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House of Lords

Monday, 9 June 2008.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Deportation: Iran

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, we recognise that Christians from Iran may demonstrate a need for international protection. Those with a well founded fear of persecution will be granted asylum. However, we will enforce the return of those individuals who we and the courts are satisfied are not at risk of persecution and have no legal right to remain in the United Kingdom. This is a key part of upholding our robust and fair asylum system.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he agree that it is vital for the United Kingdom to affirm that it is a basic human right to have or to adopt a religion of one’s choice? What will the Government do to ensure that asylum tribunals take religious convictions more seriously in their deliberations?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds raises a very important point. We recognise that persons who actively display their faith in public may attract adverse attention from the Iranian authorities and we believe that they have an absolute right legally to show their faith publicly. However, we have not found—the COI Service looked into this—that there is systematic persecution of them all. Current case law from the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal concludes that an ordinary convert will not face persecution. The issue of Christian converts was closely considered again as a result of a hearing in May 2008. We will alter our guidance if necessary based on the awaited determination from that study and review.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, what is the assessment of the lot of Jews from Isfahan? If it is adverse, how will that impact on policy?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I will have to come back to the noble Viscount on that point. I am not aware of that one, but I will look at it and come back to him in writing, if I may.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, in their region the Iranians are comparatively tolerant of “people of the book”, be they Jews or Christians. The problem arises with apostates: those who convert to Christianity either in their own country or in the United Kingdom. The issue is therefore to test the genuineness of that

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conversion, because it is clear that there will be discrimination if converts are forced to return to Iran. Can my noble friend assure the House that those who take the decisions in the tribunals are given sophisticated briefing about the problems that are likely to confront converts if they are forced to return to Iran?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. I confirm that the caseworkers are given clear guidance about the questions to ask and how they should look at this issue. He is absolutely right that those who have converted are possibly most at risk. That is also why we are waiting for this judgment to come out, but we have no evidence at the moment of anyone having been executed in Iran on the basis of conversion to the Christian religion.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the majority of Iranian Christians are Armenians, who do not suffer persecution at all. It is mainly those who conduct their services in Farsi, such as the Protestants and, I believe, the Assyrian Christians, who are systematically discriminated against. Does the noble Lord not agree that a much larger problem is the systematic persecution of the Baha’is, all of whose leaders were recently arrested and are still being held incommunicado after six weeks in detention?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I do not know the great detail of that, but I agree entirely. The fact that we review and are careful to ensure that anyone who is sent back will not be persecuted does not mean that we support all the policies that are carried out by the Iranian Government.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, from whom does the department get its intelligence about persecution in Iran? How reliable is the source that tells us that some may not be persecuted but that others may and how can we be sure that the decisions that are then taken by the tribunals are totally reliable?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a good point. The Country of Origin Information Service—the COI Service—gathers together all the data, which are compiled from a wide range of sources, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights organisations, NGOs, news, media and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The data are updated frequently and significant changes in country conditions are communicated quickly to decision-makers. It would be a little over the top if I said that we are absolutely sure all the time that every single bit of evidence is there, but we try to get all the evidence that there is. Indeed, after a debate on this issue in the past few months, we looked carefully at evidence from one noble Lord, which was extremely useful.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, time after time the Government assure us that anyone who is in danger of being persecuted on being returned to Iran will not be returned. However, if there is no mechanism to monitor the fate of folk who get to Iran, what is the evidence for the Minister’s Answer?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point, on which I cross-examined closely those who briefed me earlier today. The issue is complex. We make absolutely certain in our own minds that people will not be persecuted when they are sent back there, but there are great difficulties in trying to monitor this closely around the world. There is also a danger of putting the person at risk by making them very apparent, but there is a shortfall and I intend to talk to the team in the Home Office to see whether there is any way at all in which we can monitor this. It is difficult, but I will try to do that and I will get back to the noble Lord in writing.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the noble Lord has said that this is a complex issue. Indeed it is; I was a member of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal until a couple of years ago. It is all right if the person has become a Christian while he is in Iran, but there is a problem with people who become Christian converts as soon as they arrive in the UK. A group of Christians converted some Iranians to Christianity, but as soon as the Iranians’ leave to appeal was granted they reverted to their normal religion.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend raises a point about the difficulty of the issue. We have to look at this on a case-by-case basis, rather than make a blanket recommendation. The noble Countess is right: sometimes these things change. Someone may come here saying that they need to be in this country because they are a Christian. Then they may say, “Well, it is not that. It is because I am gay and I will be persecuted for that”. Then they may say, “Now I am part of a political organisation”. There is a whole raft of measures. As I said, our caseworkers are well trained to conduct interviews in a professional manner. We have been engaging with religious organisations—for example, the Evangelical Alliance—to make sure that they know the right sort of questions to ask so that we can identify quickly those who really have a reason to be here. Our intention is not to return people who should be protected; it is to return those who should not be.

Anti-social Behaviour Orders

2.45 pm

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, for 10 years the anti-social behaviour order has been bringing respite to communities suffering from the misery of anti-social behaviour caused by an unruly minority. Since then, the Government have developed additional tools and powers to protect the quality of people’s daily life. ASBOs continue to be a highly valuable tool in this respect.

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Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Besides G 47, which other contractors are involved in dealing with these electronically monitored curfews? What is the proportion of teenagers who breach the ASBOs which are handed down to them by the courts?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot answer in detail that first question. Perhaps I may get back to the noble Baroness in writing. However, there are detailed statistics relating to this which go up to December 2006. We had issued 12,000 ASBOs, 50 per cent of which were breached. We go through a phase of warnings before we take custodial action. About 63 per cent of those who break an ASBO will end up with a custodial sentence.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I can understand why we must take action to contain irresponsible dysfunctional behaviour, but, to some extent, the ASBO is dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. To what extent are the Government committed in the acceptable behaviour contracts to putting in resources which identify the problem and seek to deal with it at its heart, perhaps in the family?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing. The number of ASBOs being used has declined because we are using a number of other tools and powers; for example, written warnings, home visits, acceptable behaviour contracts, and parenting orders and contracts. We have closed crack houses using premises closure orders, which have been very useful, and dispersal zones. We use the anti-social behaviour order only when there is nothing else we can do. It is very interesting that the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Audit Commission and the NAO report have found that 65 per cent of those people who had an intervention 1, a written warning, desist from anti-social behaviour after that; 85 per cent desist after an intervention 2, which is something like a parenting order and a contract; and 93 per cent of people desisted after an intervention 3, which is the ASBO. So it is having a dramatic effect and is making a difference. Admittedly, it leaves the 7 per cent, but very often, those people have each committed something like 31 offences.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, what are the Government doing about the raft of inappropriate use of ASBOs; for example, those served on mentally ill people and people with schizophrenia or Asperger’s syndrome, or those served on people who are simply protesting? There was a notable case where the courts quashed those in respect of a number of protestors. What are the Government doing about that? When will the Home Office undertake the review that the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a number of points. I would not accept necessarily that some of these are inappropriate, but I agree that we need to look very carefully at applying an ASBO to someone who perhaps has a mental disorder. We are looking at that very closely and trying to make sure

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that no such ASBOs are implemented. I do not think that that is exactly the case at the moment, but we are working hard to ensure that they are not laid at those people.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister detailed a phalanx of treatments as alternatives to ASBOs, which we welcome. I did not hear him mention restorative justice. I realise that it is intended for more serious offences, but surely those procedures would be appropriate in these cases.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I did not mean to say that offenders are not sent to prison once they have broken the terms of their ASBO. Once we have gone through the range of possible controls—it is much better to take action early, rather than when we have given an ASBO—we find that about 7 per cent of people break their ASBO, come up before the justice and are given varying sentences. Those 7 per cent tend to be people who have committed a variety of crimes but have never before been convicted.

Lord Peston: My Lords, would the Minister explain how things have changed? When I was young, this behaviour was called “hooliganism”—I speak as a hooligan—but we all grew out of it. We became very senior people in our society. When did “hooliganism” change into “anti-social behaviour”, and when did Governments decide that the overwhelming majority of people simply will not grow out of it? I know that, overwhelmingly, we all did.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend raises an interesting point. People have been saying to me, “These people look on ASBOs as a badge of honour”. I remember getting the tawse, as it was called in Scotland—the belt or the cane—and I would occasionally boast to chaps, “Gosh, I’ve just had the cane”. It did not mean that I tried to get caned again, although I might have been occasionally.

I have a little sympathy for what my noble friend says, but some of this anti-social behaviour is extremely unpleasant, often violent, and it does frighten people in parts of our community. We have a job as a Government and as a nation to protect and look after the people who are vulnerable. I will answer the noble Lord’s question in writing—I have not really answered it.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, while I accept what the Minister says in its generality, is it not the case that the anti-social behaviour order, properly and sensitively used, is a valuable weapon in the armoury of the administrators of justice? Where failure occurs, it is often the result of failure by a court, normally a magistrates’ court, to be precise about the exact terms of an order and sometimes because the court has used it for a much wider purpose than was ever envisaged by Parliament.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord puts more eloquently than me the point that this is part of an armoury of weapons to achieve our objective. As such, it has an important role to play. I have

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considerable regard for magistrates, but I am sure that occasionally they get things wrong and we need to focus carefully on this. I visited Cambridge recently to talk about neighbourhood policing. It is clear that local communities see ASBOs as an important part of the armoury. Their use does take fear off the streets and enable us to get at some people who are otherwise difficult to get at. They have a very important role in society.

Sudan: Comprehensive Peace Agreement

2.52 pm

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the comprehensive peace agreement has successfully prevented a return to all-out conflict in Sudan. Accomplishing the census in May was a welcome milestone. However, the CPA faces significant risks. The recent fighting in Abyei reflects unresolved disagreements. Continued slow progress towards an electoral law may delay national elections beyond 2009. We are fully engaged with both parties, and with international partners, to secure full implementation of the CPA and to try to deliver a peaceful future for the whole of Sudan.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. What information does he have about the conflict he referred to in Abyei, a disputed oil-rich territory? The conflict has disrupted emergency efforts to supply food, water and medical supplies to the 50,000 people fleeing from previous conflict in the region, and has displaced a further 90,000 who are now living in hardship and hunger. Can he tell us what urgent measures are being taken to alleviate their suffering, and whether the conflict in Abyei represents a violation of the comprehensive peace agreement? If so, what has been the response of the Assessment and Evaluation Commission and other international organisations which are guarantors of the CPA?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Assessment and Evaluation Commission made an emergency visit to Abyei and, along with many other international partners, has contributed to pressing both sides to resolve the dispute. We therefore welcome the new agreement between the NCP in the north and the SPLM in the south to resolve the immediate crisis. Although we do not yet have the full details, the agreement includes a new joint integrated unit involving the militaries of both sides, access for UNMIS, the UN peacekeeping force in the area, and an interim administration for the Abyei area with a proposed new border and what should be an agreement on oil revenue-sharing, together with international arbitration. Additionally, the north has promised over $1 billion for the recovery and rebuilding of Abyei.

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