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Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I apologise to the House in advance for my absence from the Chamber at the conclusion of this debate due to a longstanding commitment.
The stated aim of the Government's strategy on asylum and immigration is to create a "fair but practical system of controls" for migration. I wholeheartedly support this aim. However, I have some reservations and concerns in relation to a few clauses in the Bill.
This is the latest in a line of immigration and asylum Bills introduced over recent years. Each has removed important procedural safeguards for people seeking asylum in the UK or trying to migrate here. That trend is continued in the current Bill, which promises to limit even further the already restricted application and appeals process. My concerns about this aspect of the proposals have already been expressed by other noble Lords, the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association and Liberty.
I want to concentrate on Clauses 53 and 54. I do not believe that the provisions on counter-terrorism and their likely impact on minority ethnic and religious groups have yet received sufficient attention. The Government introduced the relevant clauses in Committee in the other place. There was very little time available for a proper debate. I hope that your Lordships will thoroughly scrutinise these clauses during the passage of the Bill through this House.
Since the terrible events of 9/11, we have seen an alarming tendency to treat counter-terrorism as a question of immigration control. The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, for example, sought to
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address the threat from international terrorism by creating a discriminatory power to detain foreign nationals believed to pose a threat to national security. Similarly, in response to the tragic events in London on 7 July, the Government focused on the need to "secure our borders", "extend powers to strip people of citizenship", and to,
My concerns about dealing with counter-terrorism and immigration in this manner are threefold. First, immigration measures fail to tackle any threat from terrorism posed by British citizens. Secondly, in practice these measures are likely to have a disproportionate effect on minority ethnic and religious groups. They are likely to marginalise certain sectors of the population and may ultimately be counter-productive. Thirdly, removing from the UK those who are suspected of involvement in international terrorism is not an effective way to address the threat. Rather than seeking to export the problem, those suspected of committing terrorist acts should be prosecuted in this country.
Clause 53 would give the Home Secretary the power to remove a person's British citizenship where satisfied that this would be "conducive to the public good". Will my noble friend tell us why this sweeping power is needed? The Home Secretary can already strip a person of their British nationality if satisfied that they have done something,
As far as I am aware, this power has never been used. I am particularly worried that, in practice, this clause would have a disproportionate impact on ethnic and religious minorities and that it could appear to be an anti-Muslim measure. As a result of international events, social inequalities and legislative proposals, many young British Muslims already feel disenfranchised. These proposals would only compound those feelings, making their "Britishness" seem like a temporary state, removable at will, rather than a permanent part of their identity. This could seriously damage community relations which are already very strained, and ultimately prove to be counter-productive.
Can my noble friend explain how the Government intend to deal with dual nationals, those who have dual nationality with another country on the basis of their parents' or grandparents' birth, if those countries refuse to accept such people? How do the Government intend to deal with the descendants of Anglo-Saxon members of our community, for instance, if they become involved in terrorism?
The Bill will also require a very restrictive interpretation to be made of the definition of "refugee" in the 1951 convention. The interpretation here goes far beyond the meaning given in international law. People who have a well founded fear of persecution could be denied refugee status in the UK as a result of this provision if they had carried out acts of committing or even encouraging acts of terrorism.
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"Terrorism", for these purposes, has the extremely wide definition set out in Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000. As we have seen in the context of the Terrorism Bill, it goes far beyond the ordinary meaning of "terrorism". Not only does it apply to the use of physical violence to achieve an end, but it also covers damage to property and disruption to electronic systems wherever they occur in the world. Under the Bill, these acts would not even be required to constitute a criminal offence in order to justify a denial of refugee status. If a person could not be prosecuted for their actions in the UK, we should not use those actions to deny them asylum.
Yet again we are being asked to consider legislation which seeks to appear,
As I said previously when debating the Terrorism Bill, I do not believe that this approach,
In fact, I fear that it could have the opposite effect.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, earlier speakers have tried to count up the number of Bills we have had on this subject. My tally is that Conservative governments since 1987 have produced four and Labour governments have produced a similar number, including this one. So that makes eight Bills in 18 years. One might think that the Home Office imagines that immigration and asylum issues can be solved by legislating. Surely it would be better to improve the administration of what must always be a complex and sometimes controversial subject. The training and continuity in service of those who deal with individual cases should be the permanent priority, and here I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford.
As regards the protection of refugees, I have said beforeand I do not hesitate to say againthe prime consideration must be the quality of the first decision about their status. If this is right first time, everything else falls into place. Wasteful appeals are avoided, while resettlement and rehabilitation can start without delay. If interpretation of foreign languages is needed, this must be of the best quality. If asylum seekers receive correct advice before interview, their cases are far more likely to be well presented. Interviewers should be people free from political or media-inspired prejudice, who are capable of understanding the horrifying experiences through which asylum seekers may well have passed. Their aim should be never to reject as many applications as possible. On the other hand, they should reject an automatic culture of disbelief. Now that immigration for employment is possible, the number of bogus asylum claims should decline.
Turning to the Bill, who was consulted during its preparation? Did the Home Office seek the views of the London office of the UNHCR? Were
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the Immigration Advisory Service, the British Refugee Council, the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association and the Independent Monitor of Entry Clearance consulted, together with others having daily case-work experience? Were the universities asked about visas for students? If the views of such groups were not given full weight, how can we possibly expect to have a sensible and workable Bill which will not require further amendment in a year or two?
It has long been intended that failed asylum seekers should be returned to their countries of origin. The situation in the country in question governs whether or not this is possible. Quite often the real situation in such countries is unclear or changing, especially in vast countries such as the Congo. The situation even at the airport may be the most critical one. There is scope for much better liaison between the Home Office and the Foreign Office. The recent court judgment about returns to Zimbabwe shows the need for an independent source of country-by-country assessment and advice. Canada has such a system and the Immigration Advisory Service and others have been calling for something similar here. What are Her Majesty's Government doing about this?
The Immigration Advisory Service, an organisation with 35 years of experience and with 20 or so offices in Britain and overseas, has described the Bill as "misconceived and inappropriate". The IAS has commented on 13 specific points. How many of these do the Government accept? I take most seriously the risk that people who have entered legally will be put into limbo. This will occur when they are refused an extension but are perversely encouraged to stay here in order to appeal against a removal notice. During that interval they will be unable either to work or to receive benefits. This limbo is comparable to the plight of those caught by Section 9 of the 2004 Act.
Clause 52, concerning terrorismwhich is defined not in this Bill but elsewhereand its interaction with the new Terrorism Bill will require very careful thought. So will Clause 53 on deprivation of citizenship. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, was quite right to emphasise these points. Given the apparent lack of consultation prior to the Bill, your Lordships will have to work very hard to assert best practice and to deal with the reasonable concerns that we are raising today. I therefore urge the Government to provide sufficient time at all stages of the Bill.
I join with other speakers who have welcomed the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, to this subject, which is perhaps slightly new to her. She has shown on previous Bills that she is very capable of listening. I hope and urge that she will be willing to negotiate on particular points.
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