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Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, one of the advantages of specialising primarily in international issues is that I manage to avoid long and complicated Bills, particularly their Committee stages. I intervene in this Second Reading debate to touch on two matters: first the impact on students, which has already been raised by several speakers, and, secondly, to raise some questions on the international context. I, of course, declare an interest as a former member of staff at the London School of Economics who came into this issue when my own students complained to me about the imposition of student visa charges. I stress in particular that there is a problem for students who study for advanced degrees, which, according the regulations of the University of London, shall take between three and six years to complete. It is not easy to design nice, neat student visa lengths and requirements to go home to renew their grants if the students have flexible degree time that require considerable amounts of research. Such work often contributes to the research base of this country, particularly in the sciences.
There are clearly underlying contradictions in government policy, which we have seen on previous occasions, between the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office, which Ministers have admitted to me in private. The economic cost to the Government of administering the student visa system, narrowly defined, is emphasised. The economic value to Britain is often easily put to one side. My noble friend Lord Dholakia has already mentioned the contribution that staff and students from abroad make to British universities. They make financial contributions, contributions to research and, I have to say as a university teacher, to the quality of education which the rather parochial students we often have in this country get from being forced to defend their view of the world in the presence of students from many other countries.
In this country we are extremely proud of the quality of British higher education. It makes a major contribution to Britain's invisible earnings. Indeed, on one occasion the London School of Economics won the Queen's Award for Export Achievement. The global ranking of British universities is outstanding compared to all other universities except for those in the United States. I should draw the Minister's attention to the Shanghai index on the world's social science institutions, in which, I regret to say, the London School of Economics was ranked only second.
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That suggests that we should be careful about damaging our ability to recruit top-class students from across the world. I wish to emphasise in particular students from China and south Asia. South Asia now provides extraordinarily good students, particularly in electronics, engineering and elsewhere but we are conscious that in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India the pressure on entry clearance officers for applications is intense and the likelihood of mistakes being made is high. We all recognise that there is a problem with the abuse of student visas and of overstayers, but we need to go beyond the idea that one system fits all.
Applications from people who have been accepted by language schools and newly founded colleges appear to be treated in the same way as those offered places by top quality universities, after extensive investigation of their qualifications by the application officers concerned. That seems idiotic. Entry clearance officers should distinguish more clearly between institutions that have accepted students, and they should take the quality of the institution and the likely care of examination of the applications into account. The experience of the London School of Economics was that in the half a dozen cases last year when students were refused entry on first application, all their appeals were successful. In one case, the student had been refused because of mistakes made by the entry clearance officer in assessing the documentation. He had suggested that there were anomalies and inconsistencies in the applicant's father's bank statement, which on further investigation was shown not to be the case.
University international offices do a great deal of work on this and there should be common ground between the Home Office, the DfES and the universities out of which we can reach agreement. University international offices, application offices and entry clearance offices could find a way to work together which would avoid damaging British universities. I am confident that common ground is to be found here, and I look forward to negotiations, if necessary.
I wish to raise one other question about the Billthe absence of context on the international dimension. Immigration policy is, after all, essentially international. However, the assumption in the Bill appears to be that Britain still retains absolute sovereignty and that there is little need to co-operate with others. With great difficulty I found the clauseClause 39(1)(d)that refers to co-operation with,
Immigration policy depends entirely on co-operation with other states. Furthermore, the United Kingdom is already caught up in an extensive and formal framework for co-operation on immigration matters with other statesin particular, within the European Unionwhich includes extensive and formal exchanges of information.
For three years, I was chair of Sub-Committee F of the EU Committee. I recall the discussions that we had about Britain's formal opt-out from the Schengen convention and our informal opt back in to many of its
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clauses. I recall the existence of at least four common European databases, including Eurodac, the shared fingerprint database. I think that we should be told how far the provisions on fingerprinting in Clause 28 will provide or allow for fingerprints on file to be shared. We should be told with which other states they will be shared and under what conditionsI assume that in a number of instances they are likely to go on to Eurodac. Whether or not we need to amend the Bill, we are at least entitled to much more extensive information on all this. How widely shared will this information be and under what conditions and what constraints?
My other puzzle relates to Clause 60. As always on matters that refer to the geographical extent of the United Kingdom, it is deliberately obscure and ambiguous. I am sure that noble Lords will immediately recognise the meaning of subsection (2). The clause states:
I think that means that where the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man have opted in to other bits of other Acts, they are allowed to opt in to the relevant bits of this Act and they can cherry-pick in opting out of the other bits as they like. Clause 60(3) goes on yet again to repeat the timeworn formula:
but not "will"
to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. I want to mark again that on matters of immigration that is a fairly extensive hole in the Bill, when the number of people who travel in and out of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man is growing as fast as the number of those who travel in and out of the United Kingdom. Your Lordships should not allow that to go through unremarked as these odd opt-ins and opt-outs so often do with parts of the British Crown which are not apparently part of the United Kingdom.
I look forward to the Minister's reply. I look forward to being provided with much more information on exactly what the Bill implies in terms of the sharing of information with foreign governments. I certainly hope that during Committee there will be some useful exchanges about how we may resolve the question of good students applying and being denied because overloaded entry clearance officers may have made mistakes.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister to the new asylum Bill. She will provide relief to her colleagues who have survived so many already. I hope that she will give a clear answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. As her right honourable friend said, it is high time that the Government consolidated these Bills into one piece of legislation.
This Bill feels different from its predecessors. The political climate changed after 2001, and public attitudes have moved on accordingly. There is less
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tolerance, and a new wariness. While I accept, in general, the need to tighten immigration controls, and especially to curb the agents of illegal migration and trafficking, I cannot agree with the continuous erosion of our appeals process, and the ignoring of internationally accepted detention rules. The blurring of lines between guilt and innocence is made even worse by the terrorism clauses, which I suspect will be opposed vigorously by Peers in Committee.
We think of ourselves as a tolerant society, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, have reminded us. Asylum seekers in any society, however, incur more envy and insult than admirationunless, of course, they win the Nobel Prize, or demonstrate the economic benefits that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, described. There is certainly no sign of a presumption of innocence, even in our own country. I remember that in Thailand, Sudan and Lebanon, many years ago, refugees and those helping them were bitterly resented. The UN had to take account of this, and sometimes fund local groups as well. The host country argument continues to be, "Aren't you lucky just to be here? Why should you expect any more from us?". This attitude is still alive in the UK, although it is more subtle and subconscious.
That is why the 1951 convention lays down an obligation on the host country, recognising that incoming refugees or asylum seekers are the ones who have made the sacrifice, and not we, the recipients. We still have to learn lessons of hospitality in this country, especially in a climate of anti-terrorism which is bound to affect innocent refugees and migrants. In public transport, we are now advised to look more carefully at our fellow passengers and treat people with more suspicion. Minorities suffer when the majority feels threatened. The Government cannot claim just to be housekeeping when they tighten controlsthey are also responding to a perception of threat, albeit from a tiny, invisible minority. In scrutinising this Bill, therefore, I hope that we will keep that in proportion.
I have spent some time looking at detention, specifically the position of detainees in our so-called removal centres, and have some experience of Haslar and Oakington. The number in detention is rising, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said. Information about detainees seems to be declining, and proper access to professionals is becoming more difficult. There are fundamental issues, such as time limits, presumption of liberty at bail hearings, written reasons for detention, and lost identity documents, all of which have been in previous Bills and remain a cause of concern. I am sure that they will surface in Committee. If we have to tighten the rules, let us simultaneously maintain and raise standards. The prison inspectorate visits under Clause 45, although long expected, are a welcome addition to the Bill.
At Oakington last month, my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham and I were well received and impressed by the quality of some of the skilled staff. We were
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underwhelmed, however, by the official attitudes within a detention estate, the managers of which range in experience from private contracting firms to the Prison Service. No one seems to care much about its future.
Oakington is, or was, by immigration standards, quite a grand facility, much trumpeted during the last Bill as the Government's fast-track showcase. However, it is now operating at half capacity, with only about 130 inmates staying, in most cases, for very short periods. It has suffered much criticism in the media and successive inspectors' reports for elements of racism and the inappropriate detention of children. My noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, who was not able to stay for the debate, wanted me to mention that unaccompanied and unaccounted for minorsnow in the care of social services in Cambridge and many other towns under the Children Act 2004are becoming a serious cause for concern. His suggestion is that some responsibility should be laid on area child safeguarding boards. This has been discussed in previous debates on safeguarding children. I hope the Minister will take note of what he said then.
The management at Oakington has been engaged in remedial action much too late, since it is to close within months to make way for new development. No wonder enthusiasm is so muted and its performance obviously impaired. Detainees are shunted around like footballs, I was told. A Congolese woman, recently bereaved, had already been two days at Tinsley House and one day at Yarl's Wood before reaching Oakington. That is three centres in a week after suffering a serious experience. Torture victims are supposed to be screened by the Home Office, but some still reach detention before they are properly referred. There are others less fortunate. I heard of a recent case of a Jamaican refugee, a victim of gun crime, who was refused and removed to a certain death. Because of the speed of fast-tracking, we do not know the details of these cases, but we know that the system is imperfect and that the detention estate is failing them.
On the positive side, the buildings are good and the involvement of health services and refugee agencies on the whole excellent. The inspectors have recognised this. But the Minister must agree that things are not working out and we are entitled to know what is in the Government's mind. It was impressed on us that conditions at Yarl's Wood are much worse than at Oakingtonthat is no reason for confidenceand that some of the best practice learnt at Oakington, such as the generally good relations between the legal NGOs and the managers, is already being lost before it can be transferred elsewhere.
Coming to the Bill, I am concerned about the new five-year policy. If conditions improve in the home country within five years, refugees are expected to return. In my view, that is a new category of refugee. I understand that no legislation is needed for this policy. Yet five years of uncertainty gives refugees a less settled status than those who had indefinite leave. What will be the criteria of safety? The Bill refers to the cessation clause1(c)(5)in the 1951 convention.
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But the expert opinion at the High Commission for Refugees says that changes in the country of origin must be fundamental.
There must also be serious concern about the monthly rate of removals, which is now supposed to exceed the rate of unfounded applications. We have already heard that reducing the caseload at this speed will affect initial decisions even more. Maximising returns through fast-tracking leaves insufficient time for legal representatives and for the adequate presentation of cases. I question the Minister's statement that the Government are in a "better position" with fast-tracking.
Other measures under the Bill, such as stronger border controls, fingerprinting, electronic checks and more pressure on employers, present problems for NGOs and lawyers because there is a greater overall risk of criminalisation. Others have already mentioned Clause 52. There are further restrictions in the rights of appeal and many people are concerned about the variation appeals, especially in the case of students, under Clause 1. The Constitution Select Committee will look at appeals and the use of secondary legislation and will report before the Committee stage.
I hope the Minister will recognise that, while strong feelings may be expressed, there is still considerable room for compromise by the Government when they give serious consideration to amendments, remembering that we are a complementary House and that many of these issues were not dealt with in Committee in the other place.
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