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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, during the course of next week, yes.

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3.20 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How far the aim stated in their Annual Report that "the United Kingdom will continue to offer refuge to those in genuine fear of political persecution in their own country" is compatible with the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, it is entirely compatible. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 will help to create a fairer, faster and firmer asylum system under which we can more quickly provide protection to genuine refugees and deal firmly with unfounded asylum claims.

Earl Russell: My Lords, may I offer to the Government's commitment in their Annual Report a welcome equal to the Government's equal success in delivering it? But about half an hour after the Question was tabled, in paragraph 10.11 of the Spending Review 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated,

    "while the number of those with unfounded claims who are removed from the UK will rise to at least 30,000 per year".

How did the Chancellor of the Exchequer know that those claims would be discovered to be unfounded when they have not yet been heard?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there is a coherent and cogent explanation. I am more than prepared to try to give this coherent and cogent explanation. The Home Secretary's explanation is based clearly on an extrapolation of figures in terms of unfounded applicants and the basis on which they apply over an increasing number of decisions that will be made in the next 12 months.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, since many thousands of citizens of member states of the Council of Europe have sought asylum in this country yet come from countries which have fully subscribed to the European Convention on Human Rights, may I ask whether the Government advise such individuals of their rights in their own country and if they have drawn the attention of their governments to their attempts to secure asylum here?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we do fully meet our international obligations. We do publicise actively our role and participation under those obligations. It is in all our interests that we make plain that we are a civilised and humane nation that treats people fairly when they make a reasonable application for asylum.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the Minister will recall that several weeks ago the Prime Minister, to his great credit, distinguished between illegal asylum seekers and those whom we should respect, and said that the country should continue to

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uphold the long tradition of asylum in this country. However, this month the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated,

    "the protection that is owed to refugees under the 1951 Convention may be 'rendered meaningless' if refugees are unable to reach, and then claim asylum in, States party to the Convention".

Can the Minister tell us how a legitimate asylum seeker, perhaps one who has been tortured for upholding of the principles of democracy, can actually reach this country today?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I well understand the noble Baroness's point. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary Jack Straw made the comments that he did in his important Lisbon speech. I would simply say to the noble Baroness that that speech is worth studying. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is right to pursue a line of debate which opens up ways for legitimate claims that asylum seekers make on those countries which offer protection.

Lord Renton: My Lords, are the Government aware that they are fully entitled to draw attention to the considerable number of bogus asylum seekers? Have the Government taken on board the fact, which has been published a great deal in the press, that there are corrupt agencies which are being paid for getting asylum seekers here in a clandestine way?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government have a good record in dealing with unfounded asylum claims. We are extremely concerned. I have made it plain from our side of the House that we are extremely concerned at the activities of those who seek to bring people here in the backs of lorries and trucks and so on. Indeed, the tragic events in Dover a few weeks ago underline the need for our continued vigilance and commitment to ensuring that that kind of criminal activity in profiteering does not take place.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that for many in this country the figure in which we take pride is the number of genuine asylum seekers for whom we have provided secure refuge and not the number of "bogus asylum seekers" we send home? Does my noble friend further agree that it is how we treat those who have been through hell in their own country that matters too, and that there are grounds for concern that the voucher scheme is not working as it should, both by stigmatising asylum seekers and by being too inflexible, by not providing change in supermarkets and so on? Does he agree that this needs to be looked at again?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we treat in a very civilised way those who make a proper and well-founded application. The number granted asylum status in this country is about 20 per cent of all applications. A further 20 per cent are given exceptional leave to remain. Those who are received by the national asylum support scheme are treated well

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and humanely and given adequate resources on which to live. That system is now working well and the numbers are very encouraging. The feedback we are getting suggests that it is highly effective.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, in that context would the Minister like to comment on the success or otherwise of the policy of dispersal of asylum seekers away from London and the South East? Does he agree that there is a growing body of evidence that legal advice is simply unavailable to refugees? Some solicitors firms are closing down in the North West or are turning away cases because they are simply unable to look after refugees.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I know that some concern has been expressed. Clearly where there are individual cases and those individual cases are brought to the attention of the Home Office we will investigate them. I am confident that there is a more than adequate system of legal aid, advice and support for people seeking and making asylum applications in the United Kingdom. If the noble Earl has specific cases he wishes to draw to our attention, I shall be more than happy to receive those cases and forward them on as appropriate.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, is the statement in the annual report, to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, drew attention, regarded as consistent with having a list of countries regarded as "safe", from which, or through which, no asylum is necessary, such as our EU allies?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the statement in compatible. We are working extremely closely with our EU colleagues to achieve a humane asylum system across Europe. That is right. It is clearly also right that we keep that system under review and that the obligations are fairly and reasonably shared. That is what we seek at all times. I shall be keen to see that we continue that dialogue to ensure that other European states follow the same high standards that we do.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the Government lay more emphasis on the welcome we give to genuine asylum seekers and less emphasis on repeating the constant association in the Daily Mail of the word "bogus" with asylum seeker? Given the difficulty that asylum seekers now have in reaching this country, can we have some assurance that British embassies in countries of concern will be encouraged and given proper information about how they should treat potential dissidents who might be wishing to seek asylum in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that our consular officials act quite properly. I know they are in receipt of proper advice. I am confident that we are fulfilling our obligations. We operate our system very fairly. We also have to operate it firmly. That is

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also right. If the system of processing asylum applications is to retain credibility and integrity, we need that firm but also fair approach.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, how many prosecutions have there been in the past three years of people who have helped immigrants to gain illegal entry into this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a question of which I should prefer to have advance notice. I am quite happy to write to the noble Baroness and provide her with those details.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Following on from the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, it would seem that in certain countries--in particular, Turkey and Sri Lanka--agents are employed to bring people into this country. The agents are known at immigration points both in this country and in the countries of origin. I understand that the fines in Sri Lanka for carrying on such activities are minimal, so they do not deter people from acting as agents. What applications have the Government made to those countries in an effort to stamp out the problem at source?

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