and knit together our society. I should hate to see us in a situation similar to that which exists in the United States. That country may have a more open-door policy which may work economically but very often the social fabric of society there seems to have collapsed.

5.23 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing this debate today. He and I share many common interests and, therefore, I am delighted to contribute on the subject which he has chosen on this particular occasion.

I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his maiden speech. He brings great credit to this House in citing his own personal example on this very important subject. We are grateful to him. I hope that we shall hear from him on many other occasions.

The core of the argument today, as identified by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and advanced by many noble Lords, is that policy towards asylum seekers should be effective and humane. That is the test of our civilised values, and nothing should detract us from those basic principles.

1 Mar 2000 : Column 593

Immigration and asylum matters are fairly emotive. Despite the nature and effects of the immigration and asylum legislation, the circumstances surrounding it remain contentious. The purpose of the Immigration Act is not in dispute: it is to admit those who are eligible and to exclude or, subject to the appropriate humanitarian principles, to remove those who are not.

I have said before--but I repeat--that in any administrative system, questions arise about priorities. The administration of asylum procedures is no exception. In this instance, the need to exclude the ineligible--in this case, mainly the economic migrants--means that checks must be made to determine who is and who is not eligible.

The Government should have realised that the greater the emphasis on excluding the ineligible, the more intensive those checks must be. We seem to forget that the more intensive the checks, the more complicated they are to administer and thus there is more delay for those who are eligible. But if the objective of excluding those who are ineligible is taken to extremes in matters which are not susceptible to documentary proof, the risk of excluding those who are genuine becomes very serious indeed.

The matter is not helped by hostile press coverage in the past few weeks. It reminded me of similar coverage when the Conservative government, led by Ted Heath, Robert Carr, David Lane, Iain Macleod and others, agreed to admit 28,000 Ugandan Asians to this country. I pay tribute to, and am delighted to see, the noble Lord, Lord Carr. He mentioned that particular incident. That was a brave political decision by a party which enshrined humanitarian principles in its core values. That was leadership at its best. As the noble Lord, Lord Carr, quite rightly pointed out, the East African Asians have repaid that trust by contributing economically to the prosperity of their new homeland. Therein may lie the answer to many of the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick.

Asylum matters require sensitive handling and the debate should be focused on our moral and legal obligations towards the innocent victims of human rights violations. That does not mean an open-door policy. Nobody advocates that; but as Amnesty International says, we should be less preoccupied as to which government have been most effective in adopting robust policies to deter people seeking refuge here. The Government have a duty to lead. We are waiting for that particular leadership.

We can all start brandishing figures about the number of asylum seekers entering this country. We heard some of those figures today. I shall resist that temptation, but we cannot escape the fact that in recent days we have seen large-scale abuses of human rights in Europe. It is still a fact that in terms of asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants, the United Kingdom ranks ninth in Europe. Even more important is the fact that in 1999, over half--54 per cent--of asylum decisions resulted in positive outcomes.

1 Mar 2000 : Column 594

I am concerned that in recent days articles have been published specifically whipping up antagonism against unaccompanied asylum-seeker children. Representatives of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which the noble Lord, Lord Carr, mentioned, tells me that none of the children with whom they are working came here of their own volition. All were brought or sent. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark quite rightly described how they came to be in this country.

Children and adolescents faced with traumatic events and situations cannot work through the stages of development in the normal manner. They become overwhelmed by their experiences of torture and atrocity in their own country and by their experiences here. Children who are overwhelmed cannot develop until the consequences have been worked through. The situation is exacerbated by the discontinuity of exile, depriving children of the community, carer and cultural backdrop against which they can develop and make the transition from childhood to adulthood. The uncertainty over whether they will be allowed to stay here may in itself result in arrested development.

The Medical Foundation has long sought to encourage the use of powers under the Children Act to provide extra support to asylum-seeking children up to the age of 21. Yet, in the Daily Mail on 23rd February, members of the Immigration Service union suggested that because of cases involving age dispute, a new category of asylum-seeking children over 15 should be created. That is symptomatic of an approach which loses all sight of those whom the system exists to protect and which penalises the person in need of protection for the perceived sins of others.

Recent debates in the House of Commons, notably on 2nd February, have done little or nothing to counter such hostility and in many cases have sought to fan it. That increases social tension, social exclusion, and the isolation and marginalisation of asylum seekers. It also increases harassment, including violent attacks. The House of Lords resolutely refused to go down this route in the debates on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and trusts that the Minister would condemn any hostility which results in violence to those who came here to escape the same.

We need fair and effective procedures. Following the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, a number of voluntary organisations got together to produce the report entitled Providing Protection. That report emphasised the need to focus attention and resources on making sustainable initial decisions the cornerstone of an asylum policy that would be both effective and humane. It made clear the need to "front load" the system.

The principle of "front loading" has yet to be taken on board. One example cited by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is the new detention centre in Oakington in Cambridge, due to open in late March. Cases are to be selected for Oakington on the basis that they are manifestly unfounded, but there will be no substantive asylum interview until the person is already detained in that centre.

1 Mar 2000 : Column 595

How can a case be identified as manifestly ill founded before it has been investigated? The question arises in the context of Oakington as to what will be known about the applicants save their nationality and method of entry. Among clients referred to the Medical Foundation this month are nationals from Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Russia, Northern Cyprus, Bulgaria, Togo, Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Burundi, Eritrea and Algeria. Torture crosses many national boundaries. A cursory look at the country from which a person came cannot tell us what torture or atrocity he or she has suffered.

In the White Paper entitled Fairer, Faster, Firmer, the Government stated that evidence of a history of torture should weigh strongly in favour of temporary admission or temporary release while a claim is being considered, yet there is no evidence of that being applied in the case of detention. That has never been checked. We need to find out whether such factors are taken into account before detention is authorised.

Similarly, the Government stated that the detention of families and children is particularly regrettable but that it is sometimes necessary to effect the removal of those who have no authority to remain in the UK. Nobody disputes that. However, is it not right that such detention should be effected as close to removal as possible?

I ask that we do not get excited about the numbers game; that is not the issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Carr, rightly pointed out, the issue is for us to deal as efficiently and humanely as possible with the numbers of people on the waiting list. I believe that a time will come when those in genuine fear of persecution and those who have been tortured will rightly be allowed to stay in this country. They will make a positive contribution here, as have many other people in the history of this country. I hope that will be the case in this instance.

5.34 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for securing the debate and for the measured way in which he launched it. Asylum and, indeed, all immigration, is a subject which can be full of emotion in both directions. My noble friend got us off to an excellent start. I am sure, too, that all noble Lords appreciated the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. He joins us with a fine reputation. Having heard his moving maiden speech, we shall all look forward to his future contributions.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked that we do not get stuck in the numbers game. As an accountant, I am afraid I often get stuck in the numbers game, as many noble Lords will appreciate. It is necessary to look at the numbers in order to understand the position. The starting point for the debate, and many of the contributions, has been the number of asylum seekers and the number of decisions made.

This has not been a political debate and I do not wish to make it so. However, in the past the Minister suggested that in 1997 the Government inherited a

1 Mar 2000 : Column 596

deteriorating situation. That was not the case. In the last year of the Conservative government, there were 28,000 applications, 39,000 decisions and a declining backlog of under 50,000. That compares with double the backlog, fewer decisions and many more applications in 1999.

Applications increased in the United Kingdom by more than in comparable countries over the period since 1997. In some respects, that reflects the terrible situation in certain other countries which cause people to be driven out. However, it also reflects the impression given by the new Government, who opposed all the tough measures of their predecessors. Leaving that on one side, as a result of the Act passed last year after long debates in which many noble Lords took part, we are in the middle of a complicated transitional period.

Several points have arisen with regard to the short-term position. In 1999 the Government started a backlog clearing exercise, somewhat along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and referred to by my noble friend Lord Carr. In that year I understand that 12,500 cases were decided under that exercise. At that rate of decision-making, the backlog of 100,000 would have taken eight years to clear, but matters have speeded up since then. Of those 12,500 "backlog exercise decisions" 90 per cent were admitted, a far higher percentage than for "normal decisions". I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us the latest figures under the backlog clearing exercise.

There is also the wider question of how many applications are now being processed in total. The latest figures suggest approximately 4,000 per month. However, we are promised that that figure will soon reach 8,000 per month. That is a large increase, although the backlog is still likely to increase this year.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a measure of the scale of the issue. Next year, if decisions run at the promised rate of 8,000 per month, which is twice the present rate, and applications remain at the December level of 7,000, we shall clear the backlog at the rate of around 1,000 per month. That would also take eight years. It is a matter of fact that 8,000 decisions is an optimistic figure; on the other hand, 7,000 applications a month may prove to be a pessimistic figure and I hope we may do better than that. The figures indicate that it is essential that, whatever else happens, the rate of dealing with applications--including the one-stop appeal introduced under the 1999 Act--should be seriously speeded up.

I should like the Minister to tell us also what the target now is for getting rid of the backlog. The Permanent Secretary to the Home Office told the Public Accounts Committee in October that the whole backlog would be cleared by October 2000. In a Written Answer in another place yesterday it was said that it was hoped to reduce the backlog of asylum decisions to "frictional levels" by April 2001. I am not sure what "frictional levels" are. It may be a misprint for "fractional" though that does not make sense

1 Mar 2000 : Column 597

either. I hope it means levels below which there is no friction, though that is not what it says. The Minister seemed to be saying that they hoped to reach their target by April 2001. That is not what the Permanent Secretary said and I shall be grateful for the Minister's views on the matter.

There is then the vexed question of what happens to those whose asylum applications are refused. My noble friend Lord Elton drew attention to this at the beginning of our debate and the problems of removal, so I do not need to spell it out. But I hope the Minister will give us a clear idea of how many people disappear from view, either by taking themselves overseas or into the population. All the other figures are known so the difference should be those who disappear from view. I accept, as a result of exchanges we had the other day, that it is not the full 13,000, which is the difference between those refused and those applying (because of appeals and so forth); but how many is it?

We made provision in one of the clauses of the 1999 Act to permit removal action to be started before an appeal had finally failed. Can we assume that removal action will now be automatically started on the day refusal is decided or an appeal fails?

There have been many references this afternoon to the new support system. We were originally told that it would start on 1st April. It will, but only for relatively few people within the system. I am not surprised at that. It is difficult to get it off the ground and it was always an extremely ambitious target, as we pointed out at the time. However, we need to be clear what the position is, as do the local authorities who have to manage much of it, and there are only 30 days left before it begins.

Five categories are involved in the new system. Those who claimed asylum at a port before 1st April will receive social security benefits until a decision is taken to refuse them. If they appeal they go into the second category and join those who claimed asylum in country before 1st April. They will continue on the present local authority interim arrangements, being given either cash or vouchers, depending on what the local authority thinks best, paid for in theory by the Home Office. I say "in theory" because local authorities complain that the Home Office is not sufficiently reimbursing them. Those who apply after 1st April who are families will be on the new Home Office voucher and accommodation scheme. The right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary said in earlier debates that it would be worth the same as social security. But for a couple with two children it will apparently be worth £110 a week and not the £150 which a normal family of the same size would receive through social security.

Those without children who apply after 1st April will also be on the new Home Office voucher and accommodation system, but it will be worth less. Finally, there are the unaccompanied young people aged under 18. They were mentioned by several noble Lords and they have been left out of the new dispersal arrangements. I am told that there are 850 in Kent alone at the moment and that the numbers are rising.

1 Mar 2000 : Column 598

As has been said, their position needs urgent consideration. Families are now being fast-tracked. We all appreciate the humanitarian reasons for that, but the unaccompanied minors are a more deserving case for fast decision-making.

Another concern that has arisen is health. There is serious concern that there is a shortage of TB vaccine and TB screening facilities. The rates of TB in Hillingdon and London are rising. Health workers are at risk and the schools programme in this respect has had to be suspended. That is extremely worrying.

All those matters are in the course of change as the new Act comes into force. It makes it difficult to see where we are. We are looking at moving pictures picked out of a film rather than at stationary pictures.

I recognise the problems the Government face in dealing with the situation. Underlying it all are the problems which give rise to refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees lists 21 million refugees worldwide who are of concern to them. Some of them, and their ancestors, have been on their books for 50 years, notably the Palestinian refugees. Of course we need to put both thought and resources into trying to reduce the causes of migration movement. But in all parts of the House we want our country's behaviour towards asylum seekers to be both "effective and humane". Sadly, the debate tended to demonstrate that we do not live up to either aspiration at the moment.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this has been a very good and in large measure well-informed debate. It does great credit to your Lordships' House.

There have been many contributions--some 20 speakers in all. I particularly enjoyed the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, in his maiden speech. It was persuasive, perceptive, understanding, born of considerable personal experience and made with great dignity. I also greatly enjoyed the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. Again it was persuasive and contained some important insights, not least those which focused on the work which needs to be done in many of the countries. The work that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does in that regard will greatly help us in tackling some of the problems that visit our shores.

I also greatly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Carr. It was well tempered and well measured, again born of valuable inside experience. He made telling points, particularly in relation to waiting lists, queues and the way in which we need to put together our resources and focus them where they are best used. His experience of dealing with the Ugandan crisis stands us in good stead today. It shows a very humane approach, in my view.

There is a tendency for debate on asylum policies to focus on immediate problems or pressures; that is inevitable. Today's debate has provided us with the valuable opportunity to stand back and consider the broader principles on which effective and humane asylum policies should be based. We owe a great debt

1 Mar 2000 : Column 599

to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for providing us with the opportunity of focusing on "effective and humane" policies. He has the twin pillars of the argument in place in the subject in front of us.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was right to say that, in this policy field above all others, we need to demonstrate and show leadership. That is exactly what the Government intend to do; have intended to do; and have been trying to achieve since we took office. Many speakers made most important points. I have a stack of questions here that I shall try to address, either during the course of my commentary or towards the end of my remarks. However, if I do not cover all the points raised, I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate why. Without overburdening the correspondence section of my office, I shall try to respond more precisely to those questions that need a very precise response.

As many noble Lords observed, the policies that we operate as a government and the decisions that we take in individual cases may, quite literally, be the difference between life and death. Equally, there can be no doubt that a substantial number of asylum applicants do not qualify for asylum. In some cases, they cynically exploit the asylum process to evade normal immigration control. Our policies must recognise and deal effectively with those twin tensions. We must ensure that we are able to protect genuine refugees while deterring and dealing firmly with those who do not qualify for asylum. Those who seek to abuse the system do great damage to the interests of the genuine refugee. That point was tellingly made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. We must face that problem and deal with it.

It was for those reasons that, shortly after coming into office, we undertook a fundamental review of immigration and asylum policies--a plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, in some of his comments. The results of that review were set out carefully in a White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer--A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum, which was published in July 1998. We thought that comprehensive and radical reform was needed to tackle the deep-rooted problems that we inherited. Piecemeal change over the years produced a complex and, in our view, slow system. As a result of some ill-considered legislation, the arrangements for supporting destitute asylum seekers were--I have used this word before--a shambles. It was clear to us that fundamental reform was needed to deliver a system that is both effective and humane.

Fundamental to the strategy set out in the White Paper was the Government's determination to fulfil our obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. As has been said many times this afternoon, we have a proud tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution. We are determined to uphold that tradition. Having accepted refugees, we must do more to help them integrate effectively into our community. For that reason, we are developing clearer strategies to assist such integration--a lesson that I believe we learned from governments in the past, not least the Conservative administration of the early 1970s. We

1 Mar 2000 : Column 600

issued a consultation paper on refugee integration last year to which responses were received in mid-December. We are now studying them to see how best to proceed.

We should not overlook or forget a point made--and, indeed, emphasised by his mere presence here--by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, regarding the enormous contribution that refugees have made to the economic, political and cultural life of our country over many years. They enrich our society and we in turn have a duty to help those accepted as refugees to adapt quickly to a new way of life.

One of the most effective ways of helping the genuine refugee and dealing effectively with those who do not qualify is, in our view, by speeding up the process. The Government do not underestimate the enormous challenge that this presents. Last year a record number of people-- 71,000--claimed asylum in the United Kingdom. We were not alone in facing increased pressures. The war in Kosovo and upheavals in other countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka have increased the asylum pressures on many of our European partners. The latest figures for 1999 show that Finland saw an increase of 123 per cent, Ireland an increase of 67 per cent, Belgium an increase of 63 per cent, Austria an increase of 46 per cent and France an increase of 38 per cent. Last year, our figures increased by 55 per cent. Only in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden was the trend in the opposite direction. Over recent years, Germany has recruited additional asylum decision-makers and streamlined its legislation. Those are key elements of our own strategy.

In the White Paper we set targets of two months for initial decisions and four months to deal with appeals by April 2001. Sadly, plans were made under the previous government to reduce staff numbers in IND by 1,200 posts overall, in anticipation of efficiencies from a computerised casework system. As a result of those plans, staff numbers fell and valuable caseworking expertise was lost. The noble Lord, Lord Carr, made the point that we need to invest to save. That is exactly what our strategy is designed to do. We began a substantial recruitment programme last year to increase staff numbers. We are also investing an additional £120 million over the next three years to speed up the system; indeed, I believe that such a plea was made by many speakers, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Joffe.

I can tell noble Lords that 250 additional asylum decision-makers have already been recruited and more are planned. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, asylum decision output has already increased as a consequence. In January of this year about 4,000 asylum decisions were made. We are aiming to make 8,000 a month by late spring. At current intake levels, decision-making output will then exceed the number of applications and the backlog will begin to fall.

There is of course a great deal of work needed to deliver our targets for speeding up the system. But we are determined to deliver them. In the case of families with children, we have already introduced faster

1 Mar 2000 : Column 601

procedures for new applications from November of last year. As a result, most of those decisions were taken within two months.

Our reform of the casework process is complemented by a reform of the legal framework. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 represents the most radical reform of the system for decades. As the House will recall, it completed its passage through Parliament last November. Some of the Act's provisions have already been implemented, but the major changes are still to come.

I believe there is common agreement that the current asylum support arrangements are, at best, chaotic. They were the product of some ill-considered legislation and administrative arrangements. They have imposed an unplanned and intolerable burden on local authorities, especially those in London and the South East. Indeed, one could fairly say that Kent has perhaps borne the worst of the burden. Such arrangements have left many asylum seekers in hardship, having to seek assistance for which the statutory basis was unclear. Port applicants were entitled to normal social security benefits until a first decision was taken. All in-country applicants, and all port applicants after a first decision, were left with no support until the courts intervened.

The new scheme will create a coherent, national system of support. It will mean that all destitute asylum seekers will be able to obtain support if they are in genuine need. But the availability of cash payments is, in our view, an incentive to those who seek to abuse the system: they are, effectively, economic migrants. That is why, under the new scheme, support will be provided mainly in kind, with the minimal use of cash payments. Accommodation will be provided on a "no-choice" basis in cluster areas across the country. It will be to a reasonable standard and regard will be paid to the cultural and other needs of the asylum seeker and the availability of support from existing communities and voluntary groups.

The new arrangements are not harsh or unfair. Those in genuine need will be provided with a decent level of support. There will be a cash element but accommodation and other essential living needs will be provided directly. That is not unreasonable; nor is it unreasonable to ease the burden on London and the South East by dispersing asylum seekers to other parts of the country. A number of noble Lords drew attention to the problems faced by local authorities. We are very mindful of such problems and of keeping them very carefully under review. We believe that it should not matter to the genuine refugee precisely where or how support is provided. It is more important that it is provided and that it should be to a good standard.

The Act will deliver other important changes to make the asylum system fairer, faster and firmer. It provides for a single comprehensive right of appeal to enable all the circumstances of a case to be considered at one go and so reduce the scope for exploiting the multiple avenues of appeal that currently exist. We are aiming to introduce those provisions in October of this

1 Mar 2000 : Column 602

year, when the Human Rights Act will also come into force and provide additional protection. I thought that my noble friend Lord Judd made a good case for a sound appeal system. That is what we believe we are putting in place. It will regulate immigration advisers to eradicate the unscrupulous who exploit and cheat vulnerable applicants.

An Immigration Services commissioner will be appointed and will have responsibility for administering the regulatory scheme. Only those who are registered with that commissioner, who are authorised to practise by a designated professional body or who are otherwise exempt, will be permitted to provide immigration advice or services. It will be a criminal offence to provide such advice or services in breach of the scheme. Our aim is to have the regulatory body established and ready to receive applications by 2nd October of this year, with a view to the full scheme being operational from April 2001.

The Act will also strengthen our powers to deal firmly with those who abuse the asylum system to evade immigration control. There are stronger powers for the Immigration Service to target the growing number of traffickers and facilitators who profit from the traffic in clandestine and illegal immigration. The number of clandestine entrants detected is now running at something like 2,000 a month. We cannot allow that to continue. The new civil penalty--I know that this is opposed by some Members of your Lordships' House--for bringing clandestines to this country will encourage drivers and operators to improve security and conduct proper checks of their vehicles to prevent illegal entry.

A number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Joffe, Lord Judd and Lord Avebury, have raised concerns about the detention of asylum seekers. Clearly it would be wrong routinely to detain those who seek asylum, and we do not wish to do so. However, in cases where a person has claimed asylum, it would be wrong to bar the use of detention where this was otherwise appropriate. In any one year we detain somewhere in the region of 900. That suggests that we are trying to strike a balance.

We have given commitments to increase the number of failed asylum seekers who are removed. That issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and other noble Lords, including in particular the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page