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We have sought a realistic time scale. If the time scale is too short, some applications may be processed with inadequate time to do them justice. We have looked carefully at examples: at a number of induction centres and the time factor, and we are convinced by our proposal of a maximum stay of four months. In exceptional circumstances a further period of no more than two months is probably appropriate. I beg to move.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I hesitate to pre-empt the noble Lord, but since the amendment also appears in my name perhaps I should make the position clear. Noble Lords will have realised that some noise was made when Peers were leaving following the Division. When the Deputy Speaker was reading out the amendments they may not have noticed that I purposely did not move the previous amendment, which I had tabled in Committee, and which would set the time limit at a much lower level. That was because I have been considering time limits with care over the last few weeks of the Recess and holding meetings with outside organisations.
On further reflection, I decided that it would be appropriate to be more flexible to the Government and to set them a realistic upper time limit. I agree wholeheartedly with the amendment ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. It is an essential part of the jigsaw puzzle. We need it in the Bill, because if the puzzle is completed we will have the answer to the fair and effective humane processing of asylum claims in this country.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, I shared the difficulty of a number of noble Lords in hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was saying. It may be in part because he was not near a microphone, but it was in part because the excitement and hubbub of the Vote was still prevalent as he began to speak, which made it difficult. He kept his remarks fairly short, but I found one of the things he said difficult to follow. He indicated that whereas the time limit he suggests would be reasonable for most cases, it might be too short in some instances.
I asked myself: why have a time limit at all? I do not know about the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, but perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was talking about a time limit to force the Government to take action within a certain period. But if one thinks of the interests of the person in the accommodation centre, the idea that he should leave it willy-nilly even though he may be in the midst of an application for judicial review or whateverhowever few such cases may beis astonishing.
What is the value to such individuals if they are forced out of the accommodation centre at some arbitrary time limit? There does not seem to be any gain for them, and certainly none to the trialling of the system, which proposes that the accommodation centres should provide helpful support. It seems odd that even if the asylum seeker wants to remain there for a longer period, the time limit puts a stop on it. Either I have not grasped what the noble Lord and noble Baroness are seeking or they are seeking to do something arbitrary and without any value.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, perhaps I can help the noble Lord. As he will be aware from earlier discussions, save in exceptional cases the Minister and the Government are officially committed to a policy of keeping people in accommodation centres for no longer than six months, but that period is not written into the Bill. The Government have said that if it is necessary to maintain a person in an accommodation centre for more than six months they will consider meeting the educational needs of the children in an outside establishment.
So the Government have a time limit in mind, but it is not written into the Bill. The reason for the four-month limit proposed by my noble friend can be simply explained. When the White Paper Fairer, Faster and Firmer was published, the Government said that they would aim to decide first applications within two months and appeals within a further four months. The four-month period is determined by the Government's argument that the accommodation centres will speed up the process.
I find it difficult to understand how, before the accommodation centres were ever thought of and with all the difficulties faced by asylum seekersthey are moved around the country from one place to another and their legal advisers have to catch up with themfar in the distant past, when the White Paper was published, the Government envisaged bringing down the processing of an application through all its stages to conclusion from whatever the average was at the time to a maximum period of six months.
We are saying that surely the point of accommodation centres is to make the process speedier as well as fairer, and therefore we do not need to keep people in them for the proposed six-month period. A four-month time limit in the Bill will give the Government some incentive to make the process both faster and fairer, as they say.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am in total sympathy with the amendment. As I argued on the previous amendment, we all want to see a faster process consistent with fairness. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, demonstrated, the problem is that two and four do not make four; two and four make six. The Minister has told your Lordships that the intention is to deal with the initial decision within two months. If that decision results in granting asylum, those applicants then have the status of refugees and move into the wider community.
The amendment proposes that if on initial consideration an asylum application is rejected, the appeal process begins. The Government say that they hope to complete that within a further four months. However, halfway through that process the relevant asylum seekers may be hoofed out. I cannot see the sense of that. What favour that does to asylum seekers I have no idea.
We shall shortly discuss amendments concerned with education. Let us suppose for a minute that your Lordships' House decides that it does not want education facilities offered in accommodation centres but insists that they are provided in mainstream schools. Children may therefore settle into mainstream schools but after two months the relevant asylum application may be rejected. Appeals are made. Two months further down the roadhalfway along the path to the appeal being resolvedthose children may be yanked out of those schools if their parents are hoofed out of their accommodation centres. Who does that help? I say again to your Lordships that I sympathise and agree absolutely with the ambition behind the measure but in reality it will do asylum seekers nothing but harm.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits downas we are on Report I shall be briefis he aware that at Oakington the initial decision takes just seven to 10 days? Appeals are then listed within four weeks thereafter, well within the four month period we are discussing.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for those comments. However, it is no good sayingas the amendment does"in exceptional circumstances" as that will make a mockery of exceptional circumstances. However, if at accommodation centre A it is still unhappily taking four months to get through the appeal process, it cannot be the intention of the proposers of the amendment to say that in every single case that that timetable is not improved uponin other words, the asylum seeker is still halfway through the appeal processthe Minister will pray in aid exceptional circumstances. That would make a mockery of exceptional circumstances. We want the process dealt with expeditiously. The noble Baroness's point is well made and well taken. Such timetables are achievable at Oakington due to the quality and the quantity of the on-site legal services provided.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, is not the answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, that if no date or period of time is put on the face of the Bill there is no incentive to speed up the asylum process? The Government have clearly said that they intend to speed up the asylum process. They have said that they believe they can make it faster than it is at the moment. One would hope that they would be able to complete the asylum process within four months. Surely by having a date on the Bill one provides an incentive to ensure that that happens. If
Lord Judd: My Lords, I am sure that there should be every incentive for expeditious handling of asylum cases. I imagine that that would have widespread support throughout the House. I do, however, believe that this amendment is misguided. I encourage those who put it forward to consider withdrawing it and reconsidering their position.
I do not want to become a sort of humanitarian bore in this debate but I have saidas I said at previous stages of our deliberationsthat we are dealing with people. We must keep the pre-eminence and importance of the individual in mind all the time. I believe that this could become a disturbing and artificial intervention in the handling of individual cases. Surely, in the midst of all the other anxieties that people are facing, what is essential is that they should not be faced with uncertainty about their accommodation and their personal relations. That could be a disaster if it arose at a tricky point in the whole proceedings.
My noble friend Lord Dubs argued on the previous amendment that the Government should look for a flexible approach. I believe that flexibility is needed here. The objective of speed and expeditious handling of the applications is right but to introduce an artificial constraint of this kind into the accommodation centres is not the way to achieve that.
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