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Lord McNally moved Amendment No. 52C:


"IMMIGRATION DECISION PROCEDURE (1) Any interview with the applicant shall be conducted— (a) by personnel experienced in interview techniques and trained in cross-cultural communication; (b) by personnel of the applicant's own gender if requested by the applicant. (2) An accurate, verbatim and legible written record shall be kept of any interview held under subsection (1). (3) The applicant may request the record be read back to him and to request his alterations be included or, if rejected, recorded. (4) Any decision on the applicant's claim shall be determined— (a) by the same personnel as conducted the interview; (b) on the basis of up-to-date and accurate information on the applicant's country of origin; (c) after careful consideration of any medical evidence bearing out allegations of torture.
 
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(5) An independent inspector shall be appointed after consultation with relevant organisations— (a) to report annually on the quality of decision-making in asylum cases; (b) to lay that report before Parliament. (6) Section 14 shall not be enacted until and unless the independent inspector is satisfied that the quality of initial decision-making has been improved."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the tone of many of these amendments acknowledges that there is no easy fix for some of the dilemmas here. The Minister appears to recognise that the Opposition Benches are trying to be constructive in their approach, and certainly the thrust of Amendment No. 52C reflects that. I return to the tale of the Irishman who, when asked for directions, replied by saying, "If I were you, I would not start from here". We suggest that, in a Bill whose main thrust seems to be to eradicate the overly cumbersome appeals procedure, it misses the more basic fact that the real fault in the system lies in the initial judgments.

In 2003 over 64,000 initial decisions were made for asylum. Well over 16,000 of those were subsequently overturned. That indicates a massive waste of resources; it is massively unfair to claimants; and it damages public confidence in the system. In Canada only 1 per cent of initial decisions are overturned, which suggests that perhaps the Government have approached this whole problem from the wrong place and in the wrong way.

We are encouraged in this approach by the opinion of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which said,

The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee said,

That would seem to be the sensible way to get this system right. As the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has indicated, we do not ignore the Government's initiatives and attempts to improve the system. We welcome the widespread consultation that has taken place. We welcome the setting up of the Advisory Panel on Country Information, although it might have been better if the Government had taken advice from that panel before extending their defined safe countries. Nevertheless, there are good and well intentioned attempts to get this right. We also welcome the involvement of the UNHCR in conducting an audit to report regularly on the quality of initial decision-making.

This amendment, however, puts forward some specifics to improve initial decision-making. We want to see better, more accurate, timely and impartial information relating to countries of origin. We want to see better expertise in relation to caseworkers. Time and again, those who have given evidence or briefed us have complained about the low quality of personnel involved in initial decision-making. That is not fair to the personnel involved and does not help in addressing some of the problems that we are concerned with.
 
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In process we want to see greater continuity of human contact between decisions at the initial and appeal stages. We also think that there are too many perverse incentives built into the system. Surely the main thrust is not in getting the decision fast but in getting it right. That is why we suggest that a little more investment at the initial stage will produce that result.

We believe that there should be a better appreciation of medical evidence as it relates to allegations of torture, and available and adequate legal aid and advice at the initial stage.

I hope that the Minister will see this as very constructive and, in terms of what both the Home Affairs and the Constitutional Affairs Select Committees have recommended, as going right to the core of the problem—rather than what the Government have tried to do in their meander through this legislation in both Houses—to address some of the consequences of the imperfections at the initial stage. I beg to move.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I strongly support this amendment and, in particular, subsections (4)(b) and (c).

My grounds, which relate to Zimbabwe—the only area on which I have any special knowledge—are that the Home Office has repeatedly decided that Zimbabwe is a safe country, despite the fact that the country reports from the FCO and the UNHCR took a totally contrary view. The enormous influx of refugees into Botswana and South Africa suggests that it is not exactly a safe country.

With regard to subsection (4)(c) I hope that the Minister can tell us at some stage, perhaps not now, whether the panels which are deciding whether there has been torture ask the Amnesty International specialists and the Amani Trust—who know torture when they see it.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for this amendment but I do not think that it should be on the face of the Bill.

The Home Office is suffering from a managerial problem. Staff need to be motivated; they need to be informed as to how important their work is; and perhaps they should be paid properly. I am sure that a lot of the problems could be resolved with proper training and proper management.

Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I am tempted to rise because of what the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has said. I share the view that this amendment, in its exact form, should not be on the face of the Bill.

On the other hand, I want to express my support for the general thrust of some of the points the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has made, while acknowledging—with a wry smile in the direction of the Minister—that here he is effectively having to answer for matters that are primarily for the Home Office rather than for the department which leads him to be in his present place in the House.
 
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If there have been two long-running concerns regarding what happens in this area—probably going back to the time of my predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, as chairman of the Council on Tribunals—it is the quality of initial decision-making combined with something that has not so far been touched on in this debate, which is the astonishing proportion of hearings before the adjudicators at which no one comes from the Home Office. There is no Home Office presenting officer—known in the trade as a HOPO—to present the Home Office case.

Given the combination of question marks—I put it no stronger than that—over the initial decision-making, coupled with the fact that a surprisingly high proportion of hearings take place with nobody there to put the case for the Home Office, it is perhaps not surprising that the amount of overturning at the initial stage has been rather high.

Whether or not that is a fair line of argument, there is one thing on which all would agree there is concern, whether it be the great committees to which reference has been made by the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, or the experience of the Council on Tribunals, or anybody who has looked at this. It is the need, whatever is done with the tribunal system, to improve the quality of initial decision-making and to make sure that the Home Office's case is sensibly represented when an appeal hearing takes place.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I could not agree more with quite a lot of what has been said, particularly by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, that, while these may in many cases be proper goals of policy, they should not, for a variety of reasons, be on the face of the Bill.

I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Newton, expresses congratulations or sympathy that I am answering for the Home Office. It is not for the first time nor for the last, and it is always a privilege to do so.


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