§ Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wakeham.]
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
I am grateful for this opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the determination of the status of refugees under the United Nations convention on the status of refugees. May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office on his appointment. May I also remind him that he was one of those individuals who inspired world refugee year. That was a noble gesture which did much to heal the wounds left by the last war.
The subject that I have chosen is perhaps an apparently esoteric one, but it conceals a deep well of human misery. I know that when my hon. Friend the Minister of State studies it and takes into account what is said in this debate, I trust by hon. Members on both sides, as well as all the volumes of information that there are about it, he, with his considerable intelligence and understanding of human problems, as demonstrated by his time in this House, will see at once that the present practice of the British Government—it is not worthy of being called a policy, because it has not even been properly considered—should be abandoned.
In saying that, I do not mean that the officials in the Home Office who are responsible for dealing with refugee questions are lacking in humanity and sympathy for the people who are concerned in their decisions—indeed, some of them are my friends, and I hope that they will remain my friends after this debate—but, like all civil servants at senior level, particularly those in the Home Office, they are prisoners of a system. They are 1364 enmeshed in the fine web of precedent, and the doctrine "We have always done it this way; you prove to us that anyone suffers" prevents them from taking a fresh view of what is undeniably a very important problem for this country.
It is, therefore, with great hope that I raise this subject, because now, with the onset of the new Government—which I hope and believe will be a reforming Government—is the opportunity to look afresh at this question. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to discover that in terms of support in this House it is largely uncontroversial, as I hope will be demonstrated later.
Britain has a long and honourable tradition of granting asylum to refugees. French Huguenots, Italians such as Garibaldi, Jews from czarist Russia and from Nazi Germany, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles fleeing from Communist aggression and oppression and Ugandans from African tyranny have all found a sanctuary in this country. But a clear understanding and definition of what we mean by "refugee" is vital. We cannot possibly absorb all those people around the world who wish to come here under the claim of being refugees.
From time to time in the recent past we have been flooded with masses of foreign immigrants, who have caused us acute social problems. We have admitted the majority of them because for too long we have clung to the sentimental idea appropriate to our Imperial past. In fact, few of those who have come here since the war in such large numbers as immigrants could be called refugees. In our agonising over the large scale of immigration, which must be stopped—and the present Government are pledged to stop it—and however painful to the conscience of the liberal lobby it may be, such a policy—
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I thought that I would venture into a certain amount of controversy in order to set the background to this matter at least factually and honestly.
The point is that we must not put obstacles in the way of genuine individual refugees. Large-scale immigration is one matter, but individual cases of requests for political asylum are another. It is just 1365 because of the emotive nature of immigration problems—the Vietnamese boat people being the current example—that the question of the definition of the word "refugee" and the means of determining by law who is or who is not a refugee becomes urgent.
There is a related problem in our nationality law. Because, like everyone else, we have always based our immigration law on the concept of local nationality, our nationality laws, which foolishly give British nationality to hundreds of millions of people around the world, must be changed; I think that everyone is agreed about that. I hope that the Government will not delay in bringing into this House their new nationality Bill in order to clear up the mess and let everyone know where he stands.
At the same time, with less difficulty, I believe, the Government must do the same for the status of refugees, which is bedevilled by the same problem inherited from our Imperial past. Indeed, it is further complicated by it in that we have in the past treated all Commonwealth citizens as, legally, British nationals and, therefore, not eligible for the benefits of the convention on the status of refugees.
The word "refugee" is defined only in and by reference to the 1951 United Nations convention on the status of refugees, as amended by the protocol of 1967, which—to summarise it—defines it as any person who cannot return to his home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of his race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. The word "refugee" is nowhere defined in English law, and, because the convention to which Britain is a party has never been enacted into our domestic law, the courts of this country do not recognise the status.
It is important to recognise that the benefits of the convention apply only to those refugees who are in this country or who are, so to speak, on its doorstep. They do not apply to boat loads of people placed on the high seas with the connivance of their Governments, or political troublemakers, such as those in South America, whom their Governments would be only too pleased to export to us. It is impossible for any refugees in this country to go to a court and say "I am a refugee; I claim the benefit of the provisions of the 1366 convention." The main benefit is the right of asylum, in the sense that a refugee, once the status is confirmed, cannot, under the convention, be returned to the country from which he came.
Nowhere is "refugee" defined in English law. All that we have is a passing reference to political asylum based on the wording of the convention in the immigration rules. It is, in fact, a long-stop provision, inserted, one gathers, after the body of the rules had already been drafted. It is based upon the executive power of the Home Secretary to give instructions to immigration officers under the Immigration Act 1971. It may be applied—in practice, this is what happens—if there is no other category into which, whether as an arrival, as an over-stayer or as a prospective deportee, the refugee can be fitted.
But the immigration rules do not have the force of law. They are administrative instructions, which are, indeed, taken note of by the House of Commons but have neither statutory nor other legislative authority. They are certainly taken account of in the appeals system for immigrants which has been provided under the Immigration Appeals Act 1969, but in no other way are they recognised by the courts of this country.
The convention requires its participants to incorporate its provisions into municipal law. That, I think, is perhaps the first charge that the British Government have to answer. The convention has been in existence for some 28 years, and Britain has never formally incorporated its provisions into its domestic law. We have certainly ratified the convention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) reminds me. We are full members of the convention. Indeed, we are more than that. We are members of the executive committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' programme—one of only 31 members. We take an active part in its meetings. Yet, strangely enough, despite the wording of the convention, which obliges us to incorporate into our law those provisions of the convention which are not already part of our law, we have not done so. This is despite all the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Like most other important countries, we have in our country a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner 1367 for Refugees who is very active and industrious in the work that he has to do under the convention.
As I have already said, despite the membership by Britain of the 31-member executive committee of the programme, to which various British Governments have appointed distinguished parliamentarians as chief of the British delegation, including, for example, the late Airey Neave, this international backsliding by Britain has frequently been brought to the attention of British Governments and Parliaments by different people and different parliamentarians. It was discussed in another place almost exactly a year ago.
Following a memorandum which the United Kingdom representative of the High Commissioner for Refugees sent to the Home Secretary, suggesting ways in which the obligations under the convention could be honoured by Britain in the light of Britain's special constitutional position and the well-known fact that, when we make treaties, they are not enforced within our country save when an Act has been passed by this Parliament, the matter was discussed in the other place a year ago. Lord Wells-Pestell said on behalf of the previous Government:We are approaching our discussions on the memorandum in a positive and constructive spirit."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 1978; Vol. 392, c. 817.]That was an example of someone adopting time-honoured language for doing precisely nothing, and that is what has happened.
The attitude of the previous Government was to defend the status quo and not make any positive move to adopt either of the two main recommendations of the representative of the High Commissioner. The first recommendation was to enact the main provisions of the convention into the law of this country. The other was to set up a procedure for identifying refugees and a system under which an individual could claim that status and have the right of appeal if his claim was dismissed.
The result of that enactment under all British Governments since ratification of the convention is that the benefits of the humanitarian ideas that Britain pioneered in the world are not available to genuine refugees in this country except by dint of overcoming large bureaucratic 1368 obstacles and running the risk of being deported.
First, the decision to admit refugees under the existing practice is a bureaucratic one, with no court involved. If a refugee can qualify for admission to this country under one of the recognised categories of immigrants—for example, as a student or visitor—he is admitted in that category and not as a refugee. That has important consequences. When a student's studies are completed or when a visitor's allotted time has expired, he is liable to be deported if he stays.
An appeal procedure is available under the existing immigration system based on case law and immigration rules appropriate to the terms of entry. The practice, therefore, is that more often than not a refugee's status as a refugee is not brought to the attention of the adjudicator or appeal tribunal, and the appeal is dismissed because time has expired or study is completed. In well-documented cases, adjudicators and appeal tribunals have often given only cursory attention to what should by international commitments be the fundamental factor governing the case.
In many cases the day of deportation draws near and only if he is lucky does the wretched immigrant, thinking that he has found sanctuary in the freest country in the world, find a Member of Parliament or voluntary organisation to prevail upon the Home Office at the last minute to prevent his deportation, give him asylum and remove the conditions of his stay. That procedure could have been undertaken with the correct result on entry with a proper system for identifying refugees and their claiming refugee status.
I quote from one of many documented cases monitored by voluntary organisations. I shall call it the case of Mr. X:Mr. X came to Britain in November 1975, with an entry clearance for a 'visit'. In his country he had been an active member of the opposition party, and its local Secretary in an area where it commanded strong support. The party was banned in February 1975 and many of its leaders and active supporters were arrested; the more reliable estimates of these arrests range between 13,000 and 20,000. Mr. X himself was arrested twice, and after the second detention, during which he was ill-treated, he left his country while out on bail.Mr. X was admitted to Britain for one month. He asked for an extension of stay, and later for permission to remain here having married an English woman. The Home Office found that this was in fact a marriage of convenience 1369 and told him he was to be deported to his country of origin.Mr. X was arrested and put in jail. He appealed against the deportation and pending the hearing was released on bail. His grounds of appeal included the fact that he was an active member of the banned party and that in view of the treatment of party colleagues he feared arrest and imprisonment for his political views if returned to his country. The lengthy Home Office statement submitted to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal on his appeal contained only a brief reference to this claim, which suggested that the Home Office had not investigated it; and subsequent communications of Mr. X's representative with the Home Office confirmed this.The first opportunity that Mr. X had to explain his fear was during the formal hearing of his appeal in February 1976. He produced two documents and gave evidence of his political activities and arrests and of the current state of the banned party, the whole leadership of which was on trial by a special court. Following a brief deliberation the appeal was nevertheless dismissed.After the hearing Mr. X was returned to prison to await deportation to his country of origin.His case then became known to various agencies in this country that take an interest in these matters, and a series of interviews took place. Six months passed, during which Mr. X was held at Pentonville prison. There was no decision on his case and no response during that time from the Home Office to those who requested his release pending the decision. Eventually they were told by the Home Office that Mr. X was to be deported.
Other steps were taken, various agencies and the representative in this country of the United Nations High Commissioner intervened, and on 13 December 1977 Mr. X was released from prison. He had spent almost 11 months in detention, the last 10 of which had been continuous, without being accused of any offence and mostly awaiting consideration of his case by the Home Office.During the last period in prison and after release he has been depressed and, for a while, suicidal. He has also developed respiratory problems and has a duodenal ulcer. His status is not yet resolved.That was in 1978. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is deplorable and must not be repeated.
No genuine refugee has, to the knowledge of those concerned, been deported from this country to the country from which he had fled, but the risk is enor- 1370 mous. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 refugees are admitted to the United Kingdom every year. No figures are kept because of the practice of admitting refugees on other grounds if possible. Of the 69,313 immigrants admitted for permanent settlement in 1977, an estimated 1,300—a total of 1.9 per cent.—were believed to be refugees.
All this time, several schemes have existed under which thousands of so-called refugees, whose status has not been properly determined as refugees under the convention, have been admitted as groups and in their thousands. That is plainly an unsatisfactory situation which is abhorrent to all who cherish Britain's reputation for tolerance and the preference of the British for handling emotive questions in the proper way.
The last Government were prepared to issue convention documents, in accordance with the United Nations convention, which recognised the status of the refugee. That could be said to be an improvement, and I understand that before the Dissolution it was proposed that a letter of recognition should be issued to a refugee whose status had been recognised. However, that is a half-hearted development and suffers from the absence of, first, a properly regulated and established procedure for identifying a person entitled to claim refugee status and, secondly, machinery with an appeals procedure to enable him to claim it. The last Government resisted requests for such action.
The previous Administration seemed to be satisfied with the existing system, which is conducted almost wholly within the Home Office. We know the pressures on Ministers. I get the impression that, however many there may be at the Home Office, there are so many questions of this sort to be considered that the decision in most cases is taken at a comparatively low level, though it is confirmed by a Minister, without proper consideration of the individual case from the political standpoint. The idea seems to be that this is a matter of executive power and that there should be no interference by a body of law controlling the determination of the status or by any authorities independent of the Home Office able to determine that status.
The case against the view that it is not necessary to enact the provisions of the UN convention into United Kingdom 1371 domestic law or to establish an independent procedure for the definition and determination of status in individual cases is supported by all those outside the Home Office who are concerned about the problem of refugees. They believe, as I do, that the convention should be enacted in some form into our law so that everyone may know his rights and obligations and be able to enforce them in the courts.
The problem is becoming too urgent and decisions are too agonising for us to rely on the judgment of bureaucrats. There are plenty of precedents for ministerial discretion being exercised by a tribunal on the Secretary of State's behalf. There are also plenty of precedents for the incorporation of the provisions of international treaties into British municipal law. For example, we have adopted, almost in toto, the provisions of the Tokyo convention, the United Nations convention on protected persons and the European convention on the suppression of terrorism. In all those conventions, a great deal is left to ministerial discretion. But we have a statute that determines the approach of the Minister in exercising his powers, and that is of great assistance to individuals when wishing to enforce their rights in courts of law.
The case for an independent assessment of a claim by a tribunal, rather than by the Secretary of State or anyone in the Home Office, is even stronger, particularly when a political element is involved. It is often argued that political matters are inherently the sort of problems which ought to be decided by a Minister, as a politician who is able to take the public interest into account.
It may be that Home Office officials have not noticed the change in practice in these matters over the years. There was a time when we had no appeal to a court on immigration matters. That position has been steadily eroded. The Immigration Appeals Act 1969 established such a system of appeals and provided that the immigration rules—the directions to immigration officers—should be published so that adjudicators, appeal tribunals and the parties involved should be able to refer to them.
Even when the national interest is involved on grounds of security, there is a system that allows a case to be referred by the Secretary of State to the so-called 1372 "three wise men". In all these cases, the Secretary of State has not deprived himself of the overriding power, but he is assisted by tribunals so that the individuals get some help—though perhaps not so much in the case of the "three wise men"—on how to put their case.
Our extradition law includes the provision that anyone accused of a crime overseas who is sought for extradition purposes by a foreign country may be exempted from extradition if he can show that his offence is one of a political character. One would have thought that that was eminently a matter for a Minister to judge, but the Extradition Act 1870 provides that the Secretary of State or a court shall, if it appears that the offence is a political offence, be able to order that no extradition should take place.
Such problems have, with safety and complete confidence, been entrusted over the years to a judicial apparatus in this country. Its rules are well known. It has been well tried and has given great confidence to those involved in it. The Government should adopt the same sort of approach, at last, to the position of refugees.
British Governments have undertaken certain international obligations. We have a tradition of adopting a humane spirit in dealing with such problems, but our Governments have not been prepared to enact the provisions of the UN treaty into our law. Decisions under ministerial power are taken in a hidebound way. In other spheres, such decisions are entrusted, at least for the purposes of advice, to tribunals with a regular procedure which can be used by individuals.
I hope that other hon. Members will wish to pursue this matter. For that reason, I propose to leave it there, confident in the knowledge that the Minister will do something about this pressing problem.
§ Several Hon. Membersrose—
§ Mr. Speaker
I remind the House that this debate will conclude at 12 o'clock. The Adjournment time belongs to those who have been successful in the ballot.
§ 11.39 a.m.
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
I welcome this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stan-brook) for raising a subject of deep 1373 concern. As the grandson of Jewish refugees from Russia, and as Member of Parliament for an area where we have many thousands of refugees from persecution in Africa, I pay tribute to the refuge which this country has provided for so many people in need for so many years. However, much of this has been left to administrative kindness and compassion, and too little is defined in our law. The hon. Gentleman is right: the word "refugee" needs definition, and so does the word "immigrant". In my constituency young people who were born in this country bitterly resent being called immigrants. They are British citizens with our rights.
We should define what we are prepared to do. We should let people know where they stand. We should have a law which can be administered with compassion and with generosity so that we do not have the sort of situation which, for example, exists today with regard to the boat people. No one, least of all them, knows what will happen to them. While the present arrangement exists, I hope that the Government will deal with the boat people with generosity and compassion. I hope that they will recognise that a thousand refugees rescued from drowning in the ocean of the East would be a drop in the ocean in the millions of our population.
I hope that before long the reform suggested by the hon. Gentleman will be put into force so that those in need who come to this country and those who live here as refugees may know where they stand and what rights they have. I hope that those rights will be far more generous than has been indicated in the Government's programme as put forward in the Conservative Party manifesto and in the Gracious Speech.
§ 11.42 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)
May I first thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for his kind words of congratulation at the start of his speech. It is true that some years ago I was closely associated with the refugee problem. It is a matter in which I have retained an interest and one that I shall regard as a very important part of my present responsibilities.
1374 I assure my hon. Friend that the great tradition of asylum to which he and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) referred must certainly be maintained. One is very much aware that in discussing this problem one is talking about a deep well of human misery.
Like other hon. Members, I am descended from refugee stock. My forebears were Huguenots. They came a long time ago, but perhaps this background disposes me to understand the importance of the problem.
The debate has been of considerable value. I have no grumbles that it should have been initiated so early in the life of our new Government. My hon. Friend talked of our tradition as a country but was also critical of the way in which we handle the problem at present. Indeed, he argued that the Government's present position, which we have of course inherited from our predecessors, should be abandoned. In essence, what he was saying was that the law should play a larger part in the matter than has been the tradition so far.
As I have said, I think it right that the subject should have been raised. The contributions to the debate from both sides of the House illustrate our concern. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the problem is diminishing in scale. We are all acutely conscious of the massive difficulties faced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as by Governments.
In the past six years, well over 5,000 people have been recognised here as refugees to whom the 1951 convention applies. Most of these have arrived under special schemes providing for clearance overseas, but a number have applied for refugee status upon arrival at a United Kingdom port or after admission for another purpose, and it is to them that our internal procedures for the determination of refugee status relate. I want to concentrate on these internal procedures.
My hon. Friend has already reminded the House of what we mean by a refugee, but perhaps I may repeat that the criterion for the grant of refugee status under the 1951 United Nations convention is that a person who is in the territory of a contracting State is unwilling 1375 1375 to return to his country owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
The convention bites only when the refugee—or potential refugee—is within the jurisdiction of the State deciding the issue of refugee status. It therefore follows that these cases which, through the policy of the Government of the day, are considered from overseas do not come within the scope of the convention, nor are they covered by the immigration rules. They are admitted, with refugee status granted upon admission, under the discretion of the Secretary of State. They do not come within the scope of discussions of United Kingdom refugee procedures under the convention. The decision that people who are overseas should be admitted and thus acquire refugee status is a matter for ministerial discretion and must remain so.
Before I answer in more detail the particular points made by my hon. Friend, I should like as a background to refer to the representations made by the London representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Heidler, representations to which my hon. Friend referred. Mr. Heidler submitted to the then Home Secretary in March 1978 a memorandum in which he made a a number of proposals about refugee procedures in the United Kingdom. This memorandum, which received a wide circulation, covered a good deal of ground and made four main points, some of which have formed the substance of the debate so far.
Mr. Heidler said that Commonwealth citizens were not recognised as refugees and were therefore denied the benefits of the United Nations convention. He also said that the wording of the relevant immigration rules had the effect of making refugee status a category of last resort—that is, that if someone could be fitted into the student category, for example, he was not recognised as a refugee.
Mr. Heidler's memorandum included two specific proposals. The first—this is the point that was particularly stressed by my hon. Friend—was that the 1951 United Nations convention should be incorporated into United Kingdom law. Secondly, he proposed that the determina- 1376 tion of refugee status should be entrusted to an independent body and not to the Secretary of State.
Mr. Heidler's memorandum was carefully studied under the previous Administration, and a review was undertaken. Shortly before the general election the then Home Secretary announced the conclusions that he had reached. I shall refer to some of these.
First, there is the important proposal made by my hon. Friend that the United Nations convention should be incorporated into United Kingdom law. There is nothing in the convention which requires this to be done, nor is there any general principle under which international treaties or conventions ratified by the United Kingdom become part of our law. The normal procedure is to consider, before ratification, whether the existing provisions of the law cover any new obligations under a convention or treaty. If they do not, the law is amended and ratification follows. If they do, nothing further is generally seen to be necessary.
In the case of the convention, the Government of the day were satisfied that legislation coverage was adequate and ratification took place without legislation. That remains the position. No prima facie case of substance has been made out for the incorporation of the convention into our law. I am sure that no one in the House wants unnecessary legislation. We cannot legislate on the basis of theories. There must be a real need.
It is alleged that our present procedures result in refugees being sent to countries where they will face persecution. That, after all, is the crux of the matter. Indeed, Mr. Heidler has said that to his knowledge no refugee falling within the terms of the convention has been expelled from the United Kingdom in recent years. I think that my hon. Friend confirmed that. Therefore, I am not persuaded that the convention should be incoroprated into our law.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
I am not sure that that is what Mr. Heidler says. None has been sent back to his country of origin, but others have been expelled from the United Kingdom and forced to go somewhere else.
§ Mr. Raison
If the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me about that, I 1377 shall look into it, but I believe that what I have said is the case.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
Is my hon. Friend hinting that it is not proposed in the Government's nationality Bill to formalise any part of the refugee law? If that is the position, can he explain why it is necessary to have a difference between that part of our law concerning immigration which is formalised and that part of our law concerning refugees which remains unformalised?
§ Mr. Raison
These are early days in the consideration of our nationality laws. These are all matters that we shall have to look into when the nationality Bill comes before the House, but I do not want to be drawn into that.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but he has misrepresented my argument. He said, no doubt reading from the official Home Office brief, that no prima facie case of substance had been made to justify the enactment of the convention into United Kingdom law. He sat there for 40 minutes listening to me make my case. Is he saying that his mind is closed, despite this debate?
§ Mr. Raison
I listened to my hon. Friend's arguments very carefully, and I shall think about them. If he claims that he has made a prima facie case, perhaps I shall not quarrel with him. However, I am not persuaded by the arguments that he has adduced, although I will think about them.
§ Mr. Raison
I turn to the question whether there should be an independent body to determine refugee status. Again, my hon. Friend talked about this and put forward the argument that our present system was a bureaucratic one. It is true that it is a system in which decisions are taken by the Secretary of State.
The 1951 convention imposes no obligation and contains no guidance on procedures. It does not, for example, specify the establishment of a body for the determination of refugee status. In its recommendations drawn up in 1977, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' executive committee suggested 1378 as one of the basic requirements for the effective implementation of the convention that there should be a clearly identified authority, wherever possible a single central authority, with responsibility for examining requests for refugee status and taking a decision in the first instance. Nowhere did the executive committee stipulate that the authority should be independent.
The United Kingdom has a single central authority which examines cases and takes decisions in the first instance. It is the Secretary of State. Anyone who knows my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that he is not a bureaucratic entity, and I assure my hon. Friend that Ministers consider these cases very carefully where that is appropriate.
It might be appropriate to cite an early dictum of the UNHCR's office:Eligibility according to the Statute of UNHCR and for the purposes of services by UNHCR is determined by UNHCR. Eligibility according to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees … and for the purposes of the Convention or for the purpose of the national law is determined by States parties to the Convention under procedures established in each State, which provide for varying degrees of UNHCR participation …I repeat that it is relevant that the London representative of the UNHCR has said that, to his knowledge, no refugee falling within the terms of the convention has been expelled from the United Kingdom in recent years.
We fulfil the criteria of the UNHCR executive committee in respect of determination of status. We have one single central authority for this purpose. There is no obligation to institute an independent body, and I am not persuaded that one is needed.
I come to the question of appeals. It is true that there is no formal right of appeal under the immigration appeals machinery in every case where a person claims refugee status. A would-be refugee has the same rights of appeal as anyone else. But a person does not have a right of appeal before removal if he arrives at a port without prior entry clearance and is refused leave to enter. Nor is there a right of appeal before removal in cases of illegal entry. A person loses his statutory right of appeal if he overstays.
1379 However, the terms of the recommendation of the UNHCR executive committee do not require a statutory right of appeal. The recommendation reads:If the applicant is not recognised, he should be given a reasonable time to appeal for a formal reconsideration of the decision either to the same or to a different authority, whether administrative or judicial, according to the prevailing system.I believe that our existing system will result in a would-be refuge, provided his application is not abusive, which is the term used by UNHCR, being able to have his application reconsidered. But I shall further look into this matter.
There are one or two other matters on which I want to touch. One concerns the immigration rules. The present wording of the relevant immigration rules may give the impression that the grant of asylum or the consideration of a person's eligibility under the convention is a last resort when qualification under other parts of the rules has failed. The practice, however, is different. We treat all applications for refugee status on their merits, and we grant this status when it seems right to do so without recourse to other grounds of entry or stay. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consider an amendment of the immigration rules when a suitable opportunity presents itself.
Another aspect concerns Commonwealth refugees. The reason why Commonwealth citizens were not previously recognised as refugees under the convention were of a historical nature. As the House knows, Mr. Heidler made representations on this. The former Home Secretary considered them and agreed that Commonwealth citizens should be treated in the same way as foreign nationals for the purpose of the United Nations convention. Commonwealth citizens, therefore, are now being granted refugee status under the convention in appropriate cases, and clearly this is right.
There is also the question of an identity document for refugees. Article 27 of the convention requires this. We have not hitherto provided refugees with formal identity papers, no doubt because of the absence here of any national identity card system. However, it was the view of the UNHCR that in order to comply fully with the convention we should introduce a refugee identity paper which would con- 1380 firm the holder's status. It has been agreed already that such a document will be introduced. One has been prepared, comments have been made on it by representatives of the Standing Conference on Refugees at a meeting at the Home Office this week, and I hope that we can produce an acceptable version in the very near future.
The convention also requires contracting parties to issue travel documents to refugees lawfully residing in their territories. Again, I am able to confirm that the United Kingdom conforms fully with this requirement, subject to the applicant having had his refugee status determined and paying the appropriate fee.
I recognise that in a number of ways the British system for the recognition of refugees differs widely from that followed in some other countries which have a tradition of handling such matters in a more formal way. This is natural, given the different traditions of Government. But I feel that it would be a retrograde step to introduce here further formal procedures unless they were absolutely necessary.
The changes to which I have referred were designed to ensure that our procedures were in no way out of line with the detailed provisions of the United Nations convention. These changes were introduced by or foreshadowed under the previous Administration, and I support them. When they are implemented, we shall be in full compliance with the requirements of the convention.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, it is important to emphasise that the United Kingdom's long and honourable tradition of granting asylum to refugees who have arrived here has always been maintained fully. The United Kingdom stands high in the league of refugee-receiving States. According to the estimates of the High Commissioner in 1977, there were some 150,000 refugees of whom 1,300 arrived during 1977. We have played a part in every international refugee exercise in recent years, and we have a notable record in the way in which we have treated refugees in our community.
I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments. They are important, and I shall continue to think about them. However, as matters stand at present, I believe that the counter-arguments which 1381 I have put forward today are justified and provide the basis for a fair policy in this very important matter.
§ Mr. Speaker
I expect the hon. Gentleman is. However, he has already spoken in the debate. He cannot make another speech.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyonrose—
§ Mr. Speaker
I am sorry about being unable to call the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon). I am afraid that time has defeat us.
§ 12 noon
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
One matter the Minister does inherit is an application from me to the former Home Secretary to talk to him. I hope that he will regard it as a currant application to see him. The issue concerns what to do about the principal who actually takes the decisions. I suggested that the right step is to move him from Lunar House to Queen Anne's Gate and give him a separate status. That would make a great difference to the decision-making.