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House of Lords

Thursday, 25th January 2001.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by Lord Bishop of Blackburn): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Asylum Seekers: Interview Locations

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why asylum seekers living in London are being required to travel for interviews at cities in the north of England; and how they propose to prevent the inconvenience caused by such arrangements.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, in order to reduce overall delays and maximise efficiency in the asylum system, it is necessary to use all available interviewing and screening capacity. Every effort is made to take account of the distance travelled by applicants and to allocate those with longer journeys to later slots. Early interview slots have recently been rescheduled to ten o'clock. Interviews are booked at least seven working days in advance to enable the applicant to plan the most economical way of attending. That period should allow sufficient time for National Asylum Support Service arrangements to be finalised. The interview booking unit in Liverpool is now also booking travel vouchers and, where necessary, overnight accommodation for NASS-supported applicants.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am grateful for the news of those rather slight improvements. Is it not absurd that people living in London are required to travel to Leeds and Liverpool while other asylum seekers dispersed to the north are required to go to Croydon and even to Dover? Is the Minister aware of an extreme case of an Iranian in Glasgow, already in ill health, required to travel to Croydon? Can something be done to cut that ridiculous cross-traffic?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing that case to my attention. I should be grateful to have the full details and will follow it up. We are trying to make maximum use of all the available interviewing times so that we can speed up the applications process. There is no doubt that we are being very successful in that regard. Yes, of course, it creates some difficulties but, as I suggested in my response, there is flexibility. The interviewing arrangements are designed to be as flexible as possible. We want to be helpful. We want the interviews to take place. We want to ensure that the applications process is kept on track and that we maximise all interviewing opportunities.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if someone arrives for the hearing

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stressed and exhausted, he is not likely to do himself justice and that cannot be conducive to a just outcome? Can we have a total assurance that where someone must travel a long distance, convenient transport and proper accommodation will be made available?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, a person within the NASS scheme is provided with travel vouchers and accommodation where appropriate. The service is performing well and is extremely alive to individual sensitivities. It does all that it can to be as accommodating as possible. But it is in everyone's interests--and I repeat this point--that the application process is kept on track and that applications are processed as speedily as possible. Most people would accept that.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there is a proposal to house some asylum seekers in Cardiff prison, along with other gaols, and that the National Assembly for Wales is very much opposed to the proposal on humanitarian grounds? What reply will the Minister give to the Assembly when he receives its protest?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was not aware of that proposal. Perhaps I should have been, if, indeed, it is a proposal. I should be very interested to hear from the noble Lord, perhaps in writing, the details as he understands them. Whatever proposals there are, I am sure that there will be detailed consultation. That is a very important part of the way in which we do our business. It is the case that from time to time we have had to use the Prison Service to house some asylum seekers but we are reducing that number. That is our commitment. We are trying to manage properly an estate to facilitate the applications process. I believe there is common agreement that that is working very well.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be more efficient and economical, as well as more compassionate, to move the interviewers to where the majority of asylum seekers are than the other way round?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, at one stage interviews took place only in Croydon. We have established two other regional centres, in part for the convenience of applicants and to ensure that the process is speeded up. We are making great strides in that direction. It is worth recalling how many applicants we have to deal with. Because of those volumes of people, it is only right to maximise the amount of interviewing time.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, is the Minister aware that movement of people from one place to another is putting severe strain on community relations in local areas? Is he aware of the concern expressed by the Association of Chief Police Officers in relation to asylum seekers and refugees being victims of harassment, violence and so on? Will he please note

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that there has been a resurgence of bodies like the National Front, the British National Party and Combat 18? What is being done to protect asylum seekers from such violent attacks upon them?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I thought that the Association of Chief Police Officers gave very good advice this week. We are all grateful for the way in which it has drawn out some of the problems which have undoubtedly existed. We all need to be vigilant against such racist attacks. They are appalling. Nobody can endorse them in any shape or form. It is important that we take a moral lead in government and a moral stand against those racist attacks. We must do all we can to ensure that where there are asylum seekers, asylum applicants, they are treated with dignity and humanity. That is in their best interests and it shows our country in a good light.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, will the Minister now agree that the mess of the dispersal system, which has been demonstrated in the past few minutes by the exchanges in this House, has done absolutely nothing so far to deter applications, as the Minister, the Prime Minister and others promised at the time of the Bill? There were more applications last year--two and a half times the number four years ago--over three-quarters of which were judged to be bogus.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, last year was, indeed, a year in which there were a very large number of applications. But it must be remembered that last year was the year in which the new system was introduced. That system is working well, as are the dispersal and NASS systems. None of those things is absolutely perfect.

As for deterring unfounded applications, it is desirable that people who are not making a bona fide application are deterred. The system that we put in place is designed to be fair, firm and proportionate. It deserves to be supported. Our policies are proving successful. I should point out that we inherited a complete mess of a system, with lengthy delays in the processing of applications; employees in the service had been laid off; and queues were growing longer. We are reducing those queues. The backlog is down to some 66,000 applicants. I believe that the service is doing a very good job and that it deserves to be supported in that work.

European Year of Languages

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Hooper asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to mark the year 2001 as the European Year of Languages.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Minister for Europe and I hosted an event today to

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promote the year. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching is managing the UK's contribution. Its publication Languages for Life sets out the events taking place.

On Monday, we announced nine new specialist language colleges to promote language learning, bringing the total to 108. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has produced guidance on primary level language teaching and an estimated one in five primary schools teaches foreign languages.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the welcome news contained in her reply. Does she agree that the Nuffield inquiry into the languages capability of the United Kingdom focused on areas where current provision needs to be improved? The Nuffield report was published about eight months ago but I understand that as yet there has been no formal response from the Government. When will that formal response be forthcoming and when will there be a commitment to action? I hope that it will be during the European Year of Languages.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government published the response to the Nuffield inquiry today. I shall ensure that that response is placed in the Library so that the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and any other interested Members of your Lordships' House are able to read it. It proposes that a working party should be set up with Nuffield to develop action derived from its recommendations.

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